When I completed this icon back in 2018, I was unaware of the names of the angels standing behind the three most prominent archangels. However, when looking up old notes and running a few google searches, I’ve since discovered that similar icon examples show that the figures standing directly behind are as follows: to the left are Jegudiel and Selaphiel and on the right hand side, Uriel and Barachiel.
To follow on from the last blog post, I’d like to look at the stages of painting the angel faces. There’s a lot of them! The prototype that I’m referring to is a 19th century Russian icon The faces are captivating.
When painting a new icon, I start by making my own drawing to work from.
The underpainting stage looks quite rough and clunky but it helps to get strong definition at this stage.
It’s somewhere at the stage when the first few layers of highlights go on that you think the face is nothing as you had intended!
These are small faces to paint so every brush move counts. Taking a black and white photo and printing it out at a larger size helps as then I take a pencil/crayon and work over it by referring back to my drawing and observing where I need to make changes.
This icon is now spoken for and soon will be making its way to a loving home.
Just a reminder that I’m holding a ten year anniversary sale on all my remaining icons listed here. As soon as someone makes an enquiry, I place it on hold and remove it from the list. I’m happy to give people time to consider.
As always, thanks for reading and happy icon painting.
When painting a large icon, it helps to try and progress things evenly across the panel. I’d like to show you how I approached this in this post but also want to focus on the steps taken as I painted the Christ Child at the heart of this icon. I also have some exciting news… more about that at the end of this post.
An icon with so many figures and halos can be quite tricky to paint so it’s worth pausing to think about the sequence of work. Top of the list is to remove the protective pads as soon as I can; they can leave a sticky residue if left on too long.
Before I scribe defining lines around the halos, a certain amount of painting needs to be done around them first. The halo lines are adjacent to the hair of neighbouring angels and central the blue ring also touches the halos of the Seraphim. These need to be painted and allowed time to thoroughly dry out. I’ve found that when scribing lines on paint that hasn’t dried or ‘tempered’ for a day or so tends to spread.
At the centre of this icon is the young Christ with one hand raised in blessing and the other holding a scroll. The young boy is wearing a rich vermillion cloak and sash, radiating a gold (yellow ochre maimeri) light contained in an outer circle of seraphim. I decided not to paint all the garments surrounding the ring as I thought I would be able to work fairly neatly up to these edges.
I referred back to my initial drawing to trace and transcribe the face.
I have learnt to be very careful with strong lines when underpainting a face – they can be hard to integrate later. Better to have just a few key lines in the right places as reference points to move from then shade in thin layers, building up depth gradually around the cheeks, below chin and brow, to the side of nose and under the hairline.
Below you can see I’m building up all the faces at the same time, gradually deeping the shading. I’ve used yellow ochre maimeri and a tiny dash of ivory black to give a greenish yellow underpainting. You can also use Terre Verte for underpainting faces but this pigment can be quite sticky for painting small fine facial details.
It’s worth going quite dark with the shading – it will all get held together by the membrane layers. Don’t forget to add a few glazes of your egg mix – diluted with a few drops of water and let it dry before you add the membrane. These are tiny details but they help bring it all together. The egg seals the gesso below to provide an even surface for the next layers.
I’ve used English Red Ochre light and Yello Maimeri for the membrane layers. Add just enough membranes to make out the features. At this stage I leave things for at least a week and work on other areas. This is only something I’ve learnt. The more this layer is left to temper, the easier it is for you to correct mistakes without making a hole back to the gesso. You can read about that one here!
Darkening shadows and defining the features with ochre avana.
Building up highlights with very thin layers of yellow maimeri mixed with titanium white.
If at any time the highlights look too stark, add a few thin layers of French Ochre Havanna to even things out.
Finally, add whites of eyes, black pupils and eyelids, the lettering, ribbons, shell gold and fine jewel details on the garments.
Now for that exciting news… This year I’m celebrating ten years of icon painting and sharing my work here on this blog. As a big thank you for your company and comments over the years I am offering ALL my icons (including this one) in stock listed here at half price for the month of February. This offer will not be found on any social media page as it is excusive to all my readers, past icon buyers, friends and family. Postage will be added at cost and the icons will be sold on a first come first served basis – please get in touch if you would like one.
