A Study in Historical Banner Making Technique

Linen and a Frame

After completing some initial research for Atheneum this last year (which can be seen here), and in partnership with HE Dunstan M’Lolane, my financial backer and cheer leader, I have decided to endeavor in an experiment to create a banner in the late period style, based on the writings of Cennini’s “Il Libro Dell’Arte” 

While I will use some modern tools, I will attempt to use the most period style ingredients I can find, starting with a yard of 3.5oz/yd2 light linen. This measures approximately 36″x 54″ to begin. This linen is bleached, which could have been done through sunlight in period, however was not the norm that I can find in period documentation. It should not make any chemical difference in the project, but will probably result in a difference of color value once completed.

I washed this linen and dried it, not bothering to iron it flat because I would then be placing it on a stretcher frame, as prescribed by Cennini: “in the first place, stretch it taut on a frame, and begin by nailing down the lines of the seams. Then go around and around with tacks, to get it stretched out evenly and systematically” (Il Libro103).  

The frame itself I built of 1 x 3 raw boards, cut to 40″ and 56″ long, then assembled by hand with basic screws. I then stretched the dry linen across it, tacking it down with metal thumb tacks. 

Creation and application of sizing

Cennini then instructs to apply sizing, but without a recipe, only briefly mentioning egg whites. Based on similar work by Rebecca Robynson, I decided to make my own size using eggs whites, and gum water. 

I mixed 1 Tbsp. of gum Arabic, 1 cup of boiling tap water, and 3 whipped egg whites to make my sizing. 

The gum Arabic dissolved fairly easily in the hot water, but once the egg whites where whipped, they did not want to blend with the gum water solution very well. 

I tried mixing vigorously to see if that would help the blending process, and it did not seem to make a difference. So I continued to the application process. 

 I applied the sizing with a basic soft bristled paint brush, making sure to get all the fibers of the linen visibly wet from the top. The linen seemed to stretch and sag with the dampness, but I left it to dry, theorizing that as it did, it would again become taught. (This did not in-fact happen, and I ended up re-stretching it).

Now that the egg wash has dried, it’s time to add Gesso to the canvas. Cennini says to “lay some of this gesso on the canvas with this edge, (a knife blade which is eve on the edge, and as straight as a ruler) putting it on and taking if off evenly, as if you were scraping it down. And the less the gesso you leave on, the better  it is, just so you fill up the interstices between the threads.”

In period, gesso may be made of gesso sottile, starch and a little sugar, ground all together until smooth. Gesso sottile was prepared from the fine suspended particles of gypsum collected after soaking and stirring in excess water. For the sake of cost and time, I will use basic pre-made gesso as purchased from out local artist supply. In place of a knife, I will use a plastic drywall repair tool, to minimize the chance of accidentally scraping the linen too hard and creating a hole/rip in the weave.
With the assistance of HL Helena, we painted gesso across the entire of the egg treated surface, then taking the time to scrape the excess both off the top and the bottom sides, to create the smoothest surface we could. Once dry, we then repeated to insure the underside was also coated and scraped smooth.  

At this point, I sat down to sketch out the banner layout I wished to paint to scale. In period, it seems that most artists sketched directly onto the medium. 

My design was based on a Gonfalon processional banner from the 1550’s, with the resurrection of Christ. The gonfalon (from the early Italian confalone) is a type of heraldic flag or banner, often pointed, swallow-tailed or with several streamers and suspended from a crossbar in an identical manner to the ancient Roman vexillum. Once the design was measured out, I drew it onto the canvas with a charcoal pencil (in period it would also be with a bit of charcoal).

Making of tempera paint

Now, it was time to create our paints. From what I have read, in period, most times, the paint used on banners was of an oil base, it is thicker and more opaque, lending to it brighter (or deeper) colors. The down side to oils is that they take a very long time to dry. At this point in my work, I spoke with another banner maker in An Tir about her experiences with making period style banners, whereupon she revealed to me that her experiences included the use of oils, and that it took nearly a year for them to dry completely- and there was an awful smell associated with them, even one they were mostly dried. 

