Icon Diploma Student

Learning to see with the eye of the heart

Archangel Gabriel – A Listening Ear

Every now and again, I’m asked how to get started icon painting. I always recommend painting monochromes on smooth (hot pressed) best quality watercolour paper. I recall the first time I saw some of these red ochre studies by Aidan Hart’s past students and I found them captivating. They were on the wall in a workshop given by Aidan Hart at Walcot Hall over 10 years ago.

Archangel Gabriel – large completed monochrome
Use a very thin light line of ‘English Red Light’ red ochre egg tempera with a sable brush to mark the outlines.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been having a bit of a sort out of my studio (and my overspill areas). Over the last few years I’ve gathered quite a gallery of work that’s lying unseen as I have no more wall space!

I made a decision to go through all my work and list it for sale in my Etsy shop as I can’t keep holding on to things – there’s no room to move! Also, letting go of things makes way for the new so let’s make a start with looking back over this large monochrome of Archangel Gabriel.

Gradually build up the shape of the face in very thin washes. I’ve been impatient with the dark hair lines

Before I go any further, I have already written about this monochrome here. It’s really interesting to reflect back on this post from 8 years ago as I’ve become a lot kinder to myself. I can see that things I once thought weren’t good enough actually were a great foundation – they just needed a bit more work and creativity. SO – if you are being hard on yourself – put your work away for a few years then revisit when you have had a few edges knocked off and away you go – again!

Building up the forms of the hair and face

The best way to start as always is with a drawing. Sometime this too can be daunting so be kind to yourself – this is a learning process. You can always make a tracing of the icon you want to paint by outlining the main forms to get familiar with the shapes, shadows, proportions and lines. You could also try laying a grid over the prototype, then draw into your own grid at a larger scale. This can help you can anchor the key features.

With this monochrome – I drew onto a large sheet of cartridge paper (inexpensive paper is fine for this stage), then traced over and rubbed red ochre pigment into the back of the tracing paper. It is them ready to transcribe on to the watercolour paper. You could use pencil but the graphite smudges and I wanted to keep the paper clean.

The paper has been stretched with a damp sponge and taped to a board.

I use Fabriano Artistico Hot pressed watercolour paper, 300gsm. You can use other brands, but the weight and the hot pressed finish are really well suited to monochromes. I stretched this one but I didn’t really need to. Even though the paper can buckle, it can also be flattened as I discovered later. There are plenty of You Tube videos to help you do this but in short: face the artwork down on a clean dry sheet of paper, place a spray dampened sheet of paper over the back, then place a pile of books on top and leave for a few days. This works a treat.

The face of Archangel Gabriel…but there’s something missing…

Once you have the red ochre line in place from the tracing – it’s best to fix it in place using a dilute mix of egg tempera in red ochre or whatever colour you are using – the red/gold/earth ochres all work well. I think the most valuable thing I’ve learnt from painting these is not to rush them – work in the finest layers you can and build up very gradually.

The almost finished Archangel – with a finely layered background of very thin washes of red ochre.

Looking back through my old notes from Aidan’s class, I wrote as follows:

Eyebrows: When painting the eyebrows, the top line is soft and the ends are also soft. Look at an eyebrow, the hair is densest lower down, then feathers upwards (not as I have done here!). When painting the brow, show the graduation of tone. Facial features grow out of the background. Find the high point of the eyebrow in relation to the rest of the curved brow. Pay attention to the descent of the brow.

Lips: Look at the lips in profile, the light falls and hits the lower lip, the upper lip is drawker and in shadow. The lower lip projects and the recess below the lip is alos in shade. Note the gap at the corner of the lips.

This monochrome of Archangel Gabriel has only had a few brief outings since my diploma. Once in a short lived exhibition at the Bar Convent in York and a couple of weeks on the walls of the Tolbooth, Lanark. Lockdowns – say no more!

