Art and Iconography
PAINTING AND HIGHLIGHTING YOUR ICON
Demonstration pieces by
First and second
highlights on face and
Saint Peter with first highlight, and finished icon. To liven up Saint Peter's
brown robe, the first and second highlights are pink (same as flesh) and the
third highlight is pastel yellow-green (same as blue robe).
First highlight on a small icon
of Christ the Teacher; and the
The first highlight establishes
basic volumes and bright areas.
Note the dark margin of the
figure, without highlights. First
highlight in flesh areas should
be a darker, redder pink.
In the later highlights, the figure
will become much more detailed
and refined. Floats will brighten
the colors, and skin tones will
gradually become more lifelike.
THE LIGHT OF AN ICON seems to come both from within the holy person in heaven, and from
outside it. As you work on the layers of highlights, consider the meaning and function of each,
as well as the shadows which help delineate and sculpt the figure.
You will be bringing light out of darkness and retracing the beautiful stories of God's creation
and the drama of salvation, both symbolically and artistically. The making of an icon re-enacts
our human journey from deepest origins in ancient and mysterious darkness, towards our
ultimate destination in God's shining community of heaven. Iconography becomes an act of
devotional service to God and to all humanity.
The completed icon should glow, not only with the many lights of creation, but with the
“uncreated light” of God within, the light which showed itself in Jesus at the Transfiguration.
FIRST HIGHLIGHT is under-painting, representing the "light of nature" or the “cosmic highlight,” indicating the
natural light of the universe, and bringing order to the Chaos. It is relatively naturalistic, coming from in front,
slightly above and to one side. The first highlight reveals the basic sculptural shape of the figure, and
serves as supportive under-painting for the smaller and livelier second and third highlights to follow.
The first highlight should cover approximately 2/3 of the figure. To make the first highlight bright enough
and smooth enough, I usually apply two, three, or more coats of first highlight, letting it dry and set up a bit between
coats, while I work on highlighting a different area. Each highlight color must contain enough white to stand out from
its roskrish and show through several subsequent layers or "floats" of dilute paint.
The nearer to the viewer, the more strongly that part is highlighted. Do not lose your lines or shadows! Shadows
help define the figure, and enhance the viewer's sense of mystery. Strong shadows should remain in the
eye sockets, under the mouth, under the chin, and on edges of hair and garments. Highlights fade out toward the
bottom of the icon. The figure should stand out strongly against its background, so leave the edges of
the figure dark, without highlights. Keep your strongest highlights toward the center of face, body, and arms.
Work for precision, but don’t be compulsive, because there are many layers ahead. When completed, the first
highlight may look awkward and crude! Don’t be discouraged; you’re just roughing out the shape of the figure. If
your highlight has spread excessively, paint and blend shadows back in with your roskrish or a similar dark color.
First highlight on the face, throat, and other flesh areas should be rosy and only slightly lighter than
sankir: In your watercolor palette, mix 3 little cups of paint. Make full-strength bright dark salmon pink mix (1 part or
less of white, 2 parts yellow ochre or gold ochre, 3 parts bright red or red-orange of your choice), a diluted version
of the same salmon pink mix in 2 drops of egg base and 5 drops water, and clear untinted mix of 2 drops egg base
with 5 drops water. You can now blend full-strength paint into dilute paint, and dilute paint into clear mix, for
gradual shading. Practice this blending and shading on paper.
Start with the eye area, being careful to keep highlights symmetrical. Paint a bright spot at the inner corner of each
eye; then a bright eyelid line just above the black line of the upper eyelashes. Optionally, paint a dilute
crescent-shaped highlight in the area between upper eyelid and eyebrow.
Paint bright edges on the upper cheeks, neatly delineating the shadows under the eyes. (Older saints and grieving
saints may have a dark trace of tears, running down the cheek from the eyes.) Using dilute paint, blend wet paint
out onto the cheek. Continue dilute paint down the center of the cheeks, out towards a rounded outside edge, and
down into the complex shapes of the lower face. Blend in at outer edge with clear mix. This process is like applying
makeup to your own face! For a large face, you may paint and blend with a sponge-tipped eye shadow applicator
rather than a brush. One side of the face should be noticeably brighter than the other. Leave edges dark.
Paint bright lines on the brow ridges, and blend up. Paint a bright spot high on the forehead, and blend out. Paint
a bright triangle or V-shape at the top of the nose; then a bright line down the shaft of the nose, a bright oval at the
tip of the nose, and a smaller bright spot on each nostril. Highlight the lower lip, which is only half the length of the
shadowed upper lip. Paint a small bright spot on the chin, and blend out. Highlight a hook shape on each ear lobe.