For both of those reasons, I elected to use a tempera paint instead. These were also found in period, although less frequently on banners. To this end, I decided to make these tempera paints myself, and so found a merchant who sells lovely pre made pigments, and I purchased the black (sable) and gold (or) that I would need to use for this project. 

Upon this decision, I searched through Cennini’s materials looking for instruction for the creation of tempera paints, and found none. I therefore went to other sources to see if I could find a recipe for said paints that seemed like something that could be reasonably replicated in period. I found just that, and the creation of my paints involved 4 simple components: egg yolk, distilled (boiled) water, pigment and vinegar.  

To create the paint, you separate the egg yolk from the white, gently dry the yolk and then slightly puncture the yolk sack with a knife and holding the membrane, allow the yolk protein center to flow out. Then dispose of the membrane. Now add a dash of vinegar, and then again as much distilled (cool) water as is egg yolk, and stir till mixed evenly. Then, place a table spoon or so of pigment on a flat surface.

NOTE: wearing a mask here is a good idea. Although these pigments are non toxic, inhaling the dust is not good. 

Then, slowly add your egg/water/vinegar solution to the pigment, folding it in, and blending the fluid into the powder until it is all evenly wet. This process takes a bit of time to make sure that all the powder chunks are ground out, and that enough fluid is added to make a paint density that is usable.

Eventually I ended up with about 1/2 C of black paint on my first go round (with two chicken egg yolks). I then transferred my paint into a jar, so that I could keep it liquid between sittings. Note: this method only works for a day or two before the egg starts to degrade and smell rotten. Interestingly- once the paint is on the medium of the canvas, the rotten smell goes away (I’m not entirely sure, but it seems like there’s some chemical reaction with the gesso that retards the degradation of the egg proteins). 

**Later Addition: After completing more experimentation in these banner types, I’ve found that when mixing the pigments into the tempera mixture, it mixes more thoroughly by adding the still warmed (sterile) water to the pigments, allowing it to dissolve completely and then, once cooled, adding the dissolved pigment into the egg/vinegar mixture. 

Applying the Paints

Now it was time to paint in my charcoal outlines: 

This portion took considerably longer than a painting on a silk banner, partly I attribute this to the different media opacity and density between a silk dye and a tempera paint. I found that I often had to go back and double up the color to make sure it was totally covered.

Even so, at the end, there are definitive color value changes when looking at the banner in the light. I painted in the black lining and details, then went back and added in the gold, then finishing with touch ups of black again.

If I were to do this project again, I may have covered the entire banner in gold first and then painted the black details over the top. 

Once the black application was done, I repeated by tempera making process to create my gold paint. I ended up making two batches of each color for this entire process and was impressed with how consistent the color was from each pigment- this, I suspect is due to quality of materials in modern production and not something I would count on if I were trying to do this from scratch pigments in period.

 I found that the black was fairly easy to apply in a way that it doesn’t look too streaky, in most places on the gold, I had to apply at least two layers to get total coverage, and even so, the brush strokes are very apparent. This is interesting to me as I have seen similar variations in color on the few extant pieces of painted banner still surviving today. 

Once this side was painted to my satisfaction, it was time to flip the medium over and paint the backside (this was very common in period, as it allowed the maximum visibility from any direction. In this case, because the gold is light and not completely opaque, I decided to mirror the image in completion with the exception of the words, which are only painted on the front of the banner. 

To transfer the pattern, I used my charcoal pencil, and followed Cennini’s instructions, thus: “If the same scene or figure has to be executed on both sides, put the stretcher in the sun, with the drawing turned toward the sun, so that it shines through it. Stand on the reverse side. With your tempered color… go over the shadow which you see made by the drawing.” 
Upon flipping the canvas on the frame, it was very evident (see above photo) that there were places that my gesso coverage was not complete, as the color bled through. 

