27 March 2017


Part 1 of 10 of the Lecture Invention and Exaltation, which I first delivered on 14 September 2015, to open an exhibit of my artwork at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Invention of the Holy Cross, painting by Ulrich Mair

I wish you a very happy feast. This is a special day dedicated to the Holy Cross, one of two in Catholic tradition. The Invention of the Holy Cross, which is celebrated on May third, commemorates events that occurred in the year 326.

St. Helen, the mother of the emperor Constantine, travelled to Jerusalem to seek the True Cross. One of the Jewish scholars of the city knew its location; this was a secret that had been passed down through his family since the time of the Passion. He revealed it to Helen after interrogation; there, three crosses were found. To distinguish the cross of Jesus Christ from the crosses of the two thieves, each was held over a corpse. The deceased came to life upon contact with the True Cross. This Helen divided into three parts. One she sent to Rome and one to Constantinople. The third remained in Jerusalem. The man who revealed the location professed his faith; he later became a bishop and martyr, known as St. Quiriacus.

The relics of Our Lord’s Passion occupy a place within Catholic tradition close to that of holy images. Comparable veneration is given to each, and their histories are tightly interwoven. The Invention of the Holy Cross inaugurated the first great era of Christian art; Christian art emerged from underground along with the sacred wood. As described by the art historian Emile Mâle:
The discovery of the Holy Sepulcher and the True Cross in 326 must be considered as one of the great events in the history of Christianity; it was seen as a genuine miracle. Constantine immediately had magnificent monuments built on the site of rediscovered Calvary.... On the exact spot where the cross had been planted - the sacred spot regarded as the center of the world - a great cross was erected, encased in gold and decorated with precious stones.... Countless pilgrims from the remotest parts of the world flocked to Jerusalem. It was not enough for them to venerate the Holy Sepulcher; they visited all of the places consecrated by the Gospels, and everywhere they found magnificent basilicas.... All of these buildings were decorated with mosaics.
Sacred art here is confident, dogmatic and grand; its figures no longer wear the disguises of Classical antiquity, as they did in the art of the catacombs. Pilgrims to Jerusalem collected holy oil from the shrines in tiny flasks of cast metal or painted glass and wore them around their necks. These were decorated with the same images seen in the mosaics. Wooden stamps for pressing the images into the dough for eulogia bread were also popular. Through portable objects such as these, the artistic traditions reached the ends of civilization.

Exaltation of the Holy Cross, painting by Martin Bernat

In the early seventh century, the army of the Persian king Chosroës took Jerusalem and carried away the relic of the True Cross. According to the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine:
Chosroës wanted to be worshipped as God. He built a gold and silver tower studded with jewels, and placed within it images of the sun, the moon and the stars. Bringing water to the top of the tower through hidden pipes, he poured down water as God pours rain, and in an underground cave he had horses pulling chariots around in a circle to shake the tower and produce a noise like thunder.... He sat on a throne in the shrine as the Father, put the wood of the cross on his right in place of the Son, and a cock on his left in place of the Holy Spirit.
The emperor Heraclius led a crusade to recover the relic of the True Cross. Victory having been achieved, he personally restored the relic to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross commemorates these events.

I have a special devotion to both of these feasts. How beautiful that the Catholic Church celebrates the finding of things that have been lost, and the retaking of things that have been stolen. This seems especially relevant in our own age; at times I feel that most of my religion has been lost, or stolen from me.


Works quoted:

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, (Princeton University Press, 1993).

Emile Mâle, Religious Art in France: The Twelfth Century, translated by Marthiel Matthews, (Princeton University Press, 1978).



25 March 2017



This is an ink drawing on a 5" × 7" piece of calfskin vellum. I drew it using calligraphers’ inks applied with dip pens and brushes.

The original was created on private commission.

It is formatted as a verso page in an illuminated manuscript. The central image depicts a mystical unicorn hunt as an allegory of the Incarnation of Christ.

The unicorn is a long-established Christological symbol. The second century Physiologus, precursor to the medieval bestiaries, described the unicorn as
a small animal, but exceeding strong and fleet, with a single horn in the centre of its forehead. The only means of capturing it is by stratagem, namely, by decking a chaste virgin with beautiful ornaments and seating her in a solitary place in the forest frequented by the unicorn, which no sooner perceives her than it runs to her and, laying its head gently in her lap, falls asleep. Then the hunters come and take it captive to the king’s palace and receive for it much treasure.
The chaste virgin who captures the unicorn of course represents the Blessed Virgin Mary. Late medieval artists combined the iconography of the Annunciation with the imagery of the unicorn hunt, representing the Archangel Gabriel as the hunter. The most elaborate of their compositions included hunting dogs representing mercy, truth, justice and peace; Old Testament prefigurements of the Annunciation; and the Marian titles from the Canticle of Canticles.

