An Iconic Journey

01 Dec 13 Banner

One of the reasons I decided to go back to school was to have more time for my art. I don’t know what I was smoking when I thought that, because I haven’t had a nanosecond of free time since September. Right now the term is (thankfully) almost over and exams are about to start, but I’ve spent the last month or two hanging on for dear life. If you’ve ever seen Star Trek episodes where the Enterprise is trying desperately to escape certain death while the embattled ship is at maximum warp, minimum shields, covered in phaser burns,┬áventing coolant, and losing pieces (and red-shirt ensigns) along the way, that’s how getting to the end of the term has felt for me. Today I think I’m going to try to do some CPR on Ensign Laundry, Ensign Cleaning, and Ensign Cooking.

To cope with the lack of time to do things I want to do, I’ve had to resort to a fairly eccentric strategy, which is to sign up for something I really want to do but don’t have time for, then pray that by some act of God, it will all work out in the end. This is how I ended up in last week’s weekend workshop in iconography.

It really couldn’t have come at a worse time; it took up the entire weekend right before the week all my major term papers were due. (As it turns out, I probably could have tried asking for extensions, as apparently a good number of my classmates had. But I’ve never requested an extension in my 7+ years of university so far, because somehow in my mind, extensions are for special circumstances such as loss of life or limb, abduction by aliens, or the zombie apocalypse.)

I decided to do this iconography course anyway because I like to paint, and also because Eastern Christian iconography is something I know basically nothing about. To me they generally look kind of sullen, misshapen, and unhappy to be in Heaven. Obviously, this is not what the Eastern Church is expecting me to get out of the experience! So I went on a recon mission in a sense. As expected, out of the group of 12 of us, I was the only Roman Catholic. There were 4 Greek Orthodox people, and most of the others were Ukrainian Catholic.

Here are a few photos from the process.

Friday evening, we sanded the boards and applied linen with rabbit skin glue. Several of us stuck around until midnight to apply several coats of gesso to the boards.

Gessoed boards
Gessoed boards

Saturday morning, we then sanded the gesso, and traced the image of St. John Chrysostom onto the boards. Next was the halo: we applied a red clay paint first, buffed that, covered it in garlic juice, then added gold leaf. This is a lot harder than it looks. At least mine looks naturally “antiqued” with its crackles and missing bits…

Clay layer prior to gilding the halo
Clay layer prior to gilding the halo

Then came the background, painted in ochre-colour egg tempera. This is where I started to feel the frustration. Egg tempera is a very translucent form of paint, with the unique (and annoying) property that if you paint over other layers, you can very easily strip the previous layers off. With the acrylics I’m used to, you can get a nice solid colour on the first pass, and if not, then you can go over it and not worry that the other layer is going to do a disappearing act. For the icon I only had time to do 12 coats instead of the usual 40, so it once again looks a little more “rustic” than it should.

Ochre background
Ochre background

Next we filled in the body with a sort of camouflage colour, which represents the chaos we all start with in our lives. Not how I usually start a painting (and my life is always chaos anyway, not just the bottom layer), but that’s how it goes with an icon.

Layer of chaotic colour
Layer of chaotic colour

That was then toned down with alternating layers of red and green, representing humanity and divinity. Because of the translucence of the egg tempera, everything turned a dull brown.

Red and green layers of paint
Red and green layers of paint

From there we added the clothing (omophor and sakos) and the scroll, each with many, many layers to get a reasonable colour:

Omophor (the blue thing with the red crosses), sakos (the white robe with the crosses), and the scroll
Omophor (the blue thing with the red crosses), sakos (the white robe with the crosses), and the scroll

If you’d asked me at this point (Saturday night) whether I would ever want to repeat the experience, I would have said no. One reason is that because of the short timeframe, it felt like a military boot camp. Normally I’m a pretty easygoing person, but as soon as people bark commands at me, suddenly a rebellious side of my personality appears, and I have to repress the urge to lean back in my chair like a gangsta and wear a baseball cap sideways. I would last about 30 seconds in the army.

The other reason is that I was going crazy with the constant noise. I get the idea: you pray while you make an icon. Iconography is really a process of prayer. Not long prior, I’d visited a Ukrainian Catholic church as part of a class project, and one thing I noticed there too was the constant singing. For an hour-long service, it was fine. In the iconography workshop, it was almost incessant, and always the same song over and over and over… and over some more… and then some… which reminded me of attending Irish Dance competitions where we’re all going batty after 12 hours straight of accordion music.

Also, I’m very prone to ear worms. So when it finally did all end, I still had the singing stuck in my head. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing if the song is a prayer, but I’m not convinced it’s actually praying if it’s just a song stuck mindlessly in my head. I’ll have to ponder that a bit more. At least it wasn’t the Lipton Cuppa Soup jingle or Beethoven’s 7th, both of which nearly sent me to a mental institution last time they got stuck in my head.

So day 3 (Sunday) we worked on St. John’s face.

Face early in the process
Face early in the process

The instructor introduced us to the concept of dry-brushing, which is something I do all the time with acrylics, but since he cautioned me that this was going to be a “new language” for me as an artist, I didn’t think he meant the same thing by “dry-brushing”, so I actually struggled for several hours until I realized he really did mean the same thing. Once I had that Eureka moment, I was off to the races and enjoyed the process a lot more. The timing of this revelation is also why the omophor looks so much more primitive than the face.

The finished icon
The finished icon
Close-up of the face
Close-up of the face

For better or worse, St. John Chrysostom is now done, and I am now actually looking forward to trying another icon!

1 Comment

  1. jeff gourgon says: Reply

    You are my idol, this is awesome!!

Leave a Reply