Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

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THEOLOGY OF THE ICON

March 2, 2008

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The icon is a link between the human and the divine. It provides a space for the mystical encounter between the person before it and God. It becomes a place for the appearance of Christ, the Theotokos or the Saints-provided one stands before the icon with the right disposition of heart and mind. It creates a place of prayer. An icon participates in the event it depicts and is almost a re-creation of that event existentially for the believer.
As S. Bulgakov said, “By the blessing of the icon of Christ, a mystical meeting of the faithful and Christ is made possible.” Throughout the world, many icons are for this reason regarded as “wonder working”, providing both spiritual and temporal blessings. They are venerated as instruments of miraculous intervention. They provide courage and strength in a world marked with tragedy and suffering. They provide joy since icons remind us that we are deeply loved by God.

Western spirituality teaches us to listen, and the Byzantine Fathers invite us to look.
The constancy of the Christian Faith is reflected in its art. The icon is steeped in tradition. Tradition and artistic convention govern the icon painting. We all can imagine the ancient scribe carefully copying letter by letter the ancient religious texts. In a similar way the iconographer follows that which was before him. In fact, the act of painting an icon is often referred to as “writing.” The artist’s creativity comes into play not through creating the “novel,” but in the freedom of manipulating line, color, and form for a directed purpose: the expression of the truth and vision of the Church. With these specific goals in mind the icon over the centuries took on its own particular style. The ochre skin tones, the unnatural folds of closing, the flatter spaces and odd perspective, are all examples of this. An icon itself is not so much a painting as a prayer, hence it’s majestic simplicity and peacefulness. All that is depicted in it reflects divine orderliness. An icon speaks also with its hues, which are equally as symbolic as forms. Red, white, green, brown and yellow colors were the basic hues used in icon painting, red having a symbol of life and blood, in particular the blood of Christ and Martyrs. White represented the transcendental world, green was a symbol of youthfulness and vitality, while brown (the colour of the Earth-antithesis of Heaven) was used to paint monks’ and ascetics’ vestments. Yellow, approximating gold, symbolized light and eternity. The most spiritual hue was azure, a symbol of the mystery of life frequently used in icon painting.

There could be nothing personal, nothing those reflected individual predilections of a painter in an icon, as it did not depict human thoughts or images of the Truth, but the Truth itself. The art of icon painting is bound to religious tradition, which disallows loose alterations. This preserves the pure form and protects the specific theological and religious concepts being presented through the icons. A special discipline is prescribed for icon painters in conformity to ecclesiastical requirements. The icon is a consecrated object, thus demanding the painter to pray and fast for divine inspiration.
According to such interpretation the work of icon painters ( iconographers ) had very much in common with the priest’s duties, merely the form of work differed, for a priest taught with words and an iconographer with form and colour.
Some people consider painting icons an uncreative anachronism. This could equally be said of singing plainchant or interpreting any other time-honored form of art or music. An icon is said to be a mirror of divine revelation. A painter’s interpretation of it is also a reflection of his spiritual attitude. A good craftsman may make a competent copy, but the true artist tries with reverence to capture the spirit of the icon.

In Western art forms, the artist’s creativity and expertise are of primary value. In Eastern Byzantine Iconography, the value is in essence over appearance. The vast difference between styles seems to create a sort of language barrier between them. Ultimately, each has it’s own place and purpose; truly understanding various art forms takes a certain effort. Western art has often aided in the greater appreciation of God’s creation. Eastern Iconography serves to express the glory of God Himself.

When the Son of God became Man through the Mother of God (incarnation), God was given a physical image and was then able to be portrayed in icons in human form. The images serve as an inspiration to all who view them. An icon does not show the confusion of a sinful world. Rather, it depicts the peace of the Divine world; a world governed by grace, not logic. That is why every religious painting is not necessarily an icon. Icons are very different from other more commonly seen art forms. The value of an icon, therefore, is not based on the beauty of the work, but on the spiritual beauty it portrays.

