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


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


The Illuminated Origin of Species is being 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.  


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 list of secular illuminated texts created throughout history is short, but some beautiful examples do exist. 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.


Selections of the manuscript will be available for exhibition as they are completed.


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-six full-size reproductions, this is an opportunity to collect an extremely rare and massive work of art. Please contact me to inquire about details. I also hope to publish a scaled-down trade edition.


Following the completion of the Illuminated Origin of Species I hope to create illuminated manuscripts based on other works of science. I also hope to develop a school outreach program to bring the history and techniques of calligraphy, bookmaking, illumination, and natural history illustration into science classrooms.

"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."

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.

Photos by Kelly M. Houle, 2010