Betsy Porter

Line Drawings - Patterns For Byzantine Icons

Traditionally, line drawings are used as patterns for icons. Whole books of such patterns are available; and you may receive patterns from your teacher.

I especially recommend "Orthodox Icon Patterns" Volumes 1 and 2 by RB Cass; paperbacks available from Amazon. These patterns are clearly and gracefully drawn, although the folds of the garments need work to bring them to the branching configuration typical of Prosopon style. Many women saints are included; also early Irish, English, and Welsh saints. These books also include halo patterns, border patterns, and several alphabets in various sizes.

You will find many more patterns at Click on the British flag, then Gallery, then a subject, and you may find a tab for "tracings and transfers."

There are over a thousand icon patterns, including borders, details, clip art, and religious motifs, at, plus full-color albums of icons, mosaics, and wall paintings. Artistic quality of patterns is variable, but you can find many unusual subjects at this site.

For even more patterns, see

The patterns in books are sometimes reversed (mirror image). Repeated tracing, xeroxing, and photography may leave pattern drawings distorted, blurred, faint, out of square, or otherwise hard to work with. Be prepared to make adjustments and refinements.

Below, I have included a few favorite line drawings for your use. They have come from a variety of sources. You will find some (but not all) of them as full-color icons in the gallery or elsewhere on this site. Sorry, I can't translate the inscriptions!

However, now that inexpensive color reproduction is available, the easiest way to obtain a good pattern is sometimes to make a color print of your selected icon, as long as it is in good condition. After xeroxing to size, tape it to your board, put a sheet of carbon paper under it, and trace the main features and lines with a ball-point pen, just as though using a line drawing.

Whatever type of pattern you use, you will almost always need to make refinements or changes. With experience, you can make your own drawing, based either on a traditional icon or on another image that attracts you spiritually, or even a photograph of a modern saint. The image should show both eyes and at least one ear of your saint, and mouth should be closed. Take time to develop and finish your drawing; you'll be working with it for many hours.

SELECTING AN ICON TO PAINT - As with any other learning, start with the easiest and work your way up to more difficult images. For your first icon, select either a view showing the head and shoulders of your saint or angel, or a hip length half figure. An angel is especially recommended as a first subject. You will learn to paint a beautiful face, curly hair, wings, and richly ornamented Byzantine garments. Choose a board or panel in the size range between 8 x 10 inches and 11 x 14 inches.

A gilded background, or even a large gilded halo, is a lot of work and is not recommended for your first icon. Wait until you are confident of your gilding skills.

For a second icon, challenge yourself with an icon showing two people, such as Mary with the Christ Child. You will learn to paint a smaller face; and you will be depicting not just the holy people but the relationship between them.

From there, you can progress to a full-length figure in a landscape or building - perhaps including animals. This will enhance your ability to paint a very small face, and you will learn to highlight the lower part of the garment, as well as to paint landscape, buildings, and furniture. Once you are comfortable with these artistic challenges, you can move on to icons depicting a group of full-length figures. Push your abilities, but only one step at a time.

No permission is required to use any of the patterns below, or to use any historic icon as a pattern, or to copy any design for personal use. However, artist's permission is required to copy a recent design for commercial use.

left; Christ the Teacher - center and right; the Mandylion or Holy Face, Image not Made by Hands

Christ in Glory; the Fourth Day of Creation; the Holy Trinity

left to right; Christ Emmanuel, Christ the Teacher, Christ Pantocrator

11 icons of Mary, Our Lady, Mother of God, Theotokos (God-Bearer or God-Birther), the Virgin

The icon of Our Lady of Tikhvin at right is intended for a gilded background - burnished in the halo area, matte gold for the rest of the background.

The Presentation in the Temple; The Passion; Resurrection Icon of Women at the Empty Tomb

Archangel Michael in a landscape; The Holy Silence (or Silence of God); Archangel Gabriel

3 Archangels; Michael in parade armor; Uriel with Book of Life; Raphael with Emmanuel image

5 icons of Saint John the Baptist

The icon at right was designed to have a gilded background; areas to be gilded are colored red.

