Friday, February 26, 2010

Highlights and Floats in Icon Painting

After the Roshkrish or opening of the icon, there are typically up to three sets of highlights and three floats over the skin and clothing. If there are background details those will also have highlights and floats, but the number will vary depending on the desired effect.

In this image of the Virgin of Guadalupe I actually added another layer to the Roshkrish because the colors had not dried as darkly as I wanted them. Then I started with the first highlights. On the face and hands the first set is usually the darkest. The process involves using three wells in a palette. In the first the pigment is mixed with egg only. In the second, water is added to some of the first egg mixture - usually about half and half. And in the last well there is only clean water. Areas where the highlight will be the strongest get the first mixture. The second mixture is then applied at the borders of the first and carried out a desired distance; finally with a clean brush, the edges of the previous application are touched with the clean water and carried to the outer border of the face so that ultimately only the underlying darkness will show through. Ideally, pigment flows through the water, settling itself in a relatively smooth gradation. Often you're not sure how it is going to dry - you apply the paint carefully as you can and then keep your fingers crossed that as it dries, the effect you were going for will have been realized.

I sometimes think as much praying goes into the making as the icon will ever experience once it is completed. There are so many steps where things can go wrong. Whenever my teacher hears someone suddenly gasp or suck in their breath, she is quick to say "Stop! Let it dry. It can be fixed." I hear her voice in my daily life now when I make other mistakes. It's a good mantra to have.

Highlights on garments are applied in a particular sequence, too. The first set of highlights are to define the physical body. You generally choose a color close to the underlying color but with a lot white added to it. And the three wells are utilized again. The second set of highlights represents the spiritual body.

Each time the highlights have dried thoroughly, a transparent float is applied - using pigment in a 1 to 5 egg/water mixture. Mixing 3 colors provides for a rich float.

I love mixing colors. It provides an ongoing education and constant surprise. Dry pigments may be very different looking once they're introduced to a medium. Some are strong, some are weak. Some need more grinding or they keep showing up in particles. Some can't be used till the final float because they keep coming through every succeeding layer. Some pigments are from heavy metals and need special precaution in using them.

Since the best way to learn these qualities is by experimenting with them, I've often come up with results that were disappointing. And then I use Olga's advice. I let it dry. I mix up another float. I may re - highlight an area. I fix it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Happy Book February 12

I was going to skip writing this week. I have small delights that I'm grateful for, and big blessings, too. But was there anything to share in particular? Anything that might resonate with someone else? Perhaps there is.
I LOVE Valentine's Day. That's day after tomorrow. I had a friend who said she hated it. She was single, had not had many significant relationships outside her family. She'd been focussed on her career. She saw it as a holiday for lovers (by which she meant couples). I was staying with her for the weekend and so first thing we did was plan an outrageously delicious dinner. Then we walked to this fabulous little deli nearby and bought the most wonderful, buttery heart cookies with sprinkles and frosting. We remembered out loud how much fun it was when we were little to exchange valentines, to make our own, to play with pretty papers. I think I almost had her convinced that it could be a special day even if you didn't have a partner. Almost. Since then, she has found THE ONE - later than she ever anticipated, but I'm sure Valentine's Day takes on a whole new meaning for her now.
I am still convinced that it is a great day, no matter your relationship status. It's about love. It's about giving that away - as much as you can. I saw a photo online the other day of one of those sheets that people put up to advertise something - then it has the tear strips at the bottom so people can tear off the contact information. The sheet had in BIG letters: I LOVE YOU! and the little tear strips were all saying the same thing. So you could tear one of those off and carry it around in your pocket. Love for the taking.
So there you are. That's what is really making me happy this week. Go and share some love. And find out what others are saying about what has made them happy at

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Opening an Icon

In the past couple of posts I've described a little of the board preparation and laying down the image for the icon - here I want to talk more about the actual painting.

The medium used to hold the pigment is egg yolk. Preparing this is quite simple - one of those things that sounds harder than it is. Carefully separate an egg, gently wash the yolk with water, then dry it by transferring it back and forth in your hands until you're able to grasp the sac between your finger tips. pierce it with a pin or knife point and collect the liquid yolk into a small bowl. Add about a tablespoon of water, a little white vinegar, and transfer to a bottle with an eye dropper top. This mixture will keep for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.

An icon is developed through a series of highlights and floats using ground pigments, the egg mixture and additional water. Part of the learning process is discovering how the different pigments work. Some are much weaker than others; some are grainier and have to been ground finer with a mortar and pestle, some will be scrubbed even further when being mixed with the egg. Color mixing is fascinating - not only for the individual colors at any point, but anticipating how one color will look when it's got additonal highlights and floats over it.

The opening of the painting has a wonderful Russian word - Roshkrish, which means chaos. And when I look at what I've put down, I do wonder how it will all turn out - it is pretty messy looking and unattractive. The colors are typically dark and dense. I have to remind myself that this is the foundational painting - that these are the colors that will show in the deepest folds and recesses. Everything built up after that goes to light, except for a few details that will get darker paint.

In the pictures above, I've shown the opening of an icon I painted of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a fairly straightforward image. And I've shown a collection of things needed at this stage - the powdered pigments, the egg, the eye dropper bottle, some good brushes, and of course, the so important journal where I try to keep track of the outcomes of my experiements in color mixing. I also try to jot down any other little notes to remind myself - recipes for bole, gesso, egg yolk. Reminders - "Eyes are large, mouths are small, fingers are elongated" - all the myriad details. The symbolism of various colors and aspects. I think this is partly what hooked me. Remember when I foolishly said that I thought I'd take one session to learn the techniques and then move on? Hah!

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Happy Book: February 5

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood. I walked this morning, as usual, and it was dark and 14 degrees F out when I left the house. But by the time I was returning the sky was like the inside of a shell - delicate rose, apricots, lavender - so lovely. Deer and crows and my good friend keep me company. What a happy way to start the day.

I wonder where the books are and how they are filling up? It is fun to think of them travelling all over the world, being delightful visitors, endearing themselves wherever they land. I can't wait to meet in person and spend a little time getting to know all about their adventures. This is all because Jamie Ridler had the terrific idea to send them around so that people could add their own happy thoughts and pictures to each one - follow the journeys here: .

This is what I have to share this week:

1. My daughter was showing my 5 year old grandson his baby book earlier this week. Then when she was in the kitchen Marcus called to his older brother, "Look, Shawn, mommy laid a baby!"

2. I had a really wonderful talk with my sister this week and we've decided we have to find a way to spend some time together, just the two of us. Distance and family obligations make that difficult, but not impossible.

3. I've gotten a couple of real letters from friends recently. I LOVE getting mail - real mail. I think I'll make some time to send some hand written letters, too.

4. Going through pictures for my collage class with Kathryn Antyr I found a fabulous picture of my mother laughing with her mom. My memories of this grandmother are not as happy as of my other grandmother - she spent much of her later years lamenting her unhappy childhood, grieving over the loss of my grandfather, and then suffering a gradually debilitating dementia. This picture reminds me of how much fun she could be.

5. The happiest thing of all was celebrating my grandson's 5th birthday - making cupcakes with him to share with his class, hearing his excitement about turning 5. We almost lost Marcus last summer in a near drowning accident. That event has colored my relationships with everyone I love; I am so happy to have the time that I do with each one.

I hope you've had a wonderful week, marking your own delights and opportunities to express gratitude!