Friday, May 30, 2014

Icon Writing with Kids Tutorial

A few of my brothers and sisters in Christ are interested in how our children's icons are made.  I am not sure this process is repeatable by anyone, but I will give some options for the novice.  I also will profess to you all that in no way do I feel these paper and paint icons do justice to the tremendous tradition of iconography.  However, I feel that they are a teaching tool for my kids to learn their faith. The icons are speaking to them the story of our Church and therefore they are written.

Feast of the Ascension Kontonkion:

"O Christ our God, upon fulfilling Your dispensation for our sake, You ascended in Glory, uniting the earthly with the heavenly. You were never separate but remained inseparable, and cried out to those who love You, "I am with you and no one is against you."


Paper, scissors, masking tape, pencils, fine point sharpie, masonite board, crayola tempera paints, variety of paint brushes, paper towels, assortment of bowls and cups,  a meter stick, a masonite board, sipping liquor.

I use Melissa & Doug poster paint as well.  
I DO NOT RECOMMEND this paint.  It does not wash out well.
I have conspicuously placed sipping liquor in this photo.  You will need that after you see the bloody mess the kids are going to make with the paint...and after listening to them bicker over who has the best skills, paint brush or what have you.  It just takes the edge off the clean up phase. ;-)

First, I search for an icon of the feast online.  I draw the line drawing of the icon directly from my computer.  In this case, I looked it up on an iPad.  However, iPads do not allow visibility of as much detail.  Another option is to save the image to a file and then print it.  I also look up the meaning of the symbols within the icon online.  I could never afford to own all the books it would take to know the meaning in all icons. 

Next, I cut the paper and tape it to the masonite board with masking tape.  Masking tape seems to work best for holding this paper down.  Other types of tape will release when it is wet with paint.  Masonite is a type of thin board that is water proof.  It can be purchased at most hardware stores. Or smaller boards can be purchased at art stores.

I make poster sized icon images for the kids.  This is preferable, because small children lack the fine motor skills needed to paint or color smaller details.  Also, the larger images really bring the subject to life.  It also gives importance to their work.
I often begin drawing the line drawing by making the circles that will become the halos.  I use an assortment of bowls and cups to make perfect circles.  I prefer this method to a compass.  Or I will block out the figures sizes and locations first, if there are a lot of figures.  I look at the negative spaces to figure out where everything belongs.

The base of a halo is always placed where the necks meets the shoulders.  I will form the head and neck in the smaller circle of the two circles below.  The second larger circle will become the halo.

The first image I draw is Christ's face.  I begin by making the peak of Christ's forelock.  It's just a location thing for me.  If I can establish that I can block out the rest of the face.  Then I draw the rest of the shape of His head, and place eyes, nose and mouth within the head shape.  Icons follow traditional face placement.  Eyes are placed halfway between the top of the head and chin.  The tip of the nose is place halfway between the eyes and the chin.  The part of the lips is place halfway between nose and chin.

The shape of heads are large and round.  The roundness is meant to be geometric, which is a perfection of God.  The largeness shows wisdom--understanding of life's mysteries.  Icons also often have large eyes, deep eyes, piercing eyes.  Omniscient, omnipresent, omnipowerful, all-good God is seeing you through this image.  Wisdom of the ages is portrayed through the eyes.

Christ's eyebrows are stern and serious.  He has the weight of the world on His shoulders.  He is the ultimate authority.  We are meant to feel the weight of his presence and authority through the eyes and eyebrows.

Lips are only just suggested by the curve of the bottom lip and the curve of the chin, the part of the lips and the philtrum depression below the nose (see final Theotokos image below).

Noses fall long and straight.  Ears are drawn between eyes and bottom of nose.

Christ's halo is usually adorned with a cross.  His sacrifice is always an integral part of His glory.

"Mommy, what is a halo?" It is an expression of God's light and glory, illuminating the holy person.  This person is illuminated by God because he is with God.

