About Szyk’s Art

Medium & Technique

In an era when other artists pursued abstraction, Arthur Szyk applied himself to the medieval style of illumination and miniature painting. Illumination combines image with text, giving Szyk two ways to reach his audience with his message.

The Patriots, Simon Bolivar and His Times Series. Paris, 1929.

Le-Fikhakh – Therefore, The Szyk Haggadah. Lodz, 1935.

Illumination also offers opportunities to experiment with surface adornment. Much like illuminated manuscripts of the 16th century, Szyk’s work uses intricate borders, decorated initials, and patterns to bring the page to life.

Szyk created his beautiful illuminations with watercolor and gouache and quill pen and ink on paper and board. He usually began his composition with a lightly applied but fairly complete “underdrawing” in graphite pencil. The design was then built up with successive layers of transparent and opaque watercolors, painted with sable brushes of varying sizes. Many subsequent tiny, precisely placed strokes of color defined the shape of an ear or the features of a face. This technique requires a supremely confident touch. Application of watercolor on top of watercolor can dissolve both strokes into a muddy mess; the brilliant color and dimensionality of Szyk’s work is a testament to his mastery of the medium. In fact, his hand was so steady that friends and family recall he often carried on lively conversations while painting his miniatures.

The Lawyer (Sketch on Verso), The Canterbury Tales. New York, 1945.

The Merchant of Baghdad, The Arabian Nights Entertainment. New Canaan, 1948.

Szyk’s virtuosity was not limited to imagery. A skilled calligrapher, he completed his own lettering in languages as diverse as Polish, Russian, German, French, and English—languages he spoke fluently. When faced with challenging linguistic tasks, Szyk probably consulted reference books and knowledgeable friends. He successfully painted Hebrew calligraphy (for his Passover Haggadah and other projects), Arabic (The Arabian Nights Entertainments), and even Chinese characters (Visual History of China). In all cases, his text is nearly flawless, even when painted on a miniature scale. Contrary to rumor, Szyk never worked with a magnifying glass. He relied on his own vision—he was extremely nearsighted and wore thick glasses—and worked just inches from the paper.

Once combined with his unerring eye for color and composition, Szyk’s distinctive technique yielded art of the highest order. Understanding his meticulous process only increases our appreciation of his craftsmanship and artistic genius.

Next: Learn about selected exhibitions of Arthur Szyk’s work.

Portions adapted from the article “Arthur Szyk’s Art” by Sara W. Duke and Holly Krueger, The Library of Congress, January 2000.