Betsy Porter

Resources – Iconography Supplies And Equipment

Sinopia of San Francisco, in collaboration with Kremer Pigments of New York City, specializes in ground pigments; also other tools and materials such as gold leaf, brushes, etc. For gold leaf, see sister site

Earth Pigments advertises its French pigments as natural, non-toxic, and environmentally friendly. Many of their colors are unique to this supplier. (See "Testing New Pigments" on Color Recipes page.) Pigments are ground very fine, so should be supplemented with medium and coarsely ground pigments from other suppliers. On the Earth Pigments site you will find instructions for making your own art paints and decorating paints of many varieties. They ship to the United States and Canada only.

Earth Pigments offers an attractively priced, general purpose beginner set of 12 colors. For iconography, this set should be supplemented with Cinnabar Red, Ercolano Orange, and an assortment of ochre pigments, as well as some coarsely ground pigments from other sources.

Natural Pigments offers unusual and historic pigments, as well as other tools and supplies - affiliated with Iconofile

Irene Perez-Omer offers pigments and supplies. Her pigment kit is intended for iconography and is especially recommended for beginners.

Stanislav Solovyev manufactures standard-size and custom icon boards and panels, with or without gesso. Allow 7-10 days for delivery of standard boards to California, 3-4 weeks for custom boards.

Saint John's Workshop manufactures gessoed boards to order. Boards have oak braces and are of excellent quality; highly recommended if you can wait They also offer practice boards, with a thinner coat of natural gesso over 1/4-inch plywood.

etsy carries boards from Europe; search for "icon boards gessoed." Most of these boards are flat, not gessoed on sides. Custom boards are also available. I haven't tried these boards, but they look fine, have excellent prices, and receive glowing reviews. Allow 2 months for delivery.

Atlantic Iconboards is a new source; looks good and excellent prices. Contact here.

Kalish Finest Brushes - brushes for watercolor and egg tempera.

Easy Leaf Products - gold leaf, shell gold, bole, and all sorts of gilding supplies and accessories. Their online catalog provides only photos. For technical information or to order, call 800-569-5323.

Miroslav from Serbia (no website) manufactures custom icon boards, including boards with hand carved borders, for an excellent price. Because of shipping costs, it is most economical to order several at once. Insist that boards be individually wrapped in foam or bubble wrap, no more than 6 boards per shipping carton. Contact Miroslav here.

Materials And Supplies

This is a reasonably complete list of the iconography supplies and equipment that I’ve gradually accumulated over the years.

I suggest that you take a workshop, to see which items are most useful to you, before investing in a complete list of supplies. If you are attending a workshop, most items for classroom use will be provided or available for purchase at the workshop.

Keep pigments and other adult art supplies out of reach of young children.

Basic Art Equipment

Good lighting. For workshops, bring a portable desk lamp that sits on top of the table (no clamp lamps). If you are over 40 or have any difficulties with your eyesight, I strongly recommend a magnifying visor with 14-inch focal length, such as “Optivisor DA-3.” An alternative, especially if you do other close work, is the Bausch & Lomb "Magna Visor" with 3 interchangeable lenses at 6-inch, 8-inch, and 12-inch focal length. They are available at craft stores, hobby stores, jewelry supply stores, and online.

Optional: Face mask if you are sensitive to dust or airborne particles.

Terry hand towel on which to rest your icon while working on it – and to wrap it for transporting. Tote bag(s) or a cloth brief case or a rolling case in which to transport your icon and supplies.

Watercolor palettes – white plastic or white porcelain. Wells should be rounded, without square corners.

Watercolor brushes, natural bristle; available at art supply stores as well as from suppliers listed above. Include small size round brushes (No. 4, 2, 1, 0, and smaller) that come to a fine point. Include at least one very fine brush, such as Princeton 20/0 Liner and/or the slightly shorter Princeton 20/0 Monogram, for detail work. (If you insist on painting in oil or acrylics, use synthetic-fiber brushes rather than natural fiber.)

Rulers, with edges that sit slightly above the surface. Compass(es) with pencil tip and ruling pen tip.
Optional: Circle templates, other drafting templates, drafting triangles. Optional: Ruling pen for straight lines.

Cotton swabs such as Q-Tips; also facial tissue, disposable paper or plastic cups, sketch pads, eye droppers.
Optional: sponge-tip eye shadow applicators for blending paint smoothly over large faces.

Small to medium jars and containers with tight fitting lids, for liquids and pigments. For pigments, I like screw-top clear plastic containers intended for beads. Measuring spoons and measuring cup; disposable plastic flatware.

For handling pigments – tiny spoons or smallest available pointed palette knife.

For Laying Out The Icon And Halo

Tracing pad, drawing pad, carbon paper, masking tape.

Compass(es) with pencil tip and optional ruling pen tip.

Rulers, drafting triangles, protractor, circle template, other drafting templates. Ruler edges should sit slightly above the surface, to prevent smearing paint.

Pencils including non-photo blue pencil; ball point pen.

Art erasers – gray kneaded, white rubber.

