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
(Courtesy of

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.


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
(Courtesy of

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
(Courtesy of

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:

(Photo Courtesy of

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:


Tikhvin icon of Virgin in Tikhvinsky Monastery
IThe “Tikhvin” (Tikhvinskaya) icon of Mary

There is an odd document floating about on the Internet titled The Icon FAQ, an article that attempts to influence potential or new converts, written by a fellow who is himself a Protestant convert to conservative Eastern Orthodoxy .  What interests me here is that in response to the question “Do [Eastern] Orthodox Christians pray to icons?” the rather obfuscating answer given by the Icon FAQ is, “[Eastern Orthodox] Christians pray in the presence of icons….”

As I often repeat, the best way to learn the truth about something is to examine not what someone says is the fact, but what really is the fact — in this case, what the actual practice of people was, what they — the “believers” — have actually done and said about the matter and still do and say.  It is unlikely you will ever hear the average non-convert Eastern Orthodox believer — past or present — talk about praying “in the presence of icons” — after all, one prays in the presence of shirts and shoes and building walls and a floor and ceiling in an Orthodox Church, but icons are in an entirely different category.

The fact is that when traditional Eastern Orthodox talk about prayer and icons, what they usually say is that they pray before (meaning in front of, facing) an icon, or that they pray to an icon.  That is the real state of the matter that the Icon FAQ ignores, because of course it has designs on the reader — it is religious propaganda.  But the issue raised by the question does takes us to a rather fascinating subject — the traditional attitude toward icons of Mary in Eastern Orthodoxy.

If an alien anthropologist were to visit Russia, he or she (or it?) would quickly form the opinion that the chief deity in Russian Orthodoxy (and the same applies to other E. Orthodox countries to a large extent) is a Mother Goddess who has given birth to a small male god.  That is because of the immense popularity of icons of Mary and the great number of different types, which greatly exceeds those devoted to Jesus, who no doubt would be seen as a secondary deity.

When we look at this great number of “wonder-working” Marian icons in particular, we find ourselves back in the mindset of the Greco-Roman world of worship that preceded the advent of Christianity; back in a pre-scientific world in which divine images speak, move about of their own volition, punish, reward, and even bleed.

In her book Le culte des icônes en Grèce (The Cult of Icons in Greece), Katerina Seraïdari writes of the Panayia (Panagia) Limnia, the “All Holy One of Limni,” an icon of Mary that supposedly came to the village of Limni in 1560.   It’s “appearance,” as they say in Russia, was not unusual in comparison to all other stories.  It came floating on the water, and it was placed in the Hermitage of St. Anne.  But the icon disappeared three times from that site, showing that it preferred another location.  Seraïdari writes, “Ces déplacements miraculeux révélèrent à la communauté la volonté de l’icône ainsi que son propre destin….” “These miraculous displacements revealed to the community the will of the icon as well as its proper destination….”  I have added the emphasis.  The icon was eventually moved to the site it preferred.

Now one may think, “Well, this is someone writing in the 21st century and attributing something to the icon — a will — that would not actually be the case in Eastern Orthodoxy.”  But really just the opposite is true.  This manner of speaking of the icon as though it had its own will and desires and movements is actually the way such icons have been traditionally regarded in Eastern Orthodoxy.  If an icon of Mary does not like where it is, it will go someplace else, and it will get there by floating on the water — as in the case of the Panagia Limnia — or it will fly through the air, as in the case of the Tikhvin (Tikhvinskaya) icon of Mary in Russia, etc. etc.

In short, the traditional attitude toward icons — the attitude actually held by Eastern Orthodox believers, not theoreticians or converts — was that icons behaved like living creatures — and so they were treated as such.  That is why a believer would pray before such an icon, as though talking to a person, and that is why it is often said that believers would pray to an icon, because that is precisely what they did.  One can see from this that the feeble notion that Eastern Orthodox believers merely pray “in the presence of” icons is, from an historical point of view, both very misleading and quite inaccurate.  To discover the real situation one must go to what was actually said and written about such icons and how they were regarded by the ordinary believers of past centuries.

The view of icons in Egyptian Coptic Christianity was very much the view held throughout the Eastern Orthodox realms:

“Generally speaking, the Copts make no distinction between the qualities and characteristics of the icon and those of the person represented by the icon.  Whatever the person could perform in his or her lifetime or post mortem, the icon representing the person could do as well.  For that matter, the icon is the artistic ‘incarnation’ of the person, and as such it is subject to as much veneration as the person represented.  Therefore, it is not surprising that the Copts, like the Greeks and the Russians, ascribe human qualities such as weeping, sweating, and bleeding to their icons.” (Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, Otto F. A. Meinardus, American University in Cairo Press, 1999)

There is a great deal more that could be said on this subject, because there is a voluminous amount of legend and folklore dealing with “miraculous” Marian icons.  In fact just to discuss them one by one would be very revealing, but I shall have to save further comments for another posting.