Dragons are Real
By Jacob Horning
A modern take on illuminated manuscripts and some of Earth's most legendary creatures
Dragons are Real
by Jacob Horning
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@jacob.horning
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Introduction

Illuminated manuscripts are one of the oldest typographic art forms. Most popular in Europe during the Middle Ages, illuminated manuscripts were handwritten books that were decorated with gold, silver, and beautiful illustrations. Complex and intricate borders were very common in these works, as well as intense embellishments of the initial letter on the page. Artists were highly sought after for their work, and illuminated manuscripts gained success from being small enough to transfer and bring around the world.

These works of art are not seen anymore, illuminated manuscripting has definitely died as an art form since the Middle Ages. As a beautiful form of art, it deserves to be brought back in some way. Modernizing the illuminated manuscript was the goal of my capstone project. There are some things that are instrumental to the pages, things like heavy decoration, text manipulation, and intricate illustrations. These are the things I really focused on within each individual page. A Big Dragon

My theme of these four pages was incredible creatures, specifically the dragon, griffin, kraken, and unicorn. These are four of the most popular and well known beasts of legend, so I thought focusing on them would make viewers interested in reading and checking out more, when seeing creatures they recognize.

Fantasy has always been a huge passion for me, and so being able to combine it with design, specifically typographic work, made this project into something very special and enjoyable for me. All of my images can be clicked on and expanded to get a better look at each of them. I hope you enjoy it.

Research

The bulk of my research came in two parts. First, I did a lot of research on illuminated manuscripts. I wanted to learn why they were used, and some of the main characteristics of them. Most of what I found was about the initial letters, borders, and how artists would fill up the pages between the text. This is what most of my work became. I had to make initial letters for each beast, as well as text decoration and borders for each. I also had to work to modernize them. I used a lot of flat color instead of the intricate shading and paint work that the artists of the past used.

An Example of an illuminated manuscript

Stundenbuch, Paris, ca. 1410

My other research came from the content. As not much is known
about these creatures, finding information about them proved a little difficult. The most interesting thing that I found about each beast was a first hand account from people all throughout history. Old poems and text books were instrumental in finding the information I was looking for. The four works of writing I used were:

    • Dragon: The story of Beowulf, written sometime between 700 and 750 A.D.
    • Griffin: The writings of Aelian, a Greek writer, written sometime around 200 A.D.
    • Kraken: The story of Örvar-Oddr, written sometime in the early 13th century
    • Unicorn: “The history of four-footed beasts and serpents”, written by Edward Topsel in 1658, a translation of Conrad Gesner’s “Historiae animalium

Dragon

The Dragon Illuminated Manuscript, detailing information about the dragon.
I wanted each page to feel different, while also feeling like they belong to one set. I achieved this by using the same typeface and style, while differentiating multiple things throughout the page. Obviously, the creatures and colors are all different, but I eventually came to the conclusion that I needed more differences. I decided to look at the backgrounds of each and try and make those different through the time of day.
I imagine this dragon attack to be happening early morning or just after sunset, where the only light is from the dragon’s fire. I used fire as an accent throughout the page, with borders formed from the fire, smoke, and the dragon itself.

The Initial letter "D" decorated with dragon elements
Dragons are a fierce species, and do not worry about what man has to say about them. They are selfish and very territorial, and will guard their possessions with their lives. If a dragon wants something, they will take it. I wanted to convey this ruthlessness and power in my poster, and that led to my idea of a dragon attack upon a city.
For each of the initial letters, I tried to include elements of each beast. For the dragon’s, I included the wing and tail of the dragon, as well as flame elements to help provide decoration and fill space, something very common in illuminated manuscript initial letters.
Zoomed in portion of the dragon poster, detailing the dragon and the title

Griffin

The griffin illuminated manuscript, featuring a griffin at sunset and information on the griffin
The griffin page took the style of sunset. I feel it sticks out a lot from the rest of the blue of the other pages with its reds and yellows. The large griffin itself and the mountain range provide a border along the bottom of the page, while the clouds and distant griffin provide text decoration. The griffin is one of the most regal creatures on Earth, and I wanted to convey this grace and might in my poster. They are very protective, but not in the selfish way a dragon is, and thus are much more trustworthy and willing to work with humans, if given the right respect, of course. This calm demeanor is something I made sure to include. Sunsets are naturally calming, and so I thought that including one would help to add to this feeling.
The Griffin Illuminated G, decorated with feather elements
The griffin’s initial letter includes a wing element decorating the “G,” and feathers to fill the space. As the eagle features are the most prominent of the griffin, they are the main focus of the “G.” The colors were picked to match the colors of the sky and the beast. The text decoration on the rest of the title ties into the griffin’s duel animal nature, its forelimbs resemble an eagle’s limbs while its hind limbs match that of a lion’s, and the end is capped off with the other griffin wing, forming a frame.
Zoomed in picture of the griffin poster, detailing the griffin