In this drawing, I included the Enclosed Garden, the Closed Door, the Tower of Ivory and the Tower of David. Specific works of art that provided inspiration for the figures are a panel painting from the circle of Martin Schongauer and the Très Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry.

The ornamental border surrounding the central image contains branches of magnolia, dog rose and oak.

Read more here.


I have also issued a letterpress print of this drawing, with a different border (containing branches of the plants that yield coffee, tea, cocoa and vanilla) and a pattern of orthogonal letters spelling the words AVE MARIA in the background sky. Read more here.


Works quoted:

Physiologus, quoted by Edward Payson Evans, Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture, (W. Heinemann, 1896).



24 March 2017


A few weeks ago, I posted a description of the Summula Pictoria, a magnum opus that I hope to complete over the next fourteen years.

I have spent the last couple of weeks figuring my plans for the project in greater detail. I have revised the description of it on my web site, which you can read here.

After long consideration, I have settled on a complete list of drawings to include within its scope, 235 in total. I have decided to draw them at a larger scale that I originally intended (the smallest ones will measure 4.5" square rather than 3" square; this will allow me to include as much detail as I think they require). The full list can be read here.

I am considering Easter of 2017 to be the official beginning of my work on the Summula Pictoria; my initial tasks are research, training and practice in figure drawing, and designing the patterns that will appear on Haloes, Damask, Carpets and Tiles within the drawings. Later in 2017, I shall design and construct costumes for the figures. In 2018, I shall pose live models, design the architecture, and draft compositions for all of 235 pictures. I shall begin making the final drawings about two years from today, hoping to complete 4 or 5 large ones and about 15 small ones per year for 12 years.

I hope to secure advance patronage for most of the drawings. This is most important at the beginning of the project. Please contact me if you would be interested in commissioning any of these works. I can accept payments for them in advance, or in installments, or in smaller monthly amounts. Patrons will have the opportunity to purchase prints of completed drawings at a discount.



23 March 2017


There are a few books that are especially useful to anyone who wishes to understand or to make religious art; living in an time when its meaning has become obscure and its traditions have become neglected, they are essential.

The Bible, obviously, is foremost. After that, the book that I pull from the shelf most often is the Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century encyclopedia that collects, organizes and expands the contents of medieval martyrologies. Blessed James of Voragine is the author.

Although usually described as a compilation of saints’ lives, it contains also a wealth of information related to the feasts of the temporal cycle. As I wrote in my essay on Hagiography and the Benefit of Doubt, I consider the contents of the traditional martyrologies worthy of belief.

More commonly, they are treated with sneering condescenion. In the present day, the Golden Legend is often treated as an amusing curiosity, a collection of outlandish stories that cannot be taken seriously. That is partly because of an irrational bias against believing in certain kinds of miracles (as if omnipotence were in some way qualified), and partly because few have read the book in its entirety.

Blessed Jacobus was not irrationally credulous. In the Golden Legend, He readily admits when a story is based on a doubtful source. In several places, he writes that he is recording a story (such as that of the childhood of Pontus Pilate) for the record, but considers it unworthy of belief. In others, he acknowledges contradicting versions of a particular story, and presents both (sometimes passing judgment on which he considers correct, sometimes not). In others, he makes a theological criticism of a particular tradition (for example, in his entry on the Feast of the Circumcision, he argues that all of the divine body of Christ was assumed into Heaven, and that relics of the Christ Child’s foreskin iare therefore false).

The Golden Legend is a a work of erudition and insight, the work of a smart and holy man who yet had a healthy generosity in his consideraion of tradition. It contains none of that eager dismissiveness that is found throughout Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints.

In the entire Golden Legend, I find fault only in perhaps a dozen sentences. There are some places where married life and the company of women are excessively (I believe) disparaged, which is common enough in medieval and patristic writings for monastic readers; a few infelicitious uses of the term Ethiopian to describe a pitch-black demon; and one occasion (in the legend of St. Margaret of Antioch) where Blessed Jacobus is more skeptical than I think necessary.

The Golden Legend is not altogether comprehensive: for example, many of the Irish saints are not included. Certain saints attained their widespread popularity after the thirteenth century, and are not included - St. Barbara and St. Roch are notably absent.

But the Golden Legend nevertheless summarizes, better than any other single book, the spirit of devotion to saints that spanned all of Christendom for nearly the first three-quarters of history under the New Covenant. The idea expressed therein of what a saint is, and what a saint does, is the only idea that can truly be called traditional, handed down from the time of the Fathers and the time of the Apostles. To adopt another, contradicting idea of what a saint is or what a saint does is to profess faith in a different thing altogether, even if the same word is used to name it, even if many of the old figures are grandfathered into the new definition.

