Icon Diploma Student

Learning to see with the eye of the heart

Posts from the ‘Icon boards’ category

Three days on a Triptych

icon class

Icon Diploma Students taken at Aidan Hart’s May session 2015

Hello icon friends and class mates,

I’m just back from a three day intensive painting our standing/seated figures. I brought my gilded triptych centre panel already prepared with the image transferred so I could start to paint in class.

icon outline drawing

Transferring outline on to gessoed panel

Just to rewind a little, I photocopied my drawing on to tracing paper to locate the outline prior to water gilding. After gilding, I rubbed red ochre pigment into the back of the tracing paper/drawing itself (rather than using an intermediary sheet), and using a fine propelling pencil with a fairly hard lead, transferred the image on to the board.

tracing paper drawing

Drawing of icon on tracing paper

Once all the main lines were transferred on to the board, a weak mix of pigment fixed the lines in place. I then began the underpainting and modelling of the garments.

underpainting icon

First stage of underpainting

Aidan suggested that I used Red Ochre for the Blessed Virgin’s upper garment as it has some blue in it. I also used Lapiz Lazuli Dark, a beautiful natural blue and Ivory Black to deepen both colours; all pigments are from Cornelissen’s.

ivory black and red ochre

Ivory black and Red Ochre pigments

Both pigments are very strong so I mixed them up separately first, then blended. For the underpainting I used a lovely size 2 Roubloff 1010 kolinsky sable brush which I had recently ordered from Vesta-k. It has a really sharp point and holds the pigment well.

underpainting garments

Building up the underpainting of the garments

I mixed black to the lapiz lazuli and red ochre in varying degrees to give depth to the underpainting. The deeper shadows are painted using a lot of black in the mix.

lapiz lazuli

First layer of membrane applied using a wash of pure Lapiz lazuli over the underpainting.

membranes on icon

Membranes on the garments

Pure red ochre and lapiz membranes washed over the underpainting with a very thin layer of lapiz washed over the red afterwards to unite the garments.

After several layers of membrane, I applied a nourishing layer of 20% egg 80% water and let it dry before going over the shadows and adding highlights. Aidan suggested fine layers of pure white dry-brushed over the membrane to give translucent layers of highlights.

The underpainting of the Christ Child is in English Yellow Ochre with a little Red Ochre added to model the form. The colours are painted quite densely as the garments will be gilded using shell gold assist. I understand from my class mate Lee that for the crispest, most gleaming gold lines, hand-made shell gold is the way to go – thanks Lee! Watch this space for adventures in making shell gold – I rang Wrights of Lymm for a couple of books of gold today!

three days work

Three days work

Thanks for reading.


Working with St Francis

st Francis

Work in progress on St Francis of Assisi

Hello icon friends,

A very happy Easter to you all and a warm welcome to the recent people following my blog. You have nudged me back to the desk to post some work after being away for far too long. Thank you!

I have a backlog of four icon boards to finish but thought I would start with a summary of work to one of my half figure icons – St Francis, chosen as I am so often calling on his help with one or the other of our pets. I can only trust St Francis knows best as he doesn’t always answer prayers with what I want to hear.

pencil sketch over drawing

Starting with a pencil sketch

I am referring to Aidan Hart’s image of St Francis (the one with him holding a robin) for this icon and began with a pencil sketch which I photocopied and went over with a black line ready to transfer on to a birch ply board prepared by Dylan Hartley.

lines transferred

Transferring lines using red ochre rubbed into a sheet of paper

light wash in red ochre on icon

Light wash of red ochre to define the forms

I have learnt to go very lightly with these first lines on the face, especially the lines on upper moustache and below the eyes. Use pigment with no egg so that the lines aren’t fixed and hard.

face underpainting of st francis

Underpainting the face and garments

I used Cornelissen’s Terre Verte with a dash of Stuart Stevenson’s yellow Ochre light to underpaint the face, making sure that it was dark enough to withstand 3-4 layers of membrane.The membrane was the same yellow ochre with a small dash of English Red Light.

membrane layer on face

First membrane layer applied to the face

membrane layers

Building up the membrane layers

I applied four membranes to the face as I was looking for a warm, even Mediterranean skin tone. The underpainting was just still visible. Some of the dry pigments brushed off as the egg tempera mix had got a little weak but I remembered the benefit of applying a nourishing layer of egg stock (approx 80% water 20% egg)  which helped stabilise the pigments.

face highlights

Adding highlights to the face

background layers

Building up the background layers

I am not going into the garments here as I made a bit of a hash of them! I used varying mixes of English Red Light and Ivory Black but I was too heavy-handed with the darks. I lost the translucency and almost sanded the whole lot off to start again, but Aidan thought they could be improved so I persevered. I am glad I did.  I recalled from one of the weeks spent at Walcott Hall that Avana is a pigment that can rescue many a difficult colour situation. I applied several thin washes and it seemed to soften the starkness of the red robes and evened the shading a little so I could almost start afresh with the highlights.

adding red ochre

Adding English Red highlights to cheeks, mouth, eyelids and nose

Adding light washes of English Red Light really adds warmth to the face. I still have the eyes to finish but the next stage is the background, halo and lettering and making good some of the highlights follwing my last class review.

Thanks for joining me here and if you are still reading, I am sorry I haven’t posted for so long as I had a bit of a set back when I fell and fractured my pelvis (in 3 places) and my drawing arm in two places – I only fell over our own back door step! I am well and truly on the mend now though and gradually catching up.

This post is dedicated to Leo; as I said not so long ago, we are only ever their keepers.

Thanks for reading.


Ollie and Leo

Ollie and Leo

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!