My second tip to painting icons is to find an iconography teacher. Most iconographers are hidden and are found in a small studio deep in the outskirts of Russia, Greece and Italy. Some have found their way here to the USA and are painting churches. Its is important to know who your teacher is and know who their teacher was because; the legacy of classical traditional icon painting is handed down from master icon painter to student. The techniques are often passed on through the ages. Usually iconographers have a lineage that dates back through the ages. This timeless practice is carefully reveled to the willing student who are committed to the practice.
Iconographers must have a library or collection of good books from around the world to use as reference. The library is essential in the timeless reproduction of the icon. Ancient Icons are not available to us in the United States or in many other countries. Making a copy of a good icon is almost an impossible task, without a good experienced teacher, to pass down the true language, practice and vision of the art of icon painting. Having a good book collection on icons to reference from is the icon painters constant companion in the studio. We have to rely on books to make replicas of the images. The usage of books, combined with icon lessons, will help to remove the layers of paint, showing us how the icon is painted. One must see the icon in life to have a true vision of what the icon represents. Travel for many could be an impossible task, some painters may never visit other countries that host the old masterpieces. In reality we will never have all the famous icon collections at our finger tips, relying on books is the only way.
There are many ways to get good books. Start with reliable book dealers that offer books with good prototypes for the icon painter. There are many used book dealers or even trade vendors that may have good quality books. While shopping for books on icons always look for clear, clean, and crisp reproductive quality. Look for text that will help clearly describe the icons epoch, cultural region, and name. Good quality books come from Greece, Russia. These are predominantly Orthodox countries. Some of Christianity’s most historically important and beautiful icons are kept, preserved and protected by monasteries, churches, and museums in these countries, among others. Like icons, books find their way into our hands. There are icon books in the most unlikely places, keep your eyes open for the next good one.
Iconography is a practice, knowledge is part of that practice. In the art of iconography we must know what we are looking at; that means constant research. Books filled with pictures of icon paintings and are like having masterpieces on hand. Training the eye to see the icons language expressed in color and brush is essential to the work. With books icons will become more visible, transparent, and, you will begin to recognize hidden nuances in the different cultural styles throughout history. Icons will become less mysterious, the imagined hidden meaning will become more of a reality. The icons vision will become familiar, full, and clear with books.
Natural Earthen mineral pigments used in painting of the classical traditional icon. Ancient iconographer’s chose this medium because it was fast, reliable, it sparkled, and reflected light like no other paint medium. Icon painters could paint as transparent or as opaque as needed to make the heavenly or divine appearance needed in the making of the icon. Many times throughout history icon painters used materials that were available only to their region. This birthed a palette which consisted of just a few basic colors, yet any icon could be painted. Even though the palette has small variety the color combinations were endless. These colors consisted of beautiful hues of gray, orange ochre, Lapis lazuli blues, ochre, white and many more. Earthen pigments such as cinnabar are rare, expensive and come in small amounts. Many of the Earthen mineral pigments come from around the world, harvested by miners who go to great lengths to make them available to all artists. Pigments are ground into powder and mixed with an egg solution, thus binding the pigment into paint. Having knowledge of the natural palette in iconography will give you the ability to paint an icon in any medium. The colors were strictly adhered to in Byzantine iconographic to create a heavenly depiction of saints, after their transfiguration. When the colors are properly chosen for the icon palette they are recognized as authentic in traditional icon painting. Iconographer’s follow a specific language of painting, and principles set by a canon of rubrics, created by the early Christian church elders.
One of the many tools used by Icon painters is a paint loading compass. It is a draftsmen tool used to make exact round lines on icon and over the heads of saintly images with paint. These lines represent the halo and define the holy images called icons; or in Greek eikōn . Many centuries ago icon painters drew the halo with a brush, by hand, or made their own devices to draw the halo around the heads of the divine images.
Working with a paint loaded compass takes practice. This balanced tool is metal, with wheels, sharp pin like end, and the part that holds the paint looks like tweezers. Examine the tool and get to know its parts. You will see it will almost come completely apart, it aliens where you direct, easy to clean, and, dry.
Take a few hours to prepare paint you will load into the tweezers end, noting the texture of paint, and what flows out of the compass with greater ease. The paint texture should be like fresh honey. If the paint is to thin, the flow will be too fast. If the paint is to thick, there will be no flow at all, or the compass will get clogged while drawing the line. The compass opening where paint goes should be tight. In my experience the compass works better if the opening is small and full of paint. Load the paint from the side with a brush. Hold the compass side-ways till your ready to draw the line.