Icon painters, are generally not known to us by name. By a curious twist of fate we are familiar with the names of many masters, but do not actually know any picture they have painted, whereas in the case of a great number of the works that have survived, we know the painting, but do not know the artist and have little hope of ever finding out his name. Icon painting was an anonymous branch of art because, the painter regarded himself a tool in the hands of God rather than as a creative artist. Therefore his name was quite unimportant and not worth mentioning. He was not interested in enhancing his reputation and the whole procedure of dating or signing pictures seemed quite superfluous when viewed in that light. In more recent time, the inscription “by the hand of (the iconographer’s name)” is used, thus giving God the credit for guiding the hand by which form is given to His sacred mysteries.

To those newly interested in icons: allow the icon to speak to your heart through quiet contemplation. Icons are a doorway into closeness with God, (leading beyond itself to the Eternal Creator.) Through God’s love, icons are created to aid seekers into spiritual holiness. Iconography is not an invention of painters or artists but it is an authentic tradition of the Church. The preaching of Christianity was carried out through word and image.

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How Ikons Are Created – Gilding & Varnishing

February 23, 2008

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Gilding is, for me, the most difficult part of ikon painting and I approach it with great trepidation every time I do it. Gilding is completely unforgiving and difficult to correct if done wrong. The hardest thing is to create an all-over even effect.

There are a number of methods for gilding, which include painted gold, gold-leaf adhered by applied glues and water gilding on gesso. Of these The first is the easiest. Gilding is extremely hard to master and can be very frustrating – as well as expensive. There are two different kinds of real gold-leaf, which comes in packets of around 25-40 sheets. A 14 by 20 inch ikon will take one packet of gold leaf which costs around $35. One is called ‘wind-blown’, which is used in water and bole gilding; and ‘patent’ gold, which is used in gilding with size. The difference is that wind-blown gold-leaf is loosely set in its packet, so that a cat’s hair brush can easily lift it from the folder onto the surface you are gilding; while pantent gold-leaf is attached to a removable piece of thin paper which is directly (and delicately) applied to a tacky sized surface. The gold-leaf is lightly rubbed through the paper until it has completely attached and then the paper is carefully removed. I recommend experimentation using a good book, such as ‘The Art of Tempera Painting”, which you can get from Sinopia, as a guide. I use 23kt patent gold-leaf and Japan Gold Size. It adheres fast but is tricky to use. I suggest using an artificial gold paint for your first ikon, a blue background and limiting the idea to be gilded to halos. This should only be step towards learning the proper methods. Water gilding is the best, because it allows the artist to polish the surface after the application of real gold leaf, creating a mirror-like surface.

There are also artificial gold-leaf packets which are less expensive than genuine gold. They only seem to come in the wind-blown variety.

Varnishing

When the painting has been completed it should be allowed to dry out completely. I suggest a week or more. A final varnish is necessary to protect the surface of the ikon. Do not use normal painting varnish. Russian painters used a refined oil to coat their ikons. This was a bad choice, as the oil soaked up dirt and grime. This is the reason many ancient Russian ikons have been repainted many times. The best varnish is shellac, which is a natural substance made from trees. I always use a spray shellac, putting on a number of light gentle coats. Make sure the temperature where you are applying the shellac is above 65F, free of any sudden gusts of air, insects and pet or human hair. There is nothing worse than to find a fly which has mistakenly alighted on your painting embedded in the shellac. As I mentioned earlier, always use light coats and let each layer dry. Putting the shellac on in too thick layers can cause cloudiness.

Taken from the website ICON’s- windows into heaven- A Collection of Sacred images. 

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How Ikons Are Created – Gilding & Varnishing

February 23, 2008

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Gilding is, for me, the most difficult part of ikon painting and I approach it with great trepidation every time I do it. Gilding is completely unforgiving and difficult to correct if done wrong. The hardest thing is to create an all-over even effect.