The Golden Legend has not only enormous religious value, but enormous cultural value as well. Better than any other single book, it summarizes one of the major cycles of Western literature. These are the heroes and the stories that, for centuries, everyone knew. The art and thought and history and literature of those centuries are indecipherable without some knowledge of these heroes and stories. That knowledge gives content and context to other products of traditional Christian civilization such as Thomistic thought and Gothic architecture. Without it, they are like empty, nestless shells. I cannot take seriously any list of the great books of the Western world that does not include the Golden Legend near its top.

The Golden Legend was first translated into English in 1483, by William Caxton. Much of this translation can be found online, or reprinted. This is the translation that William Morris published at the Kelmscott Press in 1892. I enjoy reading 15th-century English, and so value this translation highly. It is, is places, more of a paraphrase of Blessed Jacobus than a direct translation, and it includes new material (such as the legend of St. Barbara and a long liturgiological treatise on the Mass).

William Granger Ryan translated the 13th-century text in its entirety into modern English. This is the version I have on my shelf, in two volumes. I have seen a one-volume edition of the same translation for sale. This is an exceptionally useful book, although the footnotes add an element of skepticism to it.



22 March 2017


I have written in defense of the traditional hagiographies of patristic and medieval times, the wonderful accounts of the miracles and martyrdoms of the saints. Most of them, I contend, are worthy of belief, and all of them deserve the benefit of doubt. The first objection that I expect to meet is that some - such as those of St. Martha, St. George, St. Margaret, St. Sylvester and St. Benedict - involve dragons and other creatures generally considered mythological. Surely we know that such things never really existed, and that any stories involving them must be fictitious, right?

At the risk of being mocked, I contend that these legends too ought to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Our knowledge of what animals exist on the earth, and when and were they live or have lived, is not perfect. Just about everyone agrees that enormous reptilian beasts - some agile predators sharp teeth and powerful jaws, some with wings spanning fifty feet - once roamed the land and filled the sea and the sky in great numbers. Conventional wisdom says that these were all extinct long before St. Martha or St. George lived. But really, conventional wisdom said the same thing about the cœlocanth before a fisherman hauled one into his boat. There are many examples of these so-called Lazarus taxa. And really, who knows with total certainty what sort of creatures were lingering in the wilderness in the time of St. Martha or St. George, or swimming in the River Ness in the time of St. Columba of Iona?

Creatures as fabulous as the half-ton, ten-foot tall elephant bird were still running about when the Council of Trent concluded. Creatures as fabulous as the giant squid and the colossal squid are still swimming the ocean depths; based on the contents of sperm whale stomachs, they are not even very rare, yet they evaded the prying eyes of mankind and all its cameras until a few years ago.

The bias against belief in stories of legendary creatures is so strong, that they probably would be dismissed even if evidence of their plausibility were made plain. My older son was for a time deeply interested in the deep ocean. In at least two of his books, I read some commentary that basically said: The giant oarfish may have inspired legends about sea serpents. Now look at a picture of an oarfish:

This creature grows to lengths of at least 36 feet (in the deep ocean, perhaps longer). Its head is covered with red spikes. It takes a practiced sort of scientistic myopia to look at it and say: This may have inspired legends about sea serpents instead of: Hey, look - a sea serpent. I mean, look at it; it’s a sea serpent. I expect that if small mammal resembling a white bearded horse were to prance up to a group of biologists and poke them with the long spiraling horn protruding from its forehead, the biologists would say: This heretofore unknown creature may possibly have inspired legends about unicorns.

Finally, I will note that the legend of St. George, as told in the old hagiographies and liturgical texts, is not the legend told by Edmund Spencer. St. George was never a dragonslayer. Rather, the dragon became tame, and was led into the city like a dog on a leash. The point, and it is an important one, is that a dragon, in the definition of these legends, is not merely a large reptile but specifically a demonically possessed large reptile.

Consider that the Gospels say plainly that demons can possess animals (like pigs). Consider what sort of behaviors have been documented (recently and reliably) in demonically possessed people: preternatural strength, levitation, spewing noxious liquids. Is there any traditional description of a dragon, in any part of the Golden Legend, that could not be satisfied by a demonically possessed crocodile? I know of none.

I will admit, however, that the heraldic type of dragon is more fun to draw.



21 March 2017


The Saints: An Adult Coloring Book was published by Ave Maria Press in 2016. It measures 8 1/2" × 11" and contains thirty coloring pages, each featuring a different saint. The pictures are details from my ink drawings; some of the decoration and lettering were taken from other drawings and rearranged new compositions, but all of the artwork originally came from own hand. The Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul are included, as are less familiar saints such as Gobnait and Drogo of Sebourg.

It can be purchased through the following websites:

Ave Maria Press

My introduction to the book is a condensed version of my essay on Hagiograhy and the Benfit of Doubt; in the summaries I wrote of the 30 saints&rsqup; lives, I was faithful to the traditional narratives.



