Monday, March 05, 2007

The Work of an Iconographer

I previously published an article about iconography written by my friend, Dan Cassis, a Greek iconographer. The following article was written by another friend, Dimitri, a young iconographer who is native to Russia:

An Orthodox Christian icon is an image of the invisible made visible through paint. It is rendered in egg tempera on a hardwood panel. One of its purposes is to be the Gospel in visual form. Icons are not present in churches and homes just for decoration or custom: it is an object of veneration. The icon is an indispensable part of our worship, which itself functions as an icon by revealing the divine presence to the faithful and uniting the earthly and heavenly Church.

To make an icon I must begin with meditation to calm my body and heart in order to become more attentive. I study the icons that have already been made, and select one as the basis for my sketch. A person or event in Scripture or in the life of the Church may be painted. Currently, I take my sketches from existing icons. I would never paint an icon of a new, original subject (person or event) without the blessing of a bishop. New subjects are most often painted when the Church recognizes that someone who has died is a Saint, a “holy one.” When a Saint is recognized, an iconographer will paint an icon of the person. Even these new images are painted according to Tradition, the life of the Church. When we paint we unveil the teachings of a way of life that has been passed down from generation to generation for 2,000 years, and we are responsible for doing so accurately.

In an icon, every line, shape, and color – every layer of paint, has meaning and is itself part of our teaching. Even the tools we use teach us.

I begin the work by making a sketch. This sketch may be a tracing of a previously painted icon or a tracing from one of my teacher’s sketches. The sketch consists of penciled lines. It takes a long time to learn how to render the lines, and these lines are everything to the icon. There are elaborate circular lines and long straight lines. Each line will have varying thicknesses, and in this way the painting can resemble calligraphy. What is rendered in pencil on paper will be traced onto the wooden board. Once the tracing is complete, the painting will begin.

Let me describe the board, the painting surface: It is called an ark, and is symbolic of the story of salvation. The board may be poplar or oak – wood free of natural faults that can be sanded very smoothly. I begin with a preliminary sanding. Then, I apply to the board linen or cotton cloth that has been stretched by being immersed in gesso, a solution made of marble dust, rabbit skin glue, and water. Several layers of gesso are applied, and will be allowed to dry without artificial heat. Next, I will sand the gessoed, clothed board many times; finishing with 400 & 600 grade sandpaper.

Finally, the drawing will be traced onto the board. I etch the lines of the drawing onto my board very carefully with a large needle, a fine nail, or an engraver. I have to be sure that the lines are etched thickly enough to be seen under one or two layers of tempera paint, but thinly enough to have grace. The lines will be painted several times.

I take a measurement from the center of the figure’s face, and with a compass draw a circle around the entire head. The circle, a halo, represents holiness. I cover the halo area with a solution of “boule” or clay. Ingredients in the solution may include garlic or a certain kind of vodka. These solutions are sticky or damp, and are applied to the panel to make the gold leaf stick to the halo. I breath onto the panel and wet the clay. Then I apply gold leaf to the halo by laying the sheet of gold leaf (with paper backing) face down onto the clay. To ensure the gold leaf adheres to the surface I gently press the leaf down by rubbing the paper backing. Very carefully I use a soft wide brush to remove surplus particles of gold. Sometimes the gold adheres easily, sometimes it doesn’t.

At this point I make my paint. I begin by separating an egg yoke from the whites. Carefully, I rinse the yoke, holding it in my hand. When it is completely free of the white and moves in my hand like a smooth jellied ball, I drop the yoke into a small bowl or cup. I add a small amount of vinegar to the yoke, which slightly thins and preserves it. A powdered pigment, the color, is also added. The pigments are ground pieces of earth and rocks from all over the world. The pigments are expensive, but tempera made in this way lasts for centuries.

I begin the actual painting using a muddy-colored thin wash of paint with a rather small brush. This paint looks earthy and reminds me of the creation, especially the earth, made by the hands of God. The icon looks formless at this point. I either use a technique called petit lac (“little lake”), or “puddling” to make the icon’s background. This layer will dry either as a glossy texture, or a smooth receding background, according to how I apply the paint.

After the background has been painted, I begin to “build” the paint. I mix colors and apply the paint smoothly in several layers, moving from dark colors to light, with the pigments that are very finely ground on the top layers. The lines are traced three times in black paint and dark colors, using a fine brush made of squirrel hair or similar material. I apply lighter areas of paint next to dark areas to build the form of the figure, but the figure will not be in 3D, for we are not trying to render an exact representational form. The finished form will actually appear inverted to the eye, but by gazing at the image the viewer will be taken in to the painting by this technique.

As I paint, I begin to recognize a draped figure. Each kind of drapery (clothing) we paint has a meaning. Its color tells us something. Dark reds and greens are used to drape Christ and the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary). The Theotokos is covered in the red of Divinity. Christ, who is Divine, is covered in the greens of the earth to tell us about His humanity. Sometimes we clothe angels to remind us of their help and their presence. The figure may hold a scroll, a cross, or some other object that tells us about his or her work on earth. Some, who were healers, are painted holding a medicine jar.

When I’m close to finishing the painting, I apply the “life-giving lines” to the figure, face and clothing. These are small, delicate lines painted with a very lightly colored pigment, usually tints of yellow and white. They appear around the hands, joints, and especially the face and neck, lighting the figure. This enlightening represents the love and presence of God. (Christ is described as Light in the New Testament.)

Finally, I letter the icon in red with the name of the person depicted. These titles appear in the upper third of the icon plane. I may trace the halo with a round line of red paint that some people say is symbolic of the blood of Christ. In an icon of Christ Himself, the three Greek letters that form the words translated “The One Who Is” or "The Existing One" are painted in a halo that surrounds Christ’s head.

The board will be given several weeks to dry in a dust free place. It will then be varnished and given to a priest who will bless the icon through ancient prayers and set it on the altar table in the holy sanctuary of an Orthodox temple. Upon the altar table, the icon will rest in an atmosphere of prayer and encounter divine grace during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Afterwards, the icon will be given to the recipient or placed in the church for the viewing, contemplation, and veneration of the faithful.