This is a topic I don’t think anyone’s covered particularly well, so I’m going to have a crack at it. A lot of extant leatherwork from the early medieval period through to the modern period exhibits traces and in some cases, complete painted decoration. Some good examples are the Stonyhurst Gospels (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonyhurst_Gospel), the saex scabards at Jorvic and the Yorkshire Museum and the leather jacks in Warwick Castle. Looking through surviving Tudor and Stuart leatherwork that’s in original condition, almost all buckets, bombards and jacks have at least the date painted on them.
Appropriate paints include tempera, gouache and oils. The selection of paint depends on the period being represented by the object. Tempera predates Egypt, and was still commonly used until superceded in about 1500. Gouache paints were in use in the early 1400s in mainland Europe and probably migrated into the UK shortly after. The name originally applied to a completely different paint, taking it’s modern form in the 19th century.
Contrary to many claims about a much later date of invention, Theophilus, writing in the early12th century disussed the preparation and use of oil paints using linseed oil as the medium and rosin as the binder (Book 1, Chapter 25). I suspect the Warwick jacks are crested with an oil-based paint. More relevant to us here, he also gave a couple of recipes for a varnish made from linseed and rosin (Book 1, Chapter 20).
Each of the types of paint have their pros and cons, oil paints are easy to use and waterproof when dry, but dry slowly and continue to oxidise and darken as they age. You’ll need to use at least three coats to get any colour density. Gouaches are better at covering than oils, and dry quickly, but aren’t waterproof when dry. I usually thin with a few drops of gum arabic to improve water resistance and then compensate by doing two coats. Tempera is hard to get unless you grind and mix your own, it has most of the benefits of gouache but is often fugitive.
Purists may skip this next section while we discuss modern paints. Art quality acrylics work wonderfully over large areas or in places where the object is likely to get wet: I use acrylics for objects used by kids due to the wearing properties and water resistance. The bigest benefit is flexibility – acrylics can be used on soft items or things that have a bit of spring without flaking. Acrylics aren’t capable of flowing the way gouaches and oils do, so don’t suit my painting style. They also tend to bead when applied in fine lines, so can’t achieve the same clarity as gouache.
Gel inks provide good coverage and can be used to provide very fine lines, so can be used to compensate for the shortcomings of acrylics. You have to have a good eye for colour to be able to match the acrylic paint with the gel. These come in pen form with a steel rolling ball, so can be used for fine lines on knotwork that would have originally been done with a steel nib or crow quill. The black comes in handy for correcting the bits where you go slightly outside the lines.
Modern enamels are a pigment in a synthetic oil base. I’ve never tried them on leather, if you have, let me know how they go. I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t work, but may be a bit brittle on flexible objects.
Metal foils and leaf are a great way of highlighting detail. Use the same methods that you would for applying leaf to parchment.
My sketching tends to be fussy and not suited to easily transfer to leather. For these things, I do my layouts by finding an image on the Internet or in books, bung it in a word processor and then put any text required around it. Here’s one I prepared earlier.
This design was a commission for a jack for James’ birthday. The arms in the were taken from a larger design done by Wendel Hollar for the Honorable Artillery Company in 1643. I’ve removed the supporters, the crest and the mantling. The arms are considerably older than this, but it does show the correct form during the period in question. The initials IW are used as the letter I was commonly used in place of J in the early modern period. The year 1641 is arbitrary, but as James is younger than me, it seemed appropriate that his jack showed a newer date than mine. Paint colours come from a slightly later colour print.
The design was printed and transfered to the leather using one of a few different techniques. If it’s a flat design painted directly on to the finished leather, I cheat and transfer the design with yellow or white “carbon” paper available from larger haberdashers – that’s why the red pen outline is on the design above.
For embossed or chased designs I do the work before dyeing the leather by poking small holes along the lines with a needle or awl and after securing to the leather, rub powered charcoal or chalk through the holes, then remove the paper and join the dots before embossing, often using the back of a butter knife to start. Once the relief work is done, the leather is dyed and sewn and then painted.
I didn’t end up painting the one above, but the principle is the same. Try to avoid handling the area you’ll be painting, particularly if using water based paint as the oil from your fingers will cause the paint to bead and cover unevenly.
In a manner somewhat reminiscient of the Monty Python Blue Peter sketch, now paint the design. It takes some practice to get paint to flow properly on leather, particularly if the grain is particularly deep. Pick something easy to start off with and don’t be afraid to wash it all off, let it dry and have another go.
Again, I look to Theophilus and varnish over the painted design. If I’m using gouache, I’ll use three or four coats of varnish to improve the water resistance and then a good coat of bees wax polish. The jack on the right in the top photo has been in use for nearly 10 years, the only time I had problems with the paint running was last Easter when it was used in a re-enactment tavern in a river valley where the humidity was always over 90%. It was continually wet for four days straight and the bottoms of the serifs started to bleed on the evening of the last day.
See my earlier “Care and Feeding” for more tips on maintaining your painted leather for a good working life.
Baker, O., BLACK JACKS AND LEATHER BOTTELLS: Being some account of Leather Drinking Vessels in England and incidentally of other Ancient Vessels, England 1921
Preservation Brief 28 – Painting Historic Interiors, http://www.nps.gov/hps/TPS/briefs/brief28.htm, accessed 2 October 2009
Theophilus, On Diverse Arts, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/theophilus.html, accessed 2 October 2009
A great article on historic paints, specifically aimed at shields but drawing on a much wider range of examples, with recipes and modern commercial paint equivalents http://nvg.org.au/article.php?story=20080611060506625