Icon writing Sessions 3 and 4

Our fourth icon writing session is over and besides the classroom learnings, I have been inspired to apply the skills acquired to my general art practise - more of that later.

Applying gold assist:

From the point of view of instruction, Rob Gallacher (our Principal and main instructor), demonstrated the technique of  gold assist which is used to create fine gold highlights, designs and 'rays' mainly on the garments of the figures in an icon. The raw materials required for the process are talcum powder (hydrated magnesium silicate), beer (apparently three bottles of Carlton Draught worked very nicely), fresh crusty white bread (the artisan variety - very definitely not the branded Supermarket variety), gold leaf, large soft brushes, an icon panel painted up and ready to go. The first step was to expose the beer to the atmosphere for three days (indoors works better, because if the beer is kept outdoors you are likely to find some very intoxicated garden snails drowning in it - yes beer is good snail bait). To help the drying out process along, Ron boiled the beer and zapped it in the microwave a few times until it was severely reduced to a viscous, dark gluey substance which smelled a bit like molasses, a bit like beer and a smidgen like vegemite. He brought a jar of this to class.

Rob at work on the gold assist process, applying gold leaf to the painting with a bread pad. The bread, beer glue and talc bottle are all visible in the background

The gold highlights applied to the figure's sash and garment folds


For the actual demonstration, he dusted talcum powder over the area to be worked on. Since tempera paint is inherently sticky, the talcum particles ensure that once the gold leaf is applied, it will adhere only to the spots it should be on and can be dusted off the rest of the painting. Next, he thinned the dried beer glue with water and painted on the areas which needed to 'take' the gold leaf. Then, he ripped the bread apart, picked out a large fluffy morsel and kneaded it into a flat doughy disc, about 2.5 cm in diameter and 0.5 cm in thickness. This he placed carefully on the gold leaf wafer to pick up a fine unbroken layer of gold leaf. The next step was to gently press the gold leaf over the beer-glue lines in a single application. When the bread pad was lifted off, all you could see was a patch of gold. He then used a large, soft brush to remove the excess gold and what was left behind were delicate, precise lines of gleaming gold. When squinting at it, you could almost picture a medieval congregation, quiet, dark and shadows assembled around an iconostasis (wall of icons) in a wintry wooden church. Chants humming through the silence, incense wafting across chilled knuckles and noses, wonder-struck eyes raised towards the flickering candlelight, which illuminated their God in all His glowing majesty and radiance. You get a clear sense of how the iconographer's magic worked for centuries in its traditional setting.

An icon for children

The highlight of my workshop experience, was the show-and-tell segment by Margaret McWhinney.  Margaret is a proud grandmother. She is also an accomplished iconographer of some ten years standing.  When her first grandchild was due, she planned a very special legacy - an icon which would speak to a child's mind; act as a prompt for many hours of story-telling and cuddles (with grandma of course) and most importantly be means of introducing the little one to a faith which shaped and nurtured the family for generations.  

After much research she located a Coptic depiction of Noah's Ark. Grouped on deck, under a golden rainbow, were Noah, his sons Shem, Ham and Japhet and their respective wives. Waiting patiently a the end of the gangplank, all ready to board were an array of animal pairs - elephants and lions, zebras and tigers, pandas and even kangaroos - an assortment which even a toddler could recognise based on a stuffed toy collection or nursery prints. I do not know the actual source of the icon she chose, but it looked something like this:

Image source: http://www.easterngiftshop.com/Item/IcCArk

I am not sure what I appreciate more - the ingenuity in selecting a child-friendly theme; the capacity to retain a child-like wonder into maturity - because only that could have enabled the choice; or the love that prompted her to create for her next generations a unique, beautiful object, crafted by her own hands with the intention of sharing the gifts that sustained her for a lifetime. There is so much to be learned from an icon workshop, and technique, though important, is only a small part.


Comments