Techniques of Painting Religious Icons
Painting religious icons requires from the iconographer great skill and incredible faith within since an icon is a manifestation of the spiritual image, a link between humanity and the Heavenly World. In ancient times, there were specific “rules” of icon painting and special techniques that iconographers had to adhere to when creating any spiritual image. Centuries have passed, but these canons continue to guide contemporary iconographers through a difficult and delicate process of creating an icon.
Painting religious icons: basic techniques
The process of creating an icon is inherently sequential. The first step is to prepare a panel on which the image will be applied. Then comes the preparation of paints and gold coating. Painting of an icon is the final stage. Now let’s consider each step in detail.
The icon is created on a sturdy wooden panel of poplar, mahogany, or linden. Most panels are constructed with an indentation on the front side, which protects the image from potential damage. The panel is covered with a piece of cloth (pavoloka) soaked in glue, which is a bit larger than the panel itself. The final stage here is to apply gesso to the pavoloka.
To prepare the paints, iconographers usually use natural ingredients, including minerals mixed with water and egg yolk. Minerals give religious icons an effect of light radiating and produce an impression of transparency.
Icon painters paint the background first, then the details of the landscape, and finally the vestments and images of the saints. Painting religious icons requires using dark and light tones to create a transparency of the holy image. The final stage is applying inscriptions and covering the icon with oil varnish.
The symbolism of icon painting
When creating a sacred image, an icon painter fulfills the will of God, becoming the creator themselves. The iconographer first creates the light (the background), then depicts the earth and the waters, and, finally, creates the man (holy figures). Natural colors in the icon symbolize the animal and mineral worlds.
Due to the unique technique, the manifested image seems to appear on its own rather than being created by a human hand. This symbolizes the spirituality of Orthodox icons and their presentation as material objects through which one can get to know God’s world.
Thus, painting religious icons is a truly superior craft that not everyone can master. It is an amazing art filled with spirituality and the deepest faith in the Most High!