Paint the bright edge of the shadow under the jaw, then blend down and outward onto the throat. This highlight will
extend up toward the ear, but its brightest spot is in the center. Paint the bright edge of the collar bone, fading out
at the ends. Paint a bright spot under the collar bone on each side. Blend out and down. Leave edges dark.
Hands carry the gesture and intent of the holy figure. They should be slender and gracefully formed, and
may be quite stylized. In historic icons, you will see a variety of highlighting styles for hands. Paint a bright spot on
each fingernail; then a bright line at the cuticle under the fingernail. Now paint the lines of the fingers; then out into
the hands and wrists. There will be several bright spots, such as the wrist bone and the heel of the thumb. Blend
these in where possible. Feet and other flesh areas are highlighted similarly.
First highlight on hair and (optionally) beard is full strength, the same color as flesh. Use your smallest brush
to paint bright lines or pairs of lines between previously-painted black lines. This is fun, all the parallel waves and
double spirals, bringing out the energy of the holy figure! Each curl should have a bright spot in the center.
First highlight on gold trim is full strength light gold, just edges and primary shapes. (Painting of details will
follow in second and third highlights.)
First highlight on angel wings is full strength. Paint edges of larger feathers under the dark line, and small rays
of light shining out from under the feathers. At the top of the wing, paint a small bright oval or “well” of light. Now
paint lines radiating out from this point, in sets of 3 or 4 parallel lines.
On inner wings, paint the bright edges of a few tiny feathers.
First highlight on garments will require both full-strength and dilute paint.
Leave the outside edge of the figure in shadow, so it will stand out against the
background. Toward the bottom of the figure, highlights will fade out. Use only
dilute highlights, or none at all, in areas to receive final details – such as the area
behind the golden fringes that often adorn Mary’s shawl.
Typical garments for icon figures consist of a loose long-sleeved tunic, sometimes
gathered into an ornamented or quilted neck band and cuffs, plus an outer wrap or
cloak of contrasting color. The outer garment is a long rectangle, first anchored
around the waist for a cummerbund-like effect, then wrapped over and around the
left shoulder, around the waist a second time, and up over the left shoulder again,
to end in a graceful drape. It covers the left arm, and may cover the right shoulder
and all or part of the right arm. Like a modern sari, it can be wrapped and draped
in a variety of fashions. The waist wrap may optionally be shown as a separate
piece of cloth, in a third color.
In pre-industrial times, cloth was precious! Garments had to be woven and then
sewn by hand, from hand-spun yarn, from home-grown flax or the wool of one’s
own sheep. Dye was expensive, so brightly colored clothing was doubly valued.
The artists of ancient and medieval times gave passionate attention to rendering
the folds, billows, and shadows that appear in loosely draped woven cloth.
Pay attention to the structures of folds and shadows that appear in your own
clothes. Put on a large shawl or a soft throw, and look in a mirror to observe its
folds, shadows, and highlights. Notice that the inner folds appear as dark lines,
surrounded by brighter lines in higher areas. You may notice smaller ridges and
valleys stretching diagonally between principal folds, on the bias of the weave. In
an icon, these physical structures become expressively stylized.
Keep in mind the body under the garments, and the way that loose cloth falls and
moves over and around the body's shapes. Get an adjustable doll or wooden art
figure and drape it in soft solid color cloth, preferably woven rather than knit. Look
at photographs and at historic icons for other models.
FIRST FLOAT: After the first highlight has set up overnight or longer, mix paint for "floats" which are very light
washes of intense color. The highlights glow through the float colors, and the roskrish gains depth and subtlety.
After mixing pigment and egg tempera base to the desired color, dilute it with distilled water and a bit more egg
tempera base. Test on white paper with lines. The color should be very pale and transparent. Two or even three
light floats are much preferable to one heavy float.
With a medium-size soft round brush, apply a float to each color area, right over the entire roskrish and lines and
first highlights. Keep the brush wet, hold it at an angle, and move it lightly in little circles, barely touching the surface
of the icon. Work with the surface tension of the wet paint to form a shallow puddle of float paint on each area. To
avoid leaking between colors, let each color dry before working on adjacent areas. When first coat is dry, apply a
second coat if needed.
Also float the background color, using diluted paint, in a tone slightly different from the color under it. A series of
diluted floats of varied harmonious colors makes for a lovely opal background effect.
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Consider what textile you are painting. For most saints and apostles, the typical fabric is linen, highlighted as
described here. Wool, such as the dark wool of Mary's outer garment, absorbs more light - and may optionally be
painted with only a first, or first and second, highlight. On a soft fabric, highlights will be more blended and farther
from the crease lines. Silk and gold trim are highly reflective and should receive plenty of tiny bright highlights.
