Illuminating Beginnings

Aleppo Galls

Aleppo Oak Galls

To begin learning the medieval techniques of illumination, I made a trek to Michigan to spend the day in a master’s studio. We started with an introduction to Iron Gall Ink. It was an instant formula, also referred to as a treatise or receipt depending on the era. The exercise was to learn more about the process. Sourcing good Oak Galls is an important first step, and often you will get better prices from herbal suppliers.

Aleppo Oak Gall

Aleppo Oak Gall Detail

Aleppo Oak Galls are a type of horned gall developed on the twigs and stems of some oaks. Aleppo Galls are considered the best for ink making and come from the Mediterranean and Asia. The name Aleppo comes from the name of a large trade city in Syria that has been around since antiquity. The gall on the right shows the hole from which the parasitic wasp emerged.

Crushed Aleppo Oak Galls

Crushed Aleppo Oak Galls

These are the very nutty inside of the Aleppo Gall. They will vary by a range in size and color, which will not affect your ink color. They are best crushed this size or slightly smaller, between chic pea and garden pea, but not like bread crumbs or powder.

Oak Apple Galls can be found on white oaks on the leaf itself. They are paper thin airy. Despite their large size, usually about 5cm, it would take a considerable amount of work to gather a sufficient amount for making a decent quantity of Iron Gall Ink.

Oak Apple Galls Outside

These are Oak Apple Galls which I gathered while in the mountains in Artemis PA. Below, you can see how gauzy they are inside, they have almost no weight. However, they will still make a good ink and are readily sourced for free.

Oak Apple Galls Inside

There are other Iron Gall Ink treatises which call for a longer fermentation of the oak apples, also referred to as oak galls, ahead of processing them. This was by far the messiest of all the projects I worked on today.

Amongst those, I   plan to try  Dr. James Stark’ Recipe next, as I suspect I will get a richer blue-black. I will follow up as they develop. Dr. Stark was a Scottish chemist.

Dr. James Stark’s “Stark’s Ink” receipt
3 parts blue aleppo galls
2 parts sulfate of indigo 
2 parts copperas 
1 to 1 1/2 parts powdered gum arabic 
A few whole cloves
30 parts distilled water

After that, I plan to try a very timeless and popular recipe by Sir Isaac Newton. It will be fun to compare them. He may be best remembered for his physics, but as you may know, his real passion was alchemy.

Newton’s Iron Gall Ink

Newton’s “Excellent Ink” Treatise
32 parts galls
16 parts gum arabic
128 parts strong beer or ale
4 to 6 parts copperas

There were many other lessons and exercises with treatises. I learned a lot of important guidelines for deciphering historic treatises from various periods, the extreme toxicity of many of the materials used in the medieval era, their safe handling, and the extent of the tools and materials I will need. I will post later on some of the medieval pigments we made.

In many ways, it feels like I have arrived full circle, coming back to begin what I have been wanting to do and essentially training to do for a very long time. I like that I can do things ultra-purist medieval era, or update materials for light fastness and safety depending on the purpose.

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