Resistance and the Last Battle.

Jesus raises his hand in blessing robed in white in the icon of the Transfiguration
Small part of Transfiguration icon. Face is 2.5cm high.
The blog has gone quiet, largely due to technical issues. My laptop has died, my desktop is often busy and too distracting, my phone app has become buggy. None of that’s a big problem because, to be honest, I have delayed and delayed and procrastinated finishing this icon. I still am.
Today however is different; today I will pick up my brush and do what I need to do. There are several fantastic quotes I could use here from “The War of Art” about how we will do almost anything rather than the thing we really want to but the why of it is what I’m struggling with. I have commissions queued up, sketches ready, ironing piling up higher than my daughter..

He writes (colourfully and with a bit of ‘language’): Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease … To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius. Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us to our calling.. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris.

Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’ shadow is Resistance. As powerful as is our soul’s call to realization, so potent are the forces of Resistance arrayed against it. Resistance is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, harder to kick than crack cocaine. We’re not alone if we’ve been mown down by Resistance; millions of good men and women have bitten the dust before us. And here’s the biggest problem: we don’t even know what hit us. I never did. From age twenty-four to thirty-two, Resistance kicked my ass from East Coast to West and back again thirteen times and I never even knew it existed. I looked everywhere for the enemy and failed to see it right in front of my face.”

But the real problem is this: If I finish I have to admit I’ve failed. There are things I would change but can’t. There are faults I can see a mile off. It’s not perfect. Not painting is not going to fix them and so today, I will take as many steps as I can to complete it and try again.

God grant that you don’t see the errors and He gives me the strength to go past them and try again.


A succinct guide to what makes an icon an icon and not a ‘picture’. This blog is a wonderful guide for those curious about iconography with no one to ask nearby.

A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

Elderly Monk Painting an Icon

A subtitle for this post could well be: “What is a Holy Icon?”, and as a topic it probably should have been dealt with before now. Perhaps most people reading this already know what “Icons” are within the Orthodox faith. Nevertheless, “Icon” is simply the Greek word for an image or picture – any image – and therefore it’s worth exploring why some pictures are given the specific description: “Holy”.

View original post 2,378 more words


Resurrecting an old blog in a new place.

It’s been five years since I last updated this blog. In that time, I’ve moved house, had a child and – somehow – continued to study iconography. While I’ve left the old pages up (mostly), I would say that the technique I use now is very different and personally I prefer the results.

I will post frequently, one image at a time, the progress I make on icons past & present. However, I am still a student and if you would like to know much more about iconography, the techniques I am learning and even study yourself, I recommend a visit to the site of Aidan Hart who is without doubt the best teacher and most gifted iconographer in the country at the moment. His excellent book – which can be purchased from his own site – is an encyclopaedia of technique and is as close to a lesson with the man himself as you can have. I have it with me at every step and although I’ve been painting for years now, I re-read it carefully every time. Something new or useful always catches my eye. Plus there are hundreds of helpful full colour photographs.

I hope you follow my progress and please, please leave comments and ask questions. Wherever possible i will answer quickly, although I do have a rather messy garden (in my other blog) and a very busy four year old. Thank for visiting and let me know if you can read the white on black text: I thought the dark background would be good for the images but I’m happy to try something else.



The gilding – at long last.

After getting your background sealed and shellaced, the next step is to apply oil size. Harder than it sounds… It is a kind of tacky varnish, with the number next to it (3,6,12,16 (which is much rarer) and so on) referring to the number of hours it will stay ‘open’ i.e. in which time the gold can be applied. It must be put on slowly, but not too slowly, carefully and with as few streaks as humanly possible. This is VERY tricky when it is not a simple straight or flat area, such as around the outline of a curly-headed angel with wings! When in doubt, take the size closer to the edge and you can either a) scrape the gold gently back later on or b) (and perhaps safer) paint over the gold in one or two tiny areas, as with oil gilding there are always areas which need to be readdressed. And I had that from a very experienced, talented furniture restorer and gilding teacher, so I’m not making excuses… well not many 😉

To apply the gold, you must wait until the size is only just tacky and squeaks when you very, very, VERY lightly drag your finger knuckle along an inconspicuous point. Don’t use a fingertip, unless you want everyone to be able to identify the gilder in years to come… When it squeaks and doesn’t mark you are ready to gild. Although I used six hour size, it was actually ready to go a bit earlier than that – you can almost see the difference and if you have the luxury of a spare piece of wood that you have prepared, I’d make a sort of ‘gilding sample’ so you don’t necessarily have to squeak the actual board. The sheet gold used is pressed into pieces of tissue paper, rather than loose leaf which I prefer as it gives an absolutely smooth finish – the imprint of the tissue means it will never be entirely mirror-like. Plus sometimes the sheets aren’t stuck in very well, so if in doubt, gently compress the book before attempting to use the sheets. Trial and error here I’m afraid, mostly error on my part… You can either use a whole sheet, if it is a large flat area, or if you are gilding over borders or around a complicated area, use scissors (yes, but good quality ones with un-nicked blades) to cut up the sheet. You then apply the gold straight on, no brushes required and lightly press down on the back of the paper. I will admit right now that most of my gold came off the sheets (thank you unnamed supplier!) and I had no real idea what I was doing. All the same, with a bit of patience, you can get it to look ok, viz the above picture. When you are done, as with water gilding you can lightly brush the surface to get rid of any tags of gold and lightly burnish the finish, which is how I got the glow here. I’m not that pleased with it but as my first oil gilding experience, it’s not unbearable. Stick to water gilding is my main advice…


