Thursday, May 27, 2010

Icon Writing 101: Journey To A Sacred Doorway

100_2274The Eastern Church calls an image such as is written in the icon manner a “sacred doorway to Heaven.”  After several years of longing to attempt this ancient, prayerful, meditative art, I began to take steps forward.  I researched to find workshops in my area as I was convinced the only way was to learn from a master.  I found several good ones—one in Austin and Dallas—but as a young, working mother, I determined it was impractical to make hours, days, journeys to other cities for these workshops.  I resigned to making an icon writing amazon wishlist.  Wish is the keyword here, because I had stepped no closer to the threshold.  Finally, I received A Brush With God: An Icon Workbook as a gift.  Other than having two little children, there were few excuses to not begin my icon writing journey.  Still, I was unsure of my ability to partake in this sacred practice.

My friend inspired me to simply “come” with faith.  Others before had encouraged me to attempt icon writing, because they saw I fancy myself a decent artist from time to time.  Of course, I am fully aware that simply because one likes to pick up a paintbrush and paint a pretty picture does not mean one could or should write an icon.  Nevertheless, in April it seemed all the years of longing, researching and encouragement had brought me to a place in which an icon might spring forth.

Since I am not a trained, experienced or knowledgeable iconographer, I will not be trying to teach iconography via my blog.  However, I would like to share my own observations, lessons and tips as I journey along this pilgrimage. 
100_2276The “work book” I am using to help me with my icon is a good jumping off point.  It will get you from point A to point B.  It gives a short overview of icons.  Which despite the brevity of the overview, I found it dense.  Eventually, I will round out my icon resource collection and learn more about prayer and symbolism.  As the author points out, it will take many years to come to understand.  But, everyone must start somewhere.  This is one thing I appreciate about this book.  It is forgiving.  While some folks make iconography seem lofty and untouchable for common hands, this book meets you where you are.  That’s important, because the grace of praying before, or writing an icon can transform one’s soul.

Despite, owning many art supplies.  I have probably already bought $100 worth of supplies since beginning my journey.  Perhaps I could have done this a little less expensively, but I should be able to use them for other icons in the future.  So far, I really have not found a way around the startup costs.  Tip #1 Be prepared to spend a little money.

100_2290I bought the panel from the craft section of Wal-mart.  I am sure similar panels can be found at hobby stores.  I sanded it and began to apply my 10 coats of gesso.  It took a little over a week to apply all the coats (I know some do this more quickly with a hair dryer, but I have small children who demand my time). I began applying the gesso with a larger paint brush as I was taught in my art classes.  I applied in a multi-directional pattern as the book recommended.  This left significant ridges that I found difficult to sand away.  Later I found this site, which has a PDF explaining icon writing step-by-step and it had a great method for applying gesso. 

Tip #2 To apply gesso smoothly on the board, use a spackle knife, and spread the gesso with medium pressure.  Let the board dry for a few hours.  Tip #3 Dip fine grade 220 sandpaper into warm water and thoroughly wet the paper.  When sanding with wet sandpaper it will cause direct contact between paper and gesso-ed board and make the board smooth and flat.  Sand away any ridges and rough places.  Use smaller pieces and change your paper frequently.  Use a towel to dry the board occasionally.  Do not sand too much, only enough to smooth away the ridges.

100_2288At first I had trouble choosing which icon I would copy as my first.  I could not decide between the Rublev Trinity or Christos Pantokrator.  However, after a lot perusing of famous icons I settled upon the Virgin of Vladimir.  I did not plan on using an image of Blessed Theotokos, because we already have one in just about every room in our home.  A couple things hit my though.  As a mother, with child myself, Blessed Theotokos is a very fitting image for me to reflect upon during this time.  I adore the Virgin of Vladimir for the same reason as many—the loving embrace of the Christ Child, with His arm around His mother’s neck.  This icon was hanging beside the door above the light switch in our bedroom.  I particularly love this one, in which the Christ’s lips are almost kissing Blessed Theotokos.  Tip #3 Choose an icon that is meaningful to you at your given station in life; or if you are gifting your icon make it meaningful for the recipient.