Once the entire image is drawn, I go over each line with a fine point sharpie marker.  Sometimes Kristiana helps.  We are working on our fine motor skills. 

My drawings are quick and loose, because I often have a few kids hanging on me or needing me.  I often work late at night so I can have peace to work.  But, it does not help my craftsmanship as I am usually too tired to see straight.  But that is okay, because children's icons should not have too much detail.  Kids will weary quickly of too much detail painting.  I often cut out part of the image because it is either too much for me to draw in my time frame, or it is too much for the children.  This is not ideal to remove some part of the icon image, since every part of the icon image is purposeful.  But, my goal is to convey the basic message.

"I need you to hold me, Mom!"

Annie thought she needed to wear a swimsuit to paint today.  She did not want to mess her dress.

This is the image the children receive to paint.  

Color Chart: 

Christ Clothing: Red under tunic, blue over clothes (Sometimes White for His triumph)--this symbolizes His sacrifice clothed in Divinity.  Or also known as humanity clothed in Divinity.

Mary, Theotokos Clothing: Blue under clothes, red mantle (shawl)--this symbolizes her purity, clothed in sacrifice--Purity clothes in humanity.

Red: Everything earthly, humanity, passion, blood, fire

Bright Red: Martyrdom, witness to faith

Purple: Royalty

Earthy yellow, Bold Yellow, Gold: Uncreated light of God's presence

Green: Life, hope wisdom

Blue: Divinity, Transcendence, mystery, pertaining to God

Brown: Poverty, monastic, ascetic life

Black: sin, solitude, death, ignorance, that which is unknown (not the same as mystery)

White: Glory, Transfiguration, pertaining the heavens

Teach the children the color meanings, however, children are not always going to follow the rules.  That's okay.  Sometimes they just need to express themselves.  Use color as a point to engage conversations about why they choose the colors they do.  For instance, my protege, Alex, chose to write Theotokos purple in our Ascension icon and he well knows proper coloration for Mary.  But, this time he felt it appropriate to portray her regally.  

Simple Symbology

A lot of symbology is specific to time and region.  However there are symbols that are consistent.

Icon scenes are always depicted outdoors.  This symbolizes that holy matters cannot be contained to a particular space.  Sometimes halos transcend the border of the icon showing the fact that holy things are not bound by borders.  However, a bright red cloth draped over two buildings in the background of the figures symbolizes that this scene occurred indoors.  Examples of indoor scenes are the Conception of Anna Icon, or the Last Supper Icon. 

Trees often allude to the cross (but not always).

Mountains are a reminder of Mount Sinai where God revealed Himself.  It may allude that mystical information is being reveal through the image.

A person portrayed in profile is sinister--a sinner.  Judas is always portrayed in profile.  I have seen some icons with saints in profile.  This is a mistake.  Saintly people should never be portrayed in profile, or with their eyes closed.  Even blind saints should be portrayed with eyes.  In heaven we all see. 

In iconography black hair is reserved for Judas alone.  If a saint had black hair in life it is seriously highlighted with gray or blue.  The hair may even be painted in a deep blue shade. 

Animals are often an archetype of something.  The meaning though is often specific to the icon event. 

A blue mandalora such as the one around Christ in the Ascension icon represent heaven opening into our world, God revealing Himself to us.  Other examples, the Annunciation/Conception of Christ,  Christ's baptism in the Jordan, Moses receiving the ten commandments.

Wheat is a gather of members of the church or represent the good harvest of good Christians.

A pink tinted lamb is Christ.

Crouching position of a figure represents the fallen nature of humanity--humanity's lament.

Writing Work

Iconography is a prayer.  Ideally, if the children are patient and listening, I'll read the Bible passage, or Kontonkion prayer that goes with the icon.  I often do this earlier in the day when their minds are eager, and make them wait to paint until the baby is napping in the afternoon.