from jewels to background

Once the jewels are all painted in, complete with white and black washes to create the facets (if you want to, you don’t have to but this is quite a ‘greek’ icon, so I wanted to go the whole hog), you use some quick-drying japanese gold size (which is ready to use within about fifteen minutes) and pressed-leaf gold to create the mounts or settings for the jewels. The effect is remarkable, especially if you sacrifice a very small 00/000 brush to avoid the ‘clumpy’ effect you sometimes see on icons. (blech, personal strong dislike, can you tell?).
That’s about it, apart from the background and titles. I decided to try some oil gilding, which was a first for me. Perhaps a last as well, as it requires you to use copious amounts of shellac (smelly) and oil size (a tacky varnish), after adding a rich colour to the first coats of shellac which you use to seal the very absorbent gesso. The reason for that is that you don’t want different areas of the gold size being absorbed at different rates. It’s a bit complicated and trust me, unless this is an icon that is going to be outside or get heavy wear and tear, just stick to water gilding. Harder to get initially but a much more versatile finish. Here’s the photo of the initial stage, with screaming red shellac..


A bit more on the icon

Yes, it’s been a while but since the icon was finished a while ago, it’s just a question of posting more photos until we reach the end of this process. I hope it’s been useful for at least one or two of you, in the zillions of people who use the internet at large.

After the red layer has been done, the face becomes enlivened even further by restating some of the earlier dark lines, shadows around the hairline and at the neck and an overall checking of colour and tone balances. This is something that differs with each icon as it’s impossible to be completely prescriptive about how defined something will look at the outset. This one also shows the layers of paint washed in to form the very unusual wings – these were ones which Aidan had chosen and I’ve not seen them elsewhere. The colours were indian red and black for the base, then washes of titanium white and ivory black on top. The jewels are either drawn or painted on free hand, and then filled with an opaque white so that the colours on top have a glow to them. You can see where I’ve filled in the red ones already.


not yellow…. RED this time!

What I love about iconography is that you can use a very limited palette – (thinks quickly): black, white, yellow ochre/mars yellow, red ochre, a green ochre e.g. avanna, a brown e.g. burnt umber and if necessary a blue (I like Lapis or azurite, for a more greeny blue). With these seven colours you can create almost any tone required for an icon and most of them won’t be used for flesh – you only need three or perhaps four for that.

Having done almost all of the flesh so far with yellow and more or less white, we now bring in red, this time an English red ochre which is warm but not too bluey or to muddy. A combination of washes, light ‘hatching’ type strokes and small areas of more concentrated colour warm up the flesh to create a more vivid presence. (That’s the theory anyway!).


Further stages on the face

because I have a funny feeling that picture i just posted was the same as the one before but can’t prove it.. Here you can see the photismata, or ‘small lights’ which are the almost final stage to the face. They can be more or less dramatic, depending on the icon, the style, the painter, the age of the icon etc., but they give a strength, vibrancy and dynamism to the image which could otherwise look a bit soft and over emotional. Perhaps you would disagree?

Aidan Hart Archangel Michael petit lac russian style Uncategorized

The end is (almost) nigh

Well I am sure you are beginning to wonder if I will ever finish this icon! This stage is a further refinement of the flesh, a tidying up of the hair, you can just glimpse the wings, which I have copied from Aidan’s original icon with a puddling technique known in the West as “Petit Lac” – more commonly used in Russian style icons and one that Aidan combines with a drier brush style.


Feast of the Apostles St Peter and St Paul

Happy Feast to all of you out there in Orthobloggingland! We had a lovely if rather small Liturgy this morning and I can’t believe that the next fast will be that of the Dormition! Already! This year is flying past far too fast, with a great deal of ‘sound and fury’. As a contrast, I was fortunate enough to attend a Liturgy at the hermitage of St Cuthbert on Shepherd’s Law last week and while there, I was profoundly moved by the silence – not an absence of noise but something very present and powerful. Later, in a quiet part of the night, I wanted to see if i could capture something of that so wrote a short and very inelegant poem. Here it is, a verbal contrast to all the pictures I usually post.

Down soft and thick
I step into a warm sea of silence.
Behind is noise and distraction
from the calm stillness of fresh air and life.
Thoughts form soundlessly
flowing out, around, through,
enveloping, uplifting, consoling, loving.
Fleeting winds twist leaves
and hair and breath
carrying all away before
the fullness of silence,
the Word with no words.