Kraken

The Kraken illuminated manuscript, featuring text on the kraken and tentacle and sea elements throughout the page
The Kraken’s setting is a little more ambiguous than the rest. With a green background, I imagined this event taking place in the middle of the ocean, during a storm of some kind. The rolling waves and kraken body, along with the tentacle wrapping its way around the rope, provide a strong border on the page. Water elements decorate the text throughout the page.

I really wanted this image to feel like the border is squeezing in on the viewer, as that is what the kraken does to ships that it finds invading its territory, and that idea became the large tentacle and rope border around the page. The smaller tentacle attached to the kraken is also the only part of this project in which body text overlaps an element of the page. I wanted the beast to feel like it was encroaching even into the text.
The Kraken initial letter, decorated with water elements, an anchor, and a tentacle wrapping the "K"
The kraken’s initial letter has a cramped and filled feeling, something I would imagine a sailor would feel if their ship was under siege by this beast. It envelops the letter instead of simply having elements of the beast coming off the letter. This gives the cramped, unsettling feeling that I was going for. The water elements also tie into the overall piece, and provide accents much like the floral accents in traditional manuscripts.
Zoomed in portion of the Kraken poster, showing off some text and the kraken

 

Unicorn

The unicorn manuscript, featuring a forest decorated with mushrooms, two unicorns grazing, and the stars and moon shining over the page.
The Unicorn was the last page I worked on, and I knew from the start I wanted it to feel magical. I chose night time as it has a sense of mystery and wonder to it, as well as picking mushrooms as a decoration on the lower half, as they are commonly seen in magical forests. Stars also populate the top portion of the page as a text decoration to help fill the space.

Unicorns are one of the most mysterious and beautiful beasts, and for this reason I knew I had to do them justice through my poster. I really wanted to focus on keeping that mystery and wonder within my poster, and so I had to keep that in mind in making my poster.

The initial letter of the unicorn stuck with the theme of the rest of the page, using stars and the night sky to fill the border. The horn also extends out of the “U” to connect the letter to the rest of the page. The rest of the title is decorated with star elements in order to tie it in directly with the rest of the page.
All four posters each had their own unique elements and challenges, and finding a way to connect them all and share some information about four of Earth’s most fantastical creatures was a fun experience that I will remember throughout my design career.
Zoomed in portion of the unicorn poster, portraying the unicorns and the forest, with some text

Display

the Kraken and Dragon posters mocked up above a couchMy idea for a display would be a series of four posters. The posters measure 24×36. Though they do belong in a set together, I made them in a way that they are also easily able to stand on their own. These, I imagine, would look good hung up in a private study, or a comic book shop that hosts tabletop role-playing game nights.
The Griffin and Unicorn posters mocked up as posters above a couch

Conclusion

My two passions over the last three years have been type and fantasy. I jumped at every opportunity to work with either of them. So when I was thinking of my capstone project, I knew that those would be the focus. I didn’t realize when deciding my theme that illuminated manuscripts would also be a big part of my project, but I’m glad that I came to where I am. Being able to look at historical documents about a range of subjects, from old Bibles and history pieces to old encyclopedias detailing what a unicorn looks like, really broadened my horizons on how the people of yesteryear used type to tell stories. How we use type today would be very different if we didn’t have these bases to build upon, even if our usage today looks nothing like theirs did. This look through the past made me really appreciate this old art form, and I hope that people today learn to appreciate it as much as I did.

Thank you for going on this journey with me, I hope it was magical.

Jacob Horning

Credits

Beast information: https://mythology.net/

Illuminated Manuscripts: https://www.britannica.com/art/illuminated-manuscript

Mockups: https://www.anthonyboyd.graphics/mockups/realistic-poster-mockup/

Jacob Horning was repsonsible for posting the content on this page. Any inqueries should be directed to the contact information listed above.