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Painting an icon

I promised (or for those of you uninterested in art, perhaps I threatened) to make a post on the details of painting a religious icon. So here goes.

If you want to skip the longish intro, there are lots of pictures and short descriptions of the process below.

In the beginning

For those coming in late, I spent the first full week of June at an Eastern Catholic monastery, courtesy of a friend who dared my non-religious self to do it and courtesy of that friend and others who generously funded the expedition. Though I didn’t experience the leap of faith my friend was surely hoping for, I did learn valuable lessons at the iconography workshop held that week.

The ancient art of icon painting is on the upsurge, as more people in this country quietly move toward rigorous and traditional forms of Christianity. The teacher of our class was a Greek Orthodox convert from Protestantism who makes his living as an iconographer. My fellow students were all Roman Catholics, but several had a pretty good acquaintance with the Eastern church, and a couple had a downright passion for icons.

Class began Monday after a delicious brunch with the nuns. Before that, students so inclined attended the long early morning prayer service called Orthros, which (because it was a feast day, the Monday after Pentacost) morphed seamlessly into Liturgy. All this was very foreign to me, but beautiful — featuring incense, candlelight, and chanting. Every element of both services, including bible readings, was either chanted or sung. Only the priest’s homily was spoken.

But the homily was about icons and their meaning, and after it all the student iconographers, including my unbelieving self, came forward to be blessed. At the end of Liturgy, I also shared in the antidoron, the leavened bread given to everyone (as opposed to the communion bread, which only Catholics or Orthodox — everyone present but me — were permitted). I thought that final distribution of bread to all was a very touching, inclusive gesture.

I’m glad I knew about some of this stuff going in, though, ’cause otherwise I was totally confused.

Anyhow, on to the icon class. All of the above is relevant because iconography is specifically a religious activity, with each step having some biblical significance. And of course each class day also began with a series of short prayers, during which we faced east. I never asked why we faced east. Now I wonder.

But to the artwork …

We began with 9×12 plyboards, already coated for us with a traditional form of gesso (plaster), as opposed to the acrylic surface preparations more common these days. Plyboards are for student work. “Proper” icons are done on wood panels, often made by monks, that cost a very pretty penny but are designed for the ages.

We all worked on our individual renditions of the same icon, The Holy Mandylion or the Holy Face of Jesus. While this wouldn’t have been my first choice, it proved an interesting, challenging, and varied project.

First, we transferred an outline from paper onto the gessoed board using carbon sheets. Haven’t seen those since the old typrwriter days! Next, we took a sharp-pointed stylus and scratched the image into the plaster. This gave us permanent lines that remained no matter how many layers of paint we laid over them. The inscribed lines are also a design characteristic of certain schools of iconography.

The very next thing we did was something that seems as if it should be a finishing, rather than a beginning, step.

That’s a fragile coat of 23-karat gold leaf, rubbed on over a layer of red clay and a tacky oil-based bonding agent. I think this was my favorite part of the whole process.

Then we began painting very thin layers of wash to establish our background colors.

You can see by the paint tray that we were working with tiny quantities of paint. This is egg tempera, an ancient medium that went out of fashion in the era of Michelangelo and Leonardo but is making a bit of a comeback, at least in part thanks to the icon revival. It’s a mix-it-yourself medium (in this case mixed by the teacher). Very fragile. It can’t be stored. But once applied and sealed, it lasts for centuries.

The most disturbing part of the process for me was painting Jesus’ face and hair two shades of mud brown.

This step signifies something like, “God created all men, including Jesus, out of clay.” It’s also, of course, to establish a ground for shadows and skin tones. But laying down blobs of darkness scares the bejabbers out of me. How could a face emerge out of that? Where would we go from that beginning?

As it turned out, we proceeded to ignore the face while moving onto what turned out to be the hardest step, lettering and fine white lines.

It wasn’t hard because it was in (modified) Greek, but just because it required a tiny brush and a steady hand. The writings say (or in some cases are shorthand for): “Jesus Christ,” “The conqueror,” “The One” (which could also be translated as “I am that I am”), and finally at the bottom “The Holy Mandylion.”