20 March 2017




Emile Mâle:
It was no new departure when at the end of the thirteenth century Jacobus de Voragine wrote the famous Golden Legend, for in it he simply popularised the lectionary, preserving even its sequence. His compilation is in no sense original. He is content with completing the stories by recourse to the originals, and with adding new legends here and there. The Golden Legend became famous throughout Christendom, because it put into the hands of all men stories which until then had hardly been found outside the liturgical books. The baron in his castle, the merchant in his shop could now enjoy the beautiful tales at will.

The attack made on Jacobus de Voragine by scholars of the seventeenth century misses its mark. The Golden Legend, which they accused of being a legend of lead, was not the work of a man but of the whole of Christendom. The candour and the credulity of the writer belonged to his time. The stories of St. Thomas’s voyage to India or of St. James’s miraculous cloak ... though displeasing to the strict theologians trained in the school of the fathers of the Council of Trent, were universally accepted in the thirteenth century. They were read in public in the churches, and they were illustrated in the windows. To condemn Jacobus de Voragine is to condemn all the ancient lectionaries, and with them the clergy who read them and the faithful who listened.
The detractors of the hagiographical tradition which the Golden Legend summarized are legion - beginning with humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Lorenzo Valla, and including such churchmen as the Counter-Reformatonal iconoclast John Molanus, John of Launoy, Adrien Baillet and others whose skepticism triumphed in the great stripping of the calendars in 1969, on the instructions of Sacrosanctum Consilium to purge the liturgy of anything that smacks of mythology. 

I will always be a defender of the Golden Legend and the traditional hagiographies - and more than a defender of them, a believer in them. That is to say, I believe that they are holy, deserving of preservation, and usually true. To a modern skeptic, this belief seems foolish and romantic; the sort of thing that could only be maintained through deliberate ignorance.

But the Golden Legend does not require a suspension of disbelief, nor a double standard of truth (one for reason, one for faith), nor any particular hermeneutic to believe. All that is required is the benefit of doubt. That is to say, most of the stories recounted by the traditional hagiographies give us no reason, in themselves, to disbelieve them. 

A qualification must be made here. The hagiographies are not inerrant and I certainly make no claim to the contrary. They were compiled by human authors without divine inspiration. Some contain errors. On occasion, there are confused identities, or details disproved by real, ubstantial evidence. On occasion, there are contradictory versions of the same story, as with multiple claimants to the same relic. In such cases, someone must be wrong. When I first read the Golden Legend, I was impressed by the the intellectual seriousness with which its compiler approached his task. Blessed Jacobus readily admitted when a story was based on a doubtful source, or when different versions of it existed. Yet these are the exceptions, not the rule. They are rarities among the hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of hagiographies that have been quashed or edited beyond recognition in the name of historical accuracy.

The traditional accounts of nearly all of these lives of the saints become incredible only when they are read with a prejudice against the miraculous. And most of the proofs offered by scholars debunking the hagiographies and explaining what really happened are as baseless and arbitrary as the stories themselves are accused of being. 

For example, according to the Golden Legend:
Instantly the body of Saint Dionysius stood up, took his head in its arms, and, with an angel and a heavenly light leading the way, marched two miles, drom the place called Montmartre, the hill of martyrs, to the place where, by his own choice and by God’s providence, he rests in peace.
Modern scholars are unanimous in rejecting the story of St. Denis carrying his own head for two leagues. Nowadays, everybody knows this didn’t really happen - what really happened is that two rival churches claimed the honor of being the place of the saint’s martyrdom and death, and the story was invented as a compromise. Or, what really happened is that ignorant medieval peasants misunderstood the artistic convention of depicting a decapitated martyr holding his own head and invented a story to match. 

But there is no evidence whatsoever that the story is not true as recounted above. There is no evidence whatsoever that it was invented to pacify rival holy sites, or to explain the misinterpretations of cathedral statuary. All of this is is pure conjecture. The only reason that a man would accept the new explanations is that he gives the benefit of the doubt to the skeptic over the tradition; that he believes that a saint carrying his head two leagues is something that cannot - therefore did not - happen. 

And the most popular explanation - that of medieval peasants misinterpreting art - betrays a misunderstanding of the way hagiography, iconography and devotion related in the Middle Ages. (As a general rule, any explanation for anything that hinges on the idiocy of medieval people is a product of bigotry and little more.) This explanation assumes that medieval hagiographies were essentially the product of folk religion, generated by the ignorant peasantry and only later accepted by the official Church. This is simply untrue; in the Middle Ages, the theologically learned participated in the cults of devotion, and usually initiated them. The authors of the lives were among the most educated men of the day, popes and bishops and abbots, St. Gregory the Great and St. John of Damascus.

Blessed Jacobus of Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, was not a folklorist wandering the fields and writing down the fantastic bedtime stories of the unlettered. He merely collected, compared and expanded what was already written in the various liturgical martyrologies: what was read at Matins across Christendom. The legend of St. Denis was known and believed and chanted aloud by the very clergy who commissioned the cathedral sculptures. It was known and believed and chanted aloud by St. Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic theologians disputing at the University of Paris. They certainly had no reason to doubt it. 