Awl or stylus with sharp metal tip, for engraving into gesso.

Icon Board Or Panel

For egg tempera painting, you need a white or near-white surface which is absorbent, rigid, and dimensionally stable. Dried egg tempera paint, when applied thickly or in several layers, is brittle and will crack if bent.

You will need a wood board or plywood panel, covered with white natural gesso, mixed from animal-skin glue, chalk dust, and marble dust. I buy them professionally prepared, but some iconographers prefer to apply the natural gesso themselves - a messy job! Do not use acrylic gesso, which will not absorb egg tempera.

For practice only, smooth white Claybord® (available in art supply stores) will work acceptably. It does not absorb paint or olifa quite as well as natural gesso. Practice panels should be even better. Some of these panels may be thinner than wood or plywood panels, and could bend slightly, causing the dry egg tempera paint to crack. An icon is a major project, and is worthy of high-quality archival art materials.

For Making Bole Mixture

Red bole paste or powder – “Falcon Bole” paste from Sinopia.

Animal skin glue, such as “Titebond Liquid Hide Wood Glue” – special order from True Value Hardware or Some prefer rabbit skin glue, but this is a nuisance to prepare and difficult to preserve.

Tap water; or distilled or purified water, available at the supermarket.

Dedicated white porcelain mortar and pestle, largest size, from gourmet kitchen store. Wide-mouth container with snug fitting lid.

Nesting strainers, fine mesh, small to medium size.

Alternative: Prepared liquid bole mix from - nice and smooth, but thin on top, and requires extra gold leaf. Stir well. I prefer to mix it with my home-mixed bole, for the best qualities of both.

Several other bole products are available from Easy Leaf Products, but I have not tried them.

Just before use, I like to add a small amount (a drop or brush-tip) of honey to bole mix in the palette cup to help the gold leaf stick. This can be any honey, but local honey is always nicest.

Abrasive pads and sandpaper (or other sanding media) in medium, fine, and very fine grits; with dedicated scissors.

23 or 24 Kt gold leaf for “water gilding” – do not get the “patent” or “oil gilding” type. "Double" weight is best. Dedicated sharp scissors.

Wax paper, cut into sheets slightly larger than a sheet of gold leaf.

Soft wide brush – a round “gilder’s mop” is ideal.

Agate burnishing tool on a stick – or a smooth, hard, highly polished tumbled stone, agate or quartz with no cracks or defects. Alternatively, use a small piece of horsehair cloth interfacing, available at some fabric stores.

For making impressed designs, a metal craft tool with rounded tip. For larger-scale designs, use a tack hammer to make impressions with nail sets (a drywall tool from the hardware store), metal stamps, or leather-tooling stamps.

Egg tempera base (juice of one egg yolk plus 3 tablespoons dry white wine), made fresh at least weekly, with eye dropper. See instructions on Color Recipes page.

Small jar of distilled or purified water, with eye dropper.

For handling pigments; tiny spoons, smallest palette knife, or other small pointed tool.

Pigments, palettes, brushes.

Eggs for egg tempera paint, just as for eating, should ideally be freshly laid by happy free-range chickens. I like the beautiful "extra large" and "jumbo" brown eggs from the farmers' market. If that doesn't work out, grocery store eggs are perfectly OK. Eggs will stay sufficiently fresh for 2 weeks if refrigerated.

Duck and goose eggs have thicker, yellower, more viscous yolks than chicken eggs, and are considered highly desirable for iconography if you can get them. Use a double quantity of dry white wine or vinegar-and-water for a duck egg, triple quantity for a goose egg.

Water - this site frequently refers to distilled water. Distilled and purified water are inexpensively available in gallon jugs from the grocery store; and are recommended if your tap water has a high mineral content. If your locality has high-quality tap water with little mineral content, go ahead and use tap water.

Note: Many iconographers like to grind pigments in a few drops of liquid, for a smoother texture. For medium quantities, use a small white porcelain mortar and pestle, available at import stores (such as CostPlus World Market and some Chinatown stores) that handle white porcelain. Get at least 3 for different colors, because the inside of the mortar is textured and will retain color. For small quantities, use a glass swizzle stick or cocktail stirrer, available at import stores, to grind pigments in a white porcelain palette with rounded wells.

Below; something to dream about - a full set of Kalish brushes! This is way more brushes than you really need, and many more than I use. The small size "liner" brushes are especially useful.

My Favorite Natural Pigments

I do not recommend lead-based, arsenic-based, cadmium-based, or cobalt-based pigments - many are historic, but they are toxic. Non-toxic alternatives are available. If you are sensitive to airborne particles, use a dust mask when handling pigments.

If you are ultra sensitive, mix your egg base with tube gouache or watercolors – I haven’t tried this, but it should work OK as long as an opaque white is included.

There are many more pigments out there, so try a few of them! In my experience all, or almost all, natural pigments look good together. Be cautious with chemical pigments, not only because they produce a non-traditional “look” but because the colors tend to clash with those of natural pigments. If in doubt, test pigments and mixtures on lined or graph paper to check color and coverage. See color recipes page.

