I thought today I’d talk about Versals. Why? Well, why not?
If you’ve ever seen something like a Medieval manuscript (and who hasn’t right?), you’ve seen versals – they’re the giant, ornately illustrated capital letter at the beginning of a passage. Here are a few examples:
They’re a great way to add a little flourish and flair to your piece, but they can be a little tricky. Here are a few of mine, with some thoughts about how I worked them out.
This was probably one of the first successful versals I managed to pull off, for the Thriller speech from Vincent Price. As you can see, it’s pretty simple compared to the historical examples – some rough spiderwebbing and a thing that looks like a spider if you squint. But it worked, in its way. The negative spaces are all more or less even, although the bounding box is pretty rough. I also didn’t manage to get all the pencil marks out – probably because of that terror of smudging.
Mind you, I was using drawing ink to do this. Today I would probably use Copic markers, which are much easier to erase over.
This was the opener for a Latin translation of the Etrigan invocation from DC Comics. As versals go, it’s… Well, if I’d been a monk Back In The Day, I probably would have gotten a good smack from the abbot. It’s rough and not very well-formed. I can speak to the colors, though – red and yellow are linked to the colors of the character, with a hint of hellfire in the background
This is the versal opening the Aiel Pledge from the Wheel of Time series. The form is pretty well copied from somewhere, although I can’t remember where. It works, in its way. The border was kind of inspired by those big gilded frames you sometimes see on old paintings. The overall color scheme was based on the red-gold dragon tattoos that Rand gets on his forearms.
This is probably one of my favorites, even though I kind of mussed up the quote and will need to do it over again. The colors don’t really come from anything, but they match the ink I chose. The overall symmetry of the letter pleases me, as does the gold-like effect filling the inside of the M.
In contrast to the previous, there’s… this one. The wobbly border, the unambitious vinework inside the letter itself. Not sure where I was going with this, but here it is.
This was one of two that I did on May the Fourth, and I really liked how this came out. The lightsaber, of course, stands in for the “I” in the quote. The black-on-grey loops are for the tangled, thorny nature of the Dark Side, and the red loops came from thinking about Vader’s penchant for strangulation. And then there’s the Death Star. This is probably the most thought I’ve put into a versal up to this point.
I really like how this one came out as well. As the whole piece is a reference to the Trojan War, I did a little research and found that the most likely type of ship the Argives would have taken would be a bireme. The seas were stormy, if not properly wine-colored, and the O itself is meant to recall classic Greek pottery in its red-brown color and geometric patterns.
This is the most recent versal, from a quote from “Blunt Talk,” Patrick Stewart’s new show. I really like how the shape of the A turned out – it reminds me vaguely of the Avengers, for some reason. As for the color scheme, it’s entirely based on the story of the episode, wherein Walter Blunt tries to fake reporting on a hurricane by filming in front of a green screen.
Sometimes you can’t make the versal work. In those cases, a drop cap will do. Work with what works, people.
So there you go – versals! They can be tricky, but when they work they add a lot to a piece. There are a lot of examples from classic manuscripts to practice from, but yours should be your own. Enjoy!
Here are thumbnails to the full pieces referenced here.