Icon writing - sessions 1 and 2

A selection of icons painted by Dr Rob Gallacher, the founder of the Uniting Church Icon School in Melbourne, Australia
For a long time I have been flirting with the idea of learning how to paint icons. Since I have recently joined an Icon School and started working on my first icon, I decided to share the process via this post. 

Incidentally, according to tradition, you do not 'paint' an 'icon' you write one. The purpose is to develop a spiritual discipline which helps one experience the divine in and around us. In essence, writing an icon could function as a form of meditation, using creative activity as an entry point. Technique is an integral part of the tradition, but it is not enough. There are specific prayers which could be used before you start the work and a rich tradition in the Eastern Church to tap into, to add depth and meaning to the experience. 

Students at our school preparing the gesso panels (incidentally that is my mum on the left)

Mum gilding her icon

I have to admit that this was not an aspect of the process I was aware of until I actually attended my first session. The rich textures, gold and intricacy of the images are what tempted me as did the process.  I was aware that icons were painted on specially prepared panels, but had no idea of the significance of each step. For instance, in some schools, icons are written only on birch wood panels with very definite proportions corresponding to specific measurements in sacred geometry. The panels are covered in muslin which is fixed to them using rabbit-skin glue. The muslin is then coated with several coats of special gesso (made of a type of chalk called whiting and a gelatinous glue). Some iconographers use up to 33 coats of gesso (representing each year of Jesus' life). The gessoed panels are then sanded to ensure that they are smooth and the surface is even. The next step is to transfer a selected image onto the panel. Some traditions start with the images of angels and saints and then progress up the 'spiritual hierarchy' to the Mother of God and finally to the Christ figure. Other traditions start with simple images containing just one figure and build up to more complex images involving several component details or even several figures. 

The oldest known icons date back to the early centuries of the Christian Era, but few of these survive. Most were destroyed in the iconoclasms between 730 to 787 AD and again during the Middle Ages. The largest collection of icons which were written prior to the Middle Ages, are held at St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Desert. 

The tradition of venerating icons has a long history in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The most commonly known icons today are in the Byzantine, Greek and Russian traditions which each evolved their own styles and processes. Many contemporary icon schools, like the Uniting Church Icon School, which I attend, welcome people from all religious traditions. Though the focus is obviously on Christian scriptures and images, everyone is encouraged to use these as a means of enriching their spiritual experiences and perhaps deepen their own faith. Of course, you can also focus on the technique alone, but that would be missing out on an integral part of the experience.

Muslin covered panel (left) and gessoed panel with image in the process of being outlined (right)

Image being traced onto the panel

Me - at the end of the first session
At my first icon writing session, there was a demonstration on how to prepare panels and then we prepared our own panels as 'homework'. Using prepared panels, we selected and traced on images which 'spoke' to us and then outlined the images using tempera paints. The process of tempera painting is precise and intricate. Basically you prepare the tempera using egg yolk diluted with distilled water and white vinegar (to prevent spoilage). This is mixed with pigment and then fixed with white wine or vodka to fix it.  Dilutions must be precise and vary according to the part of the icon you are painting. 

At the second session, I learnt how to apply the gold leaf or gilding. To begin with, you protect the area around the outline using a special masking fluid to preserve the line. You then apply a base coat, an activator and finally the actual gold leaf. This is a delicate operation which requires total concentration, else the gold leaf shreds or worse still can blow away and become unusable. The gilding is then burnished. Finally you start applying a series of thin under glazes to each part of the icon in turn. I have yet to complete my 'homework' which is the application of the various under glazes, so I will post a photo after I do this. An idea of what this stage of the process looks like can be constructed from the photo below:
Under painting of the Last Supper - by Gladys
Learning the technique and attaining spiritual progression with icons takes many years. Some students at our school have been learning for the past 17 years, which they claim is a 'very' short time as compared to the iconographers of old. Personally, I am very grateful for the gift of being able to have this opportunity, so interspersed between my art therapy and other postings, will be regular posts on my journey with icons. As always, your feedback is welcomed.


  1. So interesting Jill, and more than worth the patience and labour ... Thanks for the detailed explanation ... I'm glad that you're in a place where your artistic talents (and mum's) can be developed to the maximum. Love, Joan.


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