Protect the icon with paper and start to map the outline of the head band

When I looked at this the other day I realised there was something missing…the hairband and ribbons! This is quite significant as Archangel Gabriel is the patron of communication and this goes two ways – listening and responding. The ribbons either side of the ears are symbolic of listening – important! I had based this icon on the prototype of the Ustyug Annunciation icon. This doesn’t show the ribbons but since I have learnt the symbolism of the ribbons – they are too significant to leave out – so on they go – very late but much needed additions.

Adding a film of titanium white to form the headband
Final headband and ear ribbons

Gold leaf is not the best surface to paint over but I laid a dilute layer of egg tempera mix first, let it dry and built up in layers. I used quite a lot of egg mixed with the white pigment and applied it thinly. It goes on with a lot of beading at first but as it dries, each layer helps the next.

Finished monochrome of Archangel Gabriel.

The finished size of the overall mounted work is 50 x 70cm and now listed in my Etsy shop. Postage and insurance have shot up, especially overseas. The weight, packaging and protecting the glass of a large frame really bumps up the price so I’ve taken this out of its frame and will post in its mount and backing ready for the new owner to frame.

As always, thanks for reading and for still being here on this meandering path with me 🙂

Ronnie

Advent Three: A Multitude of Angels

The orchard is cloaked in darkness as I write and there’s a mid-winter owl hooting outside our window. There’s something magical about this time of year. For many, this is the busiest, most hectic time of year so I only want to share a few photos of the stages of painting this cluster of angels on paper.

This was a study for the Nativity icon – working on thick 600gsm hot-pressed paper. It’s a luxurious surface to work on.

The following photos show some of the painting stages – colours include English Yellow Ochre and French Ochre Havana with the skies in Azurite.

The halos are gilded with two layers of dilute pva glue applied to the paper, with red ochre added to give some depth. The halos are then gilded using transfer gold applied whilst the pva is still a little tacky.

Faces are worked up in layers starting with underpaintings in Terre Verte and washes of Red Ochre and Yellow Maimeri. Shadows and highlights built up to model the faces.

Here’s the final study in the Nativity workbook; deep azurite skies with a thin wash of indigo to deepen. We’re still in difficult times with another new variant on the rise. If you’re still here then I’d like to thank you for being with me.

Here’s trusting that you and yours are lovingly upheld by a cluster of angels over the days and weeks of Christmas-tide ahead. Stay well!

Thanks for reading – Ronnie

Advent Two: The Shepherds Their Wonder

Quote from the Festal Manaion – Nativity Vespers

The profoundly beautiful Armenian Nativity created by T’oros Roslin in the 13th Century remains my favourite Nativity icon. I painted my own version on vellum back in January 2016 in preparation for the Festal Nativity icon (on a large gessoed panel) which was part of the final year of the Diploma.

This is a silly busy time of year for many of us but I’m posting this here now for you to find sometime in future when you do find a quiet moment.

The primary shepherd on the large Nativity icon (above left) was a direct reference to the figure in the Armenian Nativity scene. I liked his expression and woolly tunic! (If you want to refer to the finished diploma icon you can see it in more detail here).

Caput Mortuum is a mysterious rich deep maroon colour and looks to me the colour used in the Armenian Nativity original. The name translation from Latin is ‘dead head’. In the Merriam Webster Definitions dictionary we find one definition “alchemy the residuum after distillation or sublimation” also “a red iron-oxide pigment made by calcining iron sulfate“. To me it’s the colour of an aubergine and when placed next to lapis lazuli, the colours sing.

Caput Mortuum next to Lapis Lazuli

Reflecting back to the time that I painted the Armenian Nativity, you’ll have no idea how over the moon I was to participate in the exhibition curated by Patricia Lovett and held in the window of Cornelissen’s . It was all part of the Heritage Craft Week 2016 which I wrote about here. If you’ve never heard of Cornelissen’s then treat yourself to a minute inside their London shop here.

Patricia – if you are reading this, that exhibition and subsequent synchronicities led to the class of 2013-16 final-year diploma icons being displayed in the same window (below) and repeated three years later with the next icon student intake – THANK YOU!

