THE BASICS OF ICON PAINTING: LAYERING DARK TO LIGHT

Having told of the preparation of the wooden icon panel, today I would like to talk a bit about the actual painting of an icon.  I will not go into great detail, because my purpose is not to tell artists how to paint icons, but rather to give those interested in icons the necessary background to understand how they are made.

To make things simple, we can use the way in which an icon was often painted in the 19th century.  It began with a pattern, either a description of a saint in a podlinnik — a manual that told painters the appropriate garments, hair, shape of beard, objects held, scroll (when appropriate) and title for each saint  — or else an actual pattern.  Such a pattern was often made from an existing icon by following over its outlines with a fine brush dipped in a sticky substance such as tinted garlic juice or honey.  A piece of paper was pressed over the surface, and the sticky substance formed the outlines of the icon on the paper.

Those outlines were then gone over with needle pricks to make holes in the paper following the outlines.  This created the icon pattern, which one could then put over the smooth levkas (gesso) surface of the prepared icon panel.  Powdered charcoal in a little bag was then pounced lightly over the surface of the paper pattern, and its fine dust went through the needle pricks and onto the gesso surface of the panel.

The final step in transferring the pattern to the icon panel was to scratch the outline of the transferred pattern into the levkas (gesso) surface with a sharp tool called a графья/graf’ya, marking it permanently with the outlines (the графьи/graf’i) of the icon to be painted.  Once that was done, the actual painting could begin.  These needle-incised outlines in the gesso are commonly still visible when one looks closely at the painted surface of such an icon.

To understand the sequence of painting, it is helpful to ponder a different kind of icon for a moment, those painted as folk objects in Romania on the reverse side of a pane of glass.  To paint such an icon, one had to do it in reverse, first painting, for example, the light highlights of a saint’s face, and then working backward to the base colors.

Russian icon painting on panels, by contrast, began with a brownish base color for a saint’s face and exposed body parts.  This brownish color was called the sankir.  The Greeks often preferred it to have a slightly more greenish-olive tinge.  Then successive layers of lighter colors of ochre paint were superimposed over the brown to dark brown sankir to bring out the forms and highlights of the face, etc. This process of adding progressively lighter layers over one another is called vokhrenie or okhrenie, or in rough English, “ochering.”

If we look at this detail from an icon of John the Forerunner (John the Baptist), we can see clearly how the entire surface of the face was first painted with a brown sankir. Then the features of the face were moulded by adding progressively lighter layers over that, leaving the darker color visible here and there. So icons were painted in a system of layered colors, with lighter colors superimposed over darker colors, finishing with increasingly white touches. The exceptions here to this are the eyebrows, which are in an even darker brown than the base color, as well as the dark strokes used to detail the hair, as well as elsewhere to finish the image. Note that the base color of the hair and beard are exactly the same brown base color used for the face.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

A light layer could be added in separate thin, clear strokes to model the facial features, a technique called OTBORKA (Отборка), literally “picking,” or the paint strokes, instead of being clearly separate, could be more liquid and “melt” into one another, a technique called PLAV’ (Плавь), “melted.” “Picking” was the more traditional of the two methods, used for non-realistic “abstract” painting, and “melting” worked better for western-influenced, more realistic icons.  The last steps involved the adding of the lightest colors, as well as delineating fine features, and, of course, in more expensive icons, the addition of gold leaf highlights in garments, etc.

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In the icon of the “Tikhvin” Mother of God shown above, one can easily see that Mary’s facial features are formed by superimposing lighter shades over the dark brownish base color so obvious in her right cheek.  The same is seen in the Christ Child’s (Christ Immanuel) face.  So the painting of icons was essentially the forming of facial features by superimposing progressively lighter and lighter highlights over a dark background base color. (The dark strip at upper right is a remnant of the original olifa varnish).

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

In the icon of St. John (Ioann) seen above, the painter used a more sophisticated and nuanced method of layering from dark to light, not nearly so abrupt and obvious.  Nonetheless, the basic method of lighter layers over darker is still there, used even in delineating the hairs of the head.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

If you look carefully at the facial detail from an icon of St. Alexander Svirskiy, shown above, you can see that everything from his wide, long beard to the hair on his head to his face all has the same underlying dark brownish sankir color. A slightly lighter brownish layer was then overlaid on that in the beard and hair regions, and then “hair” detailing was added to both areas, largely in narrow streaks of white paint. The dark sankir background of the face has a more complex layering of lighter and lighter shades of brown superimposed on one another, finally finished off with the last detailing in whitish highlights and very black outlining in nose and eyebrows, etc.

