Monday, January 11, 2010

Beginnings of an Icon

For the past four years I've been studying with a local iconographer, Olga Poloukhine. Olga is an accomplished artist whose preferred medium is egg tempera, but she has a strong background in etching and drawing - especially useful skills that I don't have. She had been creating art long before she started studying iconography. But she's been "writing" icons for churches and individuals for probably 20 years or more.

I love working in her studio. It feels like there's a such a strong connection to faith communities and art history around the world, through copying images that are hundreds of years old, using techniques and materials, many of which are similar to what those predecessors would have used.

The preparation is particularly time consuming. We start with a board cut to the desired size. Birch and poplar are the most common choices, but plywood is often used now, too. The board is routed out. She often makes her own. I buy mine, not having access to or skill with power tools.

Then we mix up gelatin to use as glue and cover the board with a thin piece of cotton or linen fabric that has been soaked in the gelatin. While that is drying, we add calcium carbonate to the gelatin to create the gesso. And when the fabric is ready we begin smoothing thin layers of the gesso on the board, building up the layers till we have about 8. One man in my class always puts on 12 layers in honor of the 12 apostles. Once everything is thoroughly dry we sand the board carefully to create as smooth a surface as possible. Egg tempera is considered a watery medium so surface imperfections will show up in the final product.

I've learned that now is the best time to clean up the back of the board, too: trimming off any excess fabric, sanding away any smeared gesso, perhaps even staining and varnishing the back of the board so it doesn't have to be turned over with the image on it. Once the paintin has begun it will be fairly susceptible to scratching until it is sealed at the end - and then it's tacky for quite a while.

Next time I'll address choosing and applying the image.


  1. How interesting.... I have to say I am still not entirely sure what an "icon" is in this sense?

  2. I'm referring to the traditonal icons most frequently associated with Greek or Russian Orthodox churches. This is how I began using egg tempera (see previous post) and gradually I am adapting these techniques to some of my rock painting. Thanks for stopping by!