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Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography

Byzantine icons are painted using a structured and somewhat ritualized protocol,
using a series of symbolic steps, each of which will take an hour or so, for a total of
at least 40 hours.
 If you haven't tried it, this may sound foolish - won't it inhibit your creativity
to work so slowly and deliberately?  Can you work with a historic image and still be creative?

In my experience, this method can enable almost any motivated adult to produce a beautiful
icon, and the technique forms a steady foundation for further development of one's artistic
abilities.  Many artistic decisions are required.  Your unique inner creativity will shine through!

This artistic approach may seem counter-intuitive, especially if you are accustomed to
working in watercolor technique, dark over light, darkening the shadowed areas and leaving
the brighter areas white or only lightly painted.  With this more familiar approach, the artist
strives to get it right the first time, and to develop those perfect, expressive, spontaneous-
looking brush strokes, because mistakes can be hard to fix.

An icon is painted the other way around, starting with application of dark shadow colors in
minimalist brush strokes, and gradually adding layers of highlights and transparent color.   
This egg tempera technique produces colors of great subtlety and luminosity, set off by deep
shadows. The resulting artistic effect is rich and intense.  Egg tempera paint can be easily
removed while fresh; but once it sets up you can paint right over it; so small changes are
relatively easy.
There are many methods and styles by which an icon can be painted.  The
following directions describe (with slight modifications) the Prosopon
Method developed by my first teacher, Vladislav Andrejev.

See Color Recipes for instructions on mixing the colors recommended below.

applying bole, lightly engrave the main lines (and especially the facial
features) into the white gesso with a pointed tool.  Do not engrave staffs or spears,
stars, fringes, lettering, small details, translucent bottles, or transparent globes.  
Engrave lines where gilding meets the board, but not until you have established
your halo line by trial and error. Wipe up dust with a tissue; don't blow it around.

When engraving is complete, use a kneaded gray rubber eraser to lighten any dark
lines remaining from the carbon paper used for tracing the icon drawing, and to
clean up stray guidelines.

With experience, you may prefer to paint some or all lines rather than engraving.  
Use a color just dark enough to show through each roskrish color.

gilding, first apply a bright red line in a circle at the edge of the halo.  Carefully
locate the center of the halo, often marked by an “X” on the drawing.  Using a
compass with a
ruling pen tip, open the compass to the radius of the halo.  Fill the
ruling pen with liquid red paint.  Practice on paper.  Holding the ruling pen at a slant,
apply a thin red circle just at the edge of the gold leaf, overlapping the gold slightly.  
(If you have difficulty getting paint to stick to gold leaf, add a drop of hide glue.)  
Now widen the compass slightly, and paint another concentric circle in the same
color farther out, leaving 1/16 inch between lines.  Fill in between the lines with the
same color, using a small brush.  Black or dark red may be used instead of bright
red.  If your subject is Christ, paint the cross and symbolic letters in his halo.
ROSKRISH (also spelled roskrysh) or base colors come next.  
Roskrish colors are dark and muted, and will remain as shadows
throughout the painting process.  They represent the “chaos” or
primordial energy of the universe - an energy which persists in the
finished piece, like the background radiation from the Big Bang.  
Roskrish colors are applied, like other solid color areas, in tiny circular
strokes with a wet brush, resulting in a mottled texture with a hint of the
white board showing through.

Sankir (also spelled sanquir), typically a dark olive drab, is the
base color for flesh and hair areas.  Apply the paint full strength
and fairly opaque, with a hint of white coming through.
 Mix paint  
no thicker than light cream, for a good brush feel.  To ensure good
shadows on the face and throat, first paint in the shadowed areas
including the entire eye sockets, around the hair line, down both sides
of the nose, a spot between the bottom of the lower lip and the top of
the chin, and the shadow on the throat under the jaw.  Now paint all
flesh and hair with sankir – right over the eyes and other features. Don’t
forget hands, feet, and throat!  You may need a second coat for good
Leave angel’s hair band unpainted.
LINE WORKPractice first on paper for at least 10 minutes!  
With your small round brush, paint straight lines, circles, arcs, spirals,
eyes.  Paint lines thin-to-thick, thick-to-thin, thin-to-thick-to-thin.

Now paint and refine the lines of your icon with your smallest
 Use your paper drawing as a guide, and work over the engraved
lines.  It's OK to refine the drawing by moving some of the lines slightly.

