Icon Diploma Student

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Posts from the ‘Gessoing Icon Boards’ category

Cold gesso, no bubbles

apply cold gesso

Class demonstration by Janina on how to apply gesso cold.

One of the many benefits of our time on the icon course was how much we learnt from each other as well as from our tutor Aidan Hart and from the icon board and church furniture maker Dylan Hartley. I have written about our time learning how to apply gesso warm but today I would like to share what our group learned from one of our fellow students, Janina Zang. Janina gave us a demonstration of how to apply the gesso chilled, when it had set like a jelly. She had learned this technique from a Benedictine monk.

preparation of gessoing board.

Scrim glued to the ply board.

There are two significant advantages to this method. The cold gesso means that there are hardly any bubbles as you apply it, and if you can’t finish applying all the layers in one day, put a damp tea towel over the boards, go to bed and resume the work the next day.

You still need to prepare the ingredients as for the warm method and have most of the following ready:

ronnie cruwys illustration for gesso

Kit for gessoing is still the same but the spatula is a different shape.

The recipe is exactly the same as given in Aidan’s book. 

Follow Aidan’s instructions for the gesso mix and apply the glue and the scrim layers. Let the boards dry out for a day then make up the gesso mix in the quanity that you need, remembering to seive it and decant back to the container. The only difference is that from here,  you put it in the fridge and leave it overnight.

rabbit size to make gesso for icons

Cornelissens whiting spooned into the rabbit skin size

This is the best part. The following morning, the gesso is good to go. Just take enough gesso out of the fridge to work on for the next few hours. Allow it to warm up to room temperature for half an hour and you have a full day to get straight down to applying the gesso to the boards. Keep your working gesso in a plastic sandwich box to prevent it drying out – especially on a hot day. Top up from your main supply in the fridge during the day.

The gesso has a consistency of blancmanche and all the pin sized bubbles disappear as you spread the gesso on the board in thin layers using a wide spatula. Fifteen layers takes the gesso up to a thickness you can sand without reaching through to the scrim.

using a spatula to apply the gesso in thin layers

Use a spatula to apply the gesso in thin layers

Keep a bucket of water beside you to rinse off the spatula from time to time as you can see it clogs up quickly in warm weather. I had quite a few boards I wanted to gesso as I’m preparing for an exhibition next Spring 2018, at the Blossom Street Gallery in my old home town of York.

icon boards laid out to gesso

boards laid out on towels to gesso

The large board will be for my main icon, but more on that in another post.

Gesso on iconboards

Gesso drying off outside under shelter

During the gesso process, the sides get splashed and set very hard. The easiest way to clean these up is with a small electric palm sander, like the Makita.

Splashes of gesso on sides of boards

Splashes of gesso on sides of boards

I sit the boards in a towel clamped in a work bench outside and the boards then have a lovely crisp edge.

iconboards sanded and ready

All done!

I’m very happy with how these have turned out – not pin hole bubble in sight!

Big thanks to Janina and the Benedictines for sharing this method!

Thanks to you too for reading.


A Day at St Luke’s Icon Centre

St Lukes Icon Centre

Marcella, Susan, Jane and Chris at work applying layers of gesso

Hello icon friends!

Part of our homework over the summer has been to gesso our own boards from scratch to reinforce what we learnt at Dylan Hartley’s workshop a few months ago. By the way – Dylan sends his love to the group and wished us well for the day!

One of my fellow icon students, Susan Mobberley, runs a weekly icon painting session where members of the St Luke’s Icon Centre meet weekly to paint and pray in the sacred context of St Laurence Church, Rowington, Warwickshire.

St Laurence Church Rowington

13th century tower of St Laurence Church, Rowington, Warwickshire

Lee and I were delighted to be able to join the group on the recent ‘gesso day’. It was a treat to  experience the wonderful hospitality and companionship that is flourishing in this small but dedicated gathering.

Pray before an icon

Gathering to offer a prayer before work begins

Gessoing boards is messy and long-winded! It requires a lot of floor and fabric protection, at least 7 hours of even tempers and even temperatures, so once the dust sheets are down, the setting within the church is ideal. No phones or distractions, just concentrated effort.

measuring gesso

Marcella and Susan measuring out quatities of whiting

St lukes icon centre

Susan and Lee adding final layers of gesso

St Lukes icon centre

Susan and Lee still at work

dried icon boards

Results: Icon boards dried overnight with not a crack nor bubble in sight!

Dylan – if you are reading this – our thanks for your clear instructions and for drumming it in that for the best results, stick to the rules!

St Luke’s Icon team – a big thank you for making your guests so welcome.

