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How to Paint an Icon Learn Byzantine Iconography

Updated on January 5, 2011

What Are the Steps to Painting an Icon?

ICONOGRAPHY IS THE OLDEST TRADITION of Christian sacred art, found in monasteries and churches from ancient times, embodying the work of thousands of iconographers, many of whom were themselves saints. Unlike other approaches to painting, the creation of an icon does not begin in the artist's imagination. Rather, the iconographer's first work is to study how the subject at hand has been traditionally depicted in this rich iconographic tradition.

How Does an Iconographer Begin to Paint an Icon?

This explanation of How to Paint an Icon is courtesty of Monastery Icons

In creating a new icon, our iconographer begins by searching his collection of books on icons, gathering samples of icons of the new subject (like the icon of St. John the Baptist that you see in this page's photos) and other similar subjects, to find the traditional depiction.

After he has studied these samples, compared the elements in the icons, and chosen what he thinks are the best (fig. 1), the iconographer uses pencil and paper to create a preliminary sketch called a skelion (fig. 2). Using graphite paper, he then transfers the drawing onto a prepared, gessoed board (fig. 3).

Then he etches the lines of the icon into the gesso using a stylus (a thick needle embedded in a small wooden dowel) (fig. 4). In this way the lines of the figure will remain visible as he paints.

Although in other schools of painting the artist commonly paints on canvas, the iconographer usually paints on a wooden board. This is because the traditional medium for iconography is egg tempera, which becomes inflexible after it dries and consequently needs to be applied to a firm surface to avoid cracking. Monastery Icons uses acrylic paints that closely duplicate the qualities and appearance of egg tempera.

The board is usually prepared with several coats of white gesso (a thick preparation of white pigment in an adhesive base). Since the paints traditionally used in iconography are to some degree translucent, light actually passes through the paint of the finished icon and then illuminates or brightens the colors of the paint by reflecting off the white background of the board.

Most of Monastery Icons feature a painted gold-colored background. However, when the iconographer chooses to use a gold-leaf background, he begins by applying a coat of size (fig. 5) on the background area. When the size is slightly tacky, he applies sheets of gold leaf to the background area, and then burnishes the leaf to a deep shine (fig. 6).

After painting the gold background (symbolic of the heavenly world), the artist paints the halo or nimbus. This is done by scribing the circle with a compass and a pen nib dipped in bright red paint (fig. 7).

The iconographer applies the paint in layers, beginning with the darker, underlying colors (fig. 8). He begins the flesh areas with an olive green base coat, over which he will paint lighter colors of translucent paint. In this way the underlying greenish tinge will create shadows and depth (fig. 9).

Next, he applies a basic flesh coat over the green base coat, following by increasingly lighter tints of the flesh color and then the darker outlines and details are executed (fig. 10). The subject's clothing and other elements are also "built" in a similar manner, usually beginning with the broad, dark background colors, and then adding the lighter colors and the details over this background (fig. 11).

With the letterin g of Saint John's scroll (fig. 12), the work is complete... and we can proceed to make reproductions for you: photographing the icon, laminating and mounted the prints on wood, and carefully finishing them.

We have hope you have enjoyed this short introduction to the physical techniques of iconography. But iconography is much more than a particular technique or even style of rendering form in paint. As the great modern Byzantine iconographer Photios Kontoglou wrote, "The art of the icon painter is above all a sacred activity...Its style is entirely different from that of all the schools of secular painting. It does not have its aim to reproduce a saint or an incident from the Gospels, but to express them mystically, to impart to them a spiritual represent the saint as he is in the heavenly kingdom, as he is in eternity."

Here is the finished icon of St. John the Baptist, from Monastery Icons:

Online Video "About How to Paint an Icon" by Monastery Icons - A timelapsed video of the phases of painting an icon

Ever wonder how an icon is painted? This Monastery Icons time lapsed video shows the creation of an icon from conception to completion. The icon shown in this video is a Byzantine style icon of the Holy Family.