Start from the eyes, making sure they are symmetrical and not cross-
eyed.  The entire pupil and the entire iris should show; but note that they
are usually horizontal ovals rather than round.  Pupil and iris both appear
to “hang” from the upper eyelid like dewdrops from a branch.

Continue, with particular attention to face, hands, and fingernails.  
Paint all of the curls and strands of hair.  Paint edges and main lines of
golden trim, but save details for later.  Paint in edges and folds of clothing;
the folds often form continuous branching spirals.  Paint edges and larger
feathers of angel wings.
Filling in with red paint
between concentric red
lines around the gilded
halo.  For a small halo, do
not use a ruling pen
compass, but lay out the
circle with a template and
paint freehand.  If you don't
have a ruling pen compass,
draw light concentric guide
lines with a pencil tip
compass, and paint the red
halo circle freehand.
Next, apply roskrish colors for the garments and angel wings.  Each
paint mix should typically contain a gritty pigment for texture and
character.  Dilute paint with distilled water, about one part water to two
parts paint.  Proportion may vary with pigment, so test on white paper.

To avoid smearing, work from inner areas out toward the edge.  Work to
a wet edge, using small circular strokes by a wet brush held at a slant,
spreading pigments around in wet paint for that uniformly mottled
“chaos” look.  More than a hint of white should show through.  A large
garment may be divided into smaller areas for easier painting.  Work for
consistent color and coverage, spreading the texture pigment around.  
If your texture pigment runs low in the palette cup, add just a smidgeon
more.  Apply one or two coats of roskrish as required for coverage.  
Second coat may be a slightly different color and thinner than the first
coat.  Texture pigment may be omitted from second coat if you wish.

When roskrish for the figure is complete, paint in the basic background
color, usually light gold.  Dilute with about 1 part water to 2 parts paint.  
You may find it difficult to keep your paint mix consistent over the large
background area, because some pigments (usually texture pigments)
are used up more quickly than others.  To avoid this, start painting in
the narrowest place, typically just above the halo, and spread some
background paint lightly backwards for a gradual start.  Add small
amounts of the missing pigment to your paint as you progress.
Yoshi Mathias applies sankir to face,
hair, throat, and hands of Archangel
Michael - but not to his hair band.

During the following session, she
applies various roskrish colors to
clothing and background.
Anna Maria Stone has completed the
roskrish on her icon of Archangel
Gabriel.  Working over a xerox copy of
the drawing for her icon, she practices
line drawing with a fine round
watercolor brush.
Icons are painted with a distinctive brush stroke, which may be quite different from brush work you have
learned elsewhere.   In solid areas, mop on paint for roskrish and floats with a wet brush.  Hold the brush
on a slant and work quickly in little circles, 1/8 to 1/4 inch, barely touching the board with your brush.   Do
not dab, and do not lift the brush from the board  until you need to refill it.  Keep it wet and keep it moving,
carrying pigment across the area.  The paint will form a puddle, but it won't take long to dry.  Avoid long
brush strokes.  This "petit lac" (little lake) method actually covers the area quite rapidly, and results in a
subtle mottled texture.  Cultivate a light
touch and a sense of the paint as a veil.

A long wide brush stroke is considered
the narcissistic "mark of the artist," and
unbecoming to an iconographer.
Randy Bowman is painting the head of Saint
Stephen.  He has completed the gilding and has
impressed a design in the gold leaf, has painted
the red line around the halo, and is now applying
sankir to face, hair and throat.

A closeup shows the lightly mottled effect
produced by moving the wet brush in tiny circles.
Note that the eye sockets and other shadowed
areas have an extra coat of sankir, making the
features easier to locate through the
nearly-opaque paint.
Let sankir and roskrish set up overnight or preferably longer.
Now your icon is ready for

Back to
Home Page
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Back to Layout
Back to Color Recipes
Back to Gilding
During the next session, Randy paints the
remaining roskrish colors and a basic light gold
background color.

The color for the red outer garment is quite
light and may need an additional coat to set off
its highlights.

Next time, Randy darkens the red roskrish,
and then paints in the dark lines.  His icon is
now ready for
Above left; Jennifer Blecha paints roskrish for her icon of the poet Rumi.

