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.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tot Talk: If IHOP Can Do It

Andrew asked Alex what he wanted for breakfast today.  At first he insisted on ice cream.  That was a big fat, “No!” from mom. Then Alex insisted on pancakes and ice cream for breakfast.  To which Andrew replied, “Well if IHOP can do it, why can’t we.”  I gave them both a crooked look.  But, once the pancakes and ice cream had been affirmed, there was no going back.  What a lucky boy.

pancakes and ice cream

Kristiana was laughing at Alex eating ice cream on pancakes 


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Granola Ecstasy

100_2294 2 cups of oats
1 bag of peanut butter chips
1/4 cup vegetable, or soy, or canola oil
1/2 cup clover honey
1/2 cup pumpkin kernels 
2/3 cup sliced Almonds
2/3 cup salted shelled sunflower seeds
1 cup sesame seeds

In a food processer, chopped pumpkin kernels, sunflowers seeds, slice almonds and sesame seeds; set aside.  Add oil to a large saucepan, heat the oil on medium and slowly add peanut butter chips.  Fully melt all the chips and stir in the honey.  Turn the heat down to low.  Fold in the pumpkin kernels, sunflowers seeds, almonds and sesame seed mixture.  Once they are covered completely, fold in the oats.  Keep folding until all the mixture is covered.  Cover a baking sheet with wax paper.  Turn out mixture onto the baking sheet (if you like sweet and salty, this is a good time to spread honey and salt over the top); spread evenly; cover the top with equal amount of wax paper; press with another baking sheet.  Let it sit over night.  Use a spatula to spoon granola into a container or zip lock bag for fresh keeping.

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(Can’t eat peanuts? Use white chocolate chips.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Feeling Small

We drove from Texas to Washington last week.  It was a thirty one hour drive.  We decided to break our trip up into four days, plus a one day stop in Wyoming to visit Aunt Sarah—All for the sake of the children.  Kristiana was pretty sweet the whole way.  She screamed a little bit before each nap.  Alex was out of sorts the whole way (that’s a long story), but he returned to himself once we arrived at our final destination—Grandmom and Granddad’s house.  When the first day of the trip ended and we were not at Grandmom and Granddad’s, he was a little devastated.  There is nothing like a trip across the majestic United States to make you feel small.  At least we did not have to do it in a covered wagon.

On the way, we encountered a tornado at the Oklahoma/Kansas border.  We braved the storm.  We barely stayed on the road through heavy rain and wind (the major part of the tornado had already passed through before we arrived).  It was a humbling experience as we recognized we were solely in the hands of God.  There was no way we could exit the road.  We tried and could not even see the exit until we had passed it.  We could not just stop.  We stayed behind a trailer-less big rig without which we would not have stayed on the road.  Andrew said that you could smell our fear ;-)  It was by the grace of God that we arrived safely at our hotel in the middle of Kansas…at 2:00 a.m.  And Kristiana woke us up at 7:30 a.m.  We were not amused.

We had smooth sailing all the way to Cheyenne, Wyoming the next day.  It was a lot colder than we were expecting. There was still snow on the ground.  We had a nice visit with Aunt Sarah.  Sarah had a special event planned for all of us.  We toured her airplane. Everyone enjoyed seeing Sarah’s work.  Then Sarah treated us to a pleasant dinner with her friends.  During dinner we were introduced to a delicious granola from a local bakery.  We ate a whole bag of granola on the remainder of our drive.  After we had finished it, I decided that I could make it.  Last night I bought all the ingredients listed on the package in the bulk section of the grocery store; mixed them up in a heated sauce pan; pressed it flat on a cookie sheet; Voila, granola on steroids for our crunchy con pleasure.  I came pretty close to the bakery version.  I will think a little more about it, write a recipe and post it later. 

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The part of the drive I was most looking forward to was the drive through Montana.  We were not disappointed.  Montana is so beautiful.  It even smells good.  Every time I drive through Montana I have to roll down the windows and smell the air.  It smells fresh.  It smells like the trees—the evergreens, sandalwood and aspens.  When we stopped at a gas station Andrew pointed out that it did not smell like a gas station.  The air just smelled sweet.  Our favorite place was Bozeman.  We stopped there for the night.  Bozeman is high, right in the middle of the rocky mountains.  The people were very friendly too.  Andrew and I considered staying, never to leave.  But, we decided to press on through those big, gorgeous mountains.  It was not their size that made us feel small—it was their beauty.


We wound through the mountains, hugging tight to every curve, and we grew anxious for Spokane.  We could not wait to get there.  The first place we stopped in Spokane was our church.  A friend of ours is taking care of our cat while we are here.  Our friend’s family was at the church with her, and her sweet younger siblings played with our kids and we felt at home again.  After a short visit, we drove to Grandmom and Granddad’s.  Alexander was at ease and happy again.  We all settled into our summer home.  I think some great adventures are to come.

By the way, anyone who lives by GPS, I want you to know that we just drove across the country with nothing more than a road atlas, we knew where every rest stop was, every point of interest and we were never lost.  We bought our atlas on our honeymoon to the Puget Sound peninsula and we wanted to take the scenic route home.  It was a good investment.





formals-087Day of Eternal Marital Bliss 


_MG_6413-1May 2010

Here we are after five years of marriage.  We celebrated our wedding anniversary on May 7th. This posting is a little delayed since we were visiting, cleaning and traveling…On our anniversary we treated ourselves to a gourmet dinner out, a walk in the park arm and arm, and coffee ice cream on our back patio.

I must admit I had not really known love until I met Andrew.  I had come to know love through Christ.  I had had a conversion in high school and only then had begun to know more of love.  I think Andrew would say the same.  But, I am not sure I had loved anyone before Andrew.  It’s hard to describe, but if you’ve been there, you know.  Everyday we grow more in love.  We grow and grow and grow.

Then our love grew into all this…


Every day we are growing together.  We are trying to find our way to salvation.  We’re leading our little ones toward faith.

(Photos courtesy of Anne)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tot Talk: Another Baby Sister?


Well, it’s a girl! Boy, were we surprised (pardon the pun). We were certain that we were having a boy.  Now I know all the theories about gender prediction are myths.  Nevertheless, we are as excited about our beautiful little baby as ever.  There is something about seeing the ultrasound that makes it all so much more real—tangible.

After the ultrasound, we showed pictures of the baby to Alex and told him that he was going to have two baby sisters.  He seemed that he liked the idea of two baby sisters.  We asked him what he would like to name his new baby sister.  He looked confused and said, “Kristiana.” 

We said, “Yes that is the name of your baby sister, but what would you like to call your other baby sister. The baby sister in mommy’s tummy.”

He exclaimed, “I don’t know what her name is!”

“Fair enough, little buddy.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

Aroma Du Cafe

Aroma du Cafe I was wondering how long it would take my kids to tell me that my coffee breath was stinky.  I always hated it when adults had stinky coffee breath when I was a kid.  I told my mom all the time that she had stinky coffee breath.  I think I was five years old the first time I told her.  I did have scruples enough not to tell other adults. 

This morning, Alex leaned in to sweetly give me a kiss, and afterward he covered his little nose and said, “Ooo, stinky breath.”  It didn’t take Alex very long into life to make his first exclamation about coffee breath.  I apologized, but I didn’t feel too bad, because drinking coffee is apart of adult life.  I just have to own it.  Love it. Let it wake me up for motherhood.

(Photo credits: Anne Black)