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Homebotanical art demoSaving the Art of Vellum

Saving the Art of Vellum

A blog post on why I am happy that the art of vellum is being saved.

Watercolour painting of yellow laburnum flowers on natural calf vellum by Shevaun Doherty
Laburnum anagyroides on vellum (crop)
I awoke today to hear the very good news that the British Government were not going ahead with their plans to stop using vellum for their archive copies of UK Acts of Parliament. 

The arguments for changing from vellum to archival paper were purely financial, because it is inconceivable that anyone would want to lose a centuries old tradition that includes the Domesday Book (1086) and the Magna Carta (1215). By switching to paper, the UK government claimed that they would save ยฃ80,000 per annum, although in fact, they only pay ยฃ46,000 p.a. to William Cowleyโ€™s, the sole producer of vellum in the UK and Ireland. It goes without saying, that the Irish Government would also quickly move to adopt such a decision if it was to go ahead.

So why do I care?

Artist Shevaun Doherty painting a Painted lady Butterfly on calfskin vellum
Painted Lady butterfly on calfskin vellum

Well, quite simply, I love painting on vellum. I respect the idea of keeping an ancient tradition alive, and I teach vellum painting for theSociety of Botanical Artists Distance Learning Course.

If the plan to cease using vellum to record the laws of the land went ahead, it would have a devastating effect on William Cowleyโ€™s business, and jeopardise the production of vellum for artists, bookbinders, calligraphers, drum makers and craft makers throughout the world. To my knowledge there are only two producers of vellum, William Cowleyโ€™s in the UK and Pergamena in the USA, (Talas is a supplier).

 Watercolour Painting of olives on a branch on vellum by Shevaun Doherty

Paintings on vellum have a particular luminosity and clarity. The paint sits on the vellum surface, which gives transparent watercolours a jewel-like quality and remarkably crisp edges. Paper on the other hand is absorbent, so the paint sinks into the surface which allows a slight bleed along the edges.

Paul Wright sits with artist Shevaun Doherty with vellum
Paul Wright, manager of William Cowley’s showing me the wonderful qualities of vellum at the SBA
(photo courtesy of Sarah Morrish)
It is particularly coincidental to get this news today, as I am wrapping up my vellum painting to send to the SBAโ€™s London exhibition. Last year I met Paul Wright, the manager of William Cowleyโ€™s at the exhibition.  I was giving a demo on vellum painting and Paul kindly came along to explain what exactly vellum is, itโ€™s history and how it is made.

watercolour study of purple grapes on vellum with colour charts
A small painting of grapes on vellum for my demonstration

So what is vellum?

Selection of different types of vellum
A selection of vellum
Vellum has been used as a writing material since the 5th century BC, and has always been considered precious. It is archival, incredible smooth and beautifully translucent. It was used for documenting royal decrees, religious manuscripts and important historical events.

I should point out here that animals are NOT killed to make vellum.  Vellum is a by-product of the meat industry, or simply a case of the animal dying of natural causes and the skin being used.

watercolour painting on goatskin vellum of iris seedhead with orange seeds by Shevaun Doherty
Iris foetidissima on goatskin vellum

I have a great respect for vellum, not just as an artistโ€™s support, and as part of our heritage, but because there is an awareness that each piece of vellum comes from a living creature (calf, sheep, goat). Each piece feels quite special and unique. 
How that creature has lived really effects the appearance of the skin. For example, a calf that has spent a summer out roaming in the fields will have different skin (more tanned, less hair) than one that has been overwintered in a shed (paler and with visible hair follicles). Skin is an indicator of good health, so vellum only comes from animals that have been cared for and treated well.
Watercolour painting in progress of orange fruit on kelmscott vellum by Shevaun Doherty
Calamondin orange in progress on Kelmscott vellum-
the silky smooth surface allows for incredible detail and colours that glow

Vellum most typically comes from a calf, but can also come from a goat, sheep or deer. Sheepskin is usually referred to as parchment. Sheep tend to have a lot of fat, which makes parchment very thin and white, not really suitable for painting, but perfect for writing. 

Watercolour painting on calfskin vellum of olives by Shevaun Doherty
Olive details on Veiny Vellum
Manuscript vellum is very thin, almost transparent and creamy in colour. Itโ€™s more often used for calligraphy.

Natural calf vellum is my favourite vellum and the one that I use the most. Each piece is completely different and has itโ€™s own character. It can range from a lovely honey colour, to one that has a dark mottled appearance. I especially like the Veiny vellum, which has distinctive markings that give it character.

Kelmscott vellum is considered the best vellum for botanical artists. It is coated with a special chalky paste that is made from boiling up all the tiny vellum offcuts together with some secret ingredients. That paste is painted onto the vellum, allowed to dry, and then sanded smooth. The whole process is repeated several times more until the vellum is quite thick and sturdy. This coating gives a beautifully velvety surface to paint on, which is so forgiving. 
I would definitely recommend Kelmscott for vellum newbies. My only grumble is that the smooth white surface is a little bland in appearance in comparison to the natural calf vellum.

Goatskin vellum has an interesting appearance with large visible pores. However, these pores can present a problem when painting because the paint has a tendency to catch in the little holes. Itโ€™s probably better in this case to avoid subjects with a smooth shiny surface and go for something with texture instead.

three Erythrina lysistemon seedpods painting on natural calf vellum by Shevaun Doherty
Erythrina lysistemon seedpods on natural calf vellum

If you are interested in learning more about painting on vellum, 
I will be giving a free demonstration on vellum painting at the Society of Botanical Artists Exhibition in Westminster, London in April 2016 (date and time to be confirmed).


  • 15th February 2016

    Thank you for sharing this post,fabulous paintings, very inspirational!

  • 15th February 2016

    Thank you!

  • 15th February 2016

    Love the paintings! Thanks for the info about vellum and parchment. I had no idea how each was made so this in new information to me. I saw your FB pages that the British government was going to continue using vellum, and now I understand why it is so important, especially for botanical artists.

  • 16th February 2016

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • 16th February 2016

    I am happy to hear the good news, and what a treat to see so many details from your paintings in this post–thanks!

  • 17th February 2016

    Yay, it's great news! I still have some vellum I need to work on! Great post and beautiful paintings Shevaun xxx

  • 17th February 2016

    Beautiful paintings and interesting story.

  • 17th February 2016

    Great post! I learned so much. And I love, love, love your paintings on vellum. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • 18th February 2016

    i am dying to try vellum, and when i can afford it i will

  • 19th February 2016

    beautifully painted botanical art, great works. recently i have visited one website, where i have found some amazing botanical illustration from world' great artists, if you want to check that artwork than click here http://goo.gl/Oi7gQI

  • 12th March 2016

    Being a painter in Cheltenham its really a great news for me.Very pleased Government is trying to save art of Vellum.


  • 12th March 2016

    It bodes very well, and could be the very best thing that has happened to vellum, because it's really raised awareness as to it's importance!! I have been talking to a friend of mine, Dianne Sutherland about starting a Guild of Vellum Painters. I think it's needed. Thanks for commenting.

  • 26th April 2016


    Thank you so much for this wonderful articles here we all can learn a lot of useful things and this is not only my opinion and even KLOK corp. and
    http://www.viralbark.com/ confirmed it!

  • 26th April 2016


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