For there is no evidence that St. Denis did not carry his head, or that St. Catherine did not destroy the wheel of her torture through prayer, or that St. Medard was not sheltered from the rain by an eagle, or that St. Cuthbert was not reverenced by otters after a night of penance in the cold sea. There is no evidence that St. Eustace did not witness the apparition of the Crucified Christ between the antlers of a stag, or that St. Hubert did not witness the same, or that the two men are really one (for who says that God cannot work a similar miracle twice?). There is no evidence that a giant of monstrous appearance did not ferry the Christ Child across a river, or that St. Genevieve’s candle was not snuffed by a demon - for giants and demons are real, and still exist today.

And even more importantly - we know that holy scripture, the inerrant Word of God, speaks of rods turning to serpents and rivers turning to blood. The miracles of Elijah are no less fantastic than the miracles of St. Nicholas. Balaam’s ass is no less fantastic than St. Rumwold. Jonah’s whale is no less fantastic than St. Brendan’s. The Old Testament - and the New - are no less fantastic at face than the Golden Legend. They smack no less of mythology to the modern mind. What could be stranger than the Resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Of course, the Resurrection is an article of faith, something that a Christian is simply not permitted to disbelieve, and the words of the Old and New Testaments are inerrant; hagiographies are not (as Blessed Jacobus would be the first to admit). But our attitude toward the legends of the saints reveals and affects our attitude toward God, toward His creation, toward His revelation. The Old and New Testaments are not just books of stories whose veracity we are not permitted to question; they are records of God’s actions among men and as man, a record of events that really occurred - and they speak of marvels. We either live in a world in which these sort of things happen, or we do not.



Works quoted:

Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, translated by Dora Nussey, (New York: Icon Editions, 1972).

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, (Princeton University Press, 1993).



18 March 2017


Here are two coloring sheets based on my drawing and letterpress print of the Crucifixion:


More coloring sheets are available here.
I hold the copyright to these images, and I permit them to be downloaded, printed and photocopied only for use as coloring sheets. Printed copies must be distributed for free. If you want to use them in any other way, you must first receive my permission. Posting the images to a web log or sharing them on a social medium is encouraged so long as it links back to my web page.

I do not charge for downloading the files. However, a donation is suggested. This should be proportionate to the number of files downloaded and the number of copies made of them.

If you are unable to make a donation, I ask that you at least subscribe to my newsletter by e-mailing danielmitsuiartist at gmail dot com.


17 March 2017


I drew St. Patrick in the style of 6-9th century Northumbro-Irish art, surrounded by decorative knotwork, lacertine animals, geometric patterns and rune-like lettering. He wears a mitre and holds a cloverleaf representing the Holy Trinity.

Read more here.

This companion drawing of the Blessed Virgin Mary I executed in the same style, looking to manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow for inspiration.

Read more here.



16 March 2017




These two drawings, recently completed, depict St. Hugh of Lincoln and St. Adelaide. You may read more about them here and here. In both, I applied ink with sponges and scratched details into the dry ink with a knifepoint; this is how I drew the trees in the backgrounds.

Drawing trees is a problem that I has concerned me for years. Medieval artists, it must be admitted, tended to depict rather pathetic trees. In 13th century manuscripts and windows, these are little more than hieroglyphics; sticks with round bunches of leaves at the top. I certainly do not want to imitate anything so perfunctory in my own artwork.

But neither am I interested in depicting trees in a painterly manner, with the branches and leaves forming a sort of indiscriminate mass as they all cover up and obscure each other. I want, rather, the little details to be clear: branches whose beautiful twisting paths can be seen in their entirety, leaves that have individual character (at least when they appear in the foreground). This, I think, is more true to the way that men perceive trees with their eyes and minds before they have not been conditioned to look at the world like photographers.

How, though, is this possible without reducing a tree to an unstately diagram? There are artists who have succeded at it, whom I am keen to imitate. The Italian painter Benozzo Gozzoli depicted especially impressive trees, as did the great Safavid miniaturist Sultan Muhammad and the picture book illustrator Barbara Cooney (in Chanticleer and the Fox). Another picture book illustrator, Peter Parnall, has a wonderful way of showing the contours of a tree trunk with just a few simple lines.

Detail from the Procession of the Magi, painting by Benozzo Gozzoli

Deatil from the Feast of Sada, miniature by Sultan Muhammad

There is, however, one artist whom I consider the absolute master in this regard: the 20th-century American painter and printmaker Eyvind Earle. I do not think that anyone ever drew trees more grandly or more precisely than he did. Stylistically, they are agreeable to medieval art: they look like what trees ought to have looked like in medieval art, what trees would have looked like in medieval art if medieval artists had given more thought to them.

Earle’s artwork remains under copyright, but some fine examples of it can be seen here.



