The Making of a Modern Illuminated Manuscript

"...freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds,

which follow[s] from the advance of science."                      -Charles Darwin

“The art of illumination does not aim at more than the gratification of those who take pleasure in books.  Its highest ambition is to make books beautiful.”          

                                                                   -John W. Bradley, Illuminated Manuscripts


The one-of-a-kind Illuminated Origin of Species manuscript will be a collection of 22 x 30-inch sheets contained within large, beautifully decorated, handmade clamshell boxes. I am purposely planning to leave the original pages unbound making it possible to exhibit the entire manuscript at once.

I will design the entire book before I pen a single page, and I will complete the writing on each page before adding the illuminations.  Proceeding in this way I hope to minimize or eliminate the number of errors in writing, and to avoid the possibility of having to re-do an entire page in order to accommodate a word or phrase if the spacing is slightly off. Designing the entire book in advance will save time and headaches in the months and years to come.

All design elements, including the manuscript style, page size, column width, and letter height are being chosen to maximize readability, clarity, simplicity, and elegance. Illuminations will be done in a traditional, realistic style. All iridescence in the illustrations will have a basis in the natural colorations of the plants and animals depicted.


Today many artists still practice the tradition of illumination using medieval and renaissance-era materials and techniques. While many of these have stood the test of time, there are more earth-friendly materials than those used in the past.  Most illuminated manuscripts throughout history were written on vellum, or prepared calf-skin. Some artists working today have a personal affinity for this type of support, even though it is a temperamental substance. I tend think of writing on vellum the same way I view walking on an animal-skin rug--I admire its beauty, but prefer to step around it. 

The Illuminated Origin of Species will be written on hot-pressed Fabriano Artistico paper made in Italy. It is the best paper in the world for both calligraphy and botanical art. These are extremely smooth, beautiful, and durable papers. They are chlorine-free, acid-free, and 100% cotton. No animal by-products are used in the sizing. Combined with Winsor and Newton watercolors and gouache, this paper will be perfect for the demands of The Illuminated Origin.  

To mimic the play of light on various shiny and iridescent surfaces in nature, I am using 23k gold foil, shell gold, and interference watercolors, which contain small flecks of mica to produce an iridescent effect. These metals will distinguish The Illuminated Origin as a truly "illuminated" manuscript.  

Phacelia campanularia, Desert bluebells

watercolor, interference watercolor, and gold leaf on paper

Kelly M. Houle, 2011

The Text

The Illuminated Origin of Species will join a short list of illuminated manuscripts created from science-based texts. The overwhelming majority of illuminated manuscripts throughout history are religious in nature. Even today artists continue to create handwritten, illuminated versions of sacred texts.  Perhaps one of the most widely advertised modern illuminated bible projects is the St. John’s Bible created by Donald Jackson for St. John’s Monastery in St. Paul, Minnesota. There is, however, a tradition of creating illuminated manuscripts based on secular texts. According to John Bradley in his book Illuminated Manuscripts:

"The oldest surviving copy of Pedanus Dioscorides's treatise on medical botany and pharmacology, De Materia Medica, is an illuminated Byzantine manuscript produced about 512 CE. The manuscript also contains the earliest illustrated treatise on ornithology. It is one of the earliest surviving relatively complete codices of a scientific text, one of the earliest relatively complete illustrated codices on any scientific subject, and arguably the most beautiful of the earliest surviving scientific codices. It also contains what are probably the earliest surviving portraits of scientists or physicians in a manuscript."

The list of secular illuminated texts created throughout history is short, however there are beautiful examples of early herbals and other books related to alchemy. As far as I know, Darwin’s Origin of Species has never been chosen as the subject of an illuminated manuscript until now.


The illustrations in The Illuminated Origin of Species will be as scientifically accurate and relevant as possible, based on the most recent scientific findings. It is extremely important to me that the illustrations not contain conceptual inaccuracies that might detract from its reception by the scientific community or from the public’s understanding of facts.  

As a former science educator and an avid reader of popular science literature, I began this project with a general understanding of scientific methods and evolutionary theory. I will be spending the next several years researching the observations that led Darwin to the conclusion that nature could select certain individuals for survival, and over time cause the transmutation of species as well as current scientific research that continues to support Darwin’s theory. 

I will be making research-gathering trips and interviewing Darwinian scholars and evolutionary biologists during the course of this project. I will be looking at the structures and patterns of natural forms from a variety of perspectives in order to represent nature in a way that is both innovative and timeless.


Pages will be available for exhibition as soon as the first chapter of The Illuminated Origin of Species is finished. Subscribe to the News from The Illuminated Origin Blog or follow The Illuminated Origin on Facebook for more information about future exhibitions.


Subscribers to the fine art limited edition of The Illuminated Origin of Species will receive chapter-by-chapter installments of full-size, hand-illuminated giclée prints of every page of the manuscript. Limited to twenty-five full-size reproductions, this is an opportunity to collect an extremely rare and massive work of art. Please send an email to inquire about details. A full-size limited edition will be published, as well as a less-expensive trade edition.

The Future

Following the completion of The Illuminated Origin of Species I plan to illuminate other important works of scientific literature and natural history. I will also develop a school outreach program to bring the history and techniques of botanical art, natural history illustration. I also plan to create an educational outreach program to bring natural history illustration into science classrooms.

Photos by Kelly M. Houle, 2010

This is Regnard’s 17th Century “Trestise on the Sphere of the Heavens,” collection of the Phoenix Public Library. It is an astronomical book written in French and illuminated with small, brightly colored paintings of planets and other celestial objects.  Even the data tables have been decorated with gold leaf.

Copyright Kelly M. Houle, 2011-2013

All Rights Reserved