As writing is done, with each brush stroke, and or with each breath, the Jesus Prayer is prayed.  "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  Any prayers or psalms can be prayed during the writing process, but the iconographer always falls back into the Jesus Prayer in deep meditation.

Set out the paints in a plastic egg carton or on plates.   Use water to thin all the paints.  Less paint is needed if the paint is thinned into pools of melted butter.  If you thin the paints, you will want to put them into cups so they do not run together.  

You will also need brush rinsing cups and paper towels to dry or wipe off the brushes.

Be generous with gold paint.  I tell my kids that gold points to all things holy.  Holy is to be good.  Yellow is good.  Gold is something valuable, so golden color gives value to the images and shows God's light.  We always make halos and sky yellow.  We often begin by painting all the yellow areas.  

Then we paint all the skin.  I mix crayola white with a spot of crayola brown.  This gives a nice skin tone.  We follow this with painting hair.

It can be difficult for even the most meticulous workers to paint inside the lines with kid brushes and poster paint.  The goal is to block in the color as best possible, but do not get upset with messy work. When my son was little, I constantly had to remind him that no one is perfect to start.  You have to learn and grow.  It's always difficult in the beginning and as you grow in skill it will become easier and more fun.  Patience may be tested before the whole image is completed.

The one below is 3 year old, Annie's.  I helped her paint half of it.   She's not the painter that Alex was at her age, but I think she will come to a place where she will be very good. 

When we are complete with the painting part, only faded lines are recognizable through the paint.  That's okay!  Wait until the paint is dry.  Then go over all the lines again with a sharpie (the image is traced, in all, three times).  Suddenly, the full glory of the image emerges and it all comes together. 

Then I take lots of pictures, because the paint makes the paper more susceptible to ripping.  We try to hang them high up off the ground with lots of masking tape.  Sometimes a younger sibling gets to the pictures.  I keep these photos to put into a photo book later.  Then the kids can look at all their work.  

Other Options

Byzantine Seminary Press publishes inexpensive icon coloring books, which can be photocopied for home use.  I use these coloring books a lot whenever I am unable to create a big icon for the children.  I give them colored pencils.  Crayons are more difficult to keep inside the lines.  These images are also great to photocopy and put in a pencil pouch of  crayons and have the little ones work on them during liturgy.  You hear the Word, while they see the Word.  

Here I drew some line drawings and photocopied them for the kids.  

If you are not an artistic type person, you can transfer the image to paper via tracing.  Print the image.  Shade the opposite side of the image with a pencil.  Paper clip the printout to a blank paper. Then trace the lines of the image.  When you finish tracing the icon, the image will be transferred to the blank paper.  Trace over the pencil lines with an ultra fine sharpie and erase any remaining graphite with a plastic art eraser.  Since this icon will be small, I recommend colored pencils as the medium.

Want to try to write a bonafide icon yourself?  I recommend these two work books.  The first book will get you through a basic icon.  

With the caveat, that acquiring the materials to start will be expensive.  It's important to use quality paints.  Low quality paints will muddy and deteriorate over time.  Since these are holy images, icons must have quality construction.  They must stand the test of time.  

I can recommend no better paint than Golden Professional, liquid, acrylic paint, 1 oz. bottles.  Golden paints are proven to maintain brilliance.

It's important to remember, that icons are more about the process than the product.  They are more about the message than the image.  Icons are from God and belong to all. 

Mno Hiya Lyta!


Margaret said...

Hi Renee,

I was so inspired by your Icon Tutorial! My husband and I were raised Roman Catholic, but for over a year now, we have been attending the Byzantine Catholic parish near us, and have fallen in love with the beauty of the Eastern rite. So good to "meet" you on the Internet! I look forward to following your blog.

God grant you many years!

Julie Luckey said...

Such great ideas for teaching children!
Please check out my free icon coloring pages on our church's website. They are free to all. They are computer traced.