Window shopping – Cornelissen’s, London

Back to work…

These shepherds have been shuffled around to get a balanced composition. Photocopying and cutting out the figures allows you to move them and see how they work in relationship to one another. It’s interesting how small shifts can make a difference in how your eye is led around the figures and around the overall composition.

Pencil drawing of three shepherds, photocopied and placed on the icon panel

Lines are transcribed onto the panel by rubbing red ochre onto the back of your traced drawing. The lines are fixed with a dilute mix of egg tempera in red ochre. Applying a dilute mix means it’s easy to blend into the layers that follow.

Composition settled and anchored on to the icon panel in a light red ochre line.

Yellow Ochre Maimeri and Ivory Black pigments mixed together give a lovely green for underpainting flesh tones – an alternative to Terre Verte which can be a bit sticky.

Since I had this earthy mix, I used it to under-paint the garments of the primary shepherd. I’ve used thin washes of earth ochre pigments to build up the landscape.

Colours vary here as I’ve taken photos at different times of the day.

When working on an icon, it’s important to work on it as a whole to keep it balanced. Sometimes weeks if not months go by between underpainting, mid-tones and highlights of the different clusters of figures.

Let’s close this post on these shepherds – almost finished. Just a few more highlights to add on their faces and hair.

Thanks for reading, whenever that might be 🙂

Ronnie

Advent one: What shall we offer?

It’s Advent as I write and timely to reflect on some of the foundation work for the Festal Nativity Icon which I worked on in the third and final year of the diploma course (2013-16) with Aidan Hart. I know that this is a silly-busy time of year for many of us but you don’t have to read it now – it’s here for later!

Detail from icon study on paper acknowledging the prototpye by Gabriel Toma Chituc

Before I get started, I also want to say that the British Association of Iconographers have an online exhibition ‘Icons Emerging from Lockdown 2021’ sharing the work of over 46 icon painters. The work is worth leaving this page right away and having a look!

Back to the Nativity icon – In this post, I want to look at the starting point of the icon – looking at the choices and decisions behind the composition.

We were invited to work on a festal icon of our choice and to design a new composition which emphasised a particular aspect of the feast. I chose the Nativity – with the theme of praise and thanksgiving so beautifully expressed here in the Festal Menaion – Nativity Vespers:

Lettering in mapping pen and gold gouache on paper

We were encouraged to study good examples of our chosen festal icon referring to frescos and manuscripts. At first, the variety of prototypes felt overwhelming (just google ‘orthodox nativity icon‘) but I have a particular love of manuscripts and one in particular spoke to me with its beautiful simplicity – the Armenian Nativity by Toros Roslin, painted in the 13th century, so much so that I painted a reproduction on vellum (blog post here).

Egg tempera painting of the nativity on vellum
Armenian Nativity, from the Toros Roslin manuscript, 13thC egg tempera painted on vellum

In October 2015, we made a course field trip to Thessaloniki to explore some of the beautiful icons and frescos that reach back into antiquity. In particular I loved the frescos of St Nicholas Orphanos Church (14thC), including this one of the Nativity. You can get a flavour of this trip in my post here.

St Nicholas Orphanos Church fresco, Thessaloniki showing the Nativity

Looking at the layout of the Orphanos fresco, light from heaven is directed vertically to the Christ Child, centrally placed in the heart of the cave where high contrast and curved lines frame the Blessed Virgin. Your eye is then led gently down and around to take in all the surrounding figures and back to centre.

The most perplexing aspect of the composition for me was settling on a layout of the Virgin and Child which are diverse as you can see from a few examples below. I felt that it was unusual for a mother to turn away from her child, let alone this one!

I made a start on the cartoon – sketching out the overall composition on a large sheet of cartridge paper cut to the size of my gessoed panel (53 x 42cm). To help keep things fluid at this stage, I made separate sketches of each cluster of figures which I was able to photocopy, cut out and move around. I had also been working on the figures and colours in a workbook (you can see some examples here).

