This past week I worked with iconographer Anna Gouriev at a Hexaemeron icon painting workshop hosted at Diakonia Retreat Center in Salem, South Carolina. Another track, on icon carving, was led by Jonathan Pageau.
For those not familiar with the traditional Russian process of icon painting (or “writing”), it is a prayerful time of transforming earthy materials, such as wood, marble dust, rabbit skin glue, egg, oil, vinegar, and crushed pigments, into a sacramental image meant to aid the prayer and worship of the faithful. The making of an icon is meant to echo our own salvific journey into spiritual union with God. The way the image is constructed expresses theological realities and the teaching of the Church. Most noticeably, the use of inverse perspective and the stylized use of light differentiate the traditional icon from naturalistic painting. These elements of “the grammar of iconography” are meant to speak of a theocentric rather than human-centered way of looking at the world: for God, all things are present, and so we can see multiple angles at once; yet the reality depicted is whole and complete, not fragmented. If we focus on how God is our true light source, in an icon, light will be expressed somewhat differently than in an image reflecting a naturalistic source of light. Yet despite these differences from naturalistic painting, the icon is very much rooted in reality. An inner logic of organization is based on actual bodily proportions.
The process begins with board preparation. Workshop participants learn about selecting a quality wooden panel, and then how to seal it with a weak layer of rabbit skin glue. This then is followed by a layer of fabric secured with a stronger level of glue, and then layers and layers of gesso, made with chalk dust, marble dust, a little honey and linseed oil, and a medium strength rabbit skin glue. When all is sanded and smooth, one can begin to transfer a drawing to the board.
A drawing is made from a prototype, ideally a quality image representing Christ, an angel, saint, or scene as handed down through tradition. Depending on the “readability” of the prototype, one might need to do additional research to find other examples to clarify what might otherwise be indecipherable due to darkening of the original due to age, damage, or simply a poor reproduction. When the drawing is traced and corrected, it is then transferred to the board using carbon paper. This image then is reinstated with calligraphic lines of India ink.
Paint is made with egg emulsion (egg yolk, vinegar, and water) and pigments from crushed earth or stone. The panel first is given a wash of emulsion mixed with water, and then base coats of color are applied to the background, clothing, and skin areas to be depicted. Icons are built up with layers of light, rather than application of shadows, and so we begin with the deepest colors to be used. Structure lines, somewhat visible through the semi-transparent layers of paint, are reinstated so as to guide the layers to follow.
A “first light” on the garments creates a gentle transparent pillow on which later lights will be applied. A more geometric “second light” articulates the shape of the body under the garments. This then is followed by highlights that give the whole figure jewel-like facets. Structure lines are again reinstated if necessary.
Hair is organized into rhythmic systems of locks, which get highlighted closer the the face. Skin tones begin with “sankir,” generally an olive tone of green. The first light is an equal tone of orange, which begins to articulate the contours of face and hands. A yellow light further defines features, and then a brighter layer of yellow white. Final highlights, or “ozhivky,” give the image a sense of life.
While many icons have gilded gold backgrounds or gold halos, the use of gold is not absolutely necessary. A gold-toned background suggests the world of heaven, where all has been set at peace. While workshop participants learned how to gild a background, due to time constraints, we only used goldwork as a detail on clothing. Lines are painted on with beer glue, a syrup made from boiled-down beer. After the lines have dried, gold leaf is applied with a moist breath to activate the glue. When skewings are brushed away, shiny lines sparkle. These then are protected with a layer of spar varnish.
A halo can be painted in using various tools. Inscriptions then identify the holy person depicted. Usually inscriptions are written in the language of the person expected to pray with the image. A matching border gives the image a sense of coherence.
The completed image cures for at least a couple weeks if not a year before being sealed with boiled linseed oil and sometimes protected with spar varnish.
I have been working with the teachers of this workshop since 2008, and find it to be a high quality place to learn the practice of iconography. The atmosphere is prayerful and ecumenical, with a dose of good humor balancing the occasionally humbling moments of challenge. For those wishing to learn more, check out their website at www.hexaemeron.org.