Home / Making a Manuscript

Making a Manuscript

Creating an illustrated manuscript like this one was a long and involved process. No individual artist was alone responsible for an entire manuscript. Papermakers, gilders, calligraphers, illuminators, and binders each played an essential role.


Most of the early Persian painted manuscripts that survive today were made after the thirteenth century. Prior to that time, many manuscripts were produced on parchment, but paper became increasingly popular as production increased. Muhammad Juki’s Shahnamah is written and illustrated on paper.

Paper had to be sized and polished before it could be used for a manuscript. Boiled rice, gum tragacanth, and starch were all traditionally used as sizing agents. Glucosic extracts such as fish glue, psyllium glue, and melon juice were also used to enhance the paper’s smoothness and make it more suitable as a writing surface for a reed pen. Smooth stone or glass burnishers were used to polish the sized paper. Gold and silver would be applied by brush at this stage and burnished gently with hard stone or ivory.

Calligraphy and Paintings

When commissioning a manuscript, a patron might first meet with his calligraphers to discuss which subjects were to be illustrated. From there, the composition of the entire book was determined and the pages were marked with ruled lines to indicate the positions of the illustrations. The calligraphers then copied the text, usually with black ink but sometimes with enhancements in red, blue, gold, or white. The illustrations would then be painted into their allotted spaces.

Colored inks and pigments made from a number of different minerals and vegetables were mixed with a binding agent, usually gum arabic. Colors were often made with the following ingredients:

  • Blacks:  lamp black or black precipitate of tannin and a metallic salt (or a combination of the two)
  • Whites:  lead, tin, talc
  • Yellows:  yellow arsenic, saffron
  • Oranges:  lead oxide, realgar, cinnabar
  • Reds:  cinnabar, lac, anemone, sappanwood, hollyhock, safflower
  • Greens:  orpiment and indigo mixture, verdigris
  • Blues:  lapis lazuli (the most precious color for miniatures)

Colors were applied in flat tints and then details like the facial features, clothing design, and contour lines were added. Brushes were most likely made from the hairs of a cat or squirrel. Once complete, the manuscript paintings were polished with a burnishing instrument.

To learn more about the art of Islamic calligraphy, or to see a slideshow of tools and materials, visit https://sites.asiasociety.org/islamiccalligraphy.

  • Bookmark and ShareShare