Friday, May 18, 2012

Icon progresses

This is one of several posts on the process of painting an icon.
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If you are like I am, you're curious about the method for painting icons. You've heard that there are steps and that it is a process of devotion. You've heard that icons are supposed to be "windows to heaven," not ordinary pictures. How does one open a window to heaven?

To be honest, in one way I don't know. There are probably many methods and many different schedules of prayer and painting and fasting.

But in another way, St. John of the Cross tells us that to clear a window for heavenly light to pass through, we must be detached from earthly things. So, to successfully paint an icon is to cling more closely to God throughout the process and to grow in love and purity. (Easier said than done? You bet.)

That said, I am still interested in preserving, to the greatest degree doable, the traditional techniques for making an icon. I am trying to pray constantly as I paint, so I repeat the prayer to my Guardian Angel. Because I know so little about angels, I am also reading one article from the Summa for each step I complete. Here are the steps I have completed so far:
  1. Preparing the board: three coats of white paint (1Q106A1, A2, A3). Icons painted according to old traditions have white gesso instead of white acrylic paint.
  2. Painting the sides in brown (1Q106A4).
  3. Transfer of the line drawing to the blank board (1Q107A1)
  4. Painting the halo gold (1Q107A2). Isn't this interesting, that the first color to be placed on the board is the halo? In more traditional icons, the halo (and sometimes the background!) is gilded after application of red clay bole.
  5. Painting a red line around the halo (1Q107A3).

It's amazing how effective these few things have been for spiritual growth. The application of my body and mind to acquainting myself with a holy person is really excellent!

Here are some gems from the Summa:

"...the other kinds of enlightenment that proceed from man or angel [i.e. all teaching of any truth] are, as it were, dispositions to this ultimate form [God]."

" him it belongs to change the will, to whom it belongs to bestow righteousness: for righteousness is the rightness of the will. But God alone bestows righteousness."

"...the angel's will is ever regulated by the Divine law which made the order in the angels..."

"The ecclesiastical hierarchy is derived from and represents the heavenly hierarchy."

"...the tongue of an angel is metaphorically called the angel's power, whereby he manifests his mental concept."

"The angels are ever speaking to God in the sense of praising and admiring Him and His works; but they speak to Him by consulting Him about what ought to be done whenever they have to perform any new work, concerning which they desire enlightenment."


  1. I'm very curious as I also write icons: which method are you using? I've never heard of the halo being done first.

    Rather, what I was taught was to begin by "blocking" the base colors. When that is complete, lay the prototype over it again, trace the lines and begin highlighting. Gold leaf the background using a special type of glue (gold size), then work on the face, etc. This brings out the light - hearkening back to Creation. It begins in darkness and ends in Heaven - with the final gold touches being, of course, representative of Heaven and of eternity.

    I also use acrylics. :-)

    There are so many methods for this sacred art!

  2. Dear Adoro (what an excellent username),
    To be honest, I am cobbling together what I have found online, but I think what I am doing resembles the method of the Prosopon school (good video here). It sounds as though our methods are similar: my next steps are like yours (lay on base colors, do line work, and work on the face, etc.). The overall process is also supposed to be the same: from darkness to light, from chaos to order. There will be final touch steps to mine, but it will not be gold--I like that your order places the gold of Heaven and eternity last!

    I am so glad to know that someone else uses acrylics! Reading about the work of many modern iconographer, I began to feel as though I would be a schismatic if I used acrylic. I had not heard of gold size...I will look into it. God keep you and bless you!

  3. Thanks for your response. Interesting - I would definitely recommend that you find a master or a class to attend and get some formal training.