Mandylion just means napkin or facecloth, which is probably why the word never actually gets translated. It’s based on a legend about Jesus wiping his face and transferring a miraculous image onto the cloth.

Anyhow, eventually we got back to the face, and something began to emerge.

I mentioned before that, while complicated, this was almost “paint by the numbers.” We applied exactly three ever-lighter shades of yellow ochre to define the face, and applied them as specified by diagrams in a booklet each of us had at our work stations.

After those three layers, which gave me a lot of trouble, we moved into a series of dramatically transformative steps, like rouging.

Yes, we painted red (actually bright magenta) highlights on the face, where they would remain un-softened by any more natural hues. After that, we painted the hair (again, three layers; always seems to be three, which no doubt also has religious significance).

After that we added black or dark brown outlines and highlights, which further defined the face and further contributed to the unreal look characteristic of icons.

Finally — or almost finally — we painted in the deliberately unnatural white lines representing divine light.

After that, it was just a matter of sealing the image with an egg mixture, which the teacher did for us one evening after class. After that had cured overnight, we returned to rub on a varnish made mostly of beeswax and lavender oil. It was the classic Karate Kid “wax on, wax off” gesture with our bare fingertips. It somehow felt very good to perform the last step in such a literally hands-on, ancient manner.

The teacher then used a very unauthentic heat gun to dry the varnish well enough for us to safely transport our images home.

And that, dear blog readers, was that. A truly fascinating and worthwhile experience. I’m looking forward to trying icons on my own. But the specialized materials they demand are going to take time and patience to acquire.


  1. Laird
    Laird June 17, 2017 9:02 am

    Fascinating! I’m not an artist, but it’s interesting to see how an image emerges from nothing. Thanks.

  2. MacGregor K Phillips
    MacGregor K Phillips June 17, 2017 9:17 am

    Do icons have to be religious in nature? If you did some that did not feature religious themes I would love to buy one.

  3. Claire
    Claire June 17, 2017 9:31 am

    Thank you, Laird. You’re always very kind about these subjects. I also find it fascinating — and terrifying — to create an image out of nothing.

    And Mac — Good question. That’s something I kind of poked and prodded about during the workshop. Bottom line seems to be that it’s perfectly fine to paint non-religious subjects in the icon style (which, after all, was just an everyday art style before it got identified specifically with this type of art), but you can’t call them icons.

    I was looking for openings to ask about that and it came up in the oddest way. Apparently there’s a famous icon (of St. Nicholas, IIRC) in which he’s drawn with ridges on his forehead that to contemporary eyes make him look like a Klingon. This, naturally, led to me mentioning the comment (by jed?) that Spock would make a good subject for an icon. The teacher rolled his eyes at that, but I concluded, “Well, Spock’s a cultural icon, right?”

    Thanks for your interest in purchasing some future NON-icon. πŸ™‚ I’ll have to see where I go with this, but I can anticipate painting both religious figures (I have a couple in mind), but also cultural icons and what Joel called “cosmic dogs” using techniques I got from this class — as long as I can do that without giving offense to certain people very important to me.

  4. Pat
    Pat June 17, 2017 10:29 am

    Claire, the technique you were taught there – is that a universal technique for all icon painting, and will you be using that technique going forward?

  5. jed
    jed June 17, 2017 10:37 am

    I suppose the 3 layers are for the 3 persons of the Trinity.

    And, I now know why the hair looks like it does. I was wondering about that extra (it seems to me) mound of un-highlighted hair. But I like how the face turned out. It looks very … uh, iconic? I suppose there’s some challenge here, in working within a very specific set of constraints.

    Overall, I’m impressed with how this turned out. Hope you are too, apart from the experience of the workshop itself.

  6. Claire
    Claire June 17, 2017 10:48 am

    Pat — It’s not completely universal. There are different schools & I’m told this is a combo of the Russian and Greek methods. But I gather the differences aren’t major. I would like to use this technique for icons and icon-like objects in the future. But it’s excruciatingly exacting and time-consuming and I’ll use it only for specialized, important things.

    jed — I think you got it on the threes. πŸ™‚ The unhighlighted hair (good noticing) is darker simply to create an illusion of three-dimensionality, of receding. But yes, very iconic-looking. I am happy with it. I see the mistakes I made and some of them bother me. But not as much as they bothered me while I was working.