There are a number of methods for gilding, which include painted gold, gold-leaf adhered by applied glues and water gilding on gesso. Of these The first is the easiest. Gilding is extremely hard to master and can be very frustrating – as well as expensive. There are two different kinds of real gold-leaf, which comes in packets of around 25-40 sheets. A 14 by 20 inch ikon will take one packet of gold leaf which costs around $35. One is called ‘wind-blown’, which is used in water and bole gilding; and ‘patent’ gold, which is used in gilding with size. The difference is that wind-blown gold-leaf is loosely set in its packet, so that a cat’s hair brush can easily lift it from the folder onto the surface you are gilding; while pantent gold-leaf is attached to a removable piece of thin paper which is directly (and delicately) applied to a tacky sized surface. The gold-leaf is lightly rubbed through the paper until it has completely attached and then the paper is carefully removed. I recommend experimentation using a good book, such as ‘The Art of Tempera Painting”, which you can get from Sinopia, as a guide. I use 23kt patent gold-leaf and Japan Gold Size. It adheres fast but is tricky to use. I suggest using an artificial gold paint for your first ikon, a blue background and limiting the idea to be gilded to halos. This should only be step towards learning the proper methods. Water gilding is the best, because it allows the artist to polish the surface after the application of real gold leaf, creating a mirror-like surface.

There are also artificial gold-leaf packets which are less expensive than genuine gold. They only seem to come in the wind-blown variety.

Varnishing

When the painting has been completed it should be allowed to dry out completely. I suggest a week or more. A final varnish is necessary to protect the surface of the ikon. Do not use normal painting varnish. Russian painters used a refined oil to coat their ikons. This was a bad choice, as the oil soaked up dirt and grime. This is the reason many ancient Russian ikons have been repainted many times. The best varnish is shellac, which is a natural substance made from trees. I always use a spray shellac, putting on a number of light gentle coats. Make sure the temperature where you are applying the shellac is above 65F, free of any sudden gusts of air, insects and pet or human hair. There is nothing worse than to find a fly which has mistakenly alighted on your painting embedded in the shellac. As I mentioned earlier, always use light coats and let each layer dry. Putting the shellac on in too thick layers can cause cloudiness.

Taken from the website ICON’s- windows into heaven- A Collection of Sacred images. 

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How Ikons Are Created – Painting the Ikon

February 23, 2008

 

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As mentioned earlier ikons are painted from dark to light. It is a painstaking technique and requires the use of fine-tipped brushes. In order to achieve the fused method of modeling, which creates seamless graduations in tones it is necessary to make many subtle lightenings of the pigment which are applied in a very fine cross-hatching effect. Another method is to blur the edges of each successive coat with pigment which has been more diluted in water.

The first example at top left shows a detail of the face of St. Catherine of Sinai. In this ikon the 14th century Byzantine artist has used a rather dark underpainting, using a dark umber color mixed with white. After painting the undertones of the face the next step is to draw the dark lines upon the face in dark umber. The first face tones the painter has laid on in the fused, method. This can be determined by the lack of noticeable lines at the transition point between the underpaint and the first light flesh tones. In the fused method one uses a combination of water-diluted color with a very soft application of the paint in the transition zone. This may be hard to understand, but I promise you will learn it as you attempt to create this smooth transition yourself. The traditional flesh tones are generally made of Yellow Ochre mixed with a small amount of red, white and umber. The following lighter layers of face tone are made simply by adding more white. Midway through the process of building up the face a small amount of flesh tone should be taken aside and mixed with a touch more red and a bit of umber. It is better to err on the side of using less, rather than more. This tone is then dilutes and used for the rosey tones of the checks and lips. Notice that the painter of St. Catherine has used a lighter tone for the cheeks and that this is under the topmost layers. Also notice that the nose has a rosey zone along it’s right edge and that the chin has one also. Looking very closely it is possible to observe that the lower part of the neck and the edge of the forehead is treated in a similar, subtle way. Strive for a fused effect with the rosey tone, showing no lines.

The final light flesh tones can be seen to have been laid on in a contour effect and the brush strokes are visible. The artist has followed the contours of the various features of the face. leaving the lines visible is a conscious effort by the artist. Finally bright highlights have been placed along the same facial contours in key places. Study these very carefully, for all ikon faces follow a similar arrangement. This tone of white is actually not very bright and be careful to use a very light tone of your flesh color here rather than plain white, which would be too garish. The eyes take special treatment. Notice that the artist had used the fused method in the eyes, and has even outlines the dark-edged iris with a barely detectable outline of light tone.

