Today I decided to make a get well card for the daughter of a woman I know. The woman gave me a few photos and a few of her girl’s interests, and I proceeded to make some careful tracings from photos, and turned them into a one page composition. Normally at that point, I’d put that one page into my projector and project it down to watercolor paper at a larger size, but today, battling the flu bug, I didn’t quite have the strength for it. Instead, I decided to work smaller on an actual copy of the ink tracings. This saved me some hard work but also limited the size to 8.5″ x 11″, and to crummy bond paper. I decided to take on the challenge, and I carefully water colored the copy, using as little water as possible, since it would wrinkle the page. I did this, and it looked good. The final piece of this was to spray mount the copy paper on to a piece of foam core board. The last step…..and I ruined it! When I mounted the page, it wrinkled badly, and burnishing it only made matters worse. Three hours of work down the drain? Ugh……I decided to try one more thing: I took the wrinkled art and put it on the flat bed scanner, scanned it, and put it into Photoshop. I cleaned up all the ugly wrinkles, some excess pencil too, and one or two other details that had been impossible to change on the copy, printed it out in color, and it looked good. It looked better than the original. I got a second chance! This time when i spray mounted it on to the foam core board, it came out nice and flat. It is now entirely presentable.
I know what you are thinking: “Ketubah—it must be something like a tuba, right?” Well, you couldn’t be further from the truth. A Ketubah (sometimes known as Ketuba without the ‘h’) is best known as a Jewish Wedding Contract. It is a marriage contract that goes about 2000 years, essentially providing economic protection for the bride. This fact alone makes a Ketubah “progressive.” While photographs, invitations, and music might help you remember your wedding day, a Ketubah reminds you of the love and promises you have with one another.
A Ketubah Overview
A Ketubah (which is Hebrew for “marriage contract” and traditionally part of a Jewish Wedding Ceremony) is done in calligraphy and surrounded by decorative art that is as beautiful as the artist, or artists, can make it. No matter how detailed and lovely the art may be, without the calligraphy, the Ketubah is merely ornamental, but with words, it is a contract between man and wife and should be taken seriously.
While there is a traditional Ketubah Text that you can use, the Ketubot (plural) I create normally have Texts that evolve to become the couple’s wedding vows. In a short ceremony that precedes the normal marriage ceremony, the Ketubah text is carefully reviewed by both bride and groom and signed by the two people getting married, the officiate, and two witnesses. I love this moment. Watching two individuals sign a Ketubah (they are usually nervous because they don’t want to mess up the art) and pledge themselves to one another through a contract creates a unique, warm, and lifelong memory.
The Ketubah Process
I usually meet with the prospective bride and groom 3-6 months prior to the wedding date. Starting early provides us with plenty of time to help the bride and groom determine what is most important to them and identify what will and won’t be included in this art. At our first meeting, I will show a few past pieces, ask some open-ended questions, and do a bit of sketching. I then make a copy of the sketch for them to take home and review.
At our next meeting, we really begin to design the art, which includes the Ketubah’s overall shape, where the calligraphy will go, the content for the art and text (which is often quite personal), and the color scheme. It’s most rewarding for me to witness their growing excitement as this piece, which is all about them, takes life. Also, the couple will decide what is not important enough to include. It is fascinating to watch this negotiation, which is always done with love. To me, this is what a Ketubah is all about—distilling this couple’s love on to a 30” x 22” piece of watercolor paper.
Throughout the whole process, I take photos of the Ketubah in its various stages and send them to the couple. This allows them to see its progress, and, most importantly, to refine and revise it along the way. If they wish to come over to view its progress in person, they are welcome to do so at any time. After my part is nearly or completely finished, I hand the art over to the calligrapher. The calligrapher then scribes the couple’s chosen Text (which is often done in Hebrew and English) on the Ketubah.
You don’t have to be Jewish to have your own Ketubah
Most of the Ketubot I’ve done are Interfaith, meaning one person in the couple is Jewish and the other is not. A good Ketubah illustrator can combine a couple’s different cultures or origins through the use of symbolism, color scheme, and Text and create a piece of art that truly reflects their everlasting union. To me, a Ketubah is about two people’s love and not their religion, and I consider it an honor to create a Ketubah and to work with those couples in a “rarified state” leading up to their wedding day.
The Wedding Contract, in Jewish tradition known as a “Ketubah” originally was designed to protect the bride economically, in case the husband predeceased her, or left the marriage. The text used to be mostly about dowry, property, and who brought what into the union. No matter how dry the text was, it was always done as beautifully as possible. This one is tied together by the cast iron trellace they got married under.
The Ketubot (plural) I’ve done have mostly been about the love between two people, and often only one of them was of Jewish heritage. The text, usually written by a calligrapher, is about love, commitment, and hopes for the future. The art is designed by all three of us, with an emphasis on symbols that are deeply meaningful to them. For me, there is great joy in being part of their celebration, as the Ketubah is often a part of the ceremony.
Here are some past examples.
Way back in the 1990s, my then wife and I combined to create traditional Jewish marriage contracts, called “Ketubot”, which is plural for “Ketubah”. She did the calligraphy, and I did the overall design. Not only was there a great deal of leeway in the design, but working with couples who were about to get married was a real joy and an honor. Basically, what I was getting to do was distill all the best parts of their love and relationship into a beautiful piece of art that would be highly decorative, narrative in the sense that it “told their story”, and legal in the Judaic religion, as a binding contract of what they promised each other. I greatly enjoyed this process, gave each piece everything I had, and did some 170 of them (see images).
Around 10 years ago, requests for these Ketubot became fewer and farther between, and finally ceased. I missed creating them, and most of all missed that “rarified air” of love and anticipation that each couple had, and that I used as “fuel” to help create these intricate pieces that are not unlike the Iiluminated pages from bibles of the 17th century.
Around 3 months ago, I finally got a new Ketubah commission, though, and I am very pleased to be working on it with the couple who will be wed in mid-June. We designed it together, and it is a terrific design, held together by a large orchid that covers some 75% of the surface of the art. The color scheme will reflect a sun-rise to night-fall feel, like the idea of love being an around the clock deal.
There is Jewish symbolism in the art, but at the top of the art , the largest symbols are on the whimsical, and definitely secular side: a bunny and goose dancing. They are both dressed up in evening attire. When this art is done, I will photograph it and post it; as it is the dancing bunny and the goose will serve a dual purpose, as the image on the wedding invitation.
Who will do the calligraphy? We still don’t know, but the eventual calligrapher will have to have nerves of steel, as he or she will be working directly over some fairly involved watercolor illustration I did, although it is of a weak color value, designed to sink into the background once said calligraphy is written, probably in black. And, if the calligrapher makes an error, I’ll figure out a way to fix it artistically.
Turns out I did the calligraphy, and there were no errors!