As always, thank you for reading and happy icon painting!
With the swirling clouds in place, I moved on to the central part of the icon of the Council of Archangel Michael and the red winged Cherub below. I’m going to zoom close up on what is quite a small face – about 2cm diameter.
For clarity, I’ve mentioned previously that on historic examples of this icon, there has been some fluidity in the colours, positions and naming of cherub(im)/seraphim/standing angels. If you google ‘The Synaxis of Archangel Michael‘ you will see some of these but for now, I’ll refer to the multi-winged angel here as Cherub.
Each phase of icon painting is a fresh start. I find it helpful to start with something simple and here I picked up by underpainting the hair of the standing angels in English Red Ochre pigment. I also used it for the Cherub’s hair even though this figure will be mostly painted in Vermilion.
I painted the wings in thin layers of Vermilion and Italian Gold ochre. This reflects the sphere of red-gold surrounding the Christ child. There are many yellow ochres – any of the brighter ones will work.
The clump of masking tape left sitting in the blank face is now going to be useful – for a reminder I wrote about this here. The layers of tape protect the gesso from the compass tip puncturing it and the tiny centre point is still there to locate the compass again. For the line around the gold halo, I mixed Titanium White egg tempera to a consistency of single cream – it’s worth testing the paint flow before you start.
When the paint on the upper wings has fully dried out – at least overnight, set up a compass with a dip nip. Scribing lines around halos takes practice – do a few trial runs before you go for it! If the paint hasn’t fully dried, the white line will spread or bleed. If this happens, just remove the paint with a brush and do something else and revisit it a good bit later!
When the line is in place, you can remove the masking tape and go back to the drawing and transcribe the face ready for the underpainting.
Here’s my drawing of the Cherub.
Working with English Red Light pigment I under-painted the Cherub’s face. I’ve learnt over the years that although egg tempera dries fast, it isn’t that stable to work over for at least for 24 hours. It’s all too easy to apply a membrane/glaze over a finely painted face but then if I apply a little bit too much brushwork, the under-layer can move!
It helps to paint several other things at the same time – in this instance I had plenty of other angel faces to underpaint.
The rest of the faces are under-painted in a mix of Yellow Maimeri and a tiny dot of Ivory Black to make a soft green.
Here’s a little bit of work-in-progress with the rest of the icon.
I’ve used English red deep for the darkest parts of underpainting the Cherub’s face and hair. Every now and again, apply a thin glaze of clear egg mix.
Build up a strong face with deep shadows and bright light areas – then you are ready to apply the membrane layers.
I used Italian yellow gold pigment in several thin glazes over both the face and hair.
Gradually add thin layers of highlights in white to the brow, eyelids, cheekbones, nose tips, lower lip and neck.
Finally, there are the highlights to the wings, the sides of the eyes, headband and a little light gold to highlight the curls.
I hope this has been a help or given you a nudge to pick up your brush.
The Icon of the Council of Archangel Michael – Part 3
Where was I? Oh yes, sometime ago (maybe 2018?) I began to share my work-in-progress photos of this large icon of the Council of Archangel Michael here on my blog. I’m sure you’ve forgotten all about it like I did but now that I’ve mentioned it, you’d like to see what happened next!
Here’s a reminder of where I left off:
After I had drawn the figures in place and applied the gilding, I wanted to work from out to in, by painting the lower clouds and outer ring of Seraphim. It helps me to break things down into manageable parts and start with the easy things. This way I feel I’m making progress.
Before I start work on bare gesso, I apply a coat of egg tempera glaze: a watered down layer of egg tempera mix. This helps seal the porous surface of the gesso ready to receive the paint. Let this glaze dry out.
Mixing Azurite for the cloud base, I painted the circular forms, gradually darkening the outer edges by applying several layers of azurite.
It always looks really messy at this stage – the chaotic stage – but the variety of tones and marks will come into their own as the work progresses.
Look for the spaces between the cloud formations and deepen these by building up the layers of azurite. The underpainted spiral lines will be guides for the white highlights at the next step.
Strating from the central eye of the clouds, work outwards with ‘eyebrows’ of thin layers of Titanium White. Whilst the paint is still wet, use another fine brush to draw out a fine glaze of white from the eyebrows.