It was important to align the composition with our chosen theme and to allow the viewer’s eye to flow and pause in a rhythmical and meaningful way around the icon. You can see on this example, I had shown the Virgin looking towards her infant being bathed by the midwives – I wasn’t entirely happy with this but this was the exploration stage.

Looking back at my notes I have found some helpful comments from Aidan and Sr Petra Clare:

  1. The mountains are not responding to the light of the star – move them to turn towards the light of the star and so they curve to contain the angels.
  2. The length of the Virgin’s legs not quite right, the knee to heel should be the same on both legs.
  3. Archangel Gabriel too high up the mountain and right wing not quite right.
  4. Adjust the shepherd cluster to flow directionally towards the Virgin and Child
  5. Magi better in a linear format to direct the eye back up the icon to the star.
  6. Finally, Aidan reminded me that ‘the star represents heaven so it needs to be joined up to some form of half circle to show a connection between heaven and earth through the incarnation. A star in the sky by itself doesn’t convey this connection so well.’

It was somewhere during this exploration stage that I came across the translucently beautiful work of the Romanian master iconographer Gabriel Toma Chituc. This detail from his Nativity icon was an answered prayer for me as it expressed so eloquently the union of heaven and earth, Mary placed vertically and the Christ Child horizontal with the light of the star reaching into the cave.

Nativity by Gabriel Toma Chituc
Progress on the cartoon but not amended the star yet.

For the ancient Greeks, the cave symbolised the convergence point of divine or cosmic energies and was considered a sacred point where the soul could enter earth and subsequently leave and return to earth.

Shorthand version of preparing the gessoed board! Tips on gessoing here.

I will close here for now showing the cartoon transferred on to the panel, using red ochre rubbed on to the back of the traced paper image and setting the lines with a dilute mix of red ochre tempera. If you would like to see the finished icon, you can see it here.

As always, thanks for reading and wishing you a peaceful and blessed Advent.

Ronnie

Final composition settled and outline painted on to the panel

For the Feast of St Francis

Today, 4th October is the Feast of St Francis. I’d like to share some of my work from my student days on Aidan Hart’s diploma course when we were encouraged to paint monochrome studies on watercolour paper. I found these studies a little less intimidating as they were ‘only on paper’ rather than the gessoed boards which we had all spent several days preparing.

I knew I was going to paint an icon of St Francis on a gessoed board so wanted to prepare a study on paper first.

However, instead of painting a monochrome, I decided to see how painting an egg tempera icon on paper would turn out. The drawing above is taken from one of Aidan Hart’s icons of St Francis. This is the traced outline over the pencil sketch which I made from his prototype which you can see here.

I can’t find any record photos of the underpainting on paper but it would have been with thin layers of Terre Verte pigment and a few washes of the Yellow Ochre Maimeri mixed with a tiny dash of English Red Ochre, applied in thin washes.

The process on paper is the same as on a gessoed board – I followed exactly the same steps.

Returning to the icon on paper, you can see both the underpainting of face and garments have had ‘membranes’ of colour and I’ve begun to add some facial shading and highlights.

I like faces to have soft highlights – I have often added the brightest areas only to wash them back with French Ochre Havanna so they blend in. There is a lot of flexibility in egg tempera – it is surprising how thin washes of one pigment over another can help things sit better together.

Finally we arrive at the lettering and gilding the halo.

Working on paper, I applied a dilute coat of upva glue (flexible when dry) over the surface to be gilded – this acts as a seal over the paper. About 20-30 minutes later I applied a second less dilute coat and as soon as it was just about dry I applied 23.5 carat transfer gold leaf.

I referred back to the drawing for the centre point of the halo, placed a strip of cardboard over the face for protection from the compass point, held it all very steady and drew a circle around the halo. I pencilled out the lettering and then traced and painted them on.

Finally, the work was framed and included in the final student exhibition at the PSTA in Shoreditch. It is now available to purchase from my Etsy shop here.

