I was born in Angers, in the Loire Valley of France,
in 1961. I’ve been designing and inventing letters since I was a teenager.
In 1987, during a trip to Istanbul, I discovered a different, more spectacular,
calligraphy, and this influenced my artistic growth. I continued on to Israel,
took a course in Hebrew, and delved into the symbolism of letters.
For 13 years, eager to learn about different peoples and cultures, I lived and
worked in ten countries in the Middle East, Europe, and North America.
in calligrams or “space poetry”- words or phrases where the form
of writing itself contributes to the meaning – since 1981, these letters,
tools, and supports of creativity and emotion have guided me to the art of illumination,
the art of honoring the Word.
I eventually discovered stencil illumination, a coloring and reproduction technique
from the 14th century. I fell in love with this technique, which was in danger
of extinction. My professional life has been devoted to this demanding, painstaking
created the Festina Lente atelier in 1994. My techniques plus the rarity of
what I do have excited interest on the part of the written press and television,
as well as by lovers of illumination, collectors, and historians of the written
word. Many of these people had thought this a lost art.
Through my lectures, exhibits, and other activities in France and abroad, by
welcoming the public to my workshop, I’m helping to keep alive a technique
which is part of our heritage.
Across from a park and next door to a 13th century
chapel, the workshop is situated in the center of the village of Fontevraud
l’Abbaye, celebrated for its 12th century
royal abbey, one of the grandest of Europe. The village is in the heart of the
Loire-Anjou-Touraine National Park, in the Loire Valley, recognized by UNESCO
as part of world heritage of outstanding value to humanity, in the Valley of
the Kings. Fontevraud l’Abbaye is 15 kilometers (10 miles) from Saumur,
between Tours and Angers. It’s accessible from Paris via Saumur by fast
train (TGV) in 1½ hours or by highway via Le Mans or Tours.
The workshop is open to the public. There is an exhibition space, and visitors
are invited to come and learn from the many works on display.
Illumination, or the art of highlighting text in scrolls and other portable
objects first appeared in Egypt. Painters illustrated the “Book of the
Dead” on rolls of papyrus. Considerably more was written and then illuminated
in the Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires than in the Middle Ages.
It was nevertheless during this period, especially with the growth of universities
in the 12th century, that monks and then lay artists brought the art to its
Painting in books fell into disuse with the invention of the printing press.
However, some peoples, like the Jews, principally for Haggadot (texts tied to
Passover); the Ethiopian Christians; the Armenians and others continued to do
calligraphy and illuminate large numbers of fine manuscripts.
The Muslim world, China and the Mayans also produced a significant amount, and
this demonstrates the universality of this art and its variety. The art of honoring
the Word is also a modern-day art.
stencil technique appeared in the 14th century, before the invention of the
printing press, to color calendars, religious images and playing cards. The
design was printed after being engraved into wood. Today, in those cases where
the outline’s impression is unavoidable, only the typographical impression,
(engraving of the line in relief before inking and pressing) is used by the
Stencils or cardboard patterns are strengthened and then cut with a “canivet”,
an engraving knife. At one time, it was a folk art, sometimes practiced at home
with the family. The technique was employed during the latter half of the 15th
century to color some incunabula, the name given to books printed up until 1500;
starting in the 16th century it was used on posters.
While painting in books was less widespread, it was still seriously pursued
in the 19th century in Russia, Mexico, and France. In Paris at that time there
were some hundred ateliers. The technique grew in finesse, in sophistication,
and the stencils were now in metal.
they devoted themselves in large part to the reproduction of works by great
artists of the period, the heart of their activity was coloring art books, of
which perhaps a few hundred were printed, as well as producing engravings of
fashions for the great fashion designers. There were references at that time
to stencil illumination, and the excellence of certain illuminators and workshops
was much sought after.
Mechanical reproduction and coloring techniques sounded the death knell for
Today, Festina Lente is one of three highly esteemed French ateliers, the last
The brush and the stencil, the natural pigments and
adhesives - egg white, honey, gum arabic, pure cotton paper without chlorine
or acid - all make for colors and documents that are exceptionally long-lasting.
Gold leaf or gold flakes, silver, bronze and copper bring out the luster of
illuminations. While quill pens and fine-tipped brushes are the tools for painting
in books, the pompon brushes of the illuminator-colorist have a diameter of
35 to 54 millimeters (.14 - .21 inches).
The brushes are made from pigskin. The hairs are pulled by hand, thus preserving
the “flower of the hair”, sign of a meticulous application of color,
delicate and varied. The base of the hairs is plunged into wax, then encircled
with a bit of copper.
The pigment infiltrates the hairs when the brush is dipped in color. Despite
a delicate cleaning, the first color used will influence the next. It is thus
necessary to use a different brush for each color.
stencils are in metal and hand engraved with a canivet. One to six stencils
are necessary for each color, and between ten and one hundred stencils must
be used for each image.
After breaking down the image, whether it be a copy of an ancient work or a
new creation, one elaborates and designs as many designs as there will be stencils.
These must be perfectly conceived and engraved before the color is applied.
Each stencil requires between one and twenty hours of engraving, depending on
its sophistication and finesse.
The application of color to the stencil requires from two to ninety minutes
per examplar. The time required has to do with the preparation of the color,
the desired effect of the color, the nature of the stencil (its level of detail
These diverse technical elements influence the manipulation of the pompon brush.
The subtleties of movement are infinite and must be mastered and memorized before
the application of color to the series.
An error, once made, is irrevocable; one cannot go back. Stencils rarely allow
for more than 150 copies. One to three passages are considered optimal, depending
on the intensity and color consistency desired.
works offered by the atelier have entailed from two to twenty months of work
for an average of 80 copies.
The application of color is entirely by hand, stencil by stencil, copy by copy,
thus assuring each examplar is unique. The subtle, complex details of some works
may be painted with a quill pen or a paintbrush.
Each copy is checked one last time before being numbered and signed.
Stencil illumination, the quality of the materials,
and the absence of mechanization have been the signature of Richard Leray’s
work since 1994. Festina Lente works delight the eye in some twenty countries
in the homes of demanding collectors and lovers of printing and illumination
for whom the tradition and authenticity are guarantees of the quality they