How to Paint an Icon Learn Byzantine Iconography
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 character...to 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.
Contains wonderful examples of Byzantine Iconography with explanations of the symbology of icons.
A detailed explanation about egg tempera painting, the traditional method used in painting icons.
Links about Iconography
- The Monastery Icons Website
Monastery Icons collection of sacred art is a unique, modern testimony to the timeless ancient, classical tradition of Christian iconography. These "Windows Into Heaven" with their bright, rich colors and English text are treasured in thousands of ch
- The Story of the San Damiano Cross
Find out the history and Symbolism of the San Damiano Cross, as well as information about Saint Francis. Discover similar iconography, as well as where to find more facts about this wonderful piece of religious art work. Want to know where to find re
- Icons of Christ from OrthodoxPhotos.com
Icons of Christ, as well as icons of the Virgin Mary and the saints, fill this site. Also frescoes from famous Orthodox Churches and Monasteries in the Christian East.
- Icons from St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai
Renowned icons from the historic Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai in the Sinai desert in Egypt.
- Icons of the Virgin Mary from Bridge Building Icons
Russian, Byzantine, and modern icons of the Virgin Mary
- Iconographers at Work in an Orthodox Monastery
The painters in the Monastery Icon Studio, Visoki Decani Monastery, Serbia
- Iconofile website
This site is rich with information about icons and the iconographic tradition, as well as detailed information about how to paint icons. The site also sells icon painting supplies.
- Icons of the Monastery of Saint Catherine of Sinai
The monastery's icons in the collection loaned to the Getty museum are remarkable. And this article about a visit to the exhibit gives a good initial impression of the icons from the monastery.
Monastery Icons on the Web - In thanks to Monastery Icons, who have been so helpful in this project.
- Monastery Icons on Flickr
For those who want to see icons larger than on MonasteryIcons.com
- Monastery Icons on MySpace
For MySpace fans
- The Monastery Icons Blog
A great source of news about Monastery Icons.
- Monastery Icons on Piczo
I guess people put their profiles everywhere.
- Monastery Icons on Vox
Another useful profile.