To see a clearer video on How to Paint an Icon, visit the Monastery Icons website here.

New Icons from Monastery Icons - Embossed Russian Icons

In a striking find from Monastery Icons, quality old world craftsmanship is now available at affordable pricing

Monastery Icons has a growing selection of Russian embossed icons.

To see the true beauty of these icons offered by Monastery Icons, we recommend the visiting the following links:

Our Lady of Valaam Embossed Icon

Exquisite gold and silver foil embossing adds a new dimension to the ornate decorative patterns of the borders, the haloes, the clothes, and the backgrounds of this poignant icon of the Madonna and Child from Monastery Icons. Made in Russia, their striking beauty will evoke devout admiration in all who behold them. Mounted on wood. 5" x 9 3/4"

Embossed Guardian Angel Icon

Exquisite gold and silver foil embossing adds a new dimension to the ornate decorative patterns of the borders, the halos, the clothes, and the backgrounds of this poignant depictions. This icon from Monastery Icons is made in Russia. Mounted on wood and keyholed for hanging, each icon is available in two sizes: MD (7 1/8" x 8 3/4" x 3/8") and LG (13 1/8" x 15 7/8" x 3/4").

Monastery Icons icon of Our Lady of Vladimir

A poignant Russian portrait of the Madonna and Child, ornamented with stunningly colorful gold foil embossing. 13 1/8' x 15 7/8', mounted on wood, keyholed for hanging.

Visit the Monastery Icons website to view these books on icons, as well as videos, not to mention a growing selection of icon reproductions, gifts, and sacred art.

Books on Iconography at Amazon - Want to learn more about icons and icon painting? Check out these titles.

Icons & Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church
Icons & Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church

Contains wonderful examples of Byzantine Iconography with explanations of the symbology of icons.

The Practice of Tempera Painting: Materials and Methods (Dover Art Instruction)
The Practice of Tempera Painting: Materials and Methods (Dover Art Instruction)

A detailed explanation about egg tempera painting, the traditional method used in painting icons.


Reader Feedback

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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      @anonymous: I think you're right.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      "Russian portrait of the Madonna and Child"

      There are about three heresies in that sentence and one untruth.

    • Icon-Lover profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      @M Schaut: We haven't had contact for some time, so I don't know their current contact info. Sorry.

    • Icon-Lover profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      @Sensitive Fern: Thanks for your encouragement.

    • Sensitive Fern profile image

      Sensitive Fern 

      8 years ago

      I love icons and live near where there is someone who teaches icon painting but can never manage to get to one of her classes. This lens is a great intro.

    • sheilamarie78 profile image


      8 years ago from British Columbia

      Interesting. Some good links.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Thumbs up!

      Great lens... very informative. Thanks for the good read.


      FB Siphon Review

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Thank you, that was really helpful. God bless you.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Dear all,

      Just wanted to let you know that we got the Icon Painting Summer School at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Ukraine. If someone is interested, you could read more about the School at

      My best,


    • profile image


      10 years ago

      How very beautiful and interesting!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Wow thanks for sharing!

    • delia-delia profile image


      10 years ago

      wow what a great lens! I love Icon's and have a collection...5*

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      i am interested in learning to paint aka write icons, can any one help steer me in the right direction? please email me at

    • triathlontraini1 profile image


      11 years ago

      This is a really a cool lens!! :)

      I have a hard time painting, but you do make it look easy enough. 5*

    • The Homeopath profile image

      The Homeopath 

      11 years ago

      I love your lens! 5 stars and I'm going to be coming back to buy one of your recommended books!

    • M Schaut profile image

      Margaret Schaut 

      11 years ago from Detroit

      Wonderful page! Please enable your contact me function, or use mine! Do you think your friend who saw the apparitions at Zeitoun would answer some questions? Do they have their own photos? Also, please add your pages to the Catholic group!

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Thank you for your information about Icon. I love Byzantine - Orthodox arts and crafts. I am so pleased to find lens in this theme!

      Please have a look my lens ,when you have time.


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