A frequent frustration with those beginning iconography is that their icons do not look ‘right’ – this is often because they have begun the painting stage too soon or the icon they are looking at is not itself ‘right’. It is impossible to stress too much the need for a solid, comprehensible drawing under all the fine brush strokes, washes etc.
Here is a recent preliminary sketch for an icon of the Archangel Gabriel: you can see it is not quite finished, that I have decided to move the figure slightly to the left of the board and there has been a deal of re-working. I wanted to have a fairly solid, statuesque type presence filling the board, so have chosen to focus mostly on the face of the Archangel. I will refine it more when I begin painting. Note also that although I’ve only hand-drawn the halo, both it and the future placement of the name are already shown since they are crucial to its purpose as a functioning, Liturgical Icon.
This icon is for my personal family use – although I will be producing prints as several people have already asked for them. This board has a raised border – kivitos or kovcheg – and I wanted to reference the story of the Saint, so her figure is reduced and set in a scene where we can see St Petersburg, as she would have known it. The figure is less prominent and fits the traditional 8 heads high model of classic proportions. Her garments are simplified but the direction of folds is logical and informed by the body beneath.
Here is a current icon, at the early drawing stage – you can see that the figure of St Mary of Egypt is longer than a realistic figure but the drawing still makes sense to our perception as a real – if transfigured – person. I have drawn a few details into the blank places while I explore smaller details. These won’t be in the final icon! You will see more details of this icon in the coming weeks. I have already moved things a little as I transfer the drawing to the board.
Find examples of good icons: these tend to be older – those from the Chora in Constantinople are good, but there are modern Iconographers, notably Fr Zenon from Russia, who have an excellent grasp of the drawing required for icons to be transfigured yet not distractingly realistic or distorted.
To begin with use a ruler or set of dividers to try and understand the proportions – these are usually based on a nose-length or a head-length. Take your time.
Draw draw draw. Try and use a fine automatic pencil to ensure your lines are accurate (bear in mind how fine brushes can be). Have thick paper to begin with, so you can rub out repeatedly but when transferring your drawing thick paper can lead to clumsy lines.
Do not be precious; if a drawing needs moving, cut a piece off one side, bottom or top. Add a piece. Reduce it, using a photocopier. Every drawing, even an unsuccessful one, is a learning opportunity.
Use your phone or photocopier to take pictures. Often we look too long at work and cannot see the faults. Taking pictures helps to make them easier to spot.
I hope this is helpful! I will be teaching a week long course in May next year where we will discuss further details of drawing, how to examine and portray drapery and more! Please email for details or download the workshop application form from the workshop page.