Saturday, August 23, 2008

Writing Icons

Many of you know that I write icons. Some of you have asked why I do this and how I do this.

First, it is called writing rather than painting because it is a spiritual practice akin to copying sacred texts. It is not about creativity, it is about a faithful rendering of an image that is a window to the Divine.

I began to write icons because there was a class offered at my home parish. Our then-rector had Russian forebears (as do I, although mine were Jews) and was also a trained artist. He was introduced to a Russian woman who was a master iconographer and icon restorer, and he invited her to lead a class at St P's. For more about my teacher, see her bio here. I began studying with her three and a half years ago. It seemed like an intriguing kind of spiritual practice and I wanted to try it.

Icons are not pictures per se. They are tools for the work of the spirit. Praying while meditating on a icon helps one focus. The symbology of icons reminds us of the attributes of the divine, and of faithful servants of God through the ages. In Russia, the Virgin Mary (Theotokos, or God-carrier) is one of the most common subjects, along with Christ, the evangelists and saints in the eastern traditions. Modern iconographers have chosen other more recent saints.

Making icons is a slow process. It typically takes me several months for each icon, although that is largely because I only work on an icon under my teacher's guidance. I still consider myself a beginner and I want Irena there to help me and to correct any mistakes I make (and I do make them often!)

I choose an icon to copy (right now I am working on a Saint Paul by Anton Rublev) and I trace the outline of it (the skeleton of the image, if you will), then transfer the image onto a prepared board by rubbing a pencil over the back side of the tracing paper, attaching the tracing paper to the board, and then scribing the lines. Next comes gilding. Sometimes the whole background is gilded, sometimes just the halo. That area is first painted with yellow ochre powder and water, then covered with a thin layer of varnish, then sheets of gold leaf are applied. It's a delicate and somewhat scary process.

Then I go over the lines that I scribed with black paint (it's a type of paint called gouache that is thinned with a mixture of egg yolk, red wine vinegar, and distilled water). This is one of the few times one uses pure black.

Then I start adding layers of color. As Ukrainian Easter eggs (pysanky) start with the lightest color and eventually go to black, so Icons go from the darkest color and add layers of lighter and lighter colors. The upper layers of color are more translucent. One goes from the darkness to the light. So, for example, Saint Paul started with a dark blue for the undergarment, a reasonably dark greenish brown for the outer cloak, a rust color for the stole, and a color that is mostly yellow ochre with some other things added in for the base of the skin of the face and hands, called "sankir." As I've worked on the undergarment, each layer of blue has been lighter and more translucent, the final one being nearly white. The forms have a certain amount of symbolism - the nose always is thin, with three bumps. The forehead is always prominent. The mouth has a very thin upper lip and looks beestung. The topmost layer is little lines of white for accents. Sometimes the faces on icons have as many as twenty layers of color, giving them an almost three-dimensional quality. One of the last things we do is lettering and the outline of the halo, then the outline of the board itself.

We never sign them, just as the monks never signed the illuminated manuscripts they copied. It's about God, not about any artistic abilities we have. In fact, I often refer to icon writing as paint-by-numbers for the spiritual. We're not supposed to be creative, and that's just fine by me.

Irena then takes the completed icon home for varnishing, and a week or so later I get it back. Periodically, our rector puts the newly finished icons on the altar and offers a prayer of blessing for them.

Classes are interesting - we start with prayer. we do talk during class, either normal chitchat or theological discussions of what the symbols mean in the icon and how eastern and western religious traditions are alike and different, we sigh a lot (because this work is hard and we make many mistakes) and we laugh. Mostly, though, our minds and our hands are in active prayer. Here's a recent one that I finished:
I'd encourage you, if you have the opportunity, to explore this work. It has enriched my life immeasurably.

1 comment:

Rev Dr Mom said...

Thanks, that was really interesting, and sounds like something I'd like to try if I ever have a chance.