Thursday, April 8, 2010

Graduation, Illuminated: Diploma Tutorial

One of my first projects after taking an awesome illumination class with Bill Kemp at Castle in the Air in Berkeley back in 2004 was to design a diploma for my son's eighth grade graduating class at Marin Waldorf School. Since there were only nine graduates that year, I was able to hand paint each of diploma after printing the basic wording and design on my inkjet and inscribing each student's name. The illumination design here is Bill's from the class; I just changed a "W" to an "M".

Word got around, and the next year's class requested a diploma, but I didn't have time to paint them all myself--so I decided to enlist the help of the parents by giving a mini-class in illumination around my kitchen counter.

The end result:

Now it has become an (almost) annual tradition for the parents to gather--often while the class is on its eighth-grade trip--and sometimes they "do it up" with a potluck dinner as well. Groups have ranged from four to about twenty. Each parent paints his/her own child's diploma; if a parent can't attend, usually someone in the group will take on an extra one. It's a bittersweet time for these families who have devoted so much of themselves to the school, and who are preparing for their not-so-little ones to begin the high school adventure.

Although I do reuse some elements (usually cutting and pasting digitally), I try to make each year's diploma unique. For Marin Waldorf School, I'm always on the lookout for versions of the letter "M" that will work in this context.

Here is what we start with, printed on diploma parchment or any kind of nice heavy-ish paper that is smooth enough for me to calligraph the name, and sturdy enough to hold up to the gouache with which we will paint it:

Before meeting with the parents, I inscribe each student's name and cover it thoroughly with post-its to protect it during the painting process.

I prepare a bookmark-sized color key, and copy one for each painter/parent. I like to use pencil because it shows the shadings better, and doesn't "give away" the full effect of the deep-toned gouaches.

Provided for each participant:
  • palette
  • size 00 or 0 brush
  • black gel pen
  • water cup
  • cardboard cushion
Shared among the group:
  • gouache in red, blue, green, and purple
  • Windsor-Newton gold ink
  • several burnishing tools (bone folders or backs of spoons will work too)
  • several embossing tools
We start by painting the gold background for the illuminated letter. Each coat, as it dries, is burnished. It usually takes about three coats, burnished after each one, until the gold looks opaque. The gold is then "tooled", or debossed, in traditional designs. Next we paint the colors in gouache, following the key card (or not--always a rogue in the group!). Shading is added in slightly deeper tones, and finally everything is outlined carefully in black with a fine point gel pen to set if off and define the design.

This was a large group, so we used a school classroom. Great concentration!

And the final product:

Here is the most recent edition (sorry for the camera phone photo):

The finishing touch is a diploma cover, which can be purchased for under $5 each. For a few more cents you can even add a tassel! The diplomas are then taken to the appropriate "authorities" to be signed and made official.

It is important to stress that this is about a four-hour process, and because of the specialized tools, materials and instruction involved, is not a take-home project. It's not always easy for busy parents to set aside this much time! But well worth it.

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