On gold brocade and trim, paint ornamental patterns. For an all-over brocade pattern, try tiny leaves or flowers or
spirals, and then fill in between them with little circles and dots. For braid trim, I often use a row of small bright dots.
On diamond quilting, highlight half of the previously highlighted half; one-quarter of each diamond segment.
On angel wings, pick out a few of the first highlights to emphasize. Brighten up the top of the wings, and some of the
light that shines out from under the feathers.
SECOND FLOAT: Let second hightlight set up overnight or longer, The second float, in a brighter and purer tone
than the first, softens the highlights on flesh, hair, and garments. Once again, float the background in a color slightly
different from the colors beneath.
THIRD HIGHLIGHT: A third highlight symbolizes the Theocosm, the spiritual or angelic light. It is much
smaller than previous highlights, reinforcing and embellishing them. With the third highlight, the icon
gains noticeable clarity and sparkle. Emphasize the gesture, line, energy, and movement of the figure.
Use a small brush, keeping it fairly dry, for these tiny precise shapes and fine lines.
On clothing, you will see the third highlight bouncing and skittering down the folds of cloth in a syncopated rhythm.
Again, emphasize areas nearest the face, and areas (such as sleeves) nearest the viewer. And once again, leave a
non-highlighted strip around the edge of the figure. The third highlight may be a different color from the second.
Keep it small, intense, and pointy or linear. Look at historic icons; some third highlights will surprise you!
Third (or sometimes second) highlight bright lines on clothing may extend to end in a dot, or a series of three dots.
Use this lively highlighting technique with discretion; no more than twice per figure.
On gold brocade and trim, use your tiniest brush to pick out some of those exquisite small details. This Byzantine
fashion design can be fun! Add a spot of brightness to each jewel and to each segment of diamond quilting.
On flesh areas, highlight only the closest and most important features - small bright areas at the top of the cheeks
under the eye sockets, brow ridges, center of forehead, bottom of ear lobe. Highlight the nose in 3 separate parts -
the triangle or "V" shape at the top, a line down the center shaft, a bright bulb at the bottom. Highlight the brightest
parts of the throat and hands similarly. Blend edges, leaving soft edges of first and second highlights untouched.
On angel wings, use that tiny brush to emphasize a few of the most important highlights.
Third highlights on hair are usually closest to the face. Pick the center spiral of your favorite curls and the inner
edges of your favorite waves. If you are painting adult Jesus, his hair should not necessarily receive a third highlight.
Left; third highlight on clothing,
trim, and hands.
Right; detail of a finished icon,
showing the complex layering of
highlights in different pastel tints.
The first and second highlights
on the monastic robe are pinkish
and the third highlight is light
For first highlight, use full strength paint to make a bright line following around the outside of each set of the spiral
branching dark lines which represent deep folds. Leave a small gap between dark line and highlight. At the end of
a dark line, hook the bright line around, back into the next point where 2 dark lines branch out. Try to make these
points sharp. Now fill in the triangular area between branches, using dilute paint.
Also highlight the collar, near the face. Highlight sleeves and cuffs, since they are nearest the viewer. Highlight
shoulders, elbows, and knees with a bright spot, blended out, and surrounded by a small spiraling set of folds.
Highlight cascades and billows of cloth, including the tiny sparkling points at the bottom of their folds. If certain
areas seem to need additional visual interest, add more folds and highlights, echoing and paralleling those
previously painted. These highlights should have a rhythmic quality, and some motifs or patterns may repeat.
At diamond quilting, highlight the top half of each diamond-shaped segment.
"Saint Redmond" models
a silk scarf - somewhat
oversized for him.
Highlighting on garments. Note spiraling treatment of folds, especially
around high points near knees and at forearms. Also note the many
little pleats, billows, and cascades of cloth.
Garments have a definite structure as they drape over the body
beneath. Although highlighting of garments permits considerable
flexibility in artistic judgment, it is not arbitrary.
Let your roskrish layer set up at least overnight, and preferably longer, before you
start your highlights! Do not overwork the blending. It is better to blend a bit
unevenly, than to scrub off the roskrish by attempting to blend highlights perfectly.
As you progress through the highlights and floats, finish each step on all areas,
before moving on to the next. "Working ahead" can throw the icon out of balance.
Miniaturization: For icons where faces are smaller than a dime (17mm), two
highlights and floats may be enough to delineate the faces and hands. You can
usually omit final lines on nose and lips. Garments will usually need 3 highlights.
