By Maryanne Grebenstein –

True confession: I’m a total traditionalist. Although I have a great appreciation for the fun and spontaneity of a wild, modern layout that runs off the page, in my own work I like to stick to the classics. I enjoy using historic examples as inspiration for my work and I like the challenge of trying to create something similar to a work of the Middle Ages or Renaissance. Admittedly, I have luxuries a medieval couldn’t have imagined. After all, I work with the aid of electric light, thanks to the Internet I have the largest possible selection of art supplies at my fingertips, and I don’t need to scrape and stretch my own vellum! Ah, life is good.

One aspect of medieval and Renaissance art that has always fascinated me is page layout and proportion. If you look at manuscripts that were created during the Renaissance, for example, you will consistently find very similar page proportions in books created by many different makers in different countries over several centuries. (A word of caution here: many of these books have been trimmed and rebound multiple times over their lifetime so in those cases the page proportions don’t necessarily hold true.)

The reason the proportions are consistently similar is because of the use of the Golden Section. Also known as Golden Proportion, Divine Proportion, Golden Mean and other names, it has been employed by artists, mathematicians, scientists and philosophers since ancient Greece. During the Renaissance, it was commonly used by many artists, and not just book artists. In fact, Leonardo Da Vinci incorporated it in many of his works including the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

And thanks to 13th century architect Villard de Honnecourt from Picardy, France, we book artists actually have very specific instructions for establishing the proportion of the text block (which includes all text and decoration) on any given folio (a piece of paper or vellum that will be folded to create four pages in a book). For us, it is known as the Golden Rule (I know there are many of you thinking that you thought the Golden Rule was something entirely different! No worries, this is the calligraphers’ Golden Rule!) Try it, by using the following illustration and instructions. Be sure to use the entire folio, opened up, when identifying the text block. (Note: the vertical broken line at point E represents where the folio will be folded.)

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The Golden Rule for Book Design

The rectangular area resulting from the final three steps is the text block. What is so interesting about this process is its consistency. Regardless of the size of the folio, or whether the book will have a vertical or horizontal orientation, the ratio remains the same. The margin between the fold and the text will be approximately half that of the margin between the text and the edge of the paper. The top margin will be approximately half that of the bottom margin.

Let’s try putting this to work as I create a little book about the nightingale, containing an excerpt from a Bestiary (watch for my upcoming blog post called Bestiary Painting to learn more about medieval Bestiaries). I know I want to make a smallish book, and here is my starting point – the text I wish to use and the image from which I will draw my line art:

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Starting with the text and an image for one of the pages

And here is a close-up of the image I’ll be working from:

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The original “source” image

I started with a folio that is 8”w x 6”h. This folio will be folded to form four pages that are each 4”w x 6”h. When I work through the Golden Rule instructions, I learn I will have ½” between the fold and my text block (the area that will contain all text, illustrations and decorations) and 7/8” between the text block and the edge of the paper. The top margin will be ¾” and the bottom margin will be 1-3/8”. That means that my text block will be 2-5/8”w x 3-15/16”h.

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Finding the text box area for my layout

Now that I know what my text block dimensions are, I can begin to determine the size of the illustration I will use, and the x-height for my letters (for more information on x-height please see my previous post Analyzing Letters). This will allow me to estimate how many words I can fit on any given page and that information will help me estimate how many pages I will need. (More on this in my upcoming blog post called Page Layout: How to Plan Your Text in a Manuscript.)

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Planning where to put my image and text

In practice, I would not include the Golden Rule lines when determining x-height and illustration position. I include them in this illustration to give a point of reference.

Once I have my x-height established, I can begin penciling in the text. My folio will look something like this:

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My text, lightly and approximately penciled in

Once the text is penciled and proofread, I will ink the text. After the text is complete I will transfer the line art (watch for my future Bestiary Painting blog post for more on transferring the line art). My page will look like this:

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My inked text and the line art for my image

My completed page looks like this:

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The finished page of the folio

And here are the other pages that will be assembled to create the signatures (also known as quires or gatherings), ready for the capable hands of the bookbinder.

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The individual folio pages that will comprise the signature

Try using the Golden Rule technique on your next project to create a visually balanced layout.

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Making a Small Bestiary
Fooling the Eye
Calligraphy and Painting on Vellum

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