It’s almost the end of the day here but just in time to wish you peace and blessings on the feast of this gentle yet powerful saint.

Thanks for reading,
Ronnie

Michaelmas

As September gives way into darker evenings and mornings, it pulls back many memories of the ancestral hearth for our family. It’s a time of remembering our loved ones and lighting a candle. It is the time to honour the Archangels on the feast of Michaelmas.

This was a triptych which I painted for my sister – she had seen a small version years ago and loved the way the doors opened up for the big reveal and had wondered if I could ever paint one for her one day. I’m so glad I did!

The images for these two Archangels which stand either side of the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child are based on the frescoes of Chora in Istanbul, seen high up in the dome.

I’ve written about this triptych previously in this blog but for this evening, I wanted to include a sequence of work-in-progress photos of an icon which I painted on watercolour paper of Archangel Gabriel.

If you haven’t got a gessoed board ready prepared, some heavy 300-400gsm+ smooth hot pressed watercolour paper is a really beautiful surface to work on. If you can find cotton content paper then it will be archival and long lasting in the right conditions.

You will see from this photo that I’ve used a pencil grid to help draw the image – don’t hesitate to use all the help you can get as you go along. Turning the master image upside down to refer to also helps you to tune into the areas of light and shade, angles/directions, hard and soft edges and so on.

I have under-painted the face in the pigment Terre Verte. You could also use Yellow Maimeri and ivory black to get a different green.

I have used a mix of English Red Deep and French Ochre Havanna for the hair, wings and robes.

This is a thin wash of Yellow Ochre Maimeri and a touch of Red Ochre light for the membrane over the skin. The red ochres are really strong pigments so you will only need a diluted drop of it for warmth.

Adding the facial highlights in thin layers of Yellow ochre Maimeri and titanium white
Building up very thin layers to model the face
Adding shell gold to the wings

You can see this icon completed and framed together with a few other icons here on my Etsy shop page.

Final details of the red line around the halo and ribbons to denote listening

And finally to close this post on the Triptych – here it is complete in the UK and ready to fly to Australia – with my Aussie sis joining in a wee family gathering!

Triptych in UK – sister in Aus!
Sisters!

In the meantime, trusting you all into the care of our celestial helpers.

As always, thanks for reading,

Ronnie

White horse and Indigo skies part 2 of 2

As I said in my previous post, I felt that this icon wasn’t quite complete. It wasn’t just the modelling and highlights on Archangel Michael’s face – but I felt it lacked presence. Since I had glazed the entire icon, I was prepared to work on it as a whole. I started with the face and applied thin layers of French Ochre Havanna, that lovely warm pigment that blends and evens out the different flesh tones.

I’ve learnt to leave some time between the underpainting of the face and applying the highlights. Letting the new paint rest for a few days works well as it is too easy to make holes in the layers when it is fresh. This is a small face, only 2.5cm brow to chin, so I need to be careful!

In the meantime, I had made a decision to extend the dark skies beyond the circle to balance the mountain area. The beauty of well-tempered paint is that it forms quite a hard surface after a year or so. With the dilute egg glaze acting as an isolating layer, I could easily remove the new paint if it didn’t look right. I had also decided to firm up the border in a deep red ochre.

Here you can see the red letters disappearing behind the indigo.

Using tracing paper with some titanium white pigment rubbed into the back, I transcribed the lettering and painted it back on.

Going back to the face, I added the highlights back in, gave the hair a glaze of red ochre deep and a touch of ivory black and added the missing ribbons which signify listening.

I then added a wash of lapiz lazuli over the cloak and inner ring.

Final touch was to take the liner pen and draw the lines back crisply over the new red border. All in all, about week’s work but I was much happier with it!

You can see more details of the finished icon here and as always, thanks for reading!

White Horse and Indigo Skies (part 1 of 2)

Have you ever looked back on something you’ve done and thought there was something not quite right, but didn’t know what to do about it? I have a suggestion. Leave it for a few years, get on with learning, developing and practicing and then revisit it with fresh eyes and a bit of courage to dive in and make the changes as you see fit.