100_2300Tip #4 If possible, print the icon you intend to copy on photo paper, so that the image’s color is deep, rich and easier to trace.  As I traced the beautiful image, I began to fall in love with it.  Every curve and angle began to take on a majesty of it’s own.  Certainly the image is steeped in sacred geometry.  Perhaps, someday I will begin to understand how it is laid out and why.

Once my image was traced from the original to tracing paper, I was excited to transfer it to the board.  I had a dickens of a time trying to find carbon paper.  I never did.  Finally, I decided to buy graphite paper.  I opened the box and realized the graphite was white for tracing on black surfaces.  I was all ready to trace my image!  I sat staring at the icon, disappointed, wracking my brain how I could complete the transfer without carbon paper.  I flipped the icon image over face down on my board and began to trace the back.  I lifted it up and the part I had traced (just a line) had transferred.  I was excited again.  Perhaps 100_2304this would work.  Then a frown and knitted brow returned to my face.  I could not traced it as a mirror image.  I do not know the rules about that sort of thing, but I had a feeling that would be the wrong thing to do.  So back to troubleshooting.  My little experiment had given me an idea.  Tip #5 Do not buy carbon paper, make your own.  Use a HB grade art pencil (or a common #2 pencil) and color in tracing paper.  Excess graphite will be easy to erase later after the lines are painted.  Tape the graphite-colored tracing paper to your traced icon image back-to-back.  The colored in paper should be placed face down on the gesso board and the traced icon image should face out toward you.  Trace your icon as instructed.

Next, you trace the image for the third and final time as you paint in the lines of your transferred image.  This is the crux of ownership.  The icon is now by your hand.  The image and it’s meaning belongs to God, but your hand has put it there on the board, by the grace of God.  One thing I did not do is test out brushes.  I blindly took advice from the workbook.  But, not all brushes are equal.  Your hand may require a different shape, length or thickness. Tip #6 Use a clay board to test brushes and find a brush that you are comfortable with to do detail work, such as painting in the outlines. 

I was surprised how long it took me to paint in the outlines.  It took 6 hours all together.  That was three days of naptimes.  Tip #7 Take your time to paint in the outlines.  Just take your time in general.  It’s important to take your time, because in icon writing every error shows.  Tip #8 If you make a mistake, you can immediately remove it with a wet cloth or paper towel.  Dip a corner of the towel in water.  Create a crisp edge by folding the towel and use the wet edge to wipe away your mistake.  Be careful to not wipe away other parts of your painting.  This 100_2308is particularly helpful in the outlining phase.  It is not as easy to do this in later steps, because there is too much risk of damaging other areas of the painting.

I have only completed the base coat stage.  Tip #9 Keep your base coats light.  I was not sure about this step at first, nor how light I should keep my base coat.  In my mind, I insisted upon perfect smoothness of paint application, which caused me to apply a heavier layer in some areas to smooth out the application.  As the paint dried, I realized that in the areas where the paint was lighter, it dried smoother.  The lighter the application the better.  You can always apply more coats later.  Further, the highlights and low-lights will build the color and depth.  I will post the finished icon and further reflections later.

Tip #10
If you think you want to try icon writing, you should.  Do not have fear as I did.  Of course, if you can learn from someone who has done it for a long time, that is best.  There are lots of good books on the subject.  I have not found too many websites, but there are a few.  You will need direction of some kind.  The workbook I have been working from also has a short section on icons for kids, which I think it great for children to be exposed to sacred doorways early on.  Icon writing is a grace-filled journey.  I pray this one turns out well.


Anne said...

BEAUTIFUL! I am so excited to start mine! I have a few sewing projects to finish up first, but I will probably start when T leaves for AZ next month.

I can't wait to see how your finished image turns out :) I will be praying, too! lagba!

Michelle M. said...

That is wonderful! I would love to do this some day, too. I will choose to wait, though, so that I can go to an icon workshop. I think I will do best with someone by my side to guide me. I am so impressed that you have taken this upon yourself.