My friend, Basia, is a professional icon painter. I know! what a thing to be! She paints beautiful religious icons in the orthodox tradition. She’s very talented and she also teaches traditional methods of painting icons with egg tempera on gesso panels. She invited me to join her on retreat in her home country of Poland for a week and I was really pleased to have the opportunity to go. I could have learnt here in Edinburgh but it was worth going away for the chance to get away from all the usual distractions for a week and to discover a whole new country, language and culture.
I was away for a week, we stayed on a small farm near Warsaw, where they kept birds (chickens, geese, guinea fowl and turkeys!) and bees and there were six of us sharing an apartment.
We painted for around six hours most days and in that time I worked on one piece. It’s the longest time I think I’ve ever taken on one painting. The paint is applied in very thin layers and must be painted over and over to achieve the depth of colour needed.
Most of the first day was spent sketching ideas. I chose a very traditional image because I wanted to start out that way, learning how it ‘should’ be done before I then break out into something different. Even with a traditional icon, you should put something of your own into it, make choices about style, arrangement and colour.
Once you’re happy with your sketch, you transfer it to the gesso panel.
The lines you draw should be as dark as possible because they will become almost completely obscured by layers of dark paint before you see any detail.
Start by applying thin washes of the darkest colour you need. Build up these, layer by layer until you achieve a smooth, solid surface. In egg tempera painting, you mix raw pigment powders with an egg/beer mixture that acts as the binder for your paint.
You can then start applying the details in lighter shades on top of your dark ground.
Keep going, applying more tones and building up richer colours.
You can make changes as you go along, and it’s possible to hide mistakes and even change colours completely. My icon is not completely finished either, although it’s very nearly there. I may have to add more contrast because it will fade over the next few weeks as the paint cures, plus I’ll need to varnish it to make it robust. Presently the surface is a little delicate – I got a tiny scratch in it by carrying it home through two airports, even wrapped in layers of cloth. I’m sure nobody else would notice but I know it’s there!
It was a really fascinating process, and I have plans for making more, if not in quite as traditional a way as this one, plus I had a fantastic week and made some new friends from both Poland and Edinburgh.
I feel another post is needed to share with you more under the surface stuff about why I chose this icon and what it meant for me to paint it, look out for that coming later this week.