One of the benefits of working on a large icon like this is that whilst you are waiting for things to dry in one place, you can start work in the next area – such as here where I’ve laid down some glazes of yellow and red ochres on the wings of the Cherubim. At least, I think it is the Cherubim here – a singular image given with a plural name on the original icon.
I find it a bit confusing how this icon (seen here) has been shown in many different iterations – the Seraphim and Cherubim have been shown in interchangeable positions and colours along with a variety of positions for the standing archangels. Either way, I chose this icon because I loved the strength of the overall composition, the beautiful loving faces and their expressions, the colour, balance and harmony.
Although egg tempera dries quickly, it’s very easy to disturb the layer you’ve just laid down unless you leave it to really dry well. There’s no harm if you can only work on small areas at a time and you have to pick up the brush months later.
Here’s a look at the finished cloud layer along with a look at the completed Cherubim.
My next post will look at the stages for painting this Cherubim and it won’t be such a long wait as I have things in mind for February 2023. Watch this space!
In the meantime, my next post will take you through the steps of painting this Cherubim which would make a wonderful stand alone icon in its own right.
Summer is the best time for gessoing icon boards. It’s a messy job and I like to make the most of working outside especially sanding the boards. I wrote about the method of gessoing on an earlier post here.
Making the most of a dry sunny day to sand the gesso smooth
I felt that the icon of the Council of the Archangel Michael should be painted on a large board as there are a lot of figures. I don’t know the size of the original icon, but small faces can be tricky so the size I went for was the optimum I can work with at home: 40 x 42cm. With it being cut from 24mm birch ply it’s quite heavy.
I placed the board on a towel to prevent it from sliding around the table whilst I sand. Red ochre rubbed over the surface helps to show up any scratches I had missed.
Once it had been sanded down with 1200 grade sandpaper, it was ready to oil gild. I chose the oil gilding method (matt finish gold) because it’s more robust than water gilding. Having so many figures and faces it will be handled quite a bit during painting.
Red ochre shows up scratches which still need to be sanded
I moved my drawings on to tracing paper so it was ready to transcribe on to the gesso. Although it is possible to oil gild after painting, I prefer to gild before painting the faces. I find both methods of gilding challenging so I will keep practising!
It isn’t necessary to scribe the areas to be gilded with the oil gilding method but I find it helps contain the shellac. Aidan Hart protects the gesso from the compass points with a wooden ruler which works very well but if you don’t have a ruler to hand, several layers of masking tape over some card helps (see photos below).
Protecting the gesso from compass puncture marks
Anyone of a ‘certain age’ will understand when I say that some red ochre rubbed over the scribed areas helps me to see where I’m going!
Aidan taught us the following method of oil gilding which I will summarise below. You can also see some amatuer video clips from our class demonstration on You Tube here.
Gold transfer leaf is applied on to several layers of shellac but first the gesso is sealed by painting on a thin layer of tinted shellac. Tinting is done with a pinch of red ochre or vermillion. Leave it to dry for a day then lightly sand working your way through the sandpaper grades from 600-1200. The following day, repeat the process but using untinted shellac. Leave it for a day and then sand as before.
Shellac ready to sand
It is then ready to gild. Aidan suggested using Le Franc’s 3 hour gold size. Shake well then apply one very thin layer and place it in a dust free place, like a plastic box.
Wait for an hour at least (1-3 hours) then test whether it is ready to gild by touching the surface with your knuckle. If it squeaks, it is ready to apply gold transfer leaf. If not, wait a little longer and re-test. Drying time depends on the thickness of the layer and the drying conditions.
Small areas of shellac are fiddly to sand smooth and as you can see under the scrutiny of the camera, there are a few missing dots. However, I’ve since touched these up with some shell gold.
Oil gilded halos
Wait two or three hours and then it should be ready to polish the gold using a gilder’s mop, working from light to medium pressure.
After waiting a few days to let the gilding harden, I could carry on with transferring the rest of my drawing.
Gilding complete, time to transcribe the rest of the drawing
I kept the compass protection pads on so I could add the halo outlines as soon as the sky had been painted. That’s all for this post but I will sign off with a photo of the icon a bit further along.
Outlines of figures applied and underpainting begins