“Where do I begin?”

After announcing the workshops this year, I’ve had several emails from people who want to come along but don’t know where to begin. Looking at finished, gilded icons is a daunting prospect, no matter your artistic background but particularly if you are a beginner with little experience in art of any kind.

Let me start by reassuring you that iconography is easily understood, at least in it’s practical steps. There are several high quality videos available which show you how the layers of paint are built up and indeed, on the courses the focus is usually on mixing, handling and layering the egg tempera paint. It has an unusual texture – more bodied than watercolour and of course, pigments are ground so have different characters: some are prone to dryness, some are prone to being slidy or slippy (especially the clay ones). 

Even gilding, which can – and has – pushed my patience to limits I did not know I had, can be learned through experimentation, time and practice.

What trips most people up is the foundation of drawing (see my previous post Look, look, look! Draw, draw,  draw!) By far the best modern iconographers – Father Zinon, Anton and Ekaterina Daineko for example – are gifted draughtsmen and understand the form of the human body in a way which permits them to gently emphasis or shape the form needed in the icon. I highly recommend learning life drawing (draped or otherwise) ideally in person or in necessity from an online class such as on the platform Craftsy. Nature is transfigured, not distorted or twisted.

The second suggestion I have is to use technology to support your learning. It can be hard to see the faults in our drawing or painting, so take a photograph using your phone or small camera – anything where you can see a small image on the screen – and suddenly faults will pop out at you. It works better than turning it upside down (another idea if you can’t find a camera). Somehow being able to see the image at a distance makes it easier to see the hand has moved, the foot is too small, the shoulders are not quite in line. Even then, it can be hard! There are online groups – one for Iconography Students Worldwide on facebook for example – where people share their work but one could ask for advice from an experienced painter. I have recently started a small group on my facebook page for students who come along to my course in person – it makes it easy to share images, tips, stages, and coordinate for the work to come – which I am keeping small at the moment.

Finally, do not expect to produce “exceptional” work any time quickly. It is hard to explain in plain words but even a gifted artist, with years of experience and who can reproduce a well known icon perfectly, can turn out an icon which looks like a dry copy. I’m sure there’s a Russian word for it 🙂 It is like the difference between a photograph from school – the child told to smile for the camera, stiff in their uniform and with hair brushed and shining – and a snapshot caught in a moment of intimate wonder; the eyes deep and full of life, hair untidy, a faint smile caught as that connection of the heart is made, that seeing of YOU in all your God-created wonderfulness. This is not an excuse for poor technique or sloppy execution – the God of All and His saints deserve the very best we (as a people) can produce. No, what we can do is work on the external skills, painfully to begin with, often with tears of frustration, and learn to drop our guard as we pray to the One who ultimately creates all icons. Then, at the end of the day, we set down our brushes and realise we are not – we have never been – alone in this work. 

Glory to God for all things.