Betsy Porter

Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography

Finishing Touches For Your Icon

LINES AND BORDERS - They frame the icon, cover messy edges, and add visual interest. You can use the ruling pen to make especially neat, straight borders; or you can paint them freehand.

Paint a line, 1/16 to 1/8 inch (1.5 to 3 mm) thick, around the very edge of the icon, between the paint on the surface and the red clay bole at the edge. Olive green is the customary color and usually looks fine, but sometimes another dark color such as midnight blue or dark brown is more harmonious with the other colors of the icon.

I enjoy the handmade quality of a freehand line. First, use a ruler and pencil to lightly draw a guide line in place. Using a fine brush and full-strength paint, go around the border, then around again and again for 3 or 4 repetitions. The line looks weak and raggedy at first, but gradually gains strength and color.

Use the ruling pen with a straightedge if you prefer a very regular line. To avoid smearing, let the horizontal lines dry completely before applying the vertical lines.

You may have 2 background colors, one for the inner background and one for the outer border; in which case they may be separated by a line somewhat thinner than the outer edge line. This line should provide a moderate contrast with both background colors. Consider a mix of white with bright yellow, mica gold with yellow ochre, or a dark red.

Ideas for borders and corner motifs can be found in illustrated books and in decorative household items, such as picture frames and china dishes. Practice them on paper before painting them on the icon.

When the icon is nearly finished, paint a thin pure white line around the halo, just outside the red line, and about half the thickness of the red line. If you do this with the ruling pen compass, it makes a beautiful circle but digs a hole in the face - so I prefer to do it freehand. You have now returned to the white of the original board, a reminder that it's time to start thinking about your next icon.

CORNER TREATMENTS can be very simple or more elaborate. Some iconographers shun them as frivolous or as distracting from the main theme - but I like the way they adorn the icon and provide a visual frame.

Leaves and flowers make good corner decorations, but abstract designs are also suitable.

If your board has a wide outer margin, you will have room for more elaborate borders and corner decorations, or even for miniature icons such as the angel above.

It's really hard to paint figures at this scale, especially the tiny faces! If you want to try this, plan the corner icon in advance, and gild the halo before painting.

You can paint entire borders in ornate floral, leafy, or interlacing Celtic motifs. Allow plenty of time; the green border at upper left took me 10 hours.

Although borders and corner ornaments may be planned in advance, it is best to wait until the icon is nearly finished to paint them, so that they won't smear. To make the painting easier, I rest my hand on a stack of palettes the same height as the board thickness.

A wide border is a good place for inscriptions.

FINISHING THE EYES – Your final lines should include careful work around the eyes. Adjust eyes, lashes, eyebrows, highlights, and shadows under the eyes for symmetry. Refine the pupils and the lines around the irises. The iris should be mostly or completely visible, and the pupil should be entirely visible, but close to the upper eyelid. The finished eyes should give the impression that the saint is looking to heaven, and sometimes at another person in the icon, while still remaining intent on the viewer.

Eyebrows, upper lashes, pupils, and lines around the irises are black. All other flesh lines are dark red.

Float the iris with a brown float (same as hair).

Use pure white on your smallest brush, almost dry, to very carefully paint the whites of the eyes – tiny triangles or crescents on one side of the iris, and slightly separated from the iris. Your icon saint will gaze in the direction away from the whites of the eyes.

FINISHING THE MOUTH – Carefully delineate the mouth with dark red lines. It should appear friendly, even ready to speak, while not exactly smiling. The upper lip has squarish (not pointy) ends and remains in shadow. The lower lip is strongly highlighted, has rounded corners, and is only about half the length of the upper lip. A small highlight at the corner of the lower lip makes for a pleasant, friendly face. Float the lips red (same as red garment).

OZHIVKI OR OJIVKI ("LIFE-GIVING LINES") - Those thin, whisker-like parallel lines, especially around the eyes, represent the uncreated light and energy of God! They are the final highlight for your icon. Apply them with your thinnest brush, fairly dry. They should highlight the main facial and flesh areas, and often occur in sets of two or three parallel or radiating lines. The dominant side of a face will have extra ozhivki beside the eyes.

Hair, clothing, and symbolic hand-held items may also receive ozhivki - but much more sparingly than face, hands, and throat.

