Acanthus Drawing

Maitresse Yvianne de Castel d'Avignon, OL, AEthelmearc

Acanthus is a living plant. It is also often found twisting and spiraling in one of it's many forms along the margins of medieval manuscripts. Generally each leaf has three points, but there are many variations of acanthus. From the fully leaved English stalks of the early 12th century to the wispy and highly stylized Italian Renaissance variety, the form, use and coloring differed. Use an exemplar to help you imitate the proper style of acanthus for the time and place of the scroll you are creating.


The style of acanthus I will show you how to draw is similar to those popular in France, Belgium and northern Italy during the 15th century.

1. Draw a line in the area you would like your acanthus. This can be as simple as a slightly curved line but the more pronounced the curves, the easier it is to draw properly formed acanthus.The bottom of the plant needs to have an obvious starting point, such as a joint in two vines, a bead, or a corner of your illumination.

2. You need to draw acanthus onto the stem in the reverse direction from how it grows, from the tip of the plant to the base or root. Draw a "V" at the end of the line that is to be the tip.

3. Place a mound or bump on both sides of the "V".

4. Return on the same curve you just made.

The width at the base of your bumps should be about the same as the base of the "V".

5. Follow your layout line and taper the leaf back to a point on this line.

The top portion of an acanthus leaf is usually at least the same length as the bottom half.

6. There is usually a more concave or inward curve to one side of the leaf than the other.

Start your next "V" above the bottom of the previously drawn one - on the inside curve.
Repeat steps 2-5 until you reach the bottom of the stalk.

Give even more twists to the leaves by making each tip a turn of it's own. To do this all you need to do is add a "V" to the tip of the existing leaf. Decide which way the leaf is going to turn by which lines you erase.

Practice, practice, practice, ...

Some of the most common errors scribes make while learning to draw acanthus freehand is that the leaves are too stiff or too short and stubby. Don't worry about it too much. First off, some acanthus are drawn this way and secondly you will get better as you develop muscle memory for how to draw acanthus.

Once you have caught on to proportions and flow, it may be easier to draw each acanthus leaf one side at a time rather than tip to base.


For layout, just pencil the leaves in. This makes it easier to make last minute changes and you don't have to worry about trying to paint over inked lines if there aren't any there to begin with. Before outlining the leaves in heavy black ink double check with your exemplar. You may or may not need to ink around the acanthus leaves after painting.

Advanced Acanthus - Italian Renaissance

For many scribes the ultimate test of skill in mastering acanthus is working in the mid to late Italian Renaissance style. Manuscript illuminations of this period include everything from simple acanthus stems to complex balanced arrangements of acanthus - beasties, humanoids and still life objects such as vases, jewels, ribbons and flowers.

The illuminations can be overwhelming in their complexity. Many scribes ignore this style because they are intimidated by it. In period, guilds and individual Masters had their own styles, some are fairly simple and others are ultra intricate, for example this piece done by Attavante in Florence around 1487.

Look around for something that you are comfortable with or break down more elaborate layouts into simpler forms and work from there. Until you are comfortable recreating a particular style, keep to your exemplar and try to imitate it as best you can. The basic acanthus drawing information above is the foundation you will be building on. You may need to add more leaves to some of the segments, but once you learn to draw acanthus freehand, it's not hard at all to add leaves anywhere you want them.

To really give an acanthus layout a boost, add in some some multi-pointed leaves, gems, beasties or flowers.

It is very important if your border has a painted background that you paint all of the acanthus first *then* paint the backgrounds. If you do it the other way the acanthus leaves will pick up pigment from the background. The color of the leaves will be muddied and inconsistent.

Here is an example of a tounament prize scroll I did in the style of Attavante.

Acanthus can also be painted in a technique called cameo,or shaded whitework. Usually this can be found on capital letters, but there are a few exemplars that show it used in borders as well. My interpretation of this style can be found here.

More information and images in this style can be found online ...
or here is a list of books I recommend.

Italian Renaissance Illuminations: J.J.G. Alexander,
George Braziller, NY 1977 0-8076-0864-5

Painting and Illumination in Early Renaissance Florence; Laurence B.Kanter,et al

Metropolitan Museum of Art 1994 0-8109-6488-0

The Painted Page; J.J.G. Alexander

Prestel-Verlag, NY 1994 3-7913-1385-1

Bibliotheca Corviniana ;Csapodi, Csaba & Csapodi-Gardonyi

Irish University Press, Ireland 1969 LCCN 69-11963

Please feel free to contact the author with questions or comments

Copyright 2008-2011 Pauline Hassinger / SCA -Maitresse Yvianne de Castel d'Avignon, OL, AEthelmearc