If you really want to learn about old icons, you will have to learn to read some of the basic information in old painters’ manuals, which give the instructions for painting this or that saint. Such instructions include the traditional colors used, and that is what I want to talk a bit about today — pigments used in icon painting.
On the page shown above, one finds among other descriptions the instructions for painting the martyrs Timofei (Timothy) and Mavra. The page tells us that the martyr (muchenik) Timofei is painted as a young man (mlad) with “riza apostolskaya“, meaning he wears the standard robe (riza) of an apostle. His clothing is to be painted “sankir dich, ispod lazor.” That is where knowing colors — the pigments of icon painting — comes in. Mavra, who was Timothy’s wife, is painted like St. Paraskeva Piatnitsa, and her clothing is “bakan, ispod vokhra.”
Among others on this same page, we find the martyr Pelagia, who is painted with “riza prazelen, ispod bakan.”
One can see that these descriptions are rather simple. First comes the color of the outer robe (riza), and then we are told the color to paint the under-garment (ispod) — the garment worn under the outer robe.
Now to know what these instructions mean, one must know what those color names meant to the icon painters of old Russia. Below is a basic listing, but keep in mind that the nature of the colors varied considerably in both appearance and composition, and sometimes the names were not used precisely. They could refer both to the substance of pigments and at times simply to color. Consequently, this list should only be used as a very general guide. One also finds variant spellings of the same color name. Note also that such ingredients as lead and mercury, arsenic, etc., are toxic, so this list is for historical purposes only.
Careful painters would follow the color instructions given without fail, but by no means all painters were careful. Sometimes a painter would just use what he had at hand or what was convenient, ignoring the color instructions, particularly on “month” icons that would show the saints and festivals of the month all lined up in a series of vertical rows. In addition, the composition of these colors varied somewhat depending on what sources were available to the painter. There were also disagreements among the old painter’s manuals as to the appropriate colors for the garments of particular saints.
THE COLORS OF ICON PAINTING
Dark olive to dark brown:
The composition of sankir differed from time to time and place to place; in general it was the dark olive or dark brown color used as the base coat for painting flesh; lighter colors were imposed on it to model the features, along with dark lines and bright highlights. Greek sankir — called proplasmos (προπλασμος) was more olive in tone, Russian more brown. Russian sankir was often a mixture of ochre and black, but it could also be of prazelen’ (green) and black and white.
Bright red to reddish orange:
Kinovar is mercury sulphide, cinnabar. It occurs naturally in the earth, but can also be compounded artificially from mercury and sulphur, a very toxic process. Used for inscriptions, clothing, etc.
Chervlen’, sometimes “Cherlen'(Черлень) was a bright, scarlet-red color derived from crushed insects, the coccid “mealybug” (червец). It can also be made from an iron oxide-kaolin “earth” source. Sometimes tended more to brownish-red.
Scarlet red to “brick” red-brown, reddish-orange.
Surik is the equivalent of the western minium; it was made by heating white lead oxide until it turned red.
Derived from plant materials or from cochineal insect (“червец”).
Crimson red to purplish dark red, brownish-red:
Bagor is the often reddish-purple color generally used for painting the outer garment of Mary.
Red to purplish-red:
Often used for clothes and other fabrics — “royal purple”
Lazor is a strong but often rather radiant blue, the best being derived from powdered lapis lazuli, but cheaper versions used other sources; could also be used as a general term for blue.
Dark blue to lighter blue:
Golubets was a rather general term for blue, and might be derived from various sources, among them the copper ore azurite, and lazurite.
Sin’, also called Sin’ gornaya (Синь горная –“mountain/stone blue” is again a dark blue color usually made of blue copper ore (carbonate of copper) — azurite.
Krutik/Sinilo is a dark blue color derived from the plant woad in Russia, but the indigo plant could also be used where available..
Belila is one of the most common color terms used in icon painting, because being white, it is used not only in highlights but also in lightening other colors. Belila was formerly made by exposing pieces of lead to the vapors of vinegar, which resulted in oxidation of the metal, and the white oxide was then used for belila.