15 March 2017



Calfskin vellum is translucent, and I have begun to use this property for artistic effect, drawing certain details on the opposite side of the sheet in reverse. Like watermarks, these are more visible when the drawing is held up to a light.


I plan to use this method when depicting God (as the Father, the Holy Ghost or the pre-incarnate Word), disembodied spirits, dreams, angels or demons possessing other creatures, natural objects hidden behind clouds or smoke or stained-glass windows, damask patterns and relief carvings.




14 March 2017


When drawing on very smooth calfskin or goatskin, I am able to use two methods, sponge-stamping and decalcomania, that are more commonly used in painting than in drawing. This is because ink does not quickly saturate the skin and dry, as it would on paper. Rather, it sits on the surface and can be manipulated for a few seconds. Also, it is easy to remove cleanly with a knife, so it does not matter so much that these methods are rather messy.

I got the idea of using a natural sponge as a drawing tool from watching footage of Eyvind Earle painting a tree trunk. The natural patterns in the sponge approximate other natural patterns (such as the outlines of distant foliage or lichens growing on wood) very well.

Decalcomania is a technique that involves spreading wet paint or ink on a surface, then pressing glass or paper or something else flat into it while it is still wet. When the pressure is removed, the paint or ink gathers into fascinating patterns. The painter Oscar Dominguez helped to make this method popular, and no artist used it more extensively than his fellow Surrealist Max Ernst (who was, in my student years, a major influence on me).

These are two oil paintings on canvas that I made when I was nineteen years old. I painted solid areas of light color, and then spread dark, thinned-out oil paint over them. I pressed plastic wrap against them for the decalcomania patterns. After I turned away from Surrealism and to medieval influences, I abandoned this method for years. Only recently have I begun to experiment with it again, as in the sky of my drawing of St. Hugh of Lincoln. No matter how repugnant I now find the ideas animating Surrealist art, I cannot deny that the decalcomania method can create very beautiful images. To refuse to use it in my religious art would be something of a cheat on God.



13 March 2017


Vellum and parchment are animal skins that have been soaked in limewater, scraped clean of flesh and fat, depilated, stretched, and polished or sanded smooth. Their method of preparation was invented during the reign of Eumenes II of Pergamon, in the second century before Christ. Within a few centuries, it had largely replaced papyrus in bookmaking, being more suitable for the newly-invented, and characteristically Christian, form of the book, the rectangular codex. Although paper was introduced into Europe by the 11th century, the vast majority of European books predating the advent of printing were written on vellum or parchment, including almost all of the most beautifully illuminated manuscripts.

The terms vellum and parchment are sometimes used interchangeably, but I tend to use the former word to refer to calfskin and the latter to refer to goatskin or sheepskin. I have drawn many works on calfkin, and a few on goatskin. I have never tried sheepskin; I read somewhere that sheepskin is oilier and that therefore it is more difficult to make corrections on it (which is why it was preferred for legal documents rather than artistic manuscripts). In medieval times, the thinnest sheets of calfskin were reserved for the best books (slunk or uterine vellum, made from the skins of miscarried calves, was especially prized). Personally, I prefer to work on thicker sheets of calfskin; these lay flatter and are easier to handle; since I am not binding the sheets into codices, their flexibility is not especially important. Goatskin is much thicker and more opaque than calfskin.

Medieval scribes and illuminators worked on both sides of a sheet of vellum or parchment. The flesh side of the sheet is somewhat whiter, and the hair side somewhat yellower; the difference is more pronounced in goatskin. Tanners sometimes create a fuzzy nap surface on a sheet, which is preferred by calligraphers. I prefer as smooth a surface as possible, and will draw on whichever side of the sheet is smoother.

I would rather draw on vellum or parchment than on any kind of paper. This is less because of its historic connections to medieval art than because it is a far superior surface for drawing. It is possible to draw a finer line on vellum and parchment than on paper. Any kind of paper is made of pulverized vegetable fibers; when a vegetable fiber touches liquid ink, it pulls the ink further along its length, like a capillary. Skin cells do not do this, so a line drawn in ink over them has less bleed. Because skin cells are naturally arranged in layers, it is possible to scrape them away very cleanly. Entire sheets of vellum and parchment were sometimes scraped clean and reused; these are called palimpsests and are especially interesting to historians becuase the erased text and images can be recovered with special photography. An artist drawing on vellum or parchment can make easy corrections with a knife, or scratch details into inked areas, with a precision that is simply impossible when drawing on paper.

The only real disadvantages to vellum and parchment are that they are more expensive than paper, and that large sheets of them are seldom perfectly flat or homogenous. Only a few of my drawings are so large that this problem compels me to use paper instead.

The first two photographs here show drawings in progress on calfskin; the third shows drawings in progress on goatskin.



11 March 2017


I use Winsor & Newton Calligraphers’ ink for most purposes. This ink is pigment-based; it is thus more lightfast than dye-based ink. I also have some black Japanese sumi ink that I use occasionally.