Ozhivki should be like "a breath of the Holy Spirit," brightening the face and lighting up the icon without calling attention to themselves. From a distance they should be barely noticeable. Don't make ozhivhi heavy or overly white. Mix your white pigment with some dark yellow or other appropriate color to tone it down.

Jesus is usually depicted gazing directly at the viewer; with irises entirely visible and pupils slightlyVbelow upper lashes.

FACIAL HAIR - Just recently, I learned how to do this better; so I have no good examples to show you!

Beard and mustache are considered part of the face, and should be floated with the face rather than with the hair. As a finishing touch, the lower parts of the beard may be floated with hair float color, blended into face float. This particularly applies to younger men, including Jesus.

Most final lines in the face area should be dark red. Tips of the beard, and lower line of mustache, may then be enhanced with a darker color such as black or burnt umber.

For older men, the hair and beard may be enhanced with light yellow (same color as ozhivki), to imply graying. The bushy eyebrows of older men may be shown by thin strokes of light yellow across the dark eyebrow lines.

Mary's Stars

Mary is identified by her three 8-pointed "stars of perfection" - one on each shoulder and one above her forehead.

Using a circle template and light pencil line, you can easily position these stars and make them a uniform size. Start with a spot of light yellow paint at the center of the star, then paint in the 4 main points, then the 4 lesser points (which may be of a different shape) and additional decor.

Clothing for Mary and other female saints is often embellished with fringes, embroidery, and small jewels, especially at the hemline. Wait until the icon is almost finished before painting these delicate trimmings! Work carefully, and use your smallest brush, quite dry. Female saints may also have an off-white dot under each earlobe, indicating a little pearl earring.

Lay out fringes using a ruler and light pencil line, to keep them parallel and of even length. The fringes may have their own adornments of knots and tassels. The area behind fringes should be dark, with minimal highlighting.

SYMBOLIC OBJECTS - Teachers and prophets hold books and scrolls, but many saints and angels hold other symbolic objects that help us identify them.

Archangels carry a slender spear and often a translucent globe or disc. These are like an orb and scepter, indicating the angel's high status. The spear is also a hiking stick, to show that the angel is on a journey. Although the spear is too delicate to function well as a weapon, it does evoke the angelic calling to defend the universe against evil.

Warrior saints also carry spears - again too slender to do much physical damage, but an emblem of their battle against evil.

Position your straightedge carefully, and use a ruling pen to draw the spear.

The translucent globe or disc comes from ancient times, when a royal messenger would carry a metal disc emblazoned with the recognizable symbol of his king. Since saints and angels serve God, various emblems or reminders of God may be used here. Sometimes the face of Christ Emmanuel appears in the globe!

Wait until the very end to paint the globe or disc. Use a circle template to help in laying it out in an attractive size and location. Once positioned, you can paint the edge freehand over a light pencil line, or you can paint a larger globe with a ruling pen compass - be careful not to leave a hole. The globe may be defined by 2 or 3 concentric circles. Then fill in the center with a dilute float of the same pale yellow or blue color. The garments underneath show right through the globe - a very striking effect!

The same technique was used for the translucent alabaster jar.

Different saints are accompanied by their own personal objects, or sometimes by animals or birds.

If you don't know how to draw it, find a picture you like, and practice on paper! For plants and animals, nature guides are very helpful. And if the real thing (like the basket at left) is available, that's even better.

Background Details

Small details like stars, twigs, leaves, and flying birds are most easily painted after the background color is completed. A few colors are adequate. As with other details, use your smallest brush, rather dry. Keep a damp Q-tip handy in case you make a mistake!

Flying birds are not difficult to paint, but practice on paper. First outline the streamlined head and body, then add wings and tail, then some soft shading.


Now your icon is all painted! Or is it? You are your own best critic.

The borders are completed, the lettering is in place, the ozhivki look beautiful, and all the finishing touches are done.

Now is the time to check it over. The bole or paint on the edge of the board may have developed nicks or thin spots. The red halo line generally needs a touch-up.

Check your shadows and highlights, especially on face and throat. Verify that shadows around and under the eyes are symmetrical. Also check highlights on the lower face, so important to facial expression. Very frequently, if something about the mouth or eyes doesn't look quite right, the problem is not with the feature itself but with the highlights around it. Verify that ears are highlighted, so that the saint can hear your prayer.

