Stages and Materials of Icon Painting

The iconographer’s first task is to fashion the wooden panel. The quality of the finished icon depends on a well prepared panel. He carefully chooses a panel that is flat and will resist warping from atmospheric conditions.

Traditionally, solid and well-aged wood was used, such as cedar, cypress and oak. However, such wooden panels are not readily available and therefore have a high cost value, as it involves the skills of a wood craftsman to cut-up pieces of timber into uniform size and length, and to glue them together, clamp them tight until dry and then to chisel and sand down until perfectly smooth. More commonly used today is high quality plywood that resists warping due to its fabricated make-up, and is more easily cut and shaped to the required size and design.

When the wooden panel has been selected and cut to size and shape, a loosely woven gauze-like cloth known as Muslin is applied to it. This is stuck onto the panel using rabbit skin glue. The glue is brushed over the entire area of the panel and then left to dry. Once dry, the muslin is placed onto the panel and this time using a spatula, another coat of glue is applied, resulting in a good permanent adhesion of the muslin to the panel. This is left to dry for 24 hours. The muslin aids in preventing cracking in the finished icon, which may be caused by the panel warping or from atmospheric conditions.

The next stage in the process is the preparation of the ‘foundation’ or base, on to which the icon gilding and painting takes place. This is known as the ‘gesso ground’, which is made from a mixture of rabbit skin glue and calcium carbonate (whiting). The gesso has qualities of absorbsion, white luminosity and smoothness. The gesso is applied in a series of layers, usually 8 to 10, but more can be applied depending on the thickness of the gesso. Each layer of gesso must thoroughly dry before the next is applied. When the final layer is completely dry, the panel is sanded to a perfectly smooth polished finish. Onto part of this ivory-smooth surface, the icon is painted.

The next stage is the delicate task of gilding those areas of the icon which will not be painted. Gilding in iconography is the process of applying genuine gold leaf to the background and halo areas of an icon. This gold background is symbolic and know as the ‘Light’. It represents the heavenly realm and eternal life. Yellow or gold paint is a poor substitute and is only used on wall icons (murals), for it drags the icon image down to earth. Gold is not a colour seen in everyday nature, and therefore, in iconography it creates a space which does not conform to our visual senses, and hence it transfers the image to a spiritual dimension.

There are two methods of gilding: oil gilding and water gilding. Oil gilding involves applying the gold leaf with an oil-based glue (size), to the gesso. This is done after first having coated the area to be gilded with several layers of shellac (a natural resin lacquer), which acts as a sealer and base for the glue. Water gilding involves applying the gold leaf with a water-based glue (size), after first coating the gesso area to be gilded with several layers of a soft paste like clay known as ‘Bole’. In both cases, once the gilding has been completed, it is given a covering of shellac to protect it during the painting stage.

The final stage, with the exception of the vanish, is the drawing and painting of the image. The icon image is drawn very lightly onto the gesso base, and consists only of the main out-lines of the face features, hands and garments. The traditional paint pigments used in iconography are minerals (earth pigments) which have been grounded to a fine powder.

There are two types of mediums (binders) which are used with the colour pigments to paint the icon image. The traditional medium is egg tempera, which is a mixture of egg yoke and white vinegar. The contemporary medium is acrylic, which is an artificial resin. Egg tempera painting is one of the most ancient techniques, although, in modern times, due to inconvenience, it is used on wooden panel icons, and very rarely for murals. Acrylic paint on the other hand is mass produced and conveniently available in an extensive colour spectrum. These paints are widely used for both panel icons and murals.

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