For many people the word ‘vellum’ refers to a modern type of smooth synthetic paper but for artists, and botanical artists in particular, ‘vellum’ is a traditional surface (the use of which dates back to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages) made from the skin of young or still-born calves.
Before we go any further let’s be clear about the source of this surface: no animals die to produce vellum. Skins are ethically sourced as by-products of the wool, milk and meat industries and would otherwise be disposed of as waste. Once selected the skins are salt preserved, lime washed, scraped and stretched. There are a variety of different kinds of parchment and vellum depending on animal source and treatment. The vellum that I paint on and which is commonly used by botanical artists is Kelmscott vellum which has been treated in such a way as to have a smooth evenly toned ivory colour with little skin markings showing. In the Chilli photo below you can see, however, the ghost of a vein which I have mirrored in my composition of the piece.
Not many artists paint on vellum and let’s get the downside of the surface out of the way before I explain what a wonderful material it truly is. Firstly, vellum is VERY expensive. Given the treatment stages it needs this is hardly surprising, but a 9x12 inch (22x30 cm) piece typically costs about $120 before shipping costs, and vellum can only be sourced from the UK or US. In addition, vellum needs fairly careful handling as it has a natural tendency to bend and does not respond well to high humidity. Any oil on the surface of the vellum will resist paint so care has to be taken when painting to avoid touching the vellum. Technically it is a tricky surface to work on as it does not absorb paint, unlike paper, and responds badly to excessive moisture. Watercolour techniques that work well on paper such as washes and working wet-in-wet do NOT work on vellum. Watercolour paint rests and dries on top of the vellum and has to be carefully built up with layers of glazing or stippling. If the brush used is too damp it will simply lift up the layers of paint beneath and frustration will ensue!
So if vellum is so expensive, temperamental and tricky to work, why use it? I love working with it for two reasons. Firstly, the unique characteristics of vellum mean that colours glow far more than they can on paper and I will go into this in more detail in my next Blog post. Secondly, and for me this is key, the surface properties of the vellum allow me to use the miniature sable brushes that I prefer and paint with a high degree of accuracy the minute details that I love to include. Another later Blog post will go into a little more detail about textural effects on vellum. Finally, another advantage of vellum, though less critical in these days of acid-free conservation mounting and framing, is that it is a surface that is inherently longer lived than paper.