The second ikon detail at left is from a Russian painting of St. David from the 15th century. The artist has used a lighter underpaint than the painter of St. Catherine and it has a greenish tone. A lighter underpainting in facial tones against a color background makes the facial tones harmonize more effectively. Here the artists has also chosen flesh tones which are much rosier and closer to the color of the underpaint. This makes it easier to achieve the fused effect. Here the highlights are much brighter and more abstract. The lines of the drawing on the face are also more red. This ikon certainly has a more calligraphic quality.

The first example of drapery painting at left is a detail from a 14th century ikon of the Annunciation from Constantinople, now in Orhid, Macedonia. It shows the leg of the Archangel.

Here can clearly be demonstrated the ikon method of painting garments. First the artist has painted the undertone, in this case a neutral grey. Next the painter drew the outlines of the drapery and then applied some broad areas of darker shadow (overuse of overly dark shadows can make your figures seem overworked, restraint is called for). Two layers of highlights are applied. Notice here that some ‘lines’ in the drawing of the garment are created by these highlights. This is called the three tone method, since there are three tones added to the underpaint of the garment (the lines of the drawing are not considered tones). The three tone method is also used in architecture and landscape.

Sometimes alternate colors, such as green or pink on blue, are used in the lighter tones to create contrasting tones which imitate shimmering fabrics such as silk or brocade. This can be seen in the garments of the left-hand Angel in Rublev’s great ikon of the Old Testament Trinity.

Specific garment colors are assigned by tradition to specific saints and Holy figures. For example, Christ and the Virgin’s robes are always in royal shades of Imperial Purple or rich Blue. The only exception is in some ikons depicting heaven, when their robes are white. The Archangel Michael’s outer cloak is usually red or purple while Gabriel’s is blue or a greenish blue. This was helpful in the days when few people could read. Christians could recognize who they were praying to by the colors in the ikon. Ikons always carry inscriptions identifying the scene or the saint shown for the same reason – it was important to know who one was praying to.

Finally, gold is used to highlight garments as well. In the example at left from Rublev’s Christ in Glory the use of fine gold lines which have the effect of building up volume can be clearly seen. Use of gold highlights the image seem more abstract.

 Taken from the website ICON’s- windows into heaven- A Collection of Sacred images.

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How Ikons Are Created – Choosing an Ikon to Paint and The Drawing

February 23, 2008

 

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The best way to select the subject of your first ikon is to look though books. I suggest selecting a simple subject to begin with, perhaps a Virgin and Child. There is no problem with tracing an ikon from a photocopy for your drawing, since one of the most valued possessions of medieval ikon painters were pattern books of drawings they used over and over as they painted. These books were often passed down from generation to generation. Also, as adhering to the original ikon as closely as possible is essential tracing is an excellent way of achieving that end. I also suggest lightly coloring in the colors of various areas in advance to insure you have the right pigments at hand.

The drawing is transferred to the panel by rubbing charcoal over the back of the drawing and pressing a copy onto the surface with a dull pencil through the paper. Never draw your ikon directing on the panel using a graphite pencil. Once the charcoal image is imprinted onto the panel a sepia painting of the lines is created and the remaining charcoal gently brushed away. Some artists then scratch the outline of the figure into the gesso, as the painted lines will disappear under the layers of paint. This technique will enable the original drawing to be seen in a raking light beneath the surface of the paint, and guide the drawing of lines and contours in paint on the undercoat.

Taken from the website ICON’s- windows into heaven- A Collection of Sacred images. 

 

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How Ikons Are Created – About the Egg Tempera Media

February 23, 2008

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The egg tempera medium is created by draining the yolks of fresh eggs. I do it by hand, rolling the yolk in a broken half-shell while carefully pouring out the white. Once most of the white is gone I roll the intact yolk in my cupped fingers to drain off the last of the white. Then I delicately hold the yolk while I pierce the membrane with a needle or tip of a knife. Next I gently drain the contents of the yolk into a clean cup or bowl, making sure that none of the membrane gets mixed in, which is discarded. Following this, I gently mix in a small amount of water and a tiny quantity of alcohol or vinegar as a preservative.

