Medieval Themed Graduation Gift

Couple Brad and Ana came to me with dreams, a sweet sketch of an art piece, and an 8″ x 10″ picture frame for their son who is graduating with a Master’s of Art in Administration from Grand Canyon University. They brought a photo of him to me with the inspiration for this project: a suit of arms complete with a helmet and a battle axe! The couple also included a favorite bible passage of their son’s to include with their congratulatory words in the piece. As for letters, I showed them a couple of samples of my work in scripts that appeared during that time period. Brad and Ana agreed that for their tastes, Unicial was the best. Lastly, they asked me to include a likeness to their son’s young family: him, his wife, and their three sons and three daughters.

Oh boy.

Was I excited to start this one. The Unicial hand is usually meant to look like a block of text with little to no variation in the heights of the letters. This script can also be wonderfully enhanced with illuminated and gilded letters, which I thought would suit the occasion well.

Initial Ideas

Grand Canyon University’s colors are purple and white. I knew I wanted to keep the colors on the cool side of the color wheel for this piece so that the golden letters would stand out warmly in complimentary contrast. The letters themselves would have to be blue to add richness and the concept of royalty to the composition.

Originally, Brad and Ana wanted the orientation of the work to be portrait. In the first sketch, I kept it portrait, as there were angel wings already attached to the frame, but the composition didn’t agree with the orientation or size. There wasn’t enough room for the name and degree at the top without using more than one line and there just wasn’t room to include the family and the passage they wanted. We agreed to flip the piece and go with a larger frame.

Background Information

Yes! I did a bit of research when I was dreaming up the possibilities for this project. As I mentioned, the inspiration for this project was the replica of a suit of armor. I checked out a lot of different samples from this time period, including calligraphy and decorative elements, which are vast and very impressive. I took the most inspiration from the drawings, arrangements, and patterns. It’s interesting to me that the composition of a work can lend so much to its completion. I also noted that with this particular hand, punctuation historically fell on the center of the line rather than at the baseline where the letters rest.

Hot Press Watercolor Paper

I chose Arches Hot Press watercolor paper for this project for a few reasons. It’s fairly smooth for a watercolor paper but not perfectly smooth, so the letters would have slightly rough edges, giving a more rustic effect. I also chose this paper because I knew I was going to be using watercolor for a lot of the other elements and I obviously needed a support that could take the water properly.

I bought this paper in a large sheet. The size I chose to work with was 11″x14″ so that I could frame it with a ready made frame and maybe even a mat. I cautiously cut out my size using a triangle, a T-square, and an L-square ruler. It was vital that I get the edges perpendicular to one another because those lines and edges would be the reference I used for ruling up the lines for the borders and the calligraphy.


I start most pieces like this with the calligraphy, and this piece was no different. The first nib I worked with was 1.5mm which turned out to be a bit small and it didn’t allow me the fine hairlines in the script I was working with. The second nib I worked with was 3mm and it was too large. I invested in a 2mm nib and I absolutely love it. It was the perfect size for this piece. I practiced the calligraphy for the title and passage several times  to the size and scale I envisioned for the final piece.

We’ve already established that the orientation of the piece is landscape, so let’s go from there. In each corner, Brad and Ana wanted an angel wing, so I made a box for each wing to live in. between each box, I carefully drew a band so I could add a decorative border. The words at the top were to read: “Congratulations RIchard James Franco Masters of Art in Administration”. Below that I left space for the family and the bottom is where the bible passage was positioned.

layout mockup

I used all this information to draw a to-scale mockup of how the final design would be presented. I cut out the calligraphy in the title and folded lines 1 and 3 in half as a guide for centering. I planned on using gilded versals, or golden drawn letters, as capitals in the name, so I cut out each name and arranged it as best I could, leaving room for the versals while centering it.

Ruling Up for Lettering

Here is a brief lesson about broad-edge calligraphy. It is written with a nib that has a squared off tip, as opposed to a pointed tip:


The height of the line of lettering is determined by a number of nib-widths stacked up together. Each script has its own, but the few that I have experience with call for about 4 to 5 nib widths for the height of the lowercase letters. If you add a nib width or two to the stack, the letters will be taller and more elegant. If you subtract a nib width, the letters will be wider and more squat. Some scripts allow several more nib widths of margin on either side of the body height for the letters, but Unicial is a fairly dense script with few strokes that go above or below this area.

Ladder of nib widths at the left of the photo
Ladder of nib widths at the left of the photo

I grabbed a wide piece of newsprint and placed my watercolor paper over it, taping it down to avoid the inevitable slide. If you’re familiar with my process, then you know I love guidelines and I love them super straight. Using my mockup, I measured where the top line of text was and with a ruler as a guide, I made a light pencil line to mark the bottom guideline, being sure to extend the line past each edge and onto the newsprint. From here, I used the 2mm nib and ink to mark the nib widths on the newsprint and then drew the guidelines accordingly. I did this for each line of text.

Ruled up watercolor paper

It is possible that in the past, I may have had to start a project or two all over again because I started the calligraphy on the wrong line, often in the middle of the piece and it was, by my standard, ruined. I opted to carefully mark out the lines I was supposed to be using with an x, just in case I had doubts later on down the road.