I have often thought that because of this characteristic layering of shades of paint in icons, it would be very easy to reproduce the stylized manner of icon making if one used silk screen printing, using a separate screen for the different layers. Obviously, that idea occurred to others as well, because there are now many shops selling silk-screened icons online, some of them quite well made, and at a fraction of the cost of hand-painted icons.

In icon studios, the faces and hands of saints were generally painted last, by the studio’s best painter or painters.  The garments and other background features were commonly the first, painted in by others. In an icon studio one would see unfinished icons set aside and drying, backgrounds and garments without hands or faces, waiting for the “face painter” to do his job.  So the painting of icons was often a communal project, with different tasks performed by different people.  That is because a studio had to streamline its production to keep up with the demand for icons, and also to keep costs down.

There were also icon painters who worked alone and painted the whole icon — faces, garments, and backgrounds.

Because no podlinnik (painter’s manual), whether plain text or illustrated, included all the icon types one might be called upon to supply, icon studios often had their own collections of prorisi (singular proris), which were tracings of icons, as well as perevody (singular perevod), which were the transfers — the pierced patterns — used for transferring the image to the gesso surface.

Though the method of using paper or parchment patterns for making new icons was very common, there were also some painters so experienced that they could reproduce an icon without the need of such a pattern, and not only that, they could paint in different styles, whether in the traditional stylized manner favored by the Old Believers, or in the more “Italian” and realistic-appearing style that began to be favored by the State Church after the split between the Old Believers and the State Church divided Russian Orthodoxy in the mid-1600s.

The svyet (“light”) or fon (“base”) is the background area of the icon. It is sometimes only painted in a light color, but in many examples it is gilded with gold leaf or with a cheaper substitute. Additional ornamentation could be added by stamping or incising the gilding. The “cheaper substitute,” particularly in the 19th century, was a background of tin leaf over which a varnish tinted with saffron was placed to make it look like gold, an inexpensive alternative to gold leaf that has its own charm. I have seen many old icons now with “silver” backgrounds that were originally coated with saffron-tinted varnish, but someone at some point removed it, and with it the original appearance of the icon. It is usually best, when coming across an icon with such a tinted varnish, to just leave it untouched.

One could also add a decorative repoussé  (design hammered in from the back) metal cover of silver or gilt or silvered brass.  Such a cover, called a riza (“robe”) often covered all of the painted icon except the faces and hands of the saints depicted.  It was bent over at the edges to fit over the outer edges of the painted icon, to which it was nailed on the sides.  The riza generally reproduced in metal the bodies and garments of the saints painted on the icon panel itself. The term riza in modern times began to be replaced occasionally with oklad.

Earlier icons often had ornamental metal covers that were actually nailed to the painted surface of the icon, which accounts for the many little holes one sees in so many early icons when the covers are removed to reveal the painting beneath. That may also have happened to more recent icons, as is visible on the icon of Jesus as The Lord Almighty (Gospod Vsederzhitel) seen below. Note the little holes here and there on the surface:

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(Photo Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

That is a very quick summary of the way icons were commonly painted.

As for the paints themselves, they consisted of powdered plant and mineral and various organic substances.  The colored powder was mixed with the yolk of an egg and a little rye beer (kvass) to keep it from quickly spoiling.  Such paints are called “egg tempera,” and they are essentially the same kinds of paints that were used in Western European painting prior to the discovery of oil paints.  In Russia, however, the use of egg tempera in painting icons continued right into the 20th century (and even today), while the use of oil paints in Russian icon painting was much less common, and is likely to be found in some later icons.

Of course individual painters had their own preferences and personal approaches.

To actually see these principles in action, here is a link to a video of an icon painter using а version of the otborka method for the Archangel Michael:

And here is a painter using the plav’ technique to paint the face of Nikolai Chudotvorets — “Nicholas the Wonderworker.”  The audio is in Russian, but one can easily follow visually as he applies lighter layers of color to the initial dark sankir base color:

 

Here is a link to a video showing the modern creation of an icon for an iconostasis from raw wood to finished image:

 

If you found this article interesting, you may wish to read these as well:

https://russianicons.wordpress.com/tag/icon-pigments
https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/an-icon-begins-with-wood
https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/what-lies-beneath-icon-covers-and-ornaments/

WHAT A REAL ICON WORKSHOP WAS LIKE

There is a lot of romanticized nonsense written about the painting of icons in old Russia.  The fact is that it was a business and a very large business,  in spite of sometimes using the euphemism “exchange” for the selling of icons — or more obviously, “to exchange for money.” Huge numbers of icons were sold every year, produced in workshops ranging from large, multi-employee operations to small family or even one-person operations.  A good part of icon painting was done by Old Believers, who kept to the old and traditional styles, though some of the workshops — like the one depicted here — could paint in both styles, just as the earlier Cretan workshops in the Greek Islands had produced icons both in the “Byzantine” style and according to Western Roman Catholic taste.

