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.
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!
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!
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:
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).
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.
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:
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.
The length of the Virgin’s legs not quite right, the knee to heel should be the same on both legs.
Archangel Gabriel too high up the mountain and right wing not quite right.
Adjust the shepherd cluster to flow directionally towards the Virgin and Child
Magi better in a linear format to direct the eye back up the icon to the star.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can see this icon completed and framed together with a few other icons here on my Etsy shop page.
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!
In the meantime, trusting you all into the care of our celestial helpers.
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!
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.
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:-)
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
I recently unwrapped a pair of standing angel icons which I painted three years ago for the exhibition ‘A Street of Angels’ in York at Blossom Street Gallery. I remember thinking that the faces weren’t quite right but time had run out as we were relocating up to Scotland and so they went on display, got packed away afterwards and that was that.
Life has taken quite a turn since and I don’t get much time to paint icons however I have committed to revisiting and finishing off all the icons that had things that I considered weren’t quite right. I thought that it would be worth sharing how I get along with this exercise as it is a bit of an adventure!
Here are the two icons before I started work on them. It was Archangel Raphael’s expression that I thought needed most work. It’s hard to tell from these photos but the blending was a bit heavy handed and if I was to refresh one, then I should work on them both for consistency.
First thing was to ‘wake up’ the surface with several coats of an egg glaze. Using the tempera mix, I made a glaze with about 1 drop of egg to 10 drops of water. I also made a protective paper cover for the gilding and taped it down. Looking at these photos, the faces don’t seem so bad, but they were just not properly finished.
I let the glazes settle for a few days, then using the wonderful pigment French Ochre Havanna, I applied three or four glazes over the face. This pigment is warm and a great one to calm down clumsy highlights. These faces are fairly small, about 2cm from hairline to chin, so I used fine brushes for the details.
Applying glazes over the entire face.
I’m putting on the darker tones here, with a 1010 kolinsky sable brush. I’ve mixed some English yellow ochre, raw umber and ivory black. I also used Ochre Avana which is another really versatile pigment. I have deepened the hair line and then used a thin egg glaze to feather and blend away the hard lines next to the brow. To get the highlights, I used Yellow Maimeri and titanium white, but I also added a small amount of French Havanna to keep the highlights a warm gold. I mix small quantities in this ceramic palette which comes with a lid – perfect to stop them drying out and keep the cats off!
I find that taking photos of my work as I go along helps as I can zoom in and see exactly where I need to tidy up. The other thing I do now is to add very thin glazes of ochre havanna as it helps with blending especially after I have been remodelling.
I added highlights in thin, thin layers, softened and shaped the eyebrows, moved the brow highlights to the right, eased back the highlights on the right of the neck, added vermillion to the nose tip, upper lip, under the chin and inner eye. Added white highlights to the eyes, with the sides of the eyes a grey mixed with black and white. Added a very thin glaze of vermillion to warm the cheeks. Then added the hair highlights back and added the ribbons which I had missed altogether. The finished face is on the left. I’m happy with this as the expression is much kinder! You can see the finished icon in my Etsy shop.
I hope that this is helpful in some way with your own icon painting. Thank you to everyone who has followed this blog during the quiet years, but I will go through the same process with Archangel Raphael in my next post.
Kim and Jules run the Blossom Street Gallery, just outside Micklegate Bar in York. They stock my Drawing the Street limited edition prints and in February this year, I called in to catch up with them having finished the icon diploma.
I had a tiny icon of Archangel Gabriel with me which I brought out to show them as I was telling them about the course. One thing led to another and I am now booked in for a joint exhibition of icons and streets next Spring!
Blossom Street Gallery is almost opposite my former school, All Saints, previously called The Bar Convent when I attended. There was a school legend that the Archangel Michael had once appeared there to protect the convent from imminent danger. So, when I saw this icon called ‘the Council of the Archangel Michael, I knew I had found my centre piece icon and my theme ‘A Gathering of Angels’.
A year isn’t long to prepare for an icon exhibition so I got started with the drawings. It was a wonderful way to focus during what turned out to be a bumpy few months.
Garden at Fiona Stanley Hospital Perth
Life is better lived slowly
I made an unplanned visit to my sister in Perth WA who was unwell but I find sketching and drawing icon figures very calming. I wrote a little about the visit over here.
The Council of Archangel Michael is a rich icon and full of life so I drew the main figures separately in turn. I drew the cherubim below late into the evening while my sister rested. I smile and am so grateful for all the help we are still recieving from these celestial helpers.
Cherubim from the Council of Archangel Michael icon
Drawing of the young Christ within a circle of seraphim
Full drawing ready to transcribe
The overall drawing is too big for me to scan at home but the photo gives you an idea of the overall composition. The finished icon will be just over 40cm square.
Hope you will join me as the rest of this icon unfolds!
Before I began to paint an icon of St David the Dendrite, I sat down to draw him. There are many lovely icons of St David, but there is one fresco in particular which really appealed to me. The saint is depicted as an elongated figure with a toe-length beard wearing a light ochre garment set against a green background, amidst a leafy almond tree.
I haven’t been able to find the name of the iconographer to acknowledge him or her and would love to hear from you if you recognise the original fresco image.
Pencil sketch of Saint David up a tree with print of fresco image alongside
I used this fresco image as a reference to make my own drawing sketched on watercolour paper. Adding colour was the best way of seeing how it would look on the long thin icon board which I had already gessoed using a thick 25mm birch ply.
Pencil drawing of St David the Dendrite
I referred to my library of icon images to find male saints which helped me to construct the face.
Colour palette – English ochre and black
Here’s the overall study with some more icons of this tree dweller.
Drawing and study on watercolour paper together with reference images
This icon study is now available to buy in my Etsy shop here. I will sign off with an image of my finished study in black and white.
Drawing of St David of Thessaloniki
Last part of this article will be about the finished icon…to be continued soon.