This was the very first thing I put down permanently on the page. I used Cotman watercolor from Windsor and Newton mixed with some water and a little walnut ink to change the tone a bit. One thing that I’ve been practicing as a calligrapher is slowing down while I letter. My mind tends to wander and it forgets that I still need to pay close attention to my hand even though I’ve practiced plenty. Happily, this session went well and I started each line just where it was supposed to go thanks to my planning ahead for it. I started with the passage at the bottom of the page. The first letter, capital I, I boxed in and drew, planning for added illustration later. Some of the capitals in the passage I also planned as versals and I drew them in roughly as I worked through the verse.


I also planned to put an illustration of a small celtic knot between each line instead of punctuation, so I cut out a square of paper the same size as my knot sketch to save a space for it later as I worked.


After that dried, I filled in the calligraphy at the top of the page. I used the practice words, folded in half, to find where I should place them so the words would be centered. I also drew in versal letters to be filled in later with copper leaf for the name on the center line, and finished up with the third line of text naming the degree. I did this calligraphy all in one sitting to ensure the consistency of the paint and color throughout the work.


I reworked the quick sketches of the versal letters that I drew among the calligraphy. I wanted the roundness of the letters to reflect the flow of the Unicial hand, but I also wanted them to be stately and add character to the overall work. The letters are slightly larger than the calligraphy and a bit more decorative, but not so much so that they take away from the flow of the piece.

Copper Leaf

My friend Bianca Mascorro of Bianca Mascorro Art kindly and very generously shared a few art supplies with me recently. Click the link and check out her work. Lovely calligraphy and thoughtful illustrations and design. She shared with me some of her size — a heavy liquid adhesive, copper leaf sheets — delicate metal attached to a backing, and several broad-edge pens that will be put to good use on my table!

Again, this was a task that I set to slowly and carefully. I watered down some of the size in a separate container. I watered it down because I needed it to get neatly into some tight corners. The wonderful thing about size is that it’s great for adhering, but if you get it in a place you didn’t intend to, then you are out of luck my friend. I am a person who is very good at getting materials and media exactly where I don’t want them. So watered down it was. I also soaked the small paintbrush I used in soapy water before I loaded it with size so that it wouldn’t stick to the bristles and ruin the brush. I don’t know if that was a necessary precaution, but the brush is perfectly fine. After spreading the size through the letters, I let it dry.

sizing shot
Size catching the light as it dries

Next Step: Moment of Truth. To apply the leafing, I breathed on the sizing through a rolled up piece of paper to heat it and make it tacky again. Then I laid the leafing, backing side up (most times!) on top of the shape and pressed down on it. lifting the leafing off afterward. I used a paintbrush to flick all the excess foil away and I have to say I was happy with the results.


I used a sepia Micron to draw in the final lines of the letters. The last step with leafing is to burnish it, but I saved that until I was finished with the whole piece.


Borders, Knots, and Wings

After some trial and error, I came up with a celtic knot border. The inside of the knot was easy enough to figure out, but the strands connecting each knot to the next kept looking uneven and in turn, each knot looked different from the next. The design for this particular border was based on circles, so I had to change the straight lines I had between the knots to curved lines. This made both the knots and the connections between them look much better.

light table

The knot I drew to use between the sentences was also based on circles and since it was finite and didn’t have to connect to anything else, it was much simpler to do!


I used a light table to transfer my sketches to the final piece, using the lines of the graph paper from the sketch to align the design with the lines on the final to ensure each one was straight and fit where I needed it to go. I traced over the designs for the borders and knots lightly at first, then darkened the lines so I could paint around the shapes.


The University’s colors are purple and white which is why I chose to work with these 2 colors in the border. I painted a very light wash of burnt sienna over the border just to differentiate it from the paper. I filled in the spaces between the knots with purple, then added a bit more burnt sienna to shade the parts of the knots that went under other pieces.


I used green as a background color for knots amid the calligraphy to offset the purple borders.  I outlined all knots using a Micron in sepia and added a line or two where the knots overlapped themselves.


Since the lateral borders were intricate and linear in nature, I kept the borders at the top and bottom simple and rounded. I drew in curls that mimic the pattern of waves. For consistency, I filled in the curls with burnt sienna, shaded at their outermost parts. I did a wash of yellow for the background and dropped in red watercolor throughout it. I also outlined the scrolls with the same sepia Micron pen.


The angel wings were pretty straightforward. I did a wash of pale blue for the background and dropped some black into the feathers as shadow. When that dried, I used masking fluid to protect the wings so I could do a dark blue wash coming from the corner of each box toward the center of the design. As that dried, I used a damp brush to pull up some of the color so that it looked like rays of light were shining on each wing. After I removed the masking fluid, I added detail to each wing with a pen.



This portion of the piece was fun for me because of all the children’s bright eyes and big smiles! I sketched each one several times to get a good feel for each one.


I started with a good sketch on the final piece and worked slowly building up the washes and being sure to leave highlights to reflect the light around the page.



Framing this piece was fairly simple. I worked with the piece as an 11″x14″ with an extra 1/2″ on each side just to have a little more room to work with. I found a 16″x20″ frame that included a mat cut to the same proportions as the artwork. I burnished the copper leaf letters, signed the piece, and put it in the frame for future enjoyment.

Galatians Medieval Graduation gift. Art & Calligraphy by Renee McAdam of Case Sensitive Designs LLC
Galatians Medieval Graduation gift. Art & Calligraphy by Renee McAdam of Case Sensitive Designs LLC

Thanks for reading!