Last but by no means least, it was the feast of St Lawrence of Rome yesterday, 10th August. There is an interesting blog written by the British Library on illuminated manuscripts and yesterday it featured St Lawrence as a tribute on his feast day.

Thanks for reading.




Dylan Hartley’s Top Tips for Gessoing Icon Boards

Dylan and Christina hartley with Icon Diploma Students

Dylan and Christina Hartley (seated) with Icon Diploma Students. Left to right Fran, Joan, Ekatarina, Olga, Ronnie, Rosie, Lee, Susan H, Janina, Michael. Martin is absent on honey moon!


icon diploma students

A quick shuffle up and this one includes Susan M!

We have been learning about the process of making and gessoing icon boards. I used to think that gessoing was simply a matter of applying a few layers of whiting to some linen on a board and Bob’s your uncle. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Dylan Hartley demonstrating hown to mix gesso in slow cooker

Dylan Hartley demonstrating how to mix gesso to Icon Diploma students

Just as well our teacher Aidan Hart, had set up a three day session with Dylan Hartley, to demonstrate the technique in his Ironbridge workshop.

Chisels of an icon board maker

Tools of a Master

These were three full days – no slacking for a minute! Dylan was taught by Aidan and through years of experience, he has found Aidan’s method to be the most fail safe – as long as he follows the instructions to the letter.  This method is described in full in Aidan’s book ‘The Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting‘.

My notes/photos from the workshop are attached here: Dylan Hartleys Gesso workshop May 2014 but there is no way around it, gessoing boards is a labour intensive process. However, if done correctly, the results are of a very high standard.  The workshop has changed my view of icon boards and I now regard them as works of art of  in their own right.

http://youtu.be/hPqtXk3bEcc Link to a short clip of Dylan demonstrating the application of the first coat of gesso.

Dylan is always looking for ways to simplify the process or to avoid common pitfalls and he shared many of his tips with us during the workshop, ten of which are listed below. Dylan runs gessoing workshops from time to time, and I can thoroughly recommend attending. Not only is Dylan a very clear and wise teacher, but the workshops are held in Ironbridge – full of architectural and engineering treasures.

Encaustic tile details on the Jackfield Tile Museum

Encaustic tile details on the Jackfield Tile Museum

I have picked out ten of the best tips for you below.

1. Buy a slow cooker. Get one with a lift out bowl in a heated container, such as this one sold by Tesco for about £10 to £15. It keeps the gesso/glue mix warm for ages and is a lot simpler to use than a bain marie.

Slow Cooker

Slow cooker and cooking thermometer. Scrim has just been ‘dunked’ into the size.

2. Choose the best wood.  Given the amount of work that goes into the gessoing process, it is a false economy to skimp on the wood – only use the best quality.

3 Mix Plenty. Mix over and above the amount of glue/gesso mix required to allow for evaporation. You don’t want to run out just before you have finished!

4. Work in sequence.  Write numbers on the back of your boards then keep record sheets of when you apply the gesso coats. This is really important. You just have to get one distraction and you can forget where you were and scupper the sequence.

5 Prepare well in advance. Get all the materials and tools together. Turn off your phone, ignore the door bell,  pack sandwiches and have cold drink/flask beside you.

sketch of kit for gessoing icons

Sketch of the kit you need to gesso icon boards

6. Find the front of the (hardwood) icon board.  Pick up the wood and look at the short edge. If the curve of the end grain corresponds with the curve of your eye brow, then the side of the board facing you is the front. If not, then turn the board!

determining the front of an icon board

Finding the front of the icon board – look at the curves of the growth rings.

7. Mind where you position joins. If you are ordering (or making) an icon board which needs a join, it doesn’t have to be placed in the middle. Think about the image and ensure the join does not cross through a critical place (ie through the face).

position of join in icon board

Sketch to show how it is better not to have a central join in an icon board

8. Support your board.  A wooden plinth made out of battens helps to lift the icon board up from the surface and gesso drips/fallout building up below.

timber plinth for gessoing icon boards

Timber plinth for gessoing icon boards plus some chisels and a gauge to measure depth of kovchek

9. Work with the weather.  Gessoing is a job best saved until mild weather – too hot and the boards dry too fast, too cold and they take longer to dry. Ideal temperature is 18-24 degrees, so you can open and close the windows to help adjust the drying speed. Start early in the day. Get everything set up beforehand.

10. WARNING! Never let steel (or any metal objects for that matter apart from Stainless steel) touch the oak. The metal draws out the tannic acids a stain such as this below will gradually appear and you cannot get rid of it.


Thanks for reading!