You've sat and gazed and prayed and now it is time to start.
You take a pattern that has a line drawing of the icon image. I am lucky because Suzanne Schleck, my awesome teacher, gave us the pattern for our icon. You lightly tape the pattern to the board Ithat's the blue tape at the bottom) to keep it from slipping, slide a piece of graphite paper underneath the pattern and then you trace over the lines of the pattern so that the image transfers to your icon board.
This pattern is like your map. It doesn't show every detail that will come but it gives you the basic direction to go.
The next thing you do is draw the borders. I don't have a photograph of this step (though you'll be ale to see it in some later photographs but you measure 1/8 inch from the outside edge and then, with this particular icon there is also a interior board that frames the image. You draw both these borders with pencil.
I like this image of the borders; they offer boundaries, a certain stability of containment.
The only part I do well is drawing the borders with a pencil. I can do this well because I can use a straight edge ruler. When it comes to painting these lines (and even within the lines), well....that is a bit of a different story.
I just tell myself that the more I do this, the better I will get, the steadier my hand will become as a painter. I hope this is true, but for now I am going to believe it. Peggy, another student in the class, told me that one her teachers told her that you need to paint at least 5 icons before you can call yourself an iconographer. This is my third and even though I intend to keep painting I am not sure I will be comfortable calling myself an iconographer after just two more. But I have seen improvements in each of the icons I have painted.
So now the drawing has been transferred to the icon board and the borders have been drawn. Next comes the halos. I remember the first time I got to use a compass in school. I thought they were the coolest of tools. It almost made me like geometry class. Almost.
The compasses used for icons are a few steps above those I used when I was in school. If I were an engineer or had drafting experience this would be a piece of cake. I am afraid my liberal arts education did not give me compass comfortable skills. These are PROFESSIONAL compasses. It's true. It says so right on the package. (I don't think you can buy these from Staples--that's my notepad beneath the compass; but you can order them through Dick Blick).
On each figure that needs a halo--each of the three Marys in this icon--there is a small x on the forehead. This is the helpful hint x. Put the point of your compass in the x, adjust the compass and draw the halo. With this icon you have to be sure that all three halos will fit, that they don't go zooming off the top or sides of the board. You also have to do Mary the Mother of God first. She gets center stage. Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene will have halos but theirs must slip politely behind the Virgin.
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Now for a brief sidebar...
When our daughter was a little girl we lived in Virginia, outside of Charlottesville. Our daughter loved the Christmas Carol Silent Night. One day she told me how happy she was to be in that carol. I didn't understand.
"What do you mean, honey? How exactly are you in Silent Night?"
"Because, Mommy, we sing " Round yon Virginians, mother and child..."
I decided to leave it at that for the time being. Better to sing along with the Virginians than try to explain what virgin means to a 4 year old.
End of sidebar. Back to the icon.
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After you have drawn the halos (in pencil...always in pencil), you are then ready to etch the drawing.
You put aside the map (the drawing) and you take an etching tool (which is like a little mini ice pick)
and you start etching into the gesso following your pencil lines. You etch every line EXCEPT the halos. You have used the drawing--your map--and now you are going to mark the way, inscribe your icon into the gesso. It really is like setting off on a journey.
Even though the icons I have painted are all done with egg tempera (which I love love love) you then use some acrylic paint (you get to pick between Burnt Sienna and Barn Red--don't you love paint color names??!!) and you paint the interior of the halos (I'll tell you in a minute why) and the sides of your icon. You paint the sides because it is fast and easy and inexpensive to use the acrylic (though you could use egg tempera on the side and some people do) but I also think the acrylic might stand up a little better to all the handling and work you are going to do in the course of painting the icon.
The challenge for me is that little 1/8 inch border on the top. I am great at painting the sides but when it comes to that little border, my lines are...well, let's just say it is one of my imperfections--I cannot paint a really straight line. My teacher Suzanne makes my mouth drop open when she so gracefully paints a line--now SHE can paint a straight line (and she doesn't even hyperventilate!).
I will get better. And even if I don't get better, I will still keep painting icons because I so love this process. As I said from the beginning, it is as much about prayer--or more so--than it is about painting. Just as I have to accept other parts of me that don't meet a perfection standard, there are many parts of icon painting that help me remember that God does not ask us to be perfect. God just asks us to be faithful.
So on to halos. Here is Mary Magdalene with her Barn Red halo.
After the acrylic paint is completely dry you go to a separate room (because it is not necessarily healthy to breathe in the fumes from the sizing we put on for the halos). So we do it out of the main studio. The sizing is sticky. I mean really ooey-gooey gluey. Think painting with thick molasses or honey. Oh, if only it smelled that sweet! The sizing goes on. Now did I dream it or is the sizing made from rabbit skin? Then you wait. The sizing has to dry so that it is just barely barely barely tacky before the gold leaf can be applied.
The gold leaf is very well-named. First of all it really is gold. Secondly it is called "leaf" because it is thin like a leaf--like a really really don't-breathe-heavily-or-it-will-blow-away leaf. I also comes in small sheets--rahter like little leaves. I am sorry I didn't take a photo of the leaf itself (it comes on little pieces of paper) because it really is beautiful. There is a reason we humans love gold and treasure it, because quite simply, it's beautiful.
Anyway, you gently transfer the gold leaf onto the just barely tacky sizing and it becomes a halo. You gently, using a soft brush, remove all the gold leaf that did not stick and what remains are halos. There is a lot of different decorative work you can do on the halos, but this time I decided to just leave mine plain.
So one more photo for this post. I'll continue the process in future posts but this photo should tempt you to come back. Here are the three Marys with their beautiful gold halos and the first layer of "chaos" as my teacher Suzanne referred to it--the roshkrish.
What? You mean roshkrish isn't part of your daily vocabulary? How about sankir? Check the next post for more about these words.
But wait? You are thinking this is the ugliest thing you have ever seen? That nothing this chaotic could be transformed into a beautiful icon? That's part of the theological beauty of icons--the transformation. Rather like the beauty of our own transformation from chaos.
So keep checking my blog for the next step in the journey of painting an icon.