The following excerpts are an actual glimpse into a pre-Revolution icon workshop in Russia through the eyes of Maxim Gorkiy, who was apprenticed to one when young.  We should not be surprised at the prevalence of drinking and drunkenness at that time, nor should we consider it odd that workers often saw their task of icon painting as a tedious job (which it was), and were sometimes frustrated by the limits that the necessity of being “living copy machines” put on their artistic impulses.  As we see, by this time icon painting had become a production-line process, which is one reason for the tremendous output of icon painting studios, even though they were still doing hand work.

Gorkiy worked in the icon painting studio at a time when icon painting was beginning to be threatened by lithography on paper and on tin — much less expensive to buy than hand painting —  and that caused the icon business to already begin its decline, even years before the Russian Revolution was to cut it back sharply for other reasons.

These excerpts are from Gorkiy’s autobiography In the World (V Liudakh}:

The icon-painting workshop took up two rooms in a large house built partly of stone.  One room had three windows, one overlooking the yard and one overlooking the garden; the other room had one window overlooking the garden and another facing the street.  These windows were small and square, and their panes, distorted with age, unwillingly admitted the pale diffused light of winter days.  Both rooms were closely packed with tables, and at every table sat the bent figures of icon painters.

Glass balls full of water were suspended from the ceiling, to reflect the light of the lamps and to throw it upon the square surfaces of the icons in cold, white rays.

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It was hot and stuffy in the workshop.  Here about twenty men worked, icon painters from Palekh, Kholuiy, and Mstera [the three most noted icon-painting villages at that time].  They all sat in cotton shirts with unfastened collars.  They had pants made of ticking, and were barefoot, or wore sandals.

Over their heads, like a blue veil, stretched the smoke of cheap tobacco, and there was a heavy smell of sizing [gluey substance in gesso], varnish, and rotten eggs [egg yolks were used to bind the powdered pigments].  A melancholy Vladimir [town and region] song flowed slowly, like pitch:

How depraved people have become;
A boy ruined a girl, and did not care.

They sang other melancholy songs, but that was the one they sang most often.  Its long, drawn out movement did not keep one from thinking or impede the motion of the fine brush, made of weasel hair, over the surface of the icons, as it painted the lines of a figure and laid fine lines of suffering upon the emaciated faces of the saints.

By the windows the chaser, Golovev, worked his little hammer.  He was a drunken old man with an enormous blue nose.  The lazy flow of song was punctuated by the ceaseless tapping of the hammer, like a worm gnawing at a tree.

Some evil genius had divided the work [of icon making] into a long series of actions bereft of beauty and incapable of arousing any love for the business or interest in it.  Panfil, the squinting joiner [woodworker], brought the pieces of cypress and lilac-wood of different sizes, which he had planed and glued [the panels on which the icons were painted].  The consumptive [with tuberculosis] lad Davidov laid the colors on.  His friend Sorokin painted on the inscription; Milyashin outlined the design from an original with a pencil; old Golovev gilded it and embossed the gold pattern [impressed patterns into the gilded gesso].  The finishers added the landscape [background] and the clothes of the figures; and then they were placed — without faces or hands — against the wall, waiting for the work of the face painter [the worker who did all the visible “flesh,” including the faces of the saints].

It was very weird to see a large icon for an iconostasis, or the doors for an altar, standing against the wall without faces, hands, or feet — just the clerical vestments, or the armor and the short tunics of archangels.  These variously-painted panels suggested death; that which should have added life to them was absent, but it seemed as though it had been there but had vanished, leaving only the heavy robes behind.

When the features had been painted in by the face painter, the icon was handed to the workman who filled in the design of the chaser.  A different workman did the lettering, and the varnish [olifa] was applied by the head workman himself, Ivan Larionovich, a quiet man.  He had a gray face; his beard was gray too, the hairs fine and silky.  His gray eyes were particularly deep and sad.  He had a pleasant smile, but one could not smile at him;  he made one feel somehow awkward.  He looked like the image of Simeon Stolpnik [Simeon Stylites], just as skinny and emaciated, and his motionless eyes looked far off in the same abstract way, through people and walls.