Above center and right; Anne Symanovich paints roskrish for an icon of St. Francis.
A LESSON IN LINE WORK FROM VLADISLAV ANDREJEV - from a Prosopon workshop handout


When exercising straight lines, control the pressure on a pencil or a brush.  The stronger the pressure, the wider is
your line.  A straight line usually starts with a fine drop of paint or ink and continues in decreasing thickness until
fading.  It is recommended to start with a very thin line and give it more body, working on the perfection of the sketch
or the line itself as an exercise.

Start with wider lines first, exercising the maximum thickness the brush can provide.  When your hand feels controlled
and relaxed, try thinner lines and so on, until the finest hair-like line.

Now practice
thick to thin and thin to thick lines.  Alternate the direction your hand moves, right to left and left to
right.  It makes sense to make some lines with a ruler as a sample.  Keep the brush almost vertical but slightly inclined
toward the movement of your hand.  The heel of your working palm may rest on the surface but ideally should not
touch it.

Remember that a
straight line represents the straight motion of our mind, and in practicing it we prepare our will to
act in the simple straight way, the way of Truth.


Curved lines
are the fragments of a circle or oval.  So the exercise should be made in a way that the line would
have a perfect curve thoughtfully drawn upon an invisible figure.  A face is a good object on which to exercise curved
lines, especially the lines of the eyes.  Look carefully at the best examples of ancient and contemporary iconography,
and try to copy the lines of the face without a loss of strength of expression.

Repeat the same progression as with straight lines, working from thick to thin.  When a fine and stable line is found,
try to add thickness in the place of the curve.  The final image should be full of tension, like the body of a stretched
bow.  Not only the thickness of the line is an important element, but also the tone of it.  A line looks stronger if the
tone is increased in the right place.  So the curved line of the eyelid may be applied first in a thin and transparent
way, and after working more on the perfection of the curve, you will darken the tone and thicken the line in the right

If, on a shared two-dimensional surface, a straight line represents the impulse of our mind or will (as
energy of mind), or first light, a line that is curved suggests the deeper movement of a thought.
 It gives
us a chance to see beyond or through that common two-dimensional surface.  That sense of “beyond” in us is
second light – the intuitive vision of a soul.  So the curved line in an icon suggests the third dimension of forms.  
Practice will make our eye sensitive to them, and our hand will not hesitate.


The continued exercise of a curved line resolves in the drawing of a circle.  The Circle is a perfect
geometric figure and it needs our perfect attention.
 Making a perfect circle by hand should become a frequent
exercise and can be executed in any media, but especially in brush and ink or tempera.  The graphic principles are
the same as in the
curved line exercises.  The iris and the pupil of the eye are the details you may use to practice.  
Make a circle with a compass to see the difference.  You may also draw a square and draw a circle inside of it.

If we look at the circle from any angle other than a right angle, we will see an
oval.  The oval is a step down in
perfection, but still it is a true figure.  Like the circle, the oval can be executed in two or four curved lines.  Practicing
eye lines, draw a pair of eyes the same size and shape, with pupils looking in one direction.

As a perfect figure, the circle is an image of the contemplative mind which is aware of its own source.  
The mind that has learned circular motion never loses its sense of the center and is able to perform
unceasing prayer.
Vladislav Andrejev and his wife Olga, who assists in translating his ideas
into English, teaching a workshop in Omaha, Nebraska, July 2008.
photograph by Shelli Joye

The eyes at the top show how not to do it!  The top left eye is rolling
up under the eyelid; the top right eye is too round and staring.  The
large eye at lower right is correct - oval pupil in an oval iris, both
"hanging" from the eyelid line.

Left and lower left; straight and curved spiraling lines for clothing.
Center; double spiral for curly hair.

Note that many lines are thickest in the center, and taper toward the
After base colors are dry, you may
find that the surface has more
texture, or less consistent texture,
than you like.  You can very lightly
scrape the paint surface with the
edge of a small palette knife,
reducing the height of the largest
particles.  Don't dig into the white
gesso!  Or wipe the icon gently
with a paper towel, to remove
excess grit.  Wipe from lighter
areas toward darker colors, in
order to avoid spreading dark
pigments on light colors.
Center right; roskrish by Dmitri
Note the lightness and
translucency of his technique.  Lines
were painted before applying roskrish.

Dmitri prefers a decidedly greenish
sankir mix.  The white inner garment
has a different roskrish mix from the
white parchment pages of the book.

The red-orange outer garment will
eventually receive highlights of gold
leaf. This is a different mix from the
bright red of the inner background,
and yet different from the wine red in
the corners.