Sunday, December 13, 2009

Back in the Studio!

Interestingly (at least to me), I worked in my icon studio for the first time since the summer yesterday and today, and tonight I'm writing on my blog for the first time in forever also! Hmmm.

Well, the pretty good reason for the hiatus was that I was working day and night trying to get our Orthodox home exchange website up and running, which it now is! The link is in the righthand margin if you're interested - it's called Egeria Home and Hospitality Exchange. I won't go into the details here; all the information is on the site itself at

The picture on this post is a bit of drawing I did for the website - I recently started doing calligraphy with a quill (ie a goose feather cut at the end into an edged nib) and boy, now I know what all the fuss is about. There is nothing like drawing or writing with a quill. I don't know if I can go back to metal nibs. The quill nib is flexible and so allows for so more more expression. If you write with a modern metal nib it is nearly impossible to understand how the writing and drawing in the famous manuscripts (eg The Book of Kells) could be so beautiful. With a quill, even if you are not a great calligrapher, it makes a lot more sense.

Anyway, the doodads above were early experiments with the quill. I was replicating some decorations pictured in a book of medieval Russian (although they lump a lot of Armenian stuff in there) manuscript decoration. I love it - it's so fresh and inventive, like so much art from the period. I copied a bunch of these little illustrations and we included them in the Egeria website to add warmth and charm to the look and feel. The idea was one of homeyness and antiquity at the same time, which I liked as being very appropriate for an Orthodox home exchange site!

That done for the time being, I'm continuing work on a largish icon too - a family icon commissioned by a friend as a surprise for her husband. It is quite complicated; a portrait-format board about 14"x 20"with a routed center which is rounded at the top (yes, I will try to post photos at some point) and with generous raised margins. In the routed area are the three standing figures of Sts Peter, Herman and Mary (sister of Lazarus). These are the dad, the family, and the mom's saints, respectively. On the lower margin below are three medallions depicting Sts Finnian, Victoria and Simeon (now some of you will know who this family is. . .shhhh!!!), the three children in the family. These medallion shapes are wreathed with entwined olive branches, a reference to the wedding psalm which says "your children will be like olive shoots around your table." Above the whole group, on the top margin, is the Theotokos holding a protecting veil over the whole composition.

It has taken me a long time to get to where I am now. Namely I 'established' the drawing today and yesterday. This means that I went over the preliminary drawing, which had been put on the gesso with water-soluble pencil crayon, with more 'permanent' egg tempera. I put that in quotation marks because when it is fresh egg tempera is not very permanent, but it's much more so than the pencil, which disappears easily with a little water.

The use of water soluble pencil crayons, especially in a nice sepia colour, is a great trick from my teacher Heather. They allow you to draw fluidly and directly onto the board, which makes the drawing much more alive. Those of you who draw will know that as soon as you attempt to transfer a drawing in some way, something in it dies, no matter how careful your copying or transferring. You do have to be slightly crazy or confident to work a drawing directly onto a gessoed board; I'm a little of both but I always have a lot of studies and preliminary drawings informing the seemingly 'freehand' drawing onto the board. Plus there is always the reassurance that if you mess up at this stage there are fixes in the form of water and sandpaper! Of course for more formal elements, like the olive branches, I have the design carefully worked out in advance. But faces and hands, etc, I prefer to draw in a more immediate way so as not to lose the aliveness.

Anyway, today saw the breaking of an egg, always auspicious in the studio of an iconographer! It means something is getting done. This is the most exciting phase, because you are now able to 'open' the painting, that is, to begin to lay down fields of pale colour and watch the icon begin to take shape and come alive. This process will be especially rewarding in the case of this icon because it was such a complicated icon to compose, and the drawing is, naturally, very detailed.

One other thing I have observed while working today; that is that I am applying knowledge of the end of the process to how I proceed here at the beginning. That is to say, now that I have a bit more experience both in painting icons and in egg tempera itself, I know what things to avoid at the outset, because they will just make life harder down the road.

A good example is drapery lines. When I was more of a rookie, I would establish too many of these lines - that is, lines describing drapery inside the figure, as opposed to the outlines. What I learned later is that as the icon is being painted (as opposed to drawn -- I don't use the term 'written' very much, because it's not very useful in this type of discussion, but that's another post) -- as the icon is being painted it shifts and changes, and decisions you may have made at the drawing stage seem crazy to you now. It is hard to describe. It's like choosing a route by looking at a map, but when you hit the open road you can see a much more beautiful way to go, and you start to take a new route.

The problem is, if you have lain down your lines in egg tempera which has been allowed to cure a bit (ie it's more than a few days old), you are now fighting with these lines even as you are deciding on new lines, because as egg tempera ages it becomes more and more difficult to remove.

This characteristic is wonderful, of course, -- it's what allows egg tempera paintings and icons to last ages and ages, and it's inherent in the very technique of painting with it -- it's what allows for that tremendous subtlety --but it's a problem if you want to change something! You always have the option of sanding lines off, and goodness knows I've done plenty of that, but it's a nuisance to be avoided as it creates dust. Not to mention that any washes or layers of colour you have done over those lines will now be ruined when you have to go beneath to get rid of the lines. If your wash was nicely applied and you like it, having to ruin and redo it can be sad, since it can be difficult to replicate exactly what you did the first time that was so successful!

So all of that laborious discussion was just to say that now as I draw I have all the memory of that stuff in my mind, so I don't bother to establish interior drapery lines until some painting has been done already. It makes life easier all around - flexibility further into the process, and a simpler, faster drawing now!

However: I DO include all those interior lines in the studies and preliminary drawings for the icon, because without them you won't end up with a believable outline. You don't want St Peter to look like he was made with a cookie cutter. Don't ask me what the logic is of coming up with lines at the beginning and then losing them and then finding them again is - maybe it's something you have to do to understand.

Happy St Spyridon's and St Herman's days to those on the new calendar! Glory to God for all things.