    In my case, I was blessed to have a couple connections who came into my life just as I finished my master's in theology. I had long wanted to learn iconography but seriously - well, yes, the cost is prohibitive, at least for me! But there is a religious community a couple hours away and so Father JM asked Sister if she would teach me. She and I got in contact and I went out to stay in the convent for a week to learn the sacred art. It was amazing! I haven't finished another since then, but have a few I've been working on. She sent me home with a prepped board and the prototype to OLPH (huge devotion), paints, brushes, etc, to help me continue working. I have another I was "commissioned" to do, if I can. One thing I find is that it's hard to come home from a long day at work and focus on the icon.

    I hope you will forgive me the shameless post, but here is my first icon and how it came about:

    One of these days I must write out the process - people so often ask me about it! (BTW I'm very much a student so don't take my info as absolute gospel!)

    God bless!

    1. I eagerly await the opportunity to formally learn the art. So good to hear about how you were blessed this way! I saw your icon of the Three-Handed Madonna and I would love to see the finished Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

      Wow, I can't imagine coming home after a long day at work and working on an icon! I have been blessed with summer break; I should appreciate it more.

  4. I so hope you can find somewhere to go, and soon! I'll pray for you to find a master to teach you. :-)

    While I have advanced a little on OLPH I can show you the last pic I took of her:

    I'm not sure if I'm going to use gold leaf on this one - it would be very costly as it's a large icon. I WANT to but...well...wanting doesn't grow money to buy the 23k gold leaf, does it? I was told not to use the gold paint...can't remember why exactly.

    The 1st weekend in June I will be on retreat and bringing the icon with me, will ask about it then as it's a pressing issue also with my "commissioned" icon. I also don't have all the tools I need to complete the tool used to properly form the halo, to draw the borders and enhance them, etc.

    One thing iconography has made me appreciate is the VALUE of all artistic works. The cost of materials is high, the time spent...priceless. Especially when it comes to sacred art.

    God will richly reward you in your desire to learn this art but of course it's not really about ability but growing closer to Him, growing in communication with Him...amazing! (And Sister, who taught me, told me she had never seen an icon come out badly.) I can't wait to see your own finished work!

    God bless!

    1. OLPH is beautiful! I emphathize with your comment about the value of these works. I don't think I really appreciated how much energy was poured into the exquisite works of the ages, either.... I hope you have a beautiful and fruitful retreat. God bless you, also.

  5. Just wanted to drop in...I inquired about the gold paint. I am using Jo Sonja paints, matte with velvet finish - and have just ordered the gold metallic. I've learned it is ok to use. Not the best, of course, but entirely fine for we who cannot afford real gold.

    Over my retreat I discerned to use my real gold on my OLPH in the background (done now, actually), and the paint on the highlights. So...if that's what you have, use it! It carries the same symbolism with the proper intent!

    I'm working on another icon and won't use real gold on that one.

    This summer, there is a class in iconography in the midwest, a little over $200...not sure if you are free in July but if you are, let me know. I can speak for the instructor and know you'd LOVE learning there! You'd have to pay for room and board and food but the instruction is cheap and benefits a very solid religious community!

    1. Adoro, thanks for checking out the gold paint. I am glad you were able to clearly see things on your retreat. I am working in July, but thank you for thinking of me, I am so grateful! Cheap instruction benefitting a good religious community is always good. Even though I cannot go, can you post some details for anyone else reading (and for me in the future, perhaps)?

  6. I don't have a ton of info but here's the FB page:

    For those who don't have FB, here's the info copied/pasted from the page:

    "July 16-20, 2012. Learn to paint a icon from start to finish in one week. NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY! This is a great opportunity to learn about an ancient Christian art form. All Materials will be provided and participants will take home there finished icon at the end of the week.Classes will begin with daily Mass at 8:30 am, then participants will paint from 9:30 until noon and 1:00 until 5:00 each day. Lunch will not be provided, but there are local restaurants or participants may bring a bag lunch.

    Please register with Sr. Petra at 715-563-0790 or COST: $200.00 PER PERSON.

    This is an excellent opportunity for homeschooling. Age recommendations are 12 and up. Participants under 16 years of age, must be accompanied by an adult participant."