Icon painting - traditional painting of byzantine icons
by the iconographer Kirsten Voss
To make a byzantine icon I use only the traditional materials, egg tempera and natural colour pigments. The rich scale of colours is created with only four colours (red, ochre, black and white) and sometimes a glaze called Laka, to give the red colour a special depth.
The base, in some cases, is made out of water-resistant veneer wood, but in most cases I use real wood (lime-wood, pine etc.). Big boards will be cut in the middle and glued together again and have two cross-ribs at its back to prevent warping. Some of the icon-wood also will be shaped to give the impression of a frame. Strips of wood are not used, because of the different grain directions, which might later cause problems that clefts can show!
After choosing the right wood, linen will be fixed with warm natural glue on top of the wood. The linen will stabilize the warping of the wood and it is also the connection between the wood and the chalk-grounding. High quality chalk is necessary for the good results of the following processes; therefore I use waterless chalk (which is much more expensive than normal chalk). About 20 layers of such chalk will be applied with a brush and after the drying-time smoothed with rough paper.
Mostly the backgrounds of my icons are made by polished gilding (the exceptions are backgrounds made of silver, bronze, glued-gold or pure ochre colour, but in this case I will inform you about it). About 95% of my icons are made with 24 karat polished gold. This is the most difficult and expensive way of gilding and only few artist-craftsmen knew how to do it, because it requires many years of practising and experience. Though this polished gilding can be also done by machines, the results look too uniform and therefore somewhat lifeless.
The traditional and handmade gilded icons I am doing need a grounding of Armenian Bolos (very fine clay) mixed with the white of an egg, applied on the chalk and afterwards polished. Then the 24 karat gold will be applied with a special brush and alcohol. When this has dried, I start polishing the gold with an agate-stone. It needs a lot of experience, because this process depends on temperature and humidity.
Only the polished gilding is able to be restored even after a long period of time! Assuming that a handmade high-quality icon can indeed exist many hundred of years with all its rich colouring and brightness, this is an essential benefit.
For this same reason I use only well-tried colour pigments of natural origin because nobody knows how long the modern chemical colours will maintain their brightness.
After finishing the gilding, the drawing process starts. The contours of the figures are transferred by etching them into the chalk-grounding with a small pin. So I can see them even when some layers of paint are already done. Industrial made Icons don’t have these little scratches!
The colouring starts always from the dark into the light. On account of the limitation of only four colours the result is a warm composition. The colour pigments which are mixed into the yellow of an egg must dry for 6 to 12 months, before the last layer, the Verniki, can be done; this is a special varnish made of natural ingredients especially for icons. Only this varnish has the quality to be removable in case of any restoration, without destroying the colour layers which are underneath! This varnish also protects the icon very well, so you can touch your icon with your hands whenever you want, and everyone should do so who has a handmade icon of his own, because this is a very special and wonderful experience.
With this small explanation how a high-quality icon is made in the traditional method by an iconographer and therefore the value of what you have bought and now hold in your hands, I would like to end with my best wishes and have a good time with your icon! Good times also to all of the people who will keep this icon even when you and I are no longer on this planet.