You may want to refine the face by adding dilute highlights. If you have over-highlighted, you can restore shadows to their proper depth with dark ochre paint. At this stage, use very dilute paint and work gently - don't scrub paint off in your zeal for perfection! Blend out at the edges just as you did when highlighting. For a healthy look, you may want to add a dilute red float to the edge of face and throat highlights, especially hollows of cheeks.

Get back across the room from the icon to see how it "reads" graphically at a distance. The intent of gestures and facial expressions should be clear when viewed at a distance. The upper parts of sleeves, hands, and hand-held symbolic objects may benefit from extra highlighting to make them stand out visually, or to clarify a gesture.

Look at your icon in a mirror and upside down - and you may notice something you missed previously!

Resist the temptation to make major changes. Paint another icon instead!

Display the icon where you can see it easily. You may suddenly notice some detail you want to adjust, some minor problem that can be readily fixed. Listen when your icon saint "talks" to you! When you and the saint are reasonably satisfied, photograph the icon for your records. Review the photo; because you may see something minor that you'd like to fix. After final paint application, let the icon rest another week or so before applying olifa.

After the olifa is dry and no longer sticky to the touch, take your icon to church to be blessed. At my church, an icon is blessed by placing it on the altar table during the celebration of the Eucharist. Other churches and clergy may prefer other blessings, perhaps in the form of a simple prayer.

In some Orthodox traditions, it is customary also to ask for a blessing on your next icon - an excellent way to start a new icon project!

Your icon will not be perfect - because only God can make something perfect. Your icon is nevertheless very attractive - perhaps the finest, most considered, and most meaningful art work you've ever completed.

Your art materials are highly archival, and with minimal care your work should endure for centuries. You have joined the great tradition of iconographers, whose works continue to delight us and to help us relate to the divine, bridging the years and the many cultural differences between their times and ours.

In my opinion, your first icon should remain with you as your prayer companion, your meditation object, an adornment to your life and your home, a precious heirloom for your family.

As you complete more icons, they will find other homes with your church, your family members, and your friends. An icon makes a particularly meaningful gift for a baptism, confirmation, anniversary, or marriage.

When giving an icon as a gift, provide a stand for it, and explain that it is not intended to hang on the wall.

Cathleen Fortune's icon of Archangel Michael has received some of its finishing touches including olive green perimeter line, inscription, and translucent globe. The details of ornamentation on the angel's garment are exquisite! The background is beautifully mottled in a variety of light pastel colors, for an opal effect.

Cathleen is in process of restoring shadows to the face, throat, and hands, all of which were overly highlighted. At far left, the shadows are just beginning to re-appear. During the following session, the shadows are better shaped and blended.

An icon of Archangel Gabriel by Anna Maria Stone receives its finishing touches. At left, third highlight and third float have been completed. At center, line work has been completed, and ozhivki add sparkle and life.

At right, Anna Maria has added the spear, transparent globe, floating hair ribbons, inscription, and dark border line. Ozhivhi have been added and strengthened, including on the hair and earlobe. The halo has received its white line, and the eyes come alive with a touch of white. The painting of the icon is complete!

The icon sits on the altar table of St. Gregory's church, awaiting its blessing.

by Anna Maria Stone and Betsy Porter

At the end of the service, Rev. Paul Fromberg carries the icon on his shoulder as we dance in procession around the altar table.

by Anna Maria Stone and Betsy Porter

Preparations for blessing the icon of Saint George, shown sitting on a wooden music stand on the altar of Saint George's Chapel near Healdsburg, CA. After the service, the icon was moved to its assigned spot, a special shelf near the entrance door.

Bishop Marc Andrus used the following blessing, which can be adapted for blessing other icons:

Officiant: Christ is the icon of the invisible God.
All: All things were created through him and for him.
Officiant: The Word became flesh
All: And dwelt among us.
Officiant: Let us pray.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior manifested your glory in his flesh, and sanctified the outward and visible to be means to perceive realities unseen: Accept, we pray, this icon of Saint George, the patron saint of this Chapel; and grant that as we look upon it, our hearts may be drawn to things which can be seen only by the eye of faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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