Earth yellow to brownish-yellow to reddish brown
Okhra is a natural yellowish-brown earth pigment (containing iron oxides) which varies somewhat from locale to locale. Okhra (we can just say “ochre”) was commonly the foremost pigment used in painting faces and hands, with the successive layers lightened by the admixture of white (belila), etc. This was known as Vokhrenie (Вохрение) or later okhrenie (охрение).
Zelen, as one might guess, was generally made by mixing yellow and blue colors. But in addition, zelen was sometimes made from the copper ore malachite or from glauconite. Often identical with Berggrin.
PRAZELEN’ ( Празелень):
Soft green, grassy green
Sometimes made from the mineral glauconite, but also from other sources such as onion juice.
YAR’ (Ярь )
Derived from copper exposed to vinegar or to sour milk. Venetian yar (Веницейский/Venitseyskiy)was imported from Italy.
Yar-Medianka was generally derived from oxidized copper — the same green color one gets from copper kept moist.
Green made from powdered malachite (name comes from German “Berggrün”, i.e. “Mountain (stone) green.”
Soot-black color, often actually made from soot or charcoal. Used for writing inscriptions, painting weapons and caves, etc.
Often made of bakan and chernila mixed.
This is the equivalent of umber in the west, a mineral “earth” paint.
Very dark brown color made by mixing ochre with soot black, sometimes giving it a reddish tinge.
Varziya is a simple red derived from plant sources, commonly a kind of sandalwood tree.
Zhelt’ is often a lead-oxide-derived yellow equivalent to Blyagil’, but was also sometimes derived from orpiment ( аврепигмент/avrepigment) — a sulfide of arsenic; see Rashgil’ below.
RASHGIL’ (Рашгиль/Рахгиль, from German Rauschgelb).
Orpiment, a yellow derived from sulfide of Arsenic, very toxic.
SHISHGIL’ (Шишгиль, from German Schüttgelb.
A bright yellow derived largely from a mixture of buckthorn berries (Rhamnus species) and chalk. Schüttgelb is derived ultimately from Dutch Schyt-gheel — literally “shit-yellow,” because the yellow color is like that of the excrement of infants.
BLYAGIL’ (Блягиль, from German Bleigelb, i.e. “lead yellow.”)
Blyagil’ is a yellowish-white paint derived from lead oxide.
A yellow much the same as Rashgil’
Grey-blue, light grey:
Dich is a grey with a hint of blue, often used in painting monastic garments. It may also shade to grey-brown.
Dark grey to blackish:
Reft’ is a dark grey color often made from charcoal (or soot) mixed with a lightener, the mixing of chernilo and belila, or of lazor and chernila. In some shades it is used for clouds and water.
Bright yellow (“Chrome yellow”)
One sometime sees that an object is to be painted this way, and it simply means that it is to be like smoke — as greyish-black smoke would appear.
These mineral colors were mixed with an egg-yolk emulsion to create the liquid tempera used in painting icons.
The emulsion was made by placing a raw egg yolk in the palm of the hand. Water is poured over the yolk to clean it, as all the white of the egg must be removed. Then the yolk is pierced with a sharp tool, and the thick yolk liquid is allowed to fall into a container. The empty wall of the yolk is then discarded.
Some cold boiled water is then mixed with the yolk liquid, and to prevent spoilage, a few drops of vinegar are added — or in the old days, often a few drops of kvass, a beer made from fermented rye bread. The amount of vinegar or kvass added — both being acid — affects the fat content of the yolk liquid; the more is added, the less fat in the paint. Such variation determines not only the thickness of the paint, but also how much the color will alter as it dries.
Here is a video (in Russian) showing the process of preparing the egg yolk emulsion, and its admixture through grinding with the powdered mineral pigment to create a tempera color for painting:
Here is another video showing variations in the preparation of the emulsion: