Icon Diploma Student

Graduated but still learning to see with the eye of the heart

Lettering of the Melisende Psalter

hand made book of the Melisende letters

‘Melisende’ –  lettering from the 12th c

Long overdue, but here’s the last installment from my dissertation on lettering which would be lovely to see adapted for use on contemporary western icons. For the last subject, I chose the Melisende Psalter, an extraordinarily beautiful example of ‘East meets West’.

It was written in Latin and thought to have been produced in the scriptorium of the Monastery of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem sometime between 1131 and 1143. It is attributed to the work of six artists, and a scribe who are thought to be of French or Italian origin as the work reflects their backgrounds.

The introduction features 24 full page miniatures of scenes from the life of Christ, with Greek inscriptions, painted with gold backgrounds.

Annunciation Melisende Psalter British Library crop.png

Detail from the Annunciation (image from the digitised British Library Manuscript)

The manuscript is held in the British Library Manuscripts Department (Ref Egerton MS 1139), London.   

The word psalter derives from the old English word psaltere/saltere which came from church Latin Psalterium and simply means ‘a volume containing the Book of Psalms’. These hand written and illuminated books often had other devotional material bound in as well and were most widely owned by wealthy lay persons. They predate the later emergence of the ‘Book of Hours’.


Letter A adapted from the Melisende Psalter

Looking at the letters in this manuscript, it was hard to know where to begin as there are so many examples to choose from. It really is a rich resource for both iconographers and calligraphers alike.

I decided to illuminate a few letters to bring out their qualities as stand alone designs. The letters are confident and stems terminate with a flourish and the double stems add a light but strong quality to the letters. This example is painted with Azurite and Malachite. I have applied a few washes of azurite over the malachite to get this velvety soft green.

letter B Melisende

Melisende letter B

This example is painted with lapis lazuli and malachite. I’ve washed a few layers of blue over the green to deepen the green and offset the brightness of the gold.

The letters themselves are on raised gesso – a slightly more flexible mix to the gesso used for icons. This is Patricia Lovett’s recipe and it gives a flexible surface which burnishes up a treat when gold leaf is applied. Patricia’s book ‘Illumination Gold and Colour’ gives more practical guidance on this and is on sale at Cornelissen’s in London (or by mail order)  where you can get all the materials needed to paint your own letters. If you do get a chance to visit Cornelissens in the next few weeks, you will see some of the work by the icon diploma students on display in the window – more about this in the next post.

Before I share the letters which I painted from this manuscript, I’d like to give you a taster of one of the illuminations in this psalter as how it’s a useful resource for icon painters.

magi bring ing gifts melisende

Melisende Psalter – Magi bringing gifts to the Christ Child, Image from the British Library Digital library

To see this image and others in the psalter, here’s the link to the British Library page.

I love the movement of the Magi and how their composition directs the viewer’s eye to observe them placing their gifts at the feet of the Christ Child under the stern direction of the angel. Even though these are tiny paintings, they are dynamic and vibrant.

Back to the lettering. I’ve attached an eight page document with a full alphabet of hand painted letters which are an interpretation of the letters in the Melisende Psalter. Feel free to print them off or save them till later for use on your own icons. I would love to see them in use one day! 11-melisende-letters-v1

letter C Melisende gilded lapis lazuli

Letter C in Lapis lazuli – based on examples in the Melisende Psalter

Thanks for reading,


Show Time!

fixing icons at exhibtion

Icon hanging begins – and no – I’ve not driven Iain to smoking – yet!

I’m still getting over this last week. It’s been intense; a wonderful and unforgettable week. Lots of planning, packing, dawn starts, long car trips, carting, hanging, dismantling and so on.  I’m a relative local living in Staffordshire so my friends travelling from Sweden, Germany and Dublin must be feeling exhausted.

I’m going to add a few practical tips for anyone who is planning an exhibition. Plan well ahead. Bring large and small spirit levels, electric drill with selection of screws, pencil, measuring tape, portable steps, blu tack, plenty of bubble wrap, sellotape, pritt stick, masking tape, the cling film roll tape that protect sides of pictures, plastic crates with lids, flask and snacks.

icons in back of car

Wrap up the icons well.

When the car load was dropped off outside the PSTA, in Shoreditch, the doors weren’t yet open. Although not raining, it was overcast and I was glad the icons were all in waterproof containers and well wrapped. Pre-book your car park in London – it’s much cheaper.

Ronnie And the mandilion

Placing the Mandilion

Invite family and friends to help. My husband helped me put all the icons up and our son arrived with his camera and took this shot and a few others. It was non-stop all day – you have to work at quite a pace to get finished before closing time.

icons by Ronnie Cruwys

Sun glancing in from the rooflights

Bring a tube of polyfiller and a scraper as there is the inevitable re-shuffle to get things right. Thanks to Romsay at the PSTA, for finding some white paint and a roller too!

Icons by Ronnie Cruwys

Most of my work up

Susan, a fellow student – or graduate (that sounds good!) kindly lent me this table as I wanted to share my Nativity workbook, lettering books and some of my course work folders. I will write a little more about the Nativity workbook on another post.

visitor to triptych

Triptych up and an early visitor arrives

While we were putting up our work in the main exhibition area, Aidan was busy placing more work out in the foyer.

Aidan putting icons up at PSTA Shoreditch

Aidan displaying students’ icons in the foyer

We left the PSTA late Saturday afternoon with Aidan kindly finishing up for us.  When I returned on Tuesday for the Preview, this was the glowing view from Charlotte Road. The evening went in a whirl – I wanted to speak to so many more visitors than I did – to thank you all so much for coming and for being part of this blessed and beautiful stage in our life as fledgling icon painters.

My thanks go to the PSTA for running this course but especially to Aidan Hart for his spiritual guidance, patience and his innate joy shared with us, his diploma students, throughout the last three years as he has taught us how to see with the eye of the heart.

9 PSTA.jpg

All quiet before the doors open for the Preview  

I hope to be able to share a link to photos of all our work once these have all been co-ordinated on a photo-sharing site, but the next post will be about our exhibition now up in Cornelissen’s…watch this space!

Thanks for reading,



My sister –  this one is Meggie!




Just a little triptych please? No rush.

tryptich icon by ronnie cruwys

Tryptic of Blessed Virgin Enthroned with the Christ Child surrounded by Archangels Michael and Raphael

I’m ‘Number 5’ in a family of six and we straddle the globe from USA to Australia with me here in the UK. We all ask each other favours every now and then, but I think this has to be the slowest request ever to turn around for my dear sister Anne! It was nine years ago that she asked me to paint her a ‘little triptych’ – I was still a brunette back then!

Aidan has suggested that if you are asked to paint an icon that you know nothing about – just go ahead and do it, and learn as you go. This is what has happened here. Saying yes to this request has drawn me into the world of icons, leaving the day job behind. I was relieved when Aidan accepted that these could be part of my set diploma pieces of standing and seated figures, which has meant that I have been able to learn as I go with Aidan’s guidance.

Dylan Hartley, Simon Morris, Ronnie Cruwys with triptych

Right to left: Dylan Hartley, Simon Morris, Ronnie Cruwys

Today I went to collect the finished icon from the workshop where Dylan Hartley made the oak boards, hand-carved the kivotos and gessoed it for me and where Simon Morris of Smith York Fine Art Printers has photo-scanned it, spending hours getting the studio lighting just right so as to reduce the glare from the gilding. Simon has scanned all the icons on this website as well as the printing for my street drawings over at Drawing the Street.

I have written a little about this triptych before in an earlier post when I began work on it here  and as I began to paint here. Further notes on painting the garments here.

Virgin and Child

Blessed Mother and Christ Child

As always with a finished icon, you see so many places which could do with revisiting. Faces and hands are my  weak spots. Feet too, but the slippers help!

The icon will be up in the PSTA Diploma Show in London next week, then will be part of the ‘Spirit Matters’ exhibition in Cornelissen’s window from 25th October to 16th November. From there it will make its way to Australia  where it will be part of Anne’s prayer corner in her home. We all have a lot to be thankful for but especially me with such a loving and supportive family and this sister in particular – I’m so glad she asked!

Thanks for reading,


anne and Ron


All gone quiet

It’s all hands on deck at home as finishing off seems to take almost as long as actually painting an icon. Our last icon session is only days away and details of the graduation show next month are now up on the PSTA website. I would be delighted if you could come along though I know many of you are miles away. It promises to be a great show as my fellow students have produced some breath-taking work.

I plan to continue with the blog after the course has finished as I haven’t posted any where near as much as I had intended.

I will be back in touch when I get a moment and will leave you with these two icons which are almost complete…varnishing, picture hooks and cord still to add.

iconpainting of St Hilda of Whitby by Ronnie Cruwys

St Hilda of Whitby

Icon painting in egg tempera of St Francis of Assisi

St Francis of Assis

Thanks for reading!





Northern Grace

monochrome study of st hilda of whitby on fabriano paper

St Hilda of Whitby

St Hilda had been left to one side as a drawing on stretched paper (fabriano artistico 300gsm hot pressed) for the past two years.  I chose to paint St Hilda because she is a local saint to me. When I was a youngster, Mum and Dad used to take us to Whitby on family trips and as a teenager, I worked in York Minster, close to where she was baptised, so she has always been there in the background.

The drawing was in preparation for my painted panel icon which I last wrote about here, but had always intended to paint it. Today was the day.

Here’s the drawing in full – I’ve darkened the photo so you can see my construction and correction lines. After erasing lines that might be distracting, I began painting using a blend of pigments which I know are really warm and earthy.

2 Hilda first washes of colour

Building up the tones

There are some pigment combinations which are lovely to work with – one of which is French Ochre Sahara and French Ochre Havanna. Pigments look quite soft on water colour paper.

3 Pigments ochre sahara

Mixing pigments

Mixing up pigments is best done separately (unlike how I’ve shown!) then add small quantities of the stronger colour to the weaker colour. A very strong pigment, such as English Red Ochre, would overwhelm any other pigment and has to be used sparingly when mixing.

When all the painting was done, I gilded the halo.

St Hilda work in prog Cruwys

Gilding paper is a breeze compared with water or oil gilding an icon boards!  I used Roberson’s acrylic gold size which works well with transfer gold . The size is painted on in two layers, thinned down with a few drops of water. The first layer seals the paper. (Tip: If you rub some washing up liquid into the brush before you use the size, it’s easier to wash out after and protects the brush).  I add a touch of red ochre to show where I’ve painted and to give some background to the gold.

5 applying gold size to halo

Applying gold size to the halo

It’s been good to reflect on the life of this strong northern saint, patron of learning and culture especially in these post-Brexit days. St Hilda lived through dangerous and difficult times – her father was murdered when she was a child. Baptised in 627AD, close to the place where York Minster now stands, she grew up as a noble woman but later became the founding abbess of a monastery in Whitby. More pertinently, as a Celtic Christian, she chose to graciously accept a vote at the Synod of Whitby which didn’t go the way she had wished. Quoting from this last link:

     ‘In Northumbria, along with the politics of the time, there were two strains of Catholic Christianity, and they could not be reconciled: Celtic and Roman. Celtic Christianity, which emanated from Ireland, was less structured than the Roman variety. The Celts were independent, wandering from place to place all over Europe, where they would establish centers of learning and teach. Celtic Christianity relied on monasteries and abbeys where the abbot was supreme rather than the cathedral and bishop system the Romans followed. The Romans viewed the Celtic brand of Christianity as “rural.”’

6 st Hilda monochrome gilded Cruwys.jpg

Completed study on paper

If you would like to read a little more about St Hilda, there is a good write-up about her life by the Order of the Holy Paraclete here.

We still live in troubled times and it helps to connect with the saints. Hilda was considered so wise that kings and princes sought her advice. The Venerable Bede describes her:

“All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace”.

Thanks for reading,


Shell Gold Shine

agate burnisher on shell gold

Burnishing shell gold

The finishing touches to this icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary (based on an icon in St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai) has taken me almost as long as it took to paint!

This was the stage I left it at two years ago.

1 edit blessed virgin mary

Still to finish: Halo, gold assist on robe, stars, lettering, warm highlights on face, paint sides red.

This is one of the first icons that I painted with Aidan. We worked on the mandilion in class and painted our second portrait format icon at home which I wrote about here. I chose the two prototypes from an iconostasis in St Catherine’s monastery, Sinai, here is the prototype.

As the two icons will be displayed as a pair, I worked on them together but I hadn’t appreciated the amount of work that goes into the last stages.

Virgin and Christ icons cruwys

My first two diploma icons – unfinished

The halo takes a bit of practice. I used a compass with an ink attachment (like this example) and load the nib up with shellac and red ochre pigment. Do some sample lines until you get the right thickness to draw a line without blobbing – I haven’t mastered it yet so don’t want to lead you astray showing my technique. However, it helps to have the circle drawn to the right size on tracing paper to help locate the centre point. I used thick card to protect the surface of the icon from the compass point, though a wooden ruler with felt beneath would be better.

scribing halo

Setting up to scribe the halo

I wanted to learn how to make shell gold for the assist. It’s gold leaf ground down and washed so thoroughly that it becomes liquid gold when mixed with gum arabic. It can be applied finely with a brush and burnished to a high shine. I had tried to make it following instructions from my fellow students and various websites, but couldn’t get it to stick or to shine so I booked onto Anita Chowdry’s two day workshop in June.

liquid 24ct gold

Two books of 24 ct gold leaf being ground up by hand with honey

I had no idea just how much grinding, washing and filtering is required to get the rich shine but here’s a link to an example of one of Anita’s shell gold workshops. Anita will be writing a book about the technique so I suggest you sign up to her newsletter to learn more.

Applying shell gold

Painting shell gold assist on the Blessed Virgin’s head dress.

The icon is now away being photographed.

Sorry about the delay between posts. It’s pretty hectic getting things together for the exhibition. I intend to continue this blog after the diploma finishes as there is much I have still to share.

Thanks for reading,






Face lifts and highlights

banner mandilion

It’s now feeling uncomfortably close to the end of this course – and I haven’t finished one of my set icon pieces!  So, for the last few days I have knuckled down and revisited my first project, the Mandilion. It’s been untouched now for two years and looking back I’ve learned a bit but there is much more still to practice.

Before we go on, if you’d like to see the earlier stages of this mandilion project, you can look back here and a bit later here.

I deliberately stopped working on the mandilion as I wanted to get a bit more experience under my belt before I finished it. I’m glad I did as looking at it afresh, I could see quite a few things that need attention.

Before I set to work, I had a good look again at the prototype that I’m working from:

icon of Sinai Christ Pantocrator

Christ from the Grand Deeisis, St Catherine’s monastery, Sinai

mandilion  before editing.jpg

My version of the mandilion from two years ago.

Here’s the list of the main things to work on:

  1. Halo too bright. Vibrant lapis lazuli competes too much with the face.
  2. Left side is the ‘nearer’ side yet the righ eye is much bigger. Rebalance eyes and brow.
  3. Hair is a bit dull and lifeless.
  4. Facial tones lacks warmth.
  5. Strengthen eyebrows and shadows.
1 Rub out halo on mandilion.jpg

Scrubbing off the bright blue

Since it’s such a long time since I’ve worked on the icon, I started by applying a couple  of glaze coats over the entire face and hair to provide a key between old and new. When these had dried I then applied two thin glazes of French Ochre Havanna over the face (but not hair/eyes). Whilst it was drying, I made a start removing the bright blue halo and the unsightly black lines – what was I thinking?! I still wanted a blue halo but not as vivid, so I used a flat headed brush to soak the paint and scrub most of it off. The black lines had set quite hard though and I ended up carefully scraping them off with the tip of a blade.

3 halo and hair mandilion.jpg

Underpainting the halo and adding shading to the hair parting

I had seen a graded blue halo on a contemporary mandilion which I thought would work, and began by underpainting the bands of blue using lapis lazuli dark, titanium white and a touch of ivory black .

4 fine coat of white.jpg

When the paint is dry, I applied a weak egg glaze, then added a fine mist coat of white.

At first, the fine coat of white seems to cloak the colour too much but if it is applied as a thin layer, it soon dries much lighter and transulcent. It took three or four mist coats before the blues blended and softened.

While the paint was drying, I made a start on modelling the hair. I applied ivory black in thin layers to the parting and to the sides of the head to strengthen the form, paying attention to the ‘waves’ and the ‘ripples’.

5 modelling hair 2.jpg

To add a little warmth to the hair, I added a thin layer of English Red Ochre either side of some of the ripples towards the front.

Now for the eye surgery. The eye on the right was much too big, especially as it is on the receding side. I applied a thin layer of white over the upper eye lid and it looked green! I reduced the right hand side of the iris and lowered the shadow between lid and brow. When all dry, I then applied French ochre havanah over the eye flesh to help harmonise the colours.

eye op 1.jpg

Eye surgery – lowering the upper lid and lifting the lower lid

Then, on the pic below, you can see where I added the new line of the upper eye lid. I may revisit this eye, but it’s step in the right direction.



red and green

Red shadow under hair on near side to help it advance, green to the right

Warm colours advance and cool colours recede and you can often find faces with a wash of red somewhere on the near side and cool green on the far side.  On this icon, the left side of the face is the nearest, so I used a thin wash of red ochre under the hair line to add a warm shadow and a light green (cool)  on the right to help this side recede.

eye surgery 2

I added a little more cinnabar to the lips, corners of eyes, nose and ears (after this photo was taken) and will let it settle overnight.

Thanks for reading.





Armenian Nativity on Vellum

1 banner armenian nativity Cruwys

Armenian Nativity on Vellum

Every now and then, I come across a manuscript or icon that captivates me. This is one of those pieces. The original can be seen here attributed to Toros Roslin, the 13th century Armenian illuminator.

Although I’m currently working on a large nativity icon for the diploma (which we have to compose ourselves rather than copy)  I side-tracked to paint this particular nativity scene on vellum as Aidan has encouraged us to study other icons to really get into the essence of the feast we have chosen.

Some 12 years ago, I went to Patricia Lovett’s Traditional Skills and Gilding course, which she ran over four days. I learnt how to stretch vellum and to prepare it for painting and gilding and she ignited an enthusiasm for this art which helped direct me towards embarking on the icon diploma. I had a piece of goatskin vellum from William Cowley already stretched on to a plywood board ready for painting so I set straight to work transferring the cartoon on to the vellum in the same way as I would for an icon, by rubbing red pigment in to the back of the cartoon paper, then setting the pigment with a watery red ochre line.

Red drawing outlines on to vellum

Transfer the cartoon on to the vellum

Next step was to lay the gesso for gilding. When we were on Patricia’s gilding course, she advised us to make detailed notes on the method. For anyone who would like to learn more, my notes from one of the gilding days are here and I would also recommend Patricia’s books and dvd’s on gilding available through her website. The ‘Gilding gesso on vellum’ notes can be downloaded as a pdf here.

First washes of Caput Mortum on vellum

Caput mortum used for the earth and shepherd figure

gesso on vellum

Laying gesso for halos, irregularities to be scraped and burnished then gilded.

close up of the gesso halo on St Joseph

Note the pin prick holes in the gesso that shouldn’t be there!

gold leaf on vellum

Applying the first layer of loose gold leaf

lapis lazuli and azurite pigments applied

Layers of azurite and lapiz applied to reach a deep blue within the cave

First wash of Caput Mortuum pigment applied on the earth and shepherd.

Blessed Virgin and Christ child painted in egg tempera on vellum

Close up of the tiny faces of the Blessed Virgin and Christ child

9 finished armenian nativity Cruwys

Completed illumination on vellum of the Armenian Nativity

Colour palette: Caput Mortuum, Azurite, Lapis lazuli dark, vermillion, terre verte, ivory black and titanium white.

All these pigments can be obtained from L. Cornelissen & Son, Great Russell Street, London where this piece is now on display as part of the Heritage Craft Association‘s exhibition with Cornelissen’s celebrating ‘Gold on Parchment’, for the upcoming London Craft Week, where some practical demonstrations will be taking place.

Thanks for reading!



Back to lettering Bury Style

4 Letter A Bury

Gilded Letter A adapted from the Bury Bible

I’d like to pick up where I left off on my previous taster post of the Bury Bible’s Romanesque lettering (you can refer back to it here). I’d like to share some examples which I’ve gathered from this great work which may be suitable for naming saints of this period, for example:

Some saints with direct or indirect associations with this manuscript or who lived during the early 12th Century:

Edmund the Martyr (also known as St Edmund or Edmund of East Anglia, died 20 November 869

St Anselm feast day 21 April

St Cellach (Ceilach Keilach) b1080 Ireland d 1129 Archbishop Armagh

St Elisabeth Rose, Benedictine nun, b 1130 Courtenay France

St Stephen Harding, b 1059, d 1134 co-founder of Cistercian order

St William of York, England, b 1154, Archbishop of York

St Wulfric, b 1080, Bristol, England

St Thomas Becket of Canterbury, b1118, Cheapside, London, martyr

St Hildegarde of Bingen b 1098, Germany

St Lawrence O’Toole, b1125, Kildare, Ireland, Archbishop Dublin

St Gilbert of Sempringham, b 1083

St Bartholomew of Farne b1193, Whitby Northumbria

I’m hoping that the painted letters which I’m sharing here will be clear enough to save to your desktop for your own use. They need a bit more refining but they are a reasonable start. If you do get round to using them – I would love to see your work!

lettering based on bury bible

Letters A to D ‘Bury Style’

lettering in red ochre

Letters E to J ‘Bury Style’


letters K to P ‘Bury Style’


4 Letter N Bury

Crisp balanced lines of the Bury letter N


Letters Q to W ‘Bury Style’


Letters U to Z (plus an extra fancy M) ‘Bury Style’

Hope these are useful some day and thanks for reading!


‘I Saw Him!’

mary Magdalene tells the disciples Christ has risen

Mary Magdalene is first with the good news ‘I have seen the Lord!’

Good morning and Happy Easter!

Romanesque manuscripts are a rich resource for iconographers. I have often wondered how a manuscript image would work painted on to a gessoed board instead of vellum. I had a small maple board (approx 6″x 8″) already prepared so I set aside the homework on my nativity icon to work on this small experimental piece during Lent.

I chose this image of Mary Magdalene announcing her news to the discples. It’s from the St Alban’s Psalter, one of several known to have been created at or for St Albans Abbey in the 12th century. I love their expressions and the long thin draperies contrasted with oversized hands and feet.

Icon board first stage of work for St Albans Psalter

Outline of figures added and oil gilding applied.

I transferred the outlines from my line drawing in red ochre then applied several layers of acrylic gold size (with some red ochre added to provide a contrast against the gesso) to adhere the transfer gold.

I then applied the base colours, including the richly coloured Caput Mortum for the background.

Ground terre verte azurite on icon board

Building up the layers of garment colours

7 a Magdalene and disciples st Albans

Gritty pigment

Some of my pigments are quite gritty. I like this varied texture on backgrounds but it’s hopeless to work with on tiny faces and details so I ground them up with a slab and muller and a spoon of water until they were very smooth.

The blue I used was a gift from my son who has recently been to Japan. While he was there he went to the new shop ‘Pigment‘ especially to buy me some! Here’s a sample of Azurite which I ground up and by levigating the mix I ground out three beautiful blues.

grinding up pigment from Tokyo PIGMENT

Kyojyo Gosu 6 Azurite from ‘Pigment’ in Tokyo

As the terre verte was too gritty to underpaint the small features on the faces, I used black and yellow to make green instead.

Underpainting faces

Underpainting faces using Maimeri yellow and a touch of ivory black

applying membrane to face painting

Adding the membrane to faces using maimeri yellow and white, a dash of red added later

6 face highlights

Building up highlights on the faces and adding the hair

The faces still seemed too pale so I added a few washes of French Ochre Havanna (also called Warm Ochre). Looking at the faces and hair this close up I can see there is still some work needed.

7 final faces

Deepening the shadows, adding vermillion to the eyes and white highlights

I added several layers of malachite over the terre verte to give this rich green.

8 St ALbans Psalter Magdalene announces news

The almost finished article.

To see the original manuscript, please visit the St Albans’s Psalter here.

Wishing you all a blessed and happy Easter and as Mary Magdalene first said: ‘He is Risen!’

Thanks for reading