Left; Anne Symanovich has completed second
highlight on her icon of St. Francis. The figure of
the saint is well delineated, and now she is
developing the background landscape.
Right; third highlight on Lori Greenleaf's icon of
Archangel Michael is almost complete. The
green garment still needs its third highlight. The
lower face is somewhat over-highlighted but can
be easily toned down with a float of dark ochre
or Venetian red at the edge. Hair, wings, red
garment, hands, and gold trim are nicely
highlighted and easy to "read" at a distance.
Left; Randy Bowman's icon of Saint Stephen has
received its first highlight, and will be ready for
the first float as soon as the paint sets up.
Right; Sister Danielle Fung has completed the
third highlight and third float on her icon of The
Holy Silence, and now she is working on
re-drawing the dark lines.
Below left; Jennifer Blecha has completed first
highlight and first float on her icon of the poet
Rumi. Floats of intense blue and off-white clarify
the inner image. Jen is in process of lightening
the dark brown border, which will later receive
the inscription of a beloved poem by Rumi.
Below right; Carolyn Feuille is almost finished
with her icon of Mary. While waiting for the paint
to set up for more blending on the face, she has
painted a floral border and corner decorations,
enhancing the feminine quality of this icon.
Below center; Anna Maria Stone's first highlight
on her icon of Archangel Gabriel - an excellent
job! The right side of the blue garment still
needs more highlight, and the right cheek might
use a little more as well.
SECOND HIGHLIGHT: A smaller second highlight is a second layer of under-painting. It represents the
Anthropos, the enlivening light of human intellect and culture. On the garments, second highlight
provides a sense of dynamic tension, as though the saint has just moved and may soon move again.
The second highlight should cover only about a third of the area. For flesh areas, second highlight blends into and
strengthens the first highlight. Mix with more yellow and white than first highlight; a medium salmon pink. Once
again, mix 3 palette cups for blending: full strength, dilute, and plain egg and water. Highlight the brightest areas of
first highlight, especially at top of cheekbones, and blend in at the edges, but leave the edges of the pinker first
highlight untouched, providing a rosy glow to skin tones. Do not highlight inside eye socket.
On hair, use full strength paint on a fine brush to highlight only parts of the strands and curls nearest the face, and a
small dot in the center of each curl. Do not highlight hair at the edge near the halo.
On gold trim and brocade, use full strength paint on a fine brush to start adding texture and detail.
On draped clothing, the second highlight takes the form of a stylized and spiritualized rendition of the small wrinkles
and bias folds that occur in draped cloth, as radiating lines, small triangles and parallelograms, and other small
pointy angular shapes. It cuts diagonally across the first highlight, often as a series of parallel lines,
trapezoids, and triangles, all producing crystalline cubist-like effects; and suggesting that the saint
inhabits a spiritual dimension. Work for increased precision and detail. Divide some first highlight areas into two
or more second highlights. Add small, dilute highlights to selected shadow areas. Use a fine brush to sharpen up
the lines and the little corners of the first highlight. Now the garments start to sparkle, move, and flow!
Second and third highlights have a logical structure, direction, and rhythm. Like crests of waves moving
across the water, like a field of grain in the wind, their flow of energy proceeds down the line of the body and its
garments, synchronized but never repeating exactly. Check out those historic icons; also the icons in the Prosopon
School gallery. Sometimes the garment highlights will have more than one direction, suggesting cross currents.
Larger first highlights may be subdivided into two or more angular second highlights. Although the second highlight
should be brighter than the first, it does not necessarily have to be a similar color. It need not stay within the
boundaries of the first highlight; but should not cross the dark lines. Again, leave a dark strip at the edge of the
figure, without highlights.
At right, from Dmitri Andrejev, is a study in white
pencil on black paper, showing first and second
highlights for an angel. If you have not highlighted a
face before, trace or xerox your drawing onto dark
paper, and practice highlights for your icon with
white paint or white pencil.
The lights and shadows form a rhythmic unity,
spiraling about the face and down onto the throat
and clothing. The shadow under the brows flows
smoothly, in a continuous curve, into the shadow
under the jaw line.
Similarly, the light on the nearer cheek curves
smoothly down from cheekbone to chin. The
complex shape of this highlight is worthy of close
study. Note that it comes in toward the upper lip,
then just to the corner of the lower lip, and ends up
in a bright spot on the chin. At its outer edge, it
blends gradually into shadow.
The light on the farther cheek is much simpler, a
long curved triangle extending down from the eye.
Note especially the shape and highlighting of the
mouth. The upper lip remains in shadow, while the
lower lip is strongly highlighted. The lower lip is only
about half the length of the upper lip. A small but
carefully shaped shadow remains under the lower lip.
