Writing an Icon
To write an icon, is first to engage in prayer. The iconographer begins by invoking God for His assistance in the work he or she is about to begin in collaboration with God. For, in all reality, it is God's work through our hands. As the iconographer asks God for His inspiration and assistance, he or she also asks forgiveness of any sins that might be an obstacle to the prayer which is the writing of the icon. The prayer also consists in praising God, thanking Him for this opportunity for Him to continue to reveal Himself to us through the icon, petitions for our special needs and for those who will later view the icon that they may enter into the prayer that it is. As the icongrapher begins, these prayers are imbued into the icon.
Then the work of writing the icon begins with the preparation of the board on which the icon will be written. Traditional boards, made of birch, are covered in linen and then have several coats of gelso applied before any colors are added. In the traditional mode, egg tempura paints are prepared for the icon. In this age, many iconographers use acrylic paints. So, once the board is prepared, the background color is applied in thin layers of overlapping brush strokes to prevent streaking. Texture is added either using a stipple brush or sponging.
The next step involves transferring the drawing from paper to the board. This is done by squaring up the print on the board, placing an underlay of carbon paper and tracing over the lines on the drawing to transfer them to the board. Once the line drawing has been transferred, the iconographer uses a small brush to paint in the lines in a dark color, i.e. burnt umber.
Once the lines are painted in and dried, the base colors are applied. These are the dark colors of each element in the icon. For skin tones, Sanfir is used. The base colors are applied in thin layers with overlapping brush strokes to avoid streaking of the colors. After these layers are dried, the process of highlighting to bring our the details of the icon begins. Lighter colors are applied to those areas of the icon which represent high points on the image, for example, foreheads, noses and cheeks on the faces, folds on clothing. These lighter colors should be feathered towards the areas that will remain darker.
Once the details have been highlighted, the image is outlined with a fine brush in contrasting lines. The border is finished, the back and sides of the board are painted. Then three coats of varnish are applied. Icons are never signed. An inscription on the back of the board may be written, as in the case of this icon, "by the hand of M.T. Sisak 7/21/16."
The process of bringing out the details in an icon parallels our spiritual journey in that we go from darkness towards the light. In an icon, the only source of light is that Divine light which is in all of us. This process of going from darkness towards light is what give icons their particular "glow," and slowly reveals the facial features and the details in the icon, much as our spiritual journey from darkness towards the Light reveals more and more of the nature of God to us as we journey.
Perspective and Symbolism of Colors
Icons draw the viewer into them by virtue of the fact that perspective is the opposite of most artistic compositions. The norm for art is that the "vanishing point" in a composition is in the background on the composition. In an icon, the viewer is made part of the icon, because he or she is the "vanishing point." Remember, icons depict reality from God's point of view, not ours. Hence, we are invited to enter into the icon in our contemplation of the subject.
Gold is reserved for Christ and symbolizes divinity. Traditional Icons are gilded with gold leaf. The gold shines through on the halos and other parts of the Icon. The gold symbolizes the eternal uncreated light of God and his heavenly kingdom.
White is used to show heavenly purity and divinity. Icons depicting after the resurrection will have Him white robes. Before His Passion, Christ is depicted in Red. White is also used to depict swaddling clothes of babies, the shrouds of the dead and the robes of angels.
Purple was the Byzantine symbol of royalty. It is used in icons to represent Christ's Kingdom. Mary is often depicted in purple in her role as Queen of Heaven.
Red is used in icons to represent humanity and the saving nature of the resurrection. It is the color of blood and thereby signifies life on earth. Red may also be used as a royal color, thus Mary and Christ both may be depicted in red robes.
Blue signifies the heavens and the kingdom of God not on this earth. Byzantine icons of Mary show her with red outer garments and blue ones on the inside. This signifies her original human nature (the red) and her heavenly nature (the blue). In Eastern iconography Mary was depicted in red or brown to depict her as a physical (grounded) being but the earliest icons depict her in blue. It could have depended on the availability of pigment.
Clothing: Icons of Christ will show him with Blue outer clothing and red inner clothing. Christ's inner garment is red and symbolizes his humanity. His outer garments are blue and symbolize his true divinity. In addition to blue, red and green are also reserved for Christ and Virgin Mary.
Green is the color of the living earth and has been used to portray youth, hope and where life begins. This contrasts to brown which is meant to show our fallen nature on earth and that we will all eventually become dust.
Black is used in Iconography to portray evil and death. Demons and satanic beings are portrayed in black.
The colors of white, gray, blue, green, and light shades of red are used for other holy persons. Black may also be used for religious habits, though the color is not pure black, but often a deep shade of blue.
For information on lessons in writing icons, email me.
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Background, first border and line drawing of St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata
First layer of dark colors applied
Highlights and first flesh tone applied
First highlights applied, background is given a light wash to soften the texture
Second highlights and halos applied. Once completed, the icon is outlined, halos are lined and the Greek inscription is added to Christ's halo. The border is completed