Betsy Porter painting an icon, using her traveling studio setup
HOW TO PAINT AN ICON BY THE PROSOPON METHOD
Here’s a very condensed description. Although the technical pages provide more detail, I recommend that you enroll in a workshop, or a series of classes, before trying it yourself.
Icon painting is a meditative, prayerful, and somewhat ritualized art form, in which the materials and processes as well as the image have symbolic meaning. God's whole creation gathers to create the icon, in the form of the all- natural animal, vegetable, and mineral products used for the board, gilding, painting, and oiling. A blessed icon completed by this "liturgically correct" process is considered sacred, regardless of the quality of its art work.
- You need a special wood board. It is usually poplar, carved with a recess ("kovcheg" or “ark”) in the center, then covered with smooth but absorbent gesso. A flat panel made from half-inch plywood will also work. Smooth "Claybord" and similar panels are OK for practice. I buy my boards and panels professionally prepared, artworks in their own right. The whiteness of the gesso represents the uncreated light of God, eternally pre-existent before time.
- Find an image or pattern you like (available from pattern books and teachers, and online), Xerox to size, carefully position it with the top of the head at inner edge of recess, and transfer it to the board. Locate and mark center of halo.
- Incise your drawing into the gesso, or paint the lines, taking special care to delineate facial features.
- Apply liquid bole, a mix of finely ground red clay and animal-skin glue (sometimes with a drop of honey), to any areas to be covered with gold leaf, and optionally to the edges of the board. The red clay symbolizes the earth from which God created Adam. After the clay dries, sand and burnish smooth the areas to be gilded.
- Gilding is tricky! Gold leaf is only a few molecules thick. Wait for a cool morning. Breathe closely and warmly onto the red clay to bring out a bit of condensation, then immediately apply a small piece of gold leaf, smoothing it into place. In this process we remember how God breathed life into Adam. Repeat for 2 or more layers. Within a few hours of gilding, you can burnish the gold leaf to a high sheen, or impress decorative designs with a round-tipped stylus.
- Mix egg tempera base. This requires the liquid part of an egg yolk, without white or membrane. Separate your egg, and carefully remove the white without breaking the membrane surrounding the yolk. Puncture the yolk, hold onto the membrane, and let the yellow run into a jar. Mix in two parts of dry white wine, or substitute 1/3 teaspoon of white household vinegar and two parts of distilled water. For a large chicken egg, "one part" equals one tablespoon. For a larger or smaller egg, adjust the recipe proportionately. Refrigerated between uses, it will last for 3 to 7 days. The slight acidity of the wine or the dilute vinegar helps emulsify the egg yolk and has a preservative effect.
- Mix and apply paint. Historically, an iconographer had to locate and grind his own pigments, so colors are used frugally. Pigments have distinctive textures, weights, and "personalities," as well as colors. Mix a bit of powdered pigment to a paste with a drop or two of egg tempera base, then thin with more egg tempera base and, if needed, with distilled water. Egg tempera paint behaves similarly to water color, and is suitable for both opaque and transparent effects. Because it does not bead up on a fine brush, this medium is capable of delicate details and elegant line work. It dries quickly on the absorbent gesso.
- Working with board flat on the table, use a compass with ruling pen attachment to paint a bright red line around the halo. Next, apply dark and earthy “roskrish” or base colors. Base color for flesh areas is “sankir,” typically a dark olive drab, but sometimes nearly black. Use little circular brush strokes with a fairly full brush for a mottled texture, representing the Chaos or primordial energy at the beginning of creation.
- Paint over the incised or painted lines with a fine brush, to outline the features and the folds of the clothing.
- Now apply the first highlight. Lighter tints, covering 2/3 of the base color and blended for gradual shading, bring out the sculptural quality of each form, and symbolize the light of the Cosmos or natural order. Although crude and chalky, the icon is starting to take shape.
- The first float makes everything better. Apply a thin wash or two of slightly brighter color over each area, including internal lines, again using a fairly full brush and small circular brush strokes. Paint spreads out ahead of the brush, which barely touches the board. Now the color starts to become rich and luminous.
- A smaller second highlight represents the Anthropos, the light of human intellect and culture. On clothing, it cuts diagonally across the first highlight, producing faceted or cubist-like effects. On hands and faces, it blends into and strengthens the first highlight.
- The second float, in a brighter and purer tone than the first, softens the highlights.
- A third highlight symbolizes the Theocosm, the spiritual or angelic light. It is much smaller, more intense, and more dynamic than previous highlights, reinforcing and embellishing them.