At left, from Dmitri Andrejev, is a study in light-colored
and white paint on dark gray paper, showing stylized
first and second highlights on cloth draped over a
shoulder and arm.
Just as with facial highlights, note the location and flow
of bright areas and shadows. The shadows are just as
important as highlights in "sculpting" the figure and its
elegantly draped garments. Highlights and shadows
should be executed with equal care and precision.
The shoulder, collar, and forearm are "hot spots" which
receive the brightest highlighting. Shadows remain
along the lines and to the rear of the arm and shoulder.
The edge of the sleeve turns back to form a cuff, home
to a strong triangular highlight. The collar fold is
highlighted to help draw attention to the saint's face.
On the shoulder and forearm, note that secondary
spiraling wrinkles were added as part of the second
highlight. There were no lines here on the original
drawing, but these second highlights follow imaginary
lines that echo the lines on the initial drawing, which
were originally engraved and painted to guide the first
HIGHLIGHTING by VLADISLAV
Left; first and second highlights for St.
John the Baptist, depicted with wings as
"Angel of the Desert."
Right; completed highlights on Jesus'
It takes many years of practice to attain
this degree of mastery!
Vladislav's work is distinguished by his
highly developed, facet-like second
highlights on the garments. Like gazing
into the depths of a crystal, they suggest
the presence of other dimensions.
For more work by Vladislav Andrejev, see
the Gallery at www.prosoponschool.com
THIRD FLOAT: Let third highlight set up overnight or longer. Apply the third float, using brightest and purest
pigments, mixed more dilute than first and second floats. Apply lightly for two or even three applications. The
surface vibrates with subtly shifting colors.
Check skin tones. Unless your saint is depicted in the throes of grief or martyrdom, go for a healthy and even
slightly ruddy look, just short of a blush. If the skin looks sallow, pallid, or yellowish, apply a light float of bright red
such as cinnabar, vermilion, or earth orange to the edges of flesh highlights where they blend into shadow, and
especially to hollows under cheekbones. If necessary for additional rosiness, give all flesh areas (including hands
and throat as well as face) a light float of bright red. Tone down an excessive blush with a light float of gold ochre.
Optional: An angel or a healthy young saint may benefit from a stroke of orange-colored glow under the edge of the
chin, as used on the famous icon of Archangel Gabriel from Saint Catherine's Monastery in Sinai.
Check shadows. Eye sockets and the "bags" under the eyes should be mostly in shadow, down to the highlight on
the top of the cheekbone. You should have well-defined shadows along and under the nose, under the lower lip,
along the hairline, and on the throat under the chin. If they got lost, paint and blend them back in with dark ochre.
REPAINTING OF LINES: Using your pattern drawing as reference, repaint the lines with a fine brush, in a darker
color to complement the color of each area. Use black lines for eyebrows, upper eyelids, and pupils of the eyes, and
for the lines around the iris. All other flesh lines are dark red. Hair lines are usually black, but beard lines should be
lighter, burnt umber or brown ochre. Lines will cover up messy edges and may be used to refine the initial drawing.
"ASSISTE" OR "ASSIST" HIGHLIGHTING
Upper right; demonstration by Nikita Andrejev on a student icon, highlighting the dish
in which the severed head of John the Baptist reposes. This highlight will later receive
a float of dilute reddish gold.
Lower right; painted assiste highlights on the golden robe of the Christ Child. It is used
to give an impression of his radiant garment of brilliant light. Strongest emphasis is on
the collar, shoulder, cuffs, knees, and folds around ankles. This icon needed to be
brightened up, so this highlight did not receive a float.
On some icons, you will see highlighting applied as a series of bright rays
emanating from small bright areas, rather than blended. This technique is
known as "assiste." The rays indicate divine energy and the uncreated light of God.
Assiste is used for third highlight with shell gold or with gold leaf applied over glue, but
may be applied with paint as the second or third highlight. Earlier highlights are usually
omitted, so the assiste contrasts strongly with the bright or dark color underneath.
This is among the usual methods for highlighting angel wings. It is often used for
garments of Christ Emmanuel, the Christ Child, and Christ as Risen Lord; for the
golden trim on Mary's outer garment; and sometimes for golden trim or garments of
other saints. It is not used on flesh. Assiste is appropriate for sacred objects such as
gospel books and other objects held by a saint.
The background for assiste highlights should be intense enough to provide a good
contrast. A smooth background (without texture pigments) is easiest to work on.
FIRST HIGHLIGHT gives
some solidity to the figure,
grounding it in the material
SECOND and THIRD
HIGHLIGHTS proceed into
intellectual and spiritual
by sparkling crystalline and