Author Topic: Illumination with PVA  (Read 1177 times)

Offline Matthew H.

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Illumination with PVA
« on: January 25, 2023, 03:39:24 PM »
I've been desperate to try illumination since – well, since I began learning calligraphy, really! Over the Christmas break, I thought I'd finally give it a go. I'm working mostly from Timothy Noad and Patricia Seligman's The Illuminated Alphabet. The trouble is, I've run into a problem I haven't seen mentioned before and can't seem to solve.

I'd love to use gesso but I'm faintly terrified of using something with such high lead content. I knew I'd therefore have to content myself with a mix of PVA and water.

The book advises that the PVA is brushed around the edge of the shape before the centre is filled by 'spooning' the PVA into it. But a valley almost always develops – usually in the second or third layer – somewhere as it dries. As you might imagine, applying gold leaf doesn't exactly make it inconspicuous…

The groove seems to form where the PVA has sat drying the longest. I've found that if I can use a thinner layer of PVA (though still deep enough that it forms a smooth pool), I can usually eliminate the ridge. But it seems that for certain shapes, there's almost always a line or dimple that appears at some point. I've attached two photos that hopefully show what's happening. (Please forgive the questionable sketches – I've been quickly drawing shape after shape to test out different things.)

I would be incredibly grateful if anyone with experience of gilding with PVA might have any advice, please? I've experimented with increasing the PVA content (from 50:50 to 60:40) and using a watercolour block to avoid cockling, but neither made a difference, unfortunately. I live in a cold and mostly wet corner of the UK – could the slow drying at this time of year perhaps be playing a part?

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #1 on: January 25, 2023, 08:14:23 PM »
Such fun! I have only taken a few classes but they have been with the best teachers for illumination - Rosemary Bucek, Harvest Crittendon, and Valarie Weilmuenster.

In none of these classes did we ever pour or spoon the PVA or Instacol (gesso is very temperamental). We carefully built it up in layers using a brush.

I will see if I can dig out my notes.

EDIT:

I checked my notes. Valarie said, “Puddle don’t paint.” Meaning, don’t use lots of brush strokes. You can apply it with a ruling pen or a brush. You apply 1-3 layers, allowing each layer to dry between coats.

1. Apply a very thin layer.
2. Puddle, don’t paint. Start with a puddle in the middle and quickly ease it out to the edges. (This should prevent the sunken middle.)
3. Be as quick as you can and don’t pull the brush through the pva.
4. Don’t try to build up a raised surface with the first layer or make the layer too high.
5. Use the second and even third layer to build up a raised surface.
6. Don’t try to build it too high or too fast or it will collapse (what you see happening). Best to build it up slowly with more layers.

Hope that helps!

« Last Edit: January 25, 2023, 08:32:53 PM by Erica McPhee »
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Erica
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Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #2 on: January 25, 2023, 08:34:57 PM »
She also notes if you use a ruling pen, you can outline the shape, then flood the area (using the pen to spread it). So similar to spooning. But important not to make the layer too thick.
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Offline Matthew H.

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #3 on: January 26, 2023, 07:40:54 AM »
Wow, it's wonderful to see your work, @Erica McPhee!

I can't tell you how grateful I am for your help with this. Thank you so much for all the trouble you've gone to.

I'm excited to try it out – I'll report back!

Offline jeanwilson

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #4 on: January 26, 2023, 08:18:09 AM »
As I recall, the more expensive brands of PVA worked a lot better than the less expensive PVA.
When you mention 50-50 and 60-40 -- it sounds like you are thinning it.
In the two classes I took - we did not thin the PVA and it worked fine.
Maybe try straight PVA - and the humidity will be your friend in that it will not dry too fast.

I'd also recommend trying letters rather than big blobby shapes.
The thinner strokes of letters will be friendlier to getting the smooth rounded shapes.

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #5 on: January 26, 2023, 10:23:52 AM »
Good suggestion Jean!

We did thin with distilled water but it wasn’t a ratio. It was mix in enough water to make it the consistency of milk. However, when I tried it again at home (a couple years later), I forgot to mix in the water and it worked quite well.

However, if it’s too thick, it won’t spread well.

Looking forward to seeing the next round.  :D
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Offline Matthew H.

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #6 on: February 15, 2023, 03:30:27 PM »
I'm so sorry, @Erica McPhee and @jeanwilson – I'm mortified to have not updated you on how things have been going. We've been redecorating for the last few weeks... but I've also been embarrassed to admit that I haven't yet been able to solve the PVA problem. I’d kept hoping that, if I just gave it a few more days, I might have it sorted. The ridges are still showing up from time to time, though.

Thank you, Jean, for your suggestions. Worryingly, they may show the problem is something I'm doing without realising. I'd purchased the most expensive PVA I could find (it's Lineco Neutral pH Adhesive), and I've been having even more problems with thinner strokes than larger shapes. Each time I make a 2-3mm-wide stroke, there's almost always a valley running down its middle after the second or third layer has dried.

I tried using undiluted PVA and was amazed at the firmness and smoothness that could be created – but each time, small air bubbles have formed near the surface. I've tried pricking the bubbles as soon as I spot them, but some still get through!

I'll keep experimenting and report back again soon (I promise it won’t be so long next time!).