It will become second nature when you use the tool often. I recommend practice because, the halo should be drawn on to the icon in its last stages, and can cause much damage to the icon painting. Practicing is vital to a good line quality; this will finish the work. Practice many times on a transparency before going directly to the icon. With the halo lined up, marked and ready to draw before attempting to place directly on to the icon, will ensure perfection. The careful placement of the halo is critical to the icon painting. If the halo is poorly placed, you will go through pain to correct it. You may even risk destroying many hours of work. Take your time preparing this step, breath, use the Jesus prayer. Every icon painter before us had to do this step in their practicing of the icon. They will stand behind you pushing to send you to success. When your confident in attempting to draw the halo, empty your mind, bring your heart to your center, and do it with peace.
In NY I got married to my boyfriend Richard after dating for more than five years, we had a big Italian wedding, all the frills. I bought my dress at A. Kleinfeld in Brooklyn NY. (Say Yes To The Dress). I made my headgear because I couldn’t afford a Toni Chase designer headdress. I spent $60.00 on beads, and $60.00 on base, it turned out beautiful. I wanted to be a designer and make headdresses, I was good at it and made money, nurturing the call I went to school and studied beading and embellishment at the Chicago Art Institute.
We honeymoon in England’s beautiful Cots world country and after two luxurious weeks reality hit. Richard had made arrangements to work in England for another year after the honeymoon. We needed to escape from the entire fabric of my life in New York. I welcomed change with an open heart and mind. We had our first home together in a tiny flat the size of a closet, It was just outside of London in an ancient town called Red Hill. I no sooner got to England; and asked myself with fright, what do I do? Do I get another job in Hairdressing? While overseas I did explore modeling, I tried to get a job in a fashion house and do some editorial ads but, I wound up working in a London Salon; same thing different country but, alas not entirely true. London was brand new, extremely exciting and mind opening experience for me. I navigated on foot around the streets exploring as I dealt with zippy left-sided drivers. I then spoke with a thick New York accent, deep slang, I barely understood The Queens English that was often masked in cockney slang and they could not understand me. It was comical… What the heck was washing up soap, crisps, and chips anyway? London was totally brand new and extremely exciting experience for me. I navigated on foot around the streets dealing with zippy left-sided drivers. I spoke with a thick New York accent, deep slang, I barely understood The Queens English that was often masked in cockney slang. It was comical… What the heck was washing up soap, crisps, and chips anyway? My world was upside down I was now living alone in a foreign country while my new husband worked all day. Dam! What next I asked
London was a mystical an exciting experience for me. I navigated on foot around the streets dealing with zippy left-sided drivers. I spoke with a thick New York accent, deep slang, I barely understood The Queens English that was often masked in cockney slang. It was comical… What the heck was washing up soap, crisps, and chips anyway? Things carried on,
I made friends immediately at the shop working. People of England were a bit stuffy, it was their way culturally. I loved the 1980’s punk rock rage. No one in England knew who Madonna was because she was a fabricated punk. I was in Sid Vicious territory. Some times scary but, most of the time a freaking blast. I often became homesick but; my dear friend Richard a gay 30-year-old hairdresser, who had lived in NYC, before his return to England, became my best friend. We would go to the local market, buy duck pate’, bread, wine and would have hour lunches in the park. We talked about NYC! and how fun it was being part of a city that never sleeps. Richard would tell me of a romance he had with a man there who was a heroin addict, he eventually got sick with aids. Richard lived in fear then, along with most of my friend because in the 80’s sex was uncensored, no one cared who they slept with and the fear took hold. I was never promiscuous, my guardian angel tapping me on the shoulder each time anything got too heated. I was not subject to the games my co-workers got involved in, I was neutral but; for their sake and mine, I never judged. My saving Grace was being a person who looked around, learned from others and with God’s grace had a good head on my shoulders.
People often ask me how I started painting icons. I always wanted to be an artist for as long as I could remember it was as if I connected to my passion long before I accepted it into my life. I had a twenty year-long career in Cosmetology. In the early years I worked in NY it was hard fast work with a lot of drama often surrounding me throughout my daily work day. The salon-euro boutique mall drew in high-end clients that would arrive for their appointments in BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Limousines and Rolls Royce’s, our staff consisted of at least seventy-five employees, my ears were continuously saturated with loud music, buzzing of blow dryers, immortality, gossip, smoke, coffee, sales and drug use all day every day. I would leave work trying to escape from the entire a-salt on my senses experience any way I could. I would usually find that nothing worked accept more noise. The quiet was over whelming the more noise the better this way I wouldn’t have to get into my head. I would go straight to a local club, a place my boss owned and get enough drinks in me so that I was numb to the reality that I would have to go do this again tomorrow. I hung out with my co-workers who were my ready-made friends. We were all in the same boat, a family boat you could say with no real spirituality, empty, shallow, money hungry, and damned. We were catty and had no real loyalty towards one another; we could shove each other under so fast it would make your head spin. I thought this was making it, whew! And although escape that life, I had no real choice at that time to stay at least that’s what I thought “dumb”! I know and try to endure. I knew something great was waiting for me I would day-dream about another life. I didn’t know what it was then but intuitively I knew whatever it was it was in my future. I had to explore to find out what that would look like. I never wanted to go home after work my Mother was fighting breast cancer, my home life was difficult, up in the air, I did my best to support my parents yet it was a trying time and that was hard for me to face at eighteen years old. I had a real good boyfriend that loved me and kept me safe when he could but the life I was leading was a dangerous one. I had divine guidance always knowing I had a guardian angel hanging out with me every day. It taped me on the shoulder when my friend handed me a crack pipe and I then handed it back to her and said no thanks. I knew it was a bad idea and after that I never saw the girl again. Evil waits and tries to invade into your life when you’re venerable but as long as you are in tune with your divine help you will never fail. I would take things far test the ledge but I knew when to stop turn around and walk away, Thank God! blessed then and I’m blessed now by the love of God. Even when I walked away from HIM he followed me for years till I was ready to come back. God showed up when no one else did; I surrendered myself to Him and when I did everything changed.
