An icon from start to finish.

This little icon has taken many months. Not because it takes many months but, for many reasons, I kept liking the stage we were at & leaving things be for a while. Having finally completed the enormous icon of the Transfiguration – more on that later! – I wanted to complete this so I have, as it were, a clean slate. This icon is based on the extremely old Theotokos of Philermos, but after a 16th century example. I saw it on the cover of a book by Egon Sendler and was transfixed. I have only experienced that feeling a few times and never before from a computer monitor rendering of an icon!

Purely for my own interest and to spend more time with the icon, I began a tiny copy. The board is only 15x10cm and should really have been only for testing paints, techniques etc. still, I found myself drawing and redrawing those direct, tender, unsentimental eyes and that delicate but resolute chin.

I wasn’t at all sure that my usual technique of painting a tonal drawing before adding translucent layers would work: after all, the upper layers of colour here are strong. Could it possibly work?

I added a few more washes of ‘membrane’ before beginning redefining her features.

But it was difficult to feel how well it would work with the strength of colours from the garments added.


And then LIFE happened. Christmas, New Year, January, illnesses etc. so the icon stayed at roughly this stage for a long long time.

Until I had an unusual email: did I have an icon of the Panagia ready for sale? A lady, thousands of miles away, was ill. Her daughter would love to give her an icon but obviously couldn’t wait.

I had to hesitate. Strictly speaking, this icon does not follow the rules: there is no halo, no room for a title, no figure of Christ, etc etc. and yet. Yet. I decided to restart the icon and pray about it.

By the end of the time I had to paint that first day, I knew it was the right thing, in this very unusual circumstance.

I grew more certain as each hour passed. I was able to pray for the lady and her family.

I lost track of time, lost the fact this had only ever been for practice, for my own education, to keep me company with those all-knowing eyes and sad but kind mouth.

In spite of the difficulties, the unusual nature of the request, I knew this was right.

And now I am ready – no, happy, joyful, honoured – to say goodbye and entrust this tiny offering, a thing of wood, plaster, glue, gold, earth, stones, jewels, transformed by Grace into this.


5 thoughts on “An icon from start to finish.”

  1. Katherine, she’s beautiful. Your icons always have their own life. I have two postcards of your Pantocrator, one in the sitting room and one on the landing window ledge and I never look at them and think, “Katherine painted that,” I only see Christ.

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  3. Hello, You do beautiful work! I bought Aiden Hart’s book last summer and have learned so much from it. I began studying with a teacher in Pittsburgh, PA 3 years ago. You said in a previous post that you are using different techniques now than you were before your baby break. Have you switched over to the membrane technique (it appears so in this icon)? If so, I would love to hear more about the the differences and why you like this method better! Thanks!

    1. Hi! Thank you for your kind words 🙂
      Yes, I now use the membrane technique almost exclusively on faces. I’m not sure if it will work on the tiny faces I’m working on just now (they’re about 5mm high!) but overall I prefer this.
      For one, it’s easier if you have a traditional western background in art – you essentially model the whole face in monochrome, much like in a tonal pencil drawing.
      Secondly, I think it’s easier to have a more luminous finish. The gesso is closer to the surface and the light isn’t having to penetrate darker proplasmos all over! You just have to remember two things: use several very light washes of membrane, not one (and preferably in natural pigments which are more luminous anyway) and to not cover the whole membrane with your highlight mixes :).
      That being said, it’s possible to have a lighter, more dynamic proplasmos using thinner, scumbled layers… But then it’s closer to the membrane technique 🙂
      To be honest, I don’t really separate the two as much as I used to. They are both used in the same icon to good effect. It did take me a while to get used to it though!
      I’m so glad you have Aidan’s book: it really is very like a condensed version of one of his courses, which I highly recommend.

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