    I have a tendency to overwork things, and with egg tempera you simply don’t dare. It’s all got to be very light layers, applied smoothly once then left alone. Almost more like working with ink than with paint. I didn’t learn that in time. Still, I’m pleased. If I work in egg tempera in the future it’ll force me to give up that bad habit of overworking.

  7. jed
    jed June 17, 2017 11:06 am

    My hairline is receding, no illusion necessary. And, it’s pretty well highlighted too!

  8. Claire
    Claire June 17, 2017 11:23 am

    “And, it’s pretty well highlighted too!”

    LOL. Or, as my mother put it when her dark brunette locks began getting noticeably lighter, “Look! I’m turning blonde!”

  9. jed
    jed June 17, 2017 12:23 pm

    And oh, lawdy, but those boards ain’t cheap! Given what goes into making them, it’s not surprising, but still … eek!

    I would hope that the hide glue has withstood the test of time, as it does tend to get dry and brittle after many years, but perhaps in that application (i.e. no joinery), it works fine. But if departing with tradition is allowed, I think I’d look for some other methods. It seems to me that as long as the board is stabilized, and the linen adheres well, without interfering with the gesso, there’s some time and money to be saved there.

  10. Joel
    Joel June 17, 2017 12:24 pm

    The 3 thing might well be a reference to trinity but it also appears frequently in Scripture. Parts of divine pronouncements are often repeated three times, I’m told for emphasis. Like “Woe, woe, woe unto she who painteth Spock into religious imagery!”

    Having said that, if this turned out something you enjoy doing regularly and if you could find a (possibly ironic and disrespectful toward the source) subject matter like – just one suggestion – slightly caracatured portraiture, I could see this turning into a better income source than your forays into jewelery did. Because there can’t be many people doing it.

    Having said *that,* I know I’m repeating myself but these Orthodox icons still creep me out slightly. I don’t want the Sovereign Lord of the Universe on the wall looking at me like I owe him money.

  11. jed
    jed June 17, 2017 12:49 pm

    > The 3 thing might well be a reference to trinity but it also appears frequently in Scripture.

    And, it’s also the count for the Holy Hand Grenade. And, IIRC, the number of times to say his name, to invoke Beetlejuice. 3 seems to come up all over the place, as well as being the number of stability. We wouldn’t want to have unstable icons.

    I have the shape of the Spock board in my head. Too bad it’s such a PITA to make one (done properly, that is).

  12. Dan
    Dan June 17, 2017 3:08 pm

    That is an inspiring painting. It looks like something you would see from pre-renaissance art. The creativity you have is astounding.

  13. Shel
    Shel June 17, 2017 4:12 pm

    You got me thinking about it. Facing East:

    They also bury the dead facing east (noted at the end of the text)

    I know the Japanese (from The Land of the Rising Sun), probably of the Shinto religion, also pray facing east, but a brief search didn’t provide a link describing the practice. An American who spent the war hiding on an occupied island (I believe Guadalcanal) once was walking down a road and saw a number of nearby Japanese east of him. Fortunately they were all praying and he wasn’t noticed.

  14. Claire
    Claire June 18, 2017 10:31 am

    Thank you, Dan, for the great compliment. I have to reiterate, though, that this particular piece required more persistence than creativity. (It’ll enable me to be more creative in the future, though.)

    Shel — Great links, great info. Fascinating, that “catalog” site.

  15. Claire
    Claire June 18, 2017 10:33 am

    jed — Oh yeah, I see what they’re talking about with St. Worf-Nicholas there. How could anybody object to Spock after that? πŸ˜‰

    Still, when it comes to religion, I’ll be lucky if “woe, woe, woe” is all I get when I transgress, whether by cultural icons, cosmic dogs, or caricatured portraits.

  16. Claire
    Claire June 18, 2017 12:02 pm

    AG — Cool! I’ve been meaning to look that up and you’ve just saved me some work. Thank you.

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