Some days after I had entered the workshop, the banner worker [maker of religious and processional banners], a Don Cossack named Kapendiukhin, a strong, handsome fellow, arrived completely drunk.  With clenched teeth and his gentle, womanish eyes blinking, he began to smash up everything with his iron fist, without saying a word.  Of medium height, he threw himself on the workroom like a cat chasing rats in a cellar.  The others lost their composure and hid themselves away in corners, shouting out to one another, “Knock him down!”

The face painter, Evgeniy Sitanov, succeeded in stunning the maddened creature by hitting him on the head with a small stool….

Larionovich appeared on the scene in cap and overcoat, shook his finger at Sitanov, and said to the workmen in a quiet, professional tone, “Carry him into the vestibule, and leave him there ’til he is sober….”

I looked at Larionovich, wondering perplexedly why these strong, belligerent people were so easily controlled by him.  He showed every one how he ought to work.  Even the best workmen willingly listened to his advice.  He taught Kapenduikhin more, with more words, than the others:

“You, Kapendiukhin, are what is called a painter; that is, you ought to paint from life in the Italian manner [the “Westernized” icon style].  Painting in oils requires warm colors, and you have used too much white and have made Our Lady’s eyes cold as winter.  The cheeks are painted red, like apples, so that the eyes don’t seem to belong to them.  And they are not put in right, either.  One is looking over the bridge of the nose, and the other has moved toward the forehead; and the face has not come out pure and holy, but crafty and wintry.  You don’t concentrate on your work, Kapendiukhin!….”

Zhikarev…went on with his work.  He was the best workman we had, for he could paint faces in the Byzantine manner [the old style] and artistically in the new Italian style.  When he took orders for iconostases, Larionovich consulted him.  He had a fine knowledge of all the original images.  All of the costly copies of miracle-working icons, “Feodorov,” “Kazan,” and others, passed through his hands.  But when he looked at the model he growled loudly, “These models tie us down; there is no getting away from that fact.”

In spite of his superior place in the workshop, he was less conceited than others, and was kind to the apprentices — me and Pavel.  He wanted to teach us the work, since no one else ever bothered about us.

He was difficult to fathom.  He was not usually cheerful, and sometimes he would work for a whole week in silence, as if mute.  He looked at everyone like strangers who amazed him, as if it were the first time he had come across such people.  And although very fond of singing, at such times he did not sing, nor even listen to the songs.  All the others watched him, winking at one another.

He would bend over an icon, which stood aslant, his panel on his knees, the middle resting on the edge of the table, while his fine brush diligently painted the dark, foreign face.  He was dark and foreign-looking himself.  Suddenly he would say in a clear, offended tone,

“Forerunner” [Predtecha] — what does that mean?  Tech, in ancient language, means ‘to go.”  A “forerunner” is one who goes before, and that is all” [John the Baptist is called Ioann Predtecha — “John the Forerunner”].

The workshop was very quiet; everyone was glancing sidewise at Zhikarev, snickering, and in the stillness rang out these strange words:

“He ought to be painted with a sheepskin and wings [he is speaking of the image of John the Forerunner as ‘Angel of the Wilderness’ — John the Baptist]”

“Who are you talking to?” I asked.

He was silent, either not hearing my question or not caring to answer.  Then his words fell again into the expectant silence:

“The lives of the saints are what we ought to know!  What do we know?  We live without wings.  Where is the soul?  The soul — where is it?  The originals are there — yes — but where is the soul?”

…I remember when the copy of the “Feodorov” Mother of God was finished, Zhikarev placed the icon on the table and said loudly, excitedly:

“It is finished, Little Mother!  Bright Chalice, Thou!  Thou bottomless cup, in which are shed the bitter tears from the hearts of a world of creatures!”  And, throwing an overcoat on his shoulders, he went out to the tavern.  The young men laughed and whistled, the older ones looked after him with envious sighs, and Sitanov went to his work.  Looking at it attentively, he explained, “Of course he will go and get drunk, because he is sorry to have to hand over his work.  That sort of regret is not given to all.”

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

This late 19th century icon of Christ as “Lord Almighty” shows the kind of border ornamentation often popular in icons of the period.  The incised border and halo are painted with imitation cloisonné enamel work.  The text on the Gospel book reads “Priidite ko mne vsi truzhdaiushchiysya i obremeneney… ” etc.  “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden.”