An impeccable understanding of an image and its essence is crucial in order to replicate it faithfully. This kind of profound expertise can be achieved by studying papers, visiting museums or having enriching conversations with specialists in the field of religious art and independent research. Yet, icon painting is far more than sheer copying the existing templates. It is also about discovering one’s individual visual language. Within the canon approved by tradition (traditional canon – set of rules for iconographers) you can create a unique style, which can convey the richness of history and reflect the believer’s experience in a clear way for modern viewers. Every art piece is Fusion of the artist’s sensations and the icons are no exception to this rule.
The in-depth technological knowledge must be inherently integrated in an iconographer’s work. Each piece must be not only effectuated, but also long-lasting. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary for an artist to acquire knowledge regarding the used materials, their properties and proper application. This is my ideal and artistic approach which I try to implement in my daily routine. For me painting an icon means exploring myself, my spirituality and reinforcing patience and humility.
Tempera is one of the oldest known painting techniques. It is a combination of hen’s egg yolk with earth or mineral pigments. Limewood boards are traditionally used as a surface, and they should always be dried and glued in an appropriate way. To avoid further cracking (a typical result of natural wood movements), boards must be fixed with oakwood transverse reinforcing rail. A gesso called ‘levkas’ (from Greek ‘leukos’) is made out of rabbit glue and chalk. In regards to gilding techniques the most common ones are water (poler) and mixtion (matt) gilding. Each icon after drying needs to be covered with a few layers of varnish protecting it from negative environmental factors such as humidity, sun rays, dust, and slight mechanical damages.
When it comes to traditional iconography, there are still existing quite common misconceptions stating that icons must be painted on wood exclusively, and must be only covered with real golden leaves. Quite a lot of people, misled by that, decide to choose such an icon for a gift. However, the essence of an icon doesn’t lie solely in technique of execution. In reality, the most important feature is the way of depicting the idea, the visual language, and prioritizing the message over the artistic solutions. Icon painting is symbolic painting; it consists of simplifications, schematization of figures and objects in order to emphasize the content which is a vision of holiness, transfigured reality, God’s presence in the world.
The technique that I use most frequently is my authorly interpretation of a classic yolk tempera technique widely recognized amongst Russian iconographers. This particular style helps me to achieve the result close to my preferable aesthetic tastes. Yet, we have to bear in mind, this is not the only right, authentic technique for creating icons. There are many other variations of tempera itself, as well as oil painting, frescos, watercolor, and finally mosaic or stained glass. Nowadays modern art supplies based on acrylic emulsion are also commonly used, these include: varnishes, mixtions and colors. Instead of using natural board, wood-like panels can be used, also the hardly-accessible pigments have their synthetic, easily accessible alternatives. All of these materials can certainly be successfully implemented in the icon-painting process, it merely depends on an artist’s choice what medium to use (guided by one’s artistic vision, sensitivity, knowledge of technologies and destination of a particular art piece.
How an icon is painted
The very first and crucial stage of creating an icon is a preparation of precise hand drawing of chosen composition. It has to be transferred onto the polished and finely smoothed grounded board. Afterwards, the drawing is delicately carved out in the gesso. Then you can apply the gold leaves according to the chosen gilding technique. This is when the first colors appear on the board. This step is crucial for the final result and it consists of filling the main, simplified parts of composition with basic colors. Afterwards, the details are worked on by the principle of going from the darkest to the brightest shade.
Faces, hands and all uncovered body parts should be painted at the end. Highlights („blik”) are the last strokes of bright colors executed in a graphical way. When the whole icon is complete it is time to make the halos’ contours, frames and eventually to write the names using suitable typefaces.