The icon above shows part of the completed icon ready to go to an exhibition in York in Spring of 2018.

At the time, I was happy with the composition, content and colours of this icon of Archangel Michael. It was one I had given a lot of thought to – I wanted to paint an icon to show the story of how many centuries ago, the sisters in the Bar Convent, York, had called upon Archangel Michael’s help during a mob riot and their small community was under threat. The Archangel appeared on the roof of the convent – astride a white horse – and the mob fled.

The Bar Convent, Blossom Street, York was my school between 1971-4. It has joined the archives on my Drawing the Street project along with the buildings opposite, including Blossom Street Gallery where I held an exhibition called ‘A Street of Angels’ back in Spring 2018.

The icon was based on apocalypse protoypes which refer to the Book of Revelation where ‘There was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon’. I felt it was a powerful example to reflect the experience that the sisters had at that time. I looked up a number of apocolypes protoytpes to work out my own version.

Here’s my drawing – full size at 53 x 42 cm.

Detail shows Blossom Street buildings in disarray. A small gilded heart strikes the dragon’s mouth.

All that said, whenever I looked at the icon, I felt that it wasn’t quite complete. I wasn’t happy with Archangel Michael’s face – the light/modelling of his forehead wasn’t handled well and so I set myself up to just work over the face. I started by waking up the surface using a thin glaze one 1 part egg mix to 10 parts water – but decided to glaze over the entire icon (apart from the gilding) to give myself room to work on it as a whole. I applied several glazes and left it to settle for a few days.

I will continue with the decisions and steps taken in the next post as I realised there were a few other things that didn’t feel right. If you have read this far and want to see how it turned out – you can see it here.

Stay well and thank you for reading and all the kind comments:-)

Ronnie

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is the patroness of the Carmelite Order.

Har Ha-karmel is the Hebrew name for Mount Carmel, a mountain range in north-west Israel. The name dates back to biblical times and is derived from the Hebrew word kerem, meaning ‘vineyard’ or ‘orchard’, referring to the mountains’ fertile soil over the centuries. Since I live on the side of ‘Black Hill’ an Iron Age hill fort with grapes growing in the greenhouse (yes in Scotland!) and apples in the orchard, I can picture a place rich with human history.

Mount Carmel is mentioned as a holy mountain in ancient Egyptian records and was also sacred to the early Christian hermits who settled there during the 12-13th centuries. These early Carmelites built a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, calling her the ‘Lady of the Place’.  

Our Lady is holding a scapular, known as a sacramental – a symbol of devotion to her.

The bright gold lines over the Christ Child’s garments are called ‘Assiste’ which I painted using 24 carat shell gold. I made this shell gold at a fantastic weekend workshop with Anita Chowdry when she had her studio on Woburn Walk, Bloomsbury. If you would like to make your own shell gold, Anita wrote a book describing the technique in great detail which is available as a downloadable book from her website above.

Making shell gold involves breaking down gold leaf into minute particles – washed away of any debris and mixed with pure gum arabic. It involves a lot of patience and a very clean room – no pet hairs! Hopeless for me now!

A year or so later and we were back down to London for UCL architecture summer show – which started with breakfast along Woburn Walk and a sketch. It is also not that far from Cornelissens where you can buy ready made shell gold – it’s a beautiful product but if you have the time, dedication and patience, but it is Anita’s recipe that really sparkles.

It’s not easy capturing the sparkle of the shine of water gilding and Assiste without seeing reflections of a mobile phone!

Here’s the finished icon painted a year or so ago. I’ve searched high and low for work-in-progress photos but they have been lost in the mix. The Virgin’s gown is painted mostly in lapis lazuli, with washes of red ochre and thin layers of Titanium white highlights, and French Ochre Havanna for the Christ Child’s garment. The background is water gilded in 24 carat gold.

The feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is celebrated on July 16.

Thanks as always for reading. The finished icon is now listed on my Etsy shop