I grieved the loss of a mentor, my teacher, my friend, Master Iconographer, Ksenia Mikhailovna Pokrovsky Born: March 1942 – Died: June 7, 2013
It wasn’t long after I met her that we were fast friends. It was a life experience not for the faint of heart, she was strong, strict, brilliant and at the same time gentile. When I spent time alone with her in her studio, I would think to my self, she is so wise, why am I here? My thoughts continued, it’s a God-given gift, a rare opportunity. The beauty, fruit and time in that relationship is what propelled me. What I received from this gift was a remarkable experience, that changed my life forever. The experiences are memories now, no doubt, no other can experience them but, they stay inside my continued work as an iconographer. Writing about her now makes me smile, as I remember the long hours of discussions over tea, intellectual, deep, and full. Its was truly an honor to be in her presence. She never made me feel separated, unimportant, and unable to comprehend the icon. She just filled me with knowledge and like a sponge, I absorbed every drop of teaching she bestowed upon me.
When Ksenia died we were separated by a harsh reality. I was filled with grief, transparency, vulnerability, and complete, utter emptiness. No one personally taught me in the same way. Ksenia always said; ” We Orthodox Christians are like vessels waiting, to be filled by Christs love”. As far as she was concerned we were in union, as fellow icon painters. I could never carry out what she had accomplished in her life but, no matter we were at that moment, their together.
When the union ended I realized, there is a natural separation that takes place before hand organically that is helping us to deal with the final outcome of life. This unspoken phenomenon took me by surprise and before it becomes clear, pushed away. When the person has partaken in a role that has helped transformed you comprehensively, its difficult to let go, but, I saw its reasoning, a way of survival, like a Mother bird that pushes its baby out of the nest for the first flight. We get pushed gently, lovingly toward independence into the great, scary, unknown. When we take flight realizing that with only practice we can survive, alone in this time I knew the task of the relationship was over, and surprising to me that; I am surviving even while in pain.
My lesson is finished, it is up to me now what I do with the work. Truly without this relationship I would have nothing, but now I have everything and continue to be a place keeper, and continue on as an example. Being one of her students, imparted a richness in me that will never be taken or forgotten. Master to student relationship can only be brought to us by grace. I can never be as great as she, but I continuing working, moving ahead with my place keeping, into other relationships, and planting seeds which will eventually bear fruit. Passing work tradition on, in a different way, in a way that is hers and mine.
I have lost a friend, a mentor with no time for goodbyes. We are forever changed by our loss with survival.
This icon can be seen in a deesis composition for an alter screen used in the decoration inside the Orthodox church.
The name ” The Great Taxi Arch ”
draws attention to the archangel’s senior rank in the celestial army.
The cryptogram in the sphere held by Michael is interpreted as
“Christ the Righteous Judge”.
When writing this icon I felt as if the work would never get done.
This subject of Arch Angel Michael made me feel humbled; as if I could never be good enough painter to portray the image. I prayed to ancient iconographers before me, himself Michael and God for the courage to represent this powerful image, well.
I completed this icon in 2009 and since it has been awarded, venerated, and inspiring. I often reflect on this work and it reminds me of what you can do when you push your self into the spiritual realms of creation; beautiful things happen.
My third tip for painting icons is understanding that Iconography is to connect with the unseen to create a collective understanding of Gods incarnation. The revelations of the saints, prophets and mystics have planted the seeds of spirituality as a direct experience. Gods incarnation has laid down the corner-stone that defeated death and created life. The fundamental goal is that the icon reveals light.
The second tip for painting icons is to find a good teacher to tutor you in the classical tradition of iconography. There are not many true iconographers in the USA most are found in the country sides of Russia, Greece or Italy. Most importantly do the research; know your teacher and know their teacher; most icon painters have a master teacher to student relationship. Most classical icon painters carry a lineage behind them, and it is handed down through the techniques of the tradition through the ages.