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #7 on: February 15, 2023, 08:06:13 PM »
Not to worry. I know how time consuming the process is and you have to set aside time to experiment. I’m sorry you are still having the issues. If it’s any consolation, it is not an easy process. Takes a bit of finesse. I prefer using Instacol although I know many people don’t. It just seems to work easily for me.

Hope you have better luck soon!
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Offline jeanwilson

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #8 on: February 16, 2023, 06:14:17 AM »
Thanks for the update Matthew -- it is entirely possible that I mis-remembered when the more expensive PVAs worked better -- they might be better on flat guilding. I have a friend who has been trying to perfect his flat guilding for about 20 years and is not figuring it out. It occurred to me that the Lineco - which I use - does have a thinner feel. Elmer's Glue is thicker - and then there is Aileen's Tacky glue which is even thicker - so maybe you want to try some Elmer's or Aileens. Maybe try using Lineco on the first layer and the others for the building up layers.

It's probably fine to take a break from time to time and get other things done. As Erica mentioned - Instacol works very well for some people. I've used it and had good results.

Offline Matthew H.

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #9 on: February 16, 2023, 01:46:50 PM »
Thank you, Erica and Jean. It's good to know that it's not unheard of for it to take a while to get this right. And I'm relieved that there are further options open to me – thanks for your suggestions. I hadn't come across these products before.

With the Lineco being a more expensive PVA, I think I'd overlooked that it could be contributing to the problem. Last night, though, I had a look at reviews on Amazon and was surprised to find a handful of people saying that, for their particular purpose, it hadn't been the right glue. (Some talked about the thinner feel you mentioned, Jean. I'll try using it for just the first layer as you suggested.)

It occurred to me that we also have a bottle of school-grade PVA in the cupboard, and I'm tempted to give it a go to see what happens. I imagine it's worth a try!

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #10 on: February 17, 2023, 11:05:54 AM »
It occurred to me you might find some helpful information here and from reaching out to Jerry.

« Last Edit: February 17, 2023, 11:14:40 AM by Erica McPhee »
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Offline Matthew H.

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #11 on: February 17, 2023, 02:11:47 PM »
Thanks, Erica – that video was really helpful. I've found an email address for Jerry and will get in touch with him.

Offline Matthew H.

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #12 on: June 21, 2023, 03:56:18 PM »
@Erica McPhee and @jeanwilson When I replied in February, I'd been mortified to have taken three weeks to reply. But I'm not sure there's a word that expresses how embarrassed I am to have taken several months this time. I'm so sorry to you both, and especially after I'd promised I wouldn't take so long next time. It's been a hectic, occasionally nightmarish, few months but I'm pleased to say that things are much better now.

I just wanted to let you know that, excitingly, I think my illumination problems are sorted!

Just after we spoke, I'd chanced upon an upcoming online illumination class. I wondered if seeing the process demonstrated from start to finish may be a good place to start before speaking with Jerry Tresser.

I counted down the weeks to it, and honestly, it was one of the most enjoyable and helpful things I've ever done. Within the first hour of the first session, the teacher had covered all of the things I'd been struggling with and explained ways to avoid or mitigate them. And I learnt such a lot about the technique required for applying PVA from watching the teacher demonstrate. I could see lots of things I'd been doing incorrectly or could improve upon.

But as it turns out, there'd been something else going on, unfortunately. I really don't like to blame my tools – if there's a problem, it's almost certainly caused by me! But I think my PVA may have been responsible for many of the problems I'd been having.

The teacher supplied a small bottle of ready-prepared PVA for the classes, and fortunately, the problems I'd had when working by myself mostly didn't occur. Afterwards, though, I returned to the Lineco PVA I'd diluted earlier this year and was astonished by how watery it was. I tried to add more PVA to bring it up to the consistency we'd used in the class, but still without success. I therefore ordered the brand of PVA that the teacher had recommended and, touch wood, I've had no problems with grooves forming since. (Incidentally, the recommended PVA was still tacky a day or two later, even before breathing on it – the Lineco simply formed hard blobs on the paper that were barely tacky at all. Maybe it was a bottle that had gone bad?)

It’s been a huge thrill (not to mention relief!) to be able to apply gold leaf to a smooth surface and have it remain in place. I can't wait to keep going. There's lots more practice needed but each mistake is teaching me something new.

Thank you both again for your help, and my sincerest apologies for how long it's taken me to update you.

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #13 on: June 22, 2023, 07:19:59 PM »
This is fantastic news @Matthew H. ! (Although sorry to hear you had some trials in between.)  I am so happy to hear you were able to take a class and learn first hand from a teacher. Sometimes it really does make all the difference. Looking forward to seeing some of your illuminations when you’re ready!  :-*
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Offline Matthew H.

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Re: Illumination with PVA
« Reply #14 on: June 24, 2023, 02:19:43 PM »
Thanks so much, Erica – that's really kind of you. I'll definitely try to seek out a class whenever I find myself struggling with something in future. With the nature of the problems I'd been having, I think it also helped that the variables were reduced by using the same materials as the teacher.

There's an illuminated letter I'm working on at the moment but the surrounding paint is a mess! (I'm gradually getting more confident using gouache but it's taken time!) I'll keep working at neatening it all up, and fingers crossed, will have something I can upload soon.