Pigments have texture and "personality" as well as color. Some pigments go by several different names, and some names apply to more than one color - very confusing. The numbers and descriptions below are transcribed from the labels on my jars, some of which were purchased over 10 years ago. These pigments last a long time!

Store pigments in containers with tight fitting lids, and replace lids promptly. I like round, clear plastic containers with snug screw tops, intended for small beads, available at bead stores and craft stores such as Jo-ann's or Michael's.

The owner of these well- organized tools and pigments has been working in egg tempera for 20 years!

The entire kit fits into a large 3-level plastic tool box. There are more pigments down below the tray. Templates line the side of the box, and there's a space for Q-tips.

You will start with 12 to 24 pigments, and gradually add more to your supplies. Unless you buy a set in small jars, most pigments will come in jam-jar size containers like those shown below. Buy small containers with secure lids for easier carrying and use. Share small amounts of pigments with your fellow artists; each jam jar holds enough for hundreds of icons!

Pigments listed are from Sinopia except as otherwise noted. Some may be no longer available, or out of stock.

WHITE: Titanium White: PW6 Rutile Opaque Artist Grade

Gold Ochre; K4001 French Ocher JTCLES Clear Yellow
Yellow Ochre; K4006 JALS warm yellow from France
Orange Ochre; K4032 Italian Dark Ocher Transparent Orangish
Green Ochre; K4020 Yellow Ochre AVANA greenish from France
Dark Ochre; K4024 Fawn Ocher German Light
Brown Ochre; K40231 German Ochre light warm brown
Bright Yellow; K4350X Cobalt Yellow, Aureolin
Dark Indian Yellow; K2335W Indian Yellow Imitation
Natural Yellow from Earth Pigments; intense and slightly greenish

Earth Orange; K41600 Terre Ercolano Mixed Orange Earths from Italy; and/or Ercolano Orange from Earth Pigments
Red Ochre; K4009 French Ochre SOFOROUGE red
Venetian Red; K4051 Venetian Red Earth (cool red hue) from Italy
Vermilion; Genuine Vermilion - a brilliant red.
NOTE: Genuine Vermilion is mercury-based and toxic, but it's the only historic pigment to produce a really nice bright red.
Use it with special care. "Cinnabar" from Earth Pigments is an acceptable substitute; not quite the same color but very pretty and much easier to dissolve.
Burnt Siena; K40450 red brown from England
Light or Red Hematite; K48650 Hematite Rich Red from Arizona
Dark Hematite; K4860 Hematite (slightly coarse aggregate) from Arizona
Iron Oxide; K52400 Translucent Iron Oxide Red PR 101 – texture for roskrish
NOTE: Hematite and iron oxide are like finely ground rust or iron ore.
They are heavy and will sink in your palette. Mix extra paint and use only the top.
Natural Red from Earth Pigments - intense, good for line work

Terra Verte; K4175 Vagone Green Earth cont. Prussian Blue & Chrome Oxide
Idanthren Blue or Indigo Blue Substitute; PR88 (indigo shade)
- Dark, intense, and inky, a little goes a long way
Natural Indigo (if you can find it) – a powerful blue; may need grinding
Lazurite (ground lapis lazuli) or Azurite – available from Natural
- Has very little color, but provides sparkle in 3rd float. Apply very thinly.
- Malachite (green) and azurite (blue) behave similarly; fine ground stone.
Maya Blau; 36007 (a Kremer number) – texture for roskrish
S.O.F. Blue from Earth Pigments - a pretty medium blue
S.O.F. Green from Earth Pigments - bright grass green

Betsy Porter
Betsy Porter

Kilo Munoz painting Archangel Raphael

Note that only small amounts of pigment are required to make enough paint for each color. This method is very economical in its use of pigments.

Burnt Umber; K4072 Burnt Umber, Cyprus, Very Dark
Shungite; a blue-black available from Natural; my preference
Or Black; K47150 Ivory Black Imitation mixed bone black & iron oxide
Or Vine Black; PBK8; or Natural Black fro Earth Pigments
Colonial Violet from Earth Pigments - intense warm near-black, good for line work

Pale Ochre: K17000 Yellow Ochre extra pale from Cyprus
Cream: K11283 Alta Albula (Albula Pass Switzerland) – texture for roskrish

Pearl Ex 657 Sparkle Gold by Jacquard Products, available at Pearl Paints. Earth Pigments also sells mica pigments.

- Mica pigment is natural but definitely non-traditional
- Mix with yellow or orange ochre for narrow borders in final stage.
- Mica pigment is hard to remove without smearing.
Or preferably shell gold, a finely ground gold leaf mixed with gum arabic

My traveling icon studio includes a large towel to cover the table; pigments in small lidded containers; egg tempera base and distilled water with eye droppers; plastic palettes; a mug with paper cup for rinse water; brushes, pencils, rulers, palette knives, lined paper, Q-tips, work lamp, and of course icon boards.

You will find a materials list and instructions on the Studio Tips page.

Once you have a board and basic supplies, you are ready to select a pattern and lay out the icon on its board.

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