It shows Saint John the Baptist with wings as "Angel (messenger) of the Desert."

John's upcoming death by beheading is indicated rather surrealistically by the dark cave in which his head rests in a footed golden dish. In right foreground, "the axe is lying at the root of the tree." Left and right mountains may be different colors.

Saint Peter the Apostle, Saint Mary Magdalen, Saint Francis of Assisi

Saint Andrew the Apostle; Saint Marina (Saint Margaret); Saint Seraphim of Sarov

An angel delivers Saint Peter from Prison; Saint Paul sails the Mediterranean preaching the Gospel; the Apostle/Evangelist Saint John with his disciple Prochoros on the Island of Patmos

The Prophet Isaiah; The Prophet Moses at the Burning Bush; Saint George and the Dragon

The Apostle and Evangelist Mark; The Prophet Daniel in the Den of Lions; The Prophet Ezekiel

Some patterns are unidentified, or easily adaptable for a variety of saints. Above; generic female saints - a nun, a martyr, and a queen or princess. Below left, a prophet or a challenging teacher.

Below center and right; these patterns for Saint Nicholas and Saint Basil can be used for other
early bishop saints by changing the distinctive face, hair, and beard as appropriate.

Making A Pattern From An Icon Print, Including A Damaged Historic Icon

Historic icons often have great intensity and appeal, and you may wish to use one as a pattern and guide for your own work. Unfortunately, they are frequently in poor condition, with colors faded or darkened, and entire portions of the image missing or poorly restored.

If you are just starting out, it is best to work from a line pattern such as those shown on this page. There will be plenty to learn.

With experience and understanding of typical icon style and structure, you will be able to make your own pattern. Work for an image similar to the original, as it would have appeared when new. You can trace the easily visible outline and eye position, then sketch in the face and the flowing folds of the garments.

How about a pattern for another saint? There are books of patterns, but they never have all the images you might want. You may have to make your own pattern. If you do not have the desired icon in your books, then look online for icons, and choose one or two that you like.

Print out the icon, and xerox it to the right size for your board. You may have to make several copies, two or three each of slightly different sizes. After some careful fitting to the board, choose a copy to use. If it printed bright and clear, you can tape it to your board, put the carbon paper under it, and use it as a pattern.

Sometimes, especially with ancient icons, the colors are so dark that it's hard to tell where the lines should be, especially the draping of dark garments. Or there may be incomplete areas to fill in. In this case, tape the print down to a flat surface, place tracing paper over it, and make a pattern. This may take several tries.

Use similar icons and patterns as a guide when drawing the draped garments. No stray lines; all must intersect with other wrinkles to make the typical branching lines for wrinkles.

Some icons, both new and ancient, are badly drawn or have clumsy areas. Go ahead and make whatever improvements you see fit.

If parts of the original are missing, badly restored, or hard to see, review other icons of the same or similar subject for suggestions. Those long-ago iconographers had their own artistic struggles; perhaps you can do a little better! Your icon, like theirs, will be a unique work of art and devotion, so there is no need to follow the historic icon in every detail.

Modern Icons Can Also Be Problematic As Models

A lesson of experience: Just because that icon is new and easy to see, does not necessarily mean that it is a good model. This is a common problem with depictions of modern or non-Byzantine saints, such as Saint Francis of Assisi. I do not recommend working from a contemporary model until you are thoroughly familiar with the Byzantine style of iconography.

I have seen many modern icons where the saint has a beautiful face, but where the hands are poorly drawn, or where the iconographer does not understand the draping of Byzantine garments.

Background landscapes are sometimes poorly painted and should not necessarily be copied.

Even if you love the face and the general concept of a modern icon, look it over with extreme care. Trace it onto tracing paper and make any necessary fixes before applying it to the icon board.

When you have selected an image to paint and have settled on a pattern, you are ready to select a board and to lay out the icon on its board

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