- Apply the third float, using brightest and purest pigments. The surface vibrates with subtly shifting colors.
- Repaint the lines with a fine brush, in colors slightly darker than the color of each area. Use black for the eyebrows, upper eyelids, and pupils of the eyes.
- Details include a line between background color and red clay edging; and other symbols, inscriptions, and decorations. Paint in the whites of the eyes, tiniest crescents of pure white. Now the icon comes alive!
- The final highlight reinstates the Prosopon, the light of God. It takes the form of little sparkles on the clothing and fine lines on flesh areas, especially around the eyes, known as “ozhivki” or life-giving lines.
- Paint a pure white outside line around the halo, recalling the fresh white board waiting for your next icon. The painting phase is complete.
- After the paint has cured for 2 or 3 weeks, place your icon on paper towels and apply olifa, a warm linseed oil mixture. Check periodically, keep it warm under an incandescent desk lamp, and spread the olifa for a nice even finish. After a few hours, remove excess oil with the edge of your hand. Oiling increases visual depth so that all layers (including mistakes) become visible. It protects the surface, deepens colors, softens whites, and imparts a characteristic gentle sheen. Place the icon in a warm dust-free place to dry until the surface no longer feels tacky, several days to several weeks or even months.
- Now you can take your icon to church to be blessed! The blessing establishes a formal spiritual link with the person or event pictured, and completes the icon.
MORE DETAILED INFORMATION ON HOW TO PAINT AN ICON
Supply list and sources, including pigments
Selecting a pattern for your icon
Laying out your icon on its board
Gilding the halo
Studio tips for the iconographer; using the ruling pen and compass;
Color recipes for egg tempera painting
Roskrish or base colors; icon brush strokes; line work
Highlighting the icon; floats; repainting lines
Shell gold; gold lines over paint
Finishing touches and details; corners, borders, ozhivki
Applying olifa; anointing the icon
Landscape, buildings, and furniture in icons
Step by step painting of some recent icons
ABOUT EGG TEMPERA PAINT
The formulation described here uses all-natural ingredients for paint you can make yourself. This is like the difference between canned food and fresh!
Egg tempera on a gessoed wood panel was the usual medium for medieval and early renaissance art. Experimenting with various additives, artists later formulated recipes for hand-mixed oil paints. Paints packaged in tubes were a 19th-century innovation, and a great convenience for outdoor landscape painting. Mixing powdered pigments can be problematic in a brisk breeze!
For iconography and other indoor painting, I like fresh egg tempera much better than that sticky, buttery paint that comes in tubes. Being dry to begin with, your pigments will not dry out on you. You use just a small amount of pigment, and mix only as much paint as you need, so this method is very economical.
Egg tempera paint dries quite quickly, like watercolor, but "cures" more slowly, like concrete. If you have ever
inadvertently let egg yolk dry on a dish or pan, you know how difficult it is to remove. Egg tempera paint uses egg yolk as a binder to hold the pigment granules together. As the egg yolk sets up, the paint cures and becomes hard. Once cured, it is very stable and will retain its colors for many centuries.
The cured egg tempera paint, when applied in many layers, is brittle and will crack easily, so it should not be used thickly on a flexible surface such as paper or canvas. It requires a dimensionally stable, absorbent surface -traditionally a wooden board covered with true natural gesso made from marble dust, chalk dust, and animal skin glue. (Acrylic gesso is plastic and non-absorbent, suitable for acrylic or oil paint, but not for egg tempera.)
When working with egg tempera paint, try to plan your work so as to allow the paint to cure overnight or preferably longer between layers. If you are working intensively, as at a workshop, it's good to have a second piece to work on, while the first piece dries and the paint cures.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON EGG TEMPERA PAINTING
A commission for friends who own a beautiful grocery specializing in local produce. They already had a logo similar to this, based om a 19th Century image.
I painted it in icon style with gilded and textured sunrise; also turned the driver so we can see his face, made the horses more expressive, changed some contents of the cart to organic produce, and added the rural early morning background.
Good luck, and enjoy your icon-making!
At right; Prosopon student Louise Tessier of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada with her icon wall hanging Our Lady of the Prairies, constructed using hooked rug techniques. Her website is www.gardenrhymes.com.
Louise Tessier has assembled a traveling group exhibition Moved by the Spirit: Artistic Interpretations on the Life of Jesus, which includes this icon as well as sacred art by other artists.
Contact Louise Tessier here.
Photograph used by permission of Louise Tessier
Louise Tessier © 2011. All Rights Reserved.