Marginalia Studies

Marginalia Studies

Digital artwork of a bishop's skull but with tiny goat legs poking out of it. He stands on a floral pattern with gold leaf. He wears a blue hat and is shaking his papal ferula menacingly (but possibly with good humor; who can tell with a skull's grin).

Skull Bishop
Hours of Saint-Omer, France ca. 1320 BL, Add 36684, fol. 84v

Illustration Style Shift
Prior to 2021, I used a more painterly style for my illustrations. I was frustrated by the amount of time it took to drag painterly illustrations out of the Uncanny Valley. Part of this frustration stemmed from my loose grasp on structural underdrawings, and the other part was from how painting obliterates outlines. Paintings as illustrations are difficult to pin down as ‘complete.’ So, like I have done many times in the past, I turned to art history. Specifically: Bored, poorly-informed monks.

My goal with the graphic novel is to make it half comic, and half illuminated manuscript. What secrets lie in the vellum?


Deerface McNoHands
Hours of Saint-Omer, France ca. 1320
BL, Add 36684, fol. 36v

My best guess for this character is that it’s meant to depict a medieval mummer. I was utterly charmed by the hidden arms = complete lack of arms. I carried that chaos over into the re-draw. While I have no doubts that medieval people would absolutely suit up in deer hats and robes for no reason, they typically did this kind of thing for Christmas. This leads me to believe that the black ‘vine’ in the antlers is ivy, which would have been used to protect houses from evil spirits. In this case my personal story is that this mummer got a bit tangled up in the decorations this year and is perhaps in need of a good New Year’s resolution. The pink and orange leaves are my invention and represent jazz hands energy.


Snail Puppies…Snuppies….or Snrams?
Hours of Saint-Omer, France ca. 1320
BL, Add 36684, fol. 84v

What…are these? Snails? Rams? What awaits them at the top of the ladder? Is this what people turn into when they die and are ascending to the next life? I got lucky with this one and was blessed with extremely precious clay fanart of my attempts to figure out what these things even are.


Bibo Ergo Sum
Hours of Saint-Omer, France ca. 1320 BL, Add 36684, fol. 100r

“I Drink, Therefore I Am.” Sounds pithy, but remember: This guy’s dead. The person who drew him is dead. I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But, I added some flavoring botanicals to my illustration and now this image is gracing my friend’s Ko-Fi, set up so that he can buy various gins and tell me what they taste like. What? It seems like a good deal to me.


Severely Outdated Baby Yoda Joke
‘The Smithfield Decretals’ (Decretals of Gregory IX with glossa ordinaria), Toulouse ca. 1300, illuminations added in London ca. 1340
British Library, Royal 10 E IV, fol. 30v

This Yoda-like entity is basically every history-communications go-to when they try to relate medieval art to the modern day. It ranks almost as highly as coconuts. Medieval people had access to coconuts! It’s called ‘trade routes that reach ecosystems, which occasionally contain coconut trees’. Anyway, half of medieval Twitter complains about attempts to reach The Youths via the coconut horse hoof sound effect bit from Monty Python. Anyway. So far, no one complains about the Yoda wearing hot Vibram five-finger shoes.


Ye Olde Pokémon Starter
Worksop Bestiary, England c. 1185
NY, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.81, fol. 10v

Okay, about those red things: They’re berries. Medieval monks wouldn’t go out and actually look at a hedgehog. They’d blithely copy the folk story about hedgehogs rolling in grapes and berries to get them stuck on their spines. The hedgehog would then go to its family and give them fruit shish kebab. I give the original illustrator of this bestiary entry props for figuring out a way to color all of the berries in each row on the hedgehog’s back with one swipe of the brush. Excellent time management. Accurate observation of animal behavior? Not so much.

It’s a lot easier to relax when drawing these strange little characters. The simplicity of materials lends itself well to less detail, more emphasis on silhouette. If I were making a comic with only a quill and very limited paints, it would similarly look small and honest in nature, just like these marginalia. I found myself really empathizing with a lot of these centuries-old cartoons. No wonder people ran off to join monasteries and bookmaking guilds. I would, too, if it meant drawing cartoons all day.

Comics Tip

Do-It-Yourself Vellum Texture
Illuminated manuscripts have a particular ‘look’ to them, and the base of that look is the substrate onto which they are painted. This look can be quickly and effectively executed in a digital painting program by understanding the real media materials that the original artists used to create them. Originally, marginalia was painted onto stretched sheets of calf skin called ‘vellum’. These days, artists can digitally recreate the look of vellum, while omitting the expense and cruelty.

Take a trip to the local crafts store (or craft-re-use center) and pick up different papers. Lay them flat in the sunlight so your camera of choice can pick up all the wonderful, crunchy wrinkles. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got tissue paper, newsprint, copy paper, vellum (the paper kind, not the skin kind) even some fabrics — The texture is what you’re after so give a few things a try. Photograph them at different times of day and see how the color/texture of your paper changes. If you have a scanner, try that out as well, although the lighting will be different!

Making your own aged paper/vellum is a fun way to spend the afternoon. Get cheap black teabags and brew them, then slop them on top of the papers of your choice. They’ll immediately wrinkle, distress, and stain the paper in a lot of interesting ways. It’s almost like watercolor. If you want the paper to remain flat, try stretching it on a masonite board with watercolor tape. Otherwise, let it warp and wrinkle for extra textural interest. Photograph and scan this like you would a found texture.

Layering Digital Filters
Art programs can do a pretty good job mimicking real world textures. It’s often just a question of which filters and effects to apply. The ‘noise’ filter is a good place to start, and the ‘motion blur’ and ‘gaussian blur’ filters are a great polisher for any real-world texture. A little bit of hand-painting can also work wonders.

Stock Textures
Many stock photography sites have paper textures that look enough like vellum, they’ll do the trick in a digital application. For free ones, check out and Wikimedia Commons. I have also created a free vellum stock texture here using scans and digital filter layering techniques. It is public domain for any desired use, even commercial. What sort of illuminations might be possible on this texture?

A free stock texture that looks like vellum, or medieval calf skin. This texture is public domain and may be used for anything!

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