Years ago, I would mix colors from different bottled inks in spoons for each drawing, using Pasteur pipettes to move drops of particluar colors into the mix. This was a terribly inefficient way to work; I needed to finish applying a particular color to the drawing before the ink dried, or store it somehow. If I ran out, I would need to remember how I mixed it the first time.

Later I realized that I tend to favor the same colors in most drawing, so I switched to mixing a set of standard colors, and keeping on hand a botle of each. This takes up much less time, and I also like having a signature palette in my work. I like my usual red to be a bit darker than what comes new in the bottle; I like my usual blue to be a bit closer to green than to purple. I have a fondness for a light cool green, the color of oxidized copper.

If I need something elsee, I usually mix a small amount of it and store it in a contact lens case. Occasionally I promote one of these to a standard color if I find myself using it often, or retire a standard color. These are my current standard colors. I will write more about the reasons I selected these particular ones, and about the symbolism of color, later.


Dark Blue
Murrey (Dark Purple-Red)
Sanguine (Dark Red)
Dark Cool Green
Sepia (Dark Brown)


Cool Green
Warm Green
Chartreuse (Green-Yellow)
Tawny (Brown-Yellow)


Carnation (Flesh)
Warm Gray
Cool Gray
Sky Blue
Cool Green Wash
Warm Green Wash
Glass Purple

I am likely to promote to my standard set a golden color that is more yellow than tawny, and a very light eggshell wash that I use for subtle modeling of white fabric.



10 March 2017


I bought a supply of papyrus about a year ago, mostly because my children were interested in Ancient Egypt. I’ve done a few small experiments on it, and found it a surprisingly good surface for drawing. Black ink sits well upon it and can be removed with gentle knife scraping; pencil marks lift off cleanly with a kneaded rubber eraser. The striations in the papyrus leaves cannot be hidden, but for some works this is not a problem, and can even be used to good artistic effect.

Papyrus was used for writing papal bulls as late as the eleventh century, and thus was circulated in medieval Europe.

Washi is paper made in the Japanese manner, from kozo, mitsumata or gampi fivers. It is very thin and translucent (like tissue paper), but because the long plant fibers are left mostly intact during the papermaking process, rather than pulverized, it is surprisingly sturdy and difficult to tear. It is really beautiful stuff.

It is, however, the most difficult and frustrating surface on which I have ever drawn; knives, metal-tipped pens and erasers are difficult to use on it, as they raise up hairy fibers from the surface that are nearly impossible to flatten. The only way that I have found to draw effectively on it is to prepare a separate drawing (usually on Bristol board) using my usual pencils, pens, knives and erasers; then lay the washi over it; and trace the image in ink using a tiny paintbrush.

There are some of the works that I have drawn on washi:



09 March 2017


Bristol board is my usual choice for drawing on paper; there is nothing really special about it, but it works well. I usually buy Strathmore brand, with the so-called vellum surface. Which is really nothing like an actual calfskin vellum surface.

I use handmade cotton paper for many printing projects, and occasionally draw on it also. I buy mine from Twinrocker Handmade Papers in Brookston, IN, one of the last paper mills making real laid paper. Laid paper has a slight ribbed texture because of the way the wires are arranged in the papermaking mould; there are many thin wires running in one direction, and more widely spaced wires perpendicular to these. You can see the evidence of these when you hold the paper up to a light. (This piece also has the Twinrocker watermark.) Laid paper was the only kind of paper available in Europe before wove paper was invented in the 18th century. I rather like the way it feels and prefer it for my own medieval-styled artwork.

Certain other paper mills sell fake laid paper that has the texture impressed into it by a mechanical roll at a late stage of the manufacturing process. This rather offends me.

As a drawing surface, handmade paper is not a precise as Bristol board, calfskin or goatskin, but it has an appeal of its own.

Graph paper is useful on occasion. Drafting vellum is a translucent plasticky film that I use for tracing and transferring images. I don’t like that this, too, is labeled vellum, because to me vellum means calfskin, not Bristol board and certainly not plastic film.

Draftng vellum is nearly impossible to tear by hand, and this is the other reason I keep it nearby - whole sheets of this are great to give to babies who like to play with paper!



08 March 2017


I have read several diferent illustrators remark that the question they are most often asked is what pen they use - implicitly complaining that people think the creation of good art is mostly a matter of choosing the right pen.

I myself am most often asked whether I use a magnifying glass when I draw. (I do not.) But I suspect that someone or other wants to know what pen (and what other tools) I use. So here begins a short series of posts on my preferred tools and materials.

First, I confess that I don’t find my tools and materials especially interesting. Some artists really love theirs; some even consider the give-and-take between an artist, his materials and his tools to be the very essence of the creative process. Personally, I just want them to be obedient; I have an image in mind and I want to use whatever will put it down most precisely.

