Betsy Porter

Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography

How To Apply Olifa To Your Icon

Olifa, a mix of two kinds of linseed oil, is the traditional, all-natural, breathable finish for egg tempera icons. Applying olifa represents the anointing of the icon, in preparation for its final blessing. It imparts a soft sheen and a touchable, kissable surface.


Tom Hodgson with his icon of St. Joseph and the Christ Child - ready for application of olifa.

Tom pours olifa on his icon.

Spreading the olifa.

Applying Olifa (Or Olipha) To Your Egg Tempera Icon

Egg tempera undergoes a chemical change and hardens as it cures. Before applying olifa, let the icon cure for 2 to 3 weeks. Absolute minimum is 3 days. On an icon painted a few months or years ago, olifa may take longer to dry. Gently remove dust from surface. If you want to repair paint or re-apply olifa to an antique icon, first carefully remove the old olifa by wiping with dilute alcohol such as vodka or medical alcohol swabs.

Apply olifa at a time when you will be around to check on it for 3 to 4 hours. Warm dry weather is best for quick drying. Drying time is wildly unpredictable, ranging from a few hours to a few weeks or even months.

In cooler weather, preheat oven to its lowest setting, 150 to 175 degrees F. Cover a cookie sheet with paper towels. Set a support, such as a stack of old magazines or large ceramic tile, to hold the icon about 1/4 inch above the towels. Set icon on support, turn off oven, put assembly into oven, and leave for 5 to 10 minutes.

Mix olifa in a glass jar with a lid; typically 3 parts regular linseed oil to 2 parts stand oil. If the weather is warm and dry, you can mix it slightly thicker, up to one part regular linseed oil to one part stand oil. In cool or damp weather, mix it a bit thinner, up to 2 parts regular linseed oil to one part stand oil.

Set the jar in a bowl of hot tap water to warm up (not too hot, don’t burn yourself). Remove cookie sheet with icon from oven, and set on counter.

Applying olifa to an icon is a solemn moment, a symbolic anointing which may be marked by a brief wordless ceremony of 3 crosses. Cross yourself, make a cross in the air over the icon, and pour the oil onto the icon in the shape of a cross. Use just barely enough, usually about a tablespoon. Spread it around with your hand to cover the entire icon, including gold leaf and red clay on the sides, but not the raw wood back. Check for dry spots. Add a little more olifa if required for full coverage.

Set the icon in a warm spot to dry. Avoid locations where dust might blow onto it. Also avoid overheating, because the gold leaf can bubble up. You can put the assembly back into the turned-off oven, but only for a few minutes. Do not set it in direct sun on a hot day. I like to set mine under an incandescent desk lamp.

Every half-hour or so, check on the icon. Check for dry spots, which tend to occur in lighter paint areas, and move oil from shiny spots over them. Also check for color bleeding (usually red), and carefully blot with a paper towel, or remove colored oil with your finger. Always wipe from light area toward colored area.

After 3 hours, start removing oil. Wipe with the side or heel of your hand, medium pressure. Dry your hand on more paper towels, and repeat until you have removed all the oil you can. Do not rub so hard as to remove paint. Again, watch for bleeding colors. You can blot with paper towels if necessary, but don't rub with towels.

Repeat the wiping process after one to 3 hours, checking especially at the edge of the recess. Repeat again every few hours and/or next morning, until you can no longer remove oil. The icon, or parts of it, will remain tacky to the touch for a while. Keep it in its warm dry place while it finishes drying, and cover it if you’re concerned about dust.

Olifa provides a protective coating and imparts a gentle sheen to the surface. Colors become more complex and luminescent, as you can now see through all the veils of paint, whites soften, and gold leaf mellows.

When newly oiled, an icon is at its most beautiful! The colors are at their most translucent and glowing, as with a smooth beach stone dropped into water. This effect fades slightly as the olifa dries.

NOTE: Drying time and optimal olifa mix proportions are highly sensitive to temperature and humidity. You may need to experiment with your olifa mix, and calibrate it to your local conditions.

Ideally, the icon should dry in about 3 to 10 days. If it dries in one day or less, try a slightly higher proportion of stand oil (say 1:1) next time. If it takes more than 2 weeks to dry, use a thinner mix (say 2 parts regular linseed oil to 1 part stand oil) next time.

A Lesson of Experience: Stand oil is linseed oil that has thickened from standing around for a few months. If you mixed your olifa a few months ago, guess what may have happened to it! If your old batch of olifa looks thicker than you mixed it, discard it and mix a fresh batch! Or if this just seems too wasteful, at least thin it down with regular linseed oil and mix well. Otherwise, your olifa may take a really long time to dry.

During the drying period, it is normal for olifa to have an uneven sheen and a "patchy" appearance, with some spots shinier than others.

Keep your icon in a warm dry place, protect it from dust, and check on it occasionally.

If the icon is really slow to dry - every few days, preheat your oven to lowest setting, 150 to 175 degrees F. Turn oven off and put the icon in the oven for 10 minutes.

One iconographer advises leaving the icon (unwrapped) in the back of a hot car - you could try this, but it sounds risky to me! Beware of dust and foreign objects getting on the surface.

One iconographer, who lives in the cool and rainy Pacific Northwest, told me that after ititial drying she puts her icon in a closed cupboard, standing with its face to the wall, for the remainder of its long drying period.

If you have removed olifa from part of an icon to make minor repairs, and then re-applied olifa to that area, it will require extra drying time.

Caution - the surface of your icon may remain slightly tacky for several weeks, or longer! Towels and wrappings that come into contact with the surface must be clean and free of scraps of gold leaf, bits of eraser, etc. If foreign objects stick to the surface, remove them gently with a slightly damp Q-tip.

Newly Oiled Icons Soaking Up Olifa

Saint George and the Dragon, and Archangel Michael, both by Carla Tenret

Christ the Teacher, by Paul Fromberg

See the Artist Friends page for more icons by Tom Hodgson, Carla Tenret, and Paul Fromberg.

Another Method - Finishing Egg Tempera With Beeswax

There are several other methods and materials for finishing a egg tempera painting, but I haven't tried them. Cecilia Aguallo finishes her icons with a light coat of unbleached white beeswax, as follows:

Warm the board and the wax, enough to soften but not melt wax. Slowly rub the wax into the board, including gilded areas, using your thumb and fingertips. Cecilia writes, "It takes time, which is lovely, like a meditative prayer walk. Bit by bit, I cover the board."

If it is a sunny day, keep the board in a warm window as you work. If you want to buff the finish, apply a second light layer of beeswax.

When done, set the waxed icon in a box to shelter it from dust. Depending on atmospheric conditions, a week or more may be required before the icon is no longer sticky.

The cured and dried finish may be buffed with a 100% cotton rag.

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