Creating an Illuminated (or Decorated) Letter Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Creating an Illuminated (or Decorated) Letter

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When you see one of those large, ornately-decorated letters at the very beginning of a book, you're seeing an illuminated letter. Illumination is the process of making the letter at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph or section more 'artistic'. They appeared in medieval manuscripts, such as Ireland's Book of Kells, and pretty much anything else (such as Bibles and prayer books) designed by monks in the Middle Ages.

Despite how beautiful and impossibly complex these letters may seem, you can make your very own illuminated letter with very few materials - and this Guide Entry will show you how.


  • Plain paper. You want something that ink will not bleed into. Typing/printer paper doesn't work well, so you may want to try notebook paper, or - if you don't mind a larger outlay - fancy drawing paper.

  • A ruler or straight edge.

  • A pencil - anything you can erase well without a mark is fine.

  • An eraser (see above).

  • A good black pen or marker. You want something with a wider nib (tip) than your average ballpoint. For really nice results, a fountain pen with a medium nib works well, but you could just use a medium-tipped marker.

  • Various coloured pens/markers, with relatively fine nibs. Green, blue and red are good colours. Again, fountain pens with coloured inks are nice, but pretty much anything will work - even coloured pencils or crayons.

  • Metallic pens (optional, if you want a 'gold leaf' look).


  1. Draw your letter, using a pencil so you can erase if necessary. If you would like to follow an established alphabet, you can find these in various books or online. Any sort of alphabet will work though, as long as the letter is drawn in a style that is big and bold.

  2. Still in pencil, use a ruler or straight edge to draw a square or rectangle around the letter. Leave a bit of room around the letter, but not too much. Aim for some sort of balance.

  3. Fill up the area in the box around the letter with some sort of design. For starters, try some basic flowers and vines, but if you're a proficient artist then you may want to put in some people or animals, like those that appear in some of the more elaborate period illuminations.

  4. Now it's time to colour: fill in your letter with a dark, solid hue like black. If you've got any metallic or gel pens, then you could use those for a 'gold leaf' look (or 'silver leaf', if you prefer).

  5. For your background design, try to colour your drawings as realistically as possible. These illustrations want to be evocative of real things1. If you've done a floral design, this will be considerably easier because fewer colours are required. You should aim to pick colours that will contrast well with each other so that the designs will stand out - keep this in mind for the background as well.

  6. Pick an unobtrusive background colour to fill in any remaining white space. Pale shades, such as light blue, work well. You should wait until the previous ink is dry before attempting this step, because if it's still wet all the ink will bleed together and it won't look very attractive.

  7. When you're done, erase any pencil lines still visible and congratulate yourself - you've made an illuminated letter!

1Though often medieval people weren't particularly good at representative art.

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