My basic method is to draw outlines in pencil, draw over the pencil outlines in black ink with pens, erase the pencil marks, add dark colors in ink with pens, add medium and light colors in ink with paintbrushes. I use a knife to make corrections and to etch details into inked areas.

PENS: Usually, I draw with metal-tipped pens that I dip into pigment-based calligraphers’ inks. When I first decided to make these sort of pens my primary drawing tool, I didn’t know which holders or nibs I would like best, so I bought a variety. That inital purchase has lasted until the present, and every one I have tried has worked pretty well. On my desk now I have a Nikko G nib in a black plastic holder, a Hunt 22 nib in a double-ended wooden holder, and a Hunt Crowquill nib in a smaller plastic holder. The last is the one I like best, and when it comes time to replenish my tools, I will probably just buy these.

I used to draw almost everything using technical pens, the thinnest available (usually labeled size 005 or XS). I’ve tried various brands, and have no real complaints about any of them. Faber Castell is what I use now. I have a stash of technical pens in various colors, but only use the black ones with any frequency.

I prefer dip pens to technical pens for several reasons. First, technical pens are made for drawing on paper, not calfskin or goatskin. If used for drawing on skin that has a nap (fuzzy) surface, the felt tips dry out and the pens are ruined very quickly. When I was using technical pens more often, I would sometimes go through a dozen before finishing a single drawing. This gets expensive. Although I did find that when technical pens start to dry out, they can produce an even finer line, so I would keep a few half-ruined ones on hand for detail work.

When drawing on smooth calfskin or goatskin, there is a different problem. The ink from technical pens does not adhhere to the skin as securely as bottled calligrapher’s ink. When I would use an eraser to remove pencil likes, it would take away ink with it.

Compared to pigmented bottled ink, the black ink from a technical pen looks dark gray; when I would use both in combination (technical pens for outlines and bottled ink to fill in the colors), the colors would sometimes look darker than the black outlines - an undesired effect, of course.

I continue to use technical pens for making black and white drawings on paper; for making small corrections or additions to letterpress prints; and for fixing the edges around gold and palladium leaf. On occasion, when drawing on calfskin, I need to draw on a troublesome spot where the surface is unusually rough or thin. In this place, the wet ink off of a dip pen is unpredictable, and I switch to the slow-flowing technical pen.

KNIVES: In medieval illustrations, monastic scribes are often depicted holding pens in their right hands and knives in their left. While I hold both my pen and my knife in my right hand, I do use one about as much as the other. The knife is for erasing mistakes in ink and cleaning up edges - but it is also a useful drawing tool for etching fine lines into ink. When drawing on smooth calfskin or goatskin, it is very easy to remove ink cleanly with a knife, because skin cells naturally lie in thin layers.

My usual knife is a Xacto with a #10 blade, which is shaped like a small scalpel. I use the curved blade to scrape and the point to etch. (An iron etching stylus might be an even better tool for this, but I do not own one.)

PENCILS: Ordinary #2 pencils are my usual tool for preliminary drawing.

ERASERS: I prefer kneaded rubber, which picks up pencil marks cleanly off of calfskin, but is gentle enough not to remove much ink. I have also some hard white erasers for use on paper.

PAINTBRUSHES: I have a variety, but the ones that I use most often are 20/0 Princeton Monogram. This is about as precise a paintbrush a is available; it can produce as thin a line as a pen. I even use this to draw entire pictures on Japanese washi paper (where metal-tipped pens don’t work).

BURNISHER: This tool’s main purpose is to burnish gold leaf. I have found it a useful tool also for drawing, even when I am not using gold leaf. It has a smooth agate tip shaped like a dog’s tooth that is used to apply pressure; this can flatten surfaces of paper that has been scraped with a knife, and even manipulate ink that has soaked into paper.

MOBILE ART KIT: During times when I am especially busy, I make it a habit to carry a project with me. Aside from the burnisher, my basic supplies fit neatly into an eyeglasses case. With contact lens cases to hold different colors of ink, a cloth diaper to wipe ink off of the pens, and a thin, hardcover book to carry the drawing and scratch paper, I can set up a drawing desk almost anywhere.



07 March 2017



This broadside of St. Thomas Aquinas & St. Anselm of Canterbury measures 4 1/2" × 6 3/4". It is based on two of my ink drawings on paper. Scans of these drawings, slightly enlarged and modified, were used to create the plate for letterpress printing.

I drew these two great theologians with their traditional attributes: St. Thomas Aquinas wears his Dominican habit and holds a book of his writing and a miniature church. A sunburst shines on his breast. St. Anselm of Canterbury wears episcopal vestments and carries a crosier and a miniature ship.

Below them, a stylized vine and tiny plants and animals surround a banderole, on which is written Fides Querens Intellectum (Faith Seeking Understanding), the personal motto of St. Anselm and the general motto of all scholastic theology.


Read more here.