copy cat

Early art school students learned their craft through copying works from antiquity. The drawing school in Cork was set up with the arrival of the Canova Casts. While in the capital, the Dublin Society were running a school in the stable block of the Duke of Leinster’s former home.

When it was my turn to walk through those arty doors, the college had moved from the stable block to the site of an old brewery. Intoxicated with dreams of greatness, my 17 year old self felt disdain for those previous students who merely copied the work of others. What an old fashioned way to learn? Where was the creativity? Where was the self-expression?

Now, some 37 years later, I’m rethinking that view.

I have spent the past two weeks in medieval manuscripts. I’m looking at the design of 14th century books to see how I can translate this into visuals for a chapter on the Black Death.

In order to reproduce a particular look, you need to observe what is happening on the page…….and let me tell you, when it comes to design and illustration, those medieval dudes are the cat’s pyjamas!

So far, I have learnt:

A ‘bad’ drawing can still tell a good story. In fact, often a quirky image will have a boldness and vigour which places it way above one that is more realistic.


Perspective is overrated. To tell the truth I have never been a big fan. I have always felt that the pages of book work on a two dimensional plane. The characters which populate these pages should respect this limitation.


Surface pattern comes straight from God. There is a prayer in every curlicue, a poem in every flourish. A balance of shape and space and spiral that would leave Mr Fibonacci himself in rapturous ecstasy.


If in doubt, use gold leaf. Nothing else says luxury and joy like a warm golden glow. Gold is always golden.


There is room for your own personality. Main images and marginalia range from the scatalogical to the fantastical – with whimsy and weird in-between.

I’m taking handfuls of leaves out of these books from the Dark Ages. I’m finding pages filled with delight and wonder which are leaving me practically purring with pleasure.

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