Betsy Porter

Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography

Painting Icons Step By Step

As an icon is constructed, it goes through an orderly and well-planned series of stages.

Even though the initial stages do not look like "art," they are essential to the final outcome.

Painting of details is intentionally delayed until the base colors, highlighting, and transparent washes or "floats" are complete.

Recently I've been taking step-by-step photos of my own icons and those of my students.

If the series lacks a few early stages, I probably missed the opportunity to take pictures. If the final photos in the series are missing, I'm still working on the icon!

Throughout this site and especially these technical pages, you will find many photos (including some repeated on this page) showing how the image is built up through its many layers.

A little trouble-shooting is often necessary - so I'll mention that where it occurred. This can sometimes be a bit embarrassing, to admit that I didn't get it right the first time.

A small Mandylion icon takes shape. Far left, gilding and red halo lines are complete, and the process of painting roskrish has begun. Center left, the dark blue background roskrish is complete.

Center; the line work has been completed and first highlight is in process. Center right; first highlights and first float have been completed; and the background has received two additional layers of dark blue paint. Far right; second highlight is complete.

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The Finished Icon; The Mandylion Or The Holy Face

Egg tempera and gold leaf on panel, 5 x 6 inches, 2008

Saint Andrew the Apostle is depicted as a distinguished and confident teacher on this postcard-sized personal icon.

Above left, roskrish is almost complete. Next, I add a border in a strange blotchy lavender - this remains through several stages while I work on the figure. Above right, second float, and detail of third highlight.

Below left, third float - and the grayish-white float on the hair looks terrible! Below center, a dark ochre float on the hair, and a light gold float over that pesky lavender border. Below right, line work and borders. For a strong outline, the hair was darkened where it meets the halo.

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Saint Andrew the Apostle

Egg tempera and gold leaf on panel 5 x 6 inches, 2008

The Fourth Day of Creation - The 2003 version at right was a wedding gift, and has moved out of town with its owners. I miss it! So recently I painted a new version, this time on an arched board to better accommodate the starry heavens.

Left to right - Bole is applied to edge of board and to areas to be gilded - including lots of stars! In second photo, gilding and 2 coats of roskrish are complete. Third photo shows dark lines; and fourth photo shows first highlight.

Left; second highlight. For this version, I'm using an "assiste" style of highlighting, marked by fine lines rather than gradual shading. The ocean waves are far more active than in the 2003 icon.

Right; the blue background is finished with 3 light floats of lazurite (ground lapis lazuli) and Egyptian blue (ground blue glass) for sparkle and depth.

Third highlight is in progress - and I can start painting the 8-pointed stars! There are so many; this takes 2 hours.

Then the inscription is added around the wide margin - same text as for the first version, because these words greatly appeal to me.

Lastly, the Creator's white and golden garments are accented with fine lines of shell gold! 2 or 3 applications are needed for good coverage. After the gold dries, it is burnished to a high sheen.

The Fourth Day of Creation
Egg tempera and gold leaf on shaped sculpted board, 11 inches x 12.5 inches, 2008 photograph by Richard Anderson Border inscription from Bishop Seraphim Segrist

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The Annunciation was the assigned icon for an intermediate-level workshop of the Prosopon School, with Dmitri Andrejev as instructor.

The background was gilded in advance - a big job which took me most of a weekend, and required some 12 sheets of gold leaf.

When an icon includes figures of this small scale (face smaller than 17 mm, the size of a dime) it is OK to use only 2 series of highlights and floats. You can paint some second highlight over the first highlight, as shown at left above, before floating.

After the first float, the second highlight is continued and elaborated, then proceeding directly into the third highlight.

By Orthodox tradition, the young Mary was living and working in the Temple of Jerusalem when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to tell her that she should expect to become the mother of a very special baby.

To enhance the other-worldly atmosphere of this icon, Mary (with her seat and footrest) and Gabriel are shown floating in front of the background.

The building and its architectural features are shown in an inversed perspective, folded outward to display an event taking place indoors This arrangement is very illogical to our Western ways of thinking, but it enables the viewer to behold both the inside and the outside of the building simultaneously. For more, see the Landscape, Buildings, and Furniture page.

The Temple and its special features, as well as the figures of Gabriel and Mary, are full of symbolic meaning. I found it challenging to incorporate all these elements in an artistically unified and harmonious way, and to make the figures "read" clearly against the complicated background.

This complex icon is full of movement in multiple directions, with many diagonal lines. At times its components seemed to be "flying apart" as in an abstract painting by Kandinsky.

At the suggestion of Patricia K. Kelly, Gabriel's wings were floated to a lighter color, so that they fade somewhat into the background. The figures are now more nearly equivalent in visual weight. The strongest diagonal line (the upraised wing) is much reduced in visual impact, and the composition has become more stable. The decorative line with lily corner motif repeats the lily at from Gabriel's spear, and breaks up the disproportionately wide border.

The Annunciation
Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board,
11 inches x 14 inches, 2008
photograph by Richard Anderson

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Ubuntu Trinity, although contemporary in theme, is based in concept and general layout on the famous Rublev icon. For the three angelic figures, I used the drawing for Holy Trinity, but lowered the figures on the board so that they could be shown sitting on the ground.

Sankir, the base color for flesh areas, is different for each figure - but highlight and float colors are the same for each of them. Similarly, the roskrish or base color is different for each robe, but all are highlighted and floated with the same pale gold, followed by white.

The leaves, birds, fish, and stars were painted as finishing touches, after their backgrounds were completed. Although the water was painted early in the process, the waves wore away and had to be re-painted at the end. The light gold background became overly blotchy - and had to be carefully re-painted, using a tiny brush to get between the leaves.

Ubuntu Trinity

egg tempera and gold leaf on shaped panel, 11 inches x 12.5 inches, 2008 photograph by Richard Anderson

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Our Lady of Vladimir - For this icon, I wanted to become more familiar with shell gold and how to use it. In order to provide a good dark background for the golden brush strokes, Mary's reddish-purple robe received only a first highlight; no second or third highlights. In retrospect, I think it would have looked better with a second highlight.

The shell gold came out somewhat grainier and coarser than ideal - maybe I didn't grind it long enough and patiently enough!

For instructions on how to make the floral pattern in the halo, see bottom of gilding page

Our Lady of Vladimir

egg tempera, gold leaf, and shell gold on sculpted board 11 x 14 inches, 2008

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Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, with his disciple and scribe Saint Prochoros, imprisoned on the Island of Patmos

In icons of the 4 evangelists, Mark, Matthew, and Luke are depicted at desks, peacefully writing their gospels. By contrast, John is shown accompanied by his young disciple Prochoros, in a cave on the prison island of Patmos, while receiving inspiration directly from heaven.

This highly stylized depiction shows the two sitting on rustic furniture in a cave which occupies almost the entire island. The size of the island is exaggeratedly small to graphically indicate that they have no escape. The strong diagonals of the rocks, the agitated ocean waves, and John's tense posture emphasize the urgency of their task.

Note that the rays from heaven are not painted until late in the process. The white garments and the starry heaven are enhanced with shell gold.

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