Today we will be talking about the types of paints available to the modern illuminator. We will chat about which ones are good to work with and which ones are not. We will also be discussing a few brand names. If you already work with a specific brand name paint that you love and works for you, then keep on working with it. What works for one person may not work for another.

What Types of Paints are Available for Illumination:

Types of paints used for illumination differ from Kingdom to Kingdom. If you are a beginning scribe, check with your local Scribal Officer to see what the standard practice is in your area.


Pigments – the loose powders of color mixed into the binder
Binder – the stuff that binds the pigments together and the paint to the paper, canvas, wood, or metal surface

Gouache Paints:

If you are a beginner to illumination, I suggest using Gouache paints (pronounced: gwash). They are opaque paints, the pigments suspended in the binder is more concentrated giving it a smooth, velvety appearance that you can’t see through. The binder used in them is often Gum Arabic, which is a hardened sap from the acacia tree. Sometimes, it is honey, depending on the manufacturer.

I personally love using the gouache! It is easy to work with and since it is water based, a breeze to clean up my brushes and work area. My two favorite brands are Windsor & Newton (W&N) and M. Graham & Co. The M. Graham & Co. is the one that is bound with honey. Yes, these two are more expensive than the Reeves Gouache, but they are well worth it!

When illuminating with gouache, the paint is at it’s best when it is the consistency of melted ice cream, or heavy cream, especially the white for white work (another HHH topic coming soon).

There is a great difference in brands of gouache! Personally, I really dislike the inexpensive Reeves paints; they just don’t cover like I want them to. They are, however, an inexpensive way to get to know the gouache paints without spending a lot of hard earned money, especially if you do not know if this is something you really want to get into.

The gouache paints I use, W&N (the majority of my paints) and M. Graham & Co, are totally different from those in the Reeves set. The W&N paints are more expensive than the Reeves paints, because they’re made with more pigments. Most W&N will run you $3 – $5 per small tube, but some can run $15 for a small tube (like the Cobalt blue) due to the base price of their ingredients. These small tubes will last you years. I’m still using some of the original paints I bought 11 years ago. If you can’t afford to go out and purchase all of the paints at once, you can get one at a time. That’s how I got most of mine.

Gouache Paint

Watercolor Paints:

Watercolor paint is translucent or see-through as the pigment suspended in the binder is relatively sparse. The binder for watercolor paint is usually Gum Arabic, as well. I don’t generally use watercolor paints for illumination. There is, however, one place I do use them and it is for the background on the scatter border illuminations. A scatter border is when the illumination looks as though the artist has scattered or strewn flowers and bugs on the page. The backgrounds on these borders look very smooth. I use a watercolor technique called “running a wash”. I will have a Helpful Hint on this technique in the future, including pictures, and possibly a short video.

Watercolor Wash Background

Acrylic Paints:

I just don’t use acrylic paints for illumination. Acrylic paints are a fast drying paint, with the pigments suspended in an acrylic polymer solution. I do use them sometimes for other projects, but I find the end product for illumination just doesn’t look right to me. If you live in a Kingdom where acrylic paints are used instead of Gouache, and you just can’t get your illumination to look right, please seek out someone local to you to assist. Hopefully, one of our guest contributors in the future will be able to shed more light on illuminating with acrylics.

Do Not use Oil Paints on Paper:

Oil paints are just that, loose pigments mixed with oil (usually linseed) as the binder. If you put oil paint on paper, the oil will leech out from where the paint is applied, and look like a grease halo around your illumination. The oil will also degrade the paper faster than any other binder. It just simply isn’t made to go on paper. If you want to do a scroll on treated canvas, treated wood, or treated tin, and you are a rocking oil painter to begin with, I say go for it! BUT, know that the SCA Royalty (Crown, Prince/Princess, Baron/Baroness) in your local area still have to sign the scroll before it goes out. A good portion of SCA Royalty usually does not know how to do calligraphy with a pen, let alone with an oil paint brush. If you can work it out with them to get their signatures before hand and put the signatures in, great!

Loose Pigments Hand Mixed with Binders:

We will be discussing loose pigments in the Authentic Materials Hints to come.

Paints! They are lovely! Know what is used locally to you, and which paints will adhere to which papers (see Hrefna’s Helpful Hint: Scribal Hint 3: Choosing Paper, for what paint goes best with what paper).

Play with your paints like you played with choosing your favorite paper, and work with what works best for you.

Hopefully Helpful!