RE CONNECT ING: Islamic Illumination Workshop

As part of the RECONNECTING – Contemporary Art from Qatar exhibition, we invited Esra Al Hamal to host two workshops with us.

Esra Al Hamal is currently doing her Phd in Architecture and Patterns. She is also a Saudi travel blogger and artist.

Islamic illuminations are made of calculated geometric grids filled with biomorphic patterns and painted with shell gold. The biomorphic patterns are known as arabesque, rumi, islimi, or khatei. Those names refer to the organic shapes that are stylised and inspired from nature.

This art is called illumination (tezhip/thathib/تذهيب) because of the shell gold. Using gold specifically have a major reason, which is to balance the spiritual value of the text that accompanies the illumination. Islamic illumination is largely influenced by Persian and Turkish designs and it has a series of traditional production methods.


In the workshop, Esra had been focusing one reproducing an illumination from a ready design with following the traditional methods she learnt from the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts and Art of Islamic Patterns.

Wanting to ensure the workshop was accessible we opened it up to complete beginners, we had beginners who had not done any sorts of art since school, we had those who were artists but it was their first time to try this style, it was a diverse group with a common passion to learn. Part of Reconnecting Arts is to support emerging Arab artists and it was a pleasure to host Esra and give her a platform to share her valuable knowledge with other enthusiastic learners from different backgrounds.

Esra has taken a range of intensive courses in illuminations and lately she has been focusing on Persian illuminations using their floral and organic forms known as the “khataie” and “idlimi”. These type of patterns are based on geometric grids and rules. For the illumination she uses tea stained and hand treated paper, real gold 22-23 carat and handmade natural colours or readymade gouache. For Esra, some of her own designs can take up to a week to complete, however she finds this process therapeutic and worth it in the end.

dsc_0367In this workshop participants explored traditional methods in designing and painting a shamsa in Islamic illumination. Beginning with a little introduction to what islamic illumination is, everyone got stuck in straight away tracing their designs, measuring it up and then finally painting it with super fine brushes. It all sounds quite fast paced, but the workshop was a 6 hours, although time consuming, it was definitely a great way to de-wind and lose your self to the process.

At the end of the day, everyone had a finished/nearly finished work of their own.


Interesting facts:

  • The paper is dyed with tea and then coated with egg whites. Esra recommends using the cheap tea, the more expensive doesn’t mean the better!
  • Yes, real gold leaf is definitely used and it is certainly time consuming to prepare but the finished results are stunning. Use filtered / bottle water only to prepare the gold.
  •  Interestingly, it is said, that masters in the art would intentionally make mistakes in the repetitions to show humbleness, as they believed only God could produce pure perfection.
  • According to Esra on her travels, Iran have some of the best Islamic Illumination books to get your hands on!
  • Want to take the course further? You don’t need to travel half way across the world or to Turkey where a lot of people go to learn the art, Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London have some of the best and experienced teachers.

This workshop took place as part of the RE CONNECT ING – exhibition, 10th Nov – 20th December 2016.

Find out more or purchase our limited edition catalogue featuring over 20 Qatari artists.

Celebrating Emerging Middle Eastern Creatives