Originally posted on Tumblr, but still my work.
@theweepingwillowbird just posted about how frustrated she (?) is with her Book of Shadows — how often she’s started and restarted it after making small errors. I wrote a long response, and then it was eaten. So rather than try again, I’m going to write my own list for beginners; and then it’s not crowding out her request, either, or offering things that don’t necessarily apply to her.
First, it’s helpful to consider Ira Glass’s advice. You have taste, and you don’t want to ruin your taste. But there is a gap between taste and skill — and you have to produce work to close that gap.
First, recognize that most of the impatience involved in producing a beautiful illustrated book by hand is really a daemonic presence — the Dweller on the Threshold. A genuinely creative and magical life is open to all, but first there’s this fear-monger that holds you back. Don’t let it. And recognize that this daemon will appear again and again through your process. All the good stuff you will ever produce is on the other side of that door.
There are also tools to help a newcomer to the art of making illuminated or illustrated books, to make rapid progress.
- Learn the Secret Law of Page Harmony. Once you understand that pages have a standard size and a standard margin that can be harmonious, it’s easy to decide on a size of handwriting.
- Study some calligraphy techniques. I really like Getty and Dubay’s Write Now series for adults (I used the left-hand version).
- Learn some illustration skills. I began with Ed Emberley and Sachiko Umoto (”Let’s Draw!” translated from Japanese), then moved on to Dave Gray’s Visual Thinking School and Mike Rohde’s Sketchnotes. Now I’m working on Botanical and Bird Illustration and Botany in A Day.
- You don’t have to learn bookbinding, but you can. Esther K. Smith’s book How to Make Books will teach you 60-80% of what you need to know. It means that you can produce pre-printed pages using your computer, and then hand-bind it (which I have done to some of my poetic works).
- Learn some Geometry. I worked through all of the problems in Andrew Sutton’s book Ruler and Compass, and produced my own book of shadows specifically for geometric work… 114 pages, nearly 200 proofs. All those magical diagrams you see in beautifully-photographed witch-aesthetic posts have an underlying order to them, and knowing that geometric rule can really help.
- Learn about Commonplacing. A Book of Shadows is really a kind of commonplace book with a specialized purpose of re-enchanting the world. A Book of Shadows is in part a tool for cultivating a particular kind of rich interior life. There’s a variety of techniques for making them work. This is also permission, in a sense, to copy all sorts of things into your Book of Shadows, which now serves a threefold purpose — to cultivate that rich interior life on the level of the soul; to practice the mental and physical skills of practical geometry, illustration and calligraphy at the level of the intellect; and to create an heirloom in the realm of the material world. Welcome to witchcraft. 😉
- Google “medieval manuscript elephant illustrations”. It will make you feel better about your illustrative work — those monks used beautiful colors and rare materials to produce high-quality illustrations of … blobs. No medieval monk ever laid eyes on an elephant, and they hadn’t the slightest idea how to draw one. You can do better. And you will do better. And it will make you feel better knowing that centuries ago, professionals were once just as in the dark about this as you are.
- Noah Bradley’s advice in his essay, Don’t Go to Art School, is spot-on. There’s a wealth of free and cheap resources to do everything I’ve just described above. Nearly everything on this list can be studied from YouTube videos, webpage tutorials and more. You can borrow many of these books from the library.
- Spend some time thinking about time on five different layers: the “secular calendar” of January to December with its holidays and weekends; the “astronomical calendar” of constellations and wheeling stars; the “Earth calendar” of flowers and fruit in their seasons; the “astrological calendar” of planets, signs, houses, and aspects; and the “sacred calendar” you follow, whether it be Sabbats and Esbats, or Saint’s Days and Sundays, or Festae and Dies Aegyptiani. Find ways to represent and mark these in your book — because these tax all of your abilities as a geometer, a page designer, a calligrapher and an illustrator. These are the places where your artistic abilities will tend to be stretched the most.
Most of all, remember this: Your Book of Shadows, or your Book of Sunshine, or your Book of Splendor, is not required to be a masterpiece… unless you want to be a master maker-of-illustrated-books. You are making this book, though, in order to cultivate a kind of interior life — and there is a type of curriculum that aids that purpose. Some of that curriculum is rooted in the artistic and mathematical-proportional training I’ve laid out here.
But much, much more of it comes from the material that you choose for yourself. YOU should decide what goes into your commonplace book for magic and mysticism. YOU should decide what diagrams and illustrations it contains. YOU should decide how deep down this rabbit-hole you want to go.
There is a vast cloud of witnesses and allies, in the form of the geometers and illustrators of the past, who will aid you in this labor for as far into the work as you want to go. There are poets and preachers and witches and mystics a-plenty who will sing for joy and dance the boogie if you re-write their words in your best handwriting (no matter if they’re dead or not). But YOU are still the maker of the work.