Pigments are mixed, usually the night before, in small bottles. I use baby food jars. Some choose to wet their dry pigments on china or glass, using a palate knife, however I have always mixed them in the bottle. Some dry pigments do not wet easily and the use of a few drops of a wetting agent, like Ox Gall is always a good idea. Ox Gall is inexpensive and can be ordered from Sinopia. Next I take a certain quantity of wetted pigment and mix it with a quantity of the egg mixture, either in another baby food jar or on an old china plate. It is important to get the mixture right, and this can vary. One has to watch for a velvety-matte effect as the paint dries, to little medium will leave a dry bleached out surface, while too much will make for an oily and pasty surface. Recognizing the right mixture is something that can only be learned by experimentation and observation.

Wetted pigments in sealed jars can be stored for a few days, perhaps as long as a week. I find that mixed pigments are useless if not used within 4 -12 hours.

Normally, differently colored pigments are not mixed together as much as in modern painting, but are used straight out of the bottle. This is not always possible, for example the underpainting of flesh tones is a mixture of various earth tones. The Imperial purple of the Virgin’s robes is a mixture of Hematite and Cinnabar. There is not hard and fast rule about mixing colors, it’s simply a situation of trial and error. In some cases the minerals used can react to each other in unexpected ways.

 Taken from the website ICON’s- windows into heaven- A Collection of Sacred images.

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How Ikons Are Created – Pigments and Brushes

February 23, 2008

 

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You selection of pigments and brushes are very important. Brushes must be soft and generally round. You will need a number of fine detail brushes. Watch for the points of your brushes when you buy them. Cheap, poorly made brushes can come apart while you are painting and spoil your work. Sable is best, but some synthetic brushes will work okay for the budget-minded.

Traditional ikons are painted in egg tempera, and in very early-times were also painted in wax colors manipulated with heated rods and spatulas. Acrylic and oils paints are not traditional media for ikon painting, but there is no hard fast rule against these mediums. It is impossible to achieve the effect of egg tempera in other medium. The use of acrylic paints for ikons is fairly wide spread because it is an easier technique and supplies are easier to obtain. New students of ikon painting should move directly to original methods and avoid the interim step of painting in acrylics on canvas which can teach bad habits. This is not to say that acrylic painted ikons aren’t spiritual. All ikons are simply nothing but painted boards and have no intrinsic spiritual value in their materials.

Two companies in Britain, Rowney and Windsor-Newton, carry egg tempera paints premade in tubes, but these are not true egg tempera paints, as they include oils in their composition and are very difficult for the ikon painter to use. The ancient egg tempera method uses dry pigments which you mix with the medium each time you use them. This might seem intimidating to the novice, but it is quite easy. Egg tempera is also easy to clean up.

Selecting the right pigments is very important. The traditional ikon palate is based on natural elements and is much cooler than the paints found for sale in art stores. You will find that natural pigments will harmonize within your composition in a way that mass-produced, synthetic paints never can. I suggest the following pigments for the beginning ikon painter; Green Earth, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, French Ochre, Slate Grey, Ivory Black, Hematite, and Ultramarine Blue. All of these will cost a total of around $40 and come in 50 and 100 gram glass bottles from Sinopia. These quantities will last a long time for the novice painter. I also recommend buying Titanium White over old Flake White, which is lead-based and a hazardous material. Plus, I find Titanium White has stronger tinting qualities. A rich blue for traditional ikon backgrounds and the robes of the Virgin and Christ is recommended. Here, I suggest Cobalt Blues over Lapis-Lazuli colors, which are extremely expensive. Dark Cobalt Blue comes closest to the color used by Giotto for the backgrounds of his work. Reds are also a special case. Cinnabar, which is the genuine color of Vermilion, is best, but expensive. Ikon painters who want to achieve the rich, bright reds of Russian painting must use Cinnabar. Sinopia carries some alternative pigments, such as Permanent Red, which will work well.

Greens were always a problematic color for ancient and medieval painters and were normally based on impermanent vegetable dyes or minerals like malachite and copper. I suggest a Cobalt Green be added to the range of your pigments. The last pigments I have recommended, Cobalt Blue, Cinnabar and Cobalt Green will cost about another $70, but as I mentioned earlier, should last a long time.

For more details on pigments I suggest contacting Sinopia, they are very helpful in recommending colors and have a catalog they can send you in the mail.

Taken from the website ICON’s- windows into heaven- A Collection of Sacred images.