Inks and Pigments

As we near the end of term, our final Omeka catalogue entries are looming and the final pieces of our manuscripts are slowly being put together (figuratively of course). With this in mind, I came to the realization that my manuscript really has no provenance or origin that jumps up from the page in the form of a watermark or colophon. It was then brought to my attention in class that I will have to look at the ink and colours used in my manuscript – an incredibly taunting task to be performed, considering I am lacking in the history of pigments and inks. It was this that sparked the idea of this blog post; what do all these beautiful ink colours mean on these manuscripts and how did they come about.

I will not go into great detail over how the ink and pigments were made (as we have already learned about that), however as a quick recap: black ink was made from oak galls, and coloured inks were generally made from mineral pigments (red ochre, umber, yellow ochre).[1] Black ink made up the whole of the writing, with red ink (for which lead is the basis) for the rubric headings, though sometimes they appear in blue or green.[2] It is also noted that coloured inks were not only used for decorative purposes, but could be used to indicate a hierarchy of importance, such as saints’ names or feast days in a calendar.[3]

Upon further inspection of my manuscript throughout the semester, it is evident that it includes a lot of colour due to the miniature paintings that are located on the sides of each psalm. Along the edges of the text, and in the beginning initial of certain words, there is a metallic gold colour. The gold colour in most manuscripts is in fact not done with liquid pigment, it is actually made with “immensely thin sheets of beaten out metallic gold known as gold leaf”.[4] It was a tedious process that involved a brush that was used to apply gesso (plaster compound) so that the surface area of the page would be slightly raised, and then when dry it was smoothed and the gold leaf was applied with glue and sugar, to make it more adhesive.[5] Due to the skill, and money, needed to add gold leaf to manuscripts, it was usually something important that was being created, or someone with wealth (institution or patron) was commissioning such a piece to be made. Though, while my manuscript features lots of gold, there does not appear to be any raised surfaces where the gold is, which could indicate an older medieval manuscript if the gold initials were only painted on with a liquid gold suspension.[6]

While it is a difficult task to try to find out where my manuscript came from, doing further research definitely helps in trying to recognize certain aspects of medieval manuscripts that were done in certain periods. So, if you are ever stumped with trying to pin point the origin or provenance of your manuscript, look no further than the ink, pigments and style of writing!

Here are some further readings that offer way more detail into pigments and inks:



[1] Douma, Michael, curator. “Medieval Age (500-1400),” para. 2, Pigments Through the Ages, 2008,

[2] Tillotson, Dianne, “Inks and Colourings (2),” para. 3, Medieval Writing, 2011,

[3] Tillotson, Inks and Colourings (2), para 5.

[4] Tillotson, Inks and Colourings (2), para 11.

[5] Tillotson, Inks and Colourings (2), para 11.

[6] Tillotson, Inks and Colourings (2), para 14.

One Reply to “Inks and Pigments”

  1. Hey Lynsay thanks for posting these extra resources they’ve been very helpful in determining what pigments were used in the production of my illuminated “R”. It’s a bit over whelming, there are three different shades of red, two shades of blue, one green pigment, a thin white pigment which is probably lead white, and I am unsure whether or not the yellow is Opriment but I am thinking it must be since it is a sort of golden hue. I choose my manuscript because of the rich use of colour and I can only imagine what it looked when it was freshly applied. You mentioned golden leafs and how they were produced and that reminded me of this great video on for the 1950s on the production of gold leafs for gilding picture frames:
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    It’s wild to think of all the different components that needed to be compiled in order to create these manuscripts, no wonder in the later centuries there was more specialization in manuscript production. Also, I wonder if some of the gold that was used for illuminating a manuscript was also used in the gilding process of another item in the medieval world- an interesting thought- but they must have been since gold leafs were used for more than just manuscripts

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