Once the painting of the second side was complete, I had to decide whether it would be better to take the canvas off the frame to finish the edges first, or to water resist the canvas first. I chose to finish the edges with a hem for my patron, as I expect this will increase the longevity of the banners’ life, being used the way we use banners in the SCA. 

As I removed the canvas from the frame, I thought it was interesting to look at the different layers, egg wash, gesso, and then paint.

Finishing

In period, from what my research has shown, they did not hem the linen/silk on the edges, the gesso, wash, paint and wax seemed to hold the fabric underneath from fraying for the length of time the banner was needed. Keep in mind, especially with painted banners, their expected life was not long, as they were used as a mass reproduction method (as opposed to embroidery) for bulk ordered units’ colors to march into chaotic battlefields. 

Pre hem refinishing
Post hem refinishing

Ultimately I decided to cut and hem my patron’s banner before waxing it to help water resist the final product. The reasoning falling to the simple issue of not wanting to gum up my sewing machine with bee’s wax. I trimmed the banner off of it’s frame, and found it very intriguing that the treated material now cut like a thick piece of modern paper, very clean, and very smooth on the edges. 

Once the hemming was completed, I noticed that the bottom side of the hem had a marked removal of paint color where the needle punched through, so I ran the edge with another layer of black to clean it up. Then it was on to the waxing! 

Application of Varnish

Cennini discussed the idea of weather resisting panels, by applying a “Clear varnish” but from the reading I have done, I did not see an outline of ingredients with which to make that up. Based on materials available in period, and following discussions with other artisans who have worked through a similar process I decided to use beeswax. It melts clean and can be painted on with a brush. 

There were two main issues with the idea of waxing the banner (on both sides) to keep it as robust as possible- It makes the banner very stiff and heavy, and if the banner were to be stored or placed in an area that is too warm, the wax may melt and the banner stick to itself (or something else).

Upon further brainstorming with Helena, I decided to try two adjustments that were not recommended in Cennini’s manual- 

One- I would apply the wax to the fabric and then use a scraper to remove the excess, my theory being that the melted wax would still protect the fibers that it soaked into without needed the extra on top. 

Two- I had the thought to also Iron the now waxed material to further the depth of the wax’s penetration into the fibers, as well as smooth the surface and remove extra wax. 

I created a small piece of the canvas with the same layers of treatment, waxed and scraped both sides, then ironed one half. We then conducted two tests to confirm our theories. 

 The first was to determine how water resistant each treatment made the canvas. We found that the waxed (and scraped) piece presented with a very compact and non moving water droplet when it was wet. The waxed, scraped and ironed side, also produced a definitive water droplet, it was just a bit less compact. Neither showed signs of the water getting through to the medium.

The second was to determine how much the banner might stick to itself when heated. So, we took the waxed, scraped and ironed piece again and heated it up, folding it upon itself and weighing it down for 5 minutes. To our delight, it did not stick to itself, nor discolor the layers in anyway. 

With that information now tested, I decided to finish the banner at large in a similar manner, this allowing the most water protection, with the least additional troubles to my patron. 

After all is said and done, I have now created a double sided banner, based on period style and mechanism with a design as requested by my patron. I am very pleased with the outcome. 

I would like to thank Baron Dunstan M’Lolane for his patience, encouragement and patronage on this project. 
If you would like to read more about my banner research, you may find that document here.      


Citations

6 Replies to “A Study in Historical Banner Making Technique”

  1. Fantastic flag, great exhibit. I like that you chose beeswax but I can’t use it on my flags because the melting point is too low; one day in the sun and my test flag was dripping into the grass. Hopefully your beeswax is better than the stuff I got.

    That is a beautiful flag and keep up all the gorgeous art work!

  2. This is SO COOL.
    I want to do it.
    I love gesso and I love tempera paint and I love beeswax and I love that it looks like the period thing! AAAAAAAAA!!!!
    I have all of the heart eyes for this sexy sexy project.
    Love, Rotrude

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