Icon Diploma Student

Learning to see with the eye of the heart

Posts from the ‘icon painting’ category

10 Years Painting Icons – 50% off!

Ten years is quite a milestone and it can’t go past without some celebration that you have been keeping me company for all or part of the way! Anyone following this blog will realise how long it takes to paint an icon and the full price doesn’t in any way reflect the time invested in these treasures. However, these days most of us have to watch our budget so, in order to open these up to finding new homes, I am halving the price of ALL the icons that I hold in stock. Price of postage will be added at cost.

I have chosen a few here to show you what’s available and the rest are all listed here.

The offer runs from 1-28th February 2023.

If you would like to enquire about an icon or purchase one, please email me at ronnie.cruwys@btinternet.com

Thanks for reading,

Ronnie

Cherubim: Golden Face Vermilion Wings

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.

Time to draw the white line around the halo

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.

Underpainting of the face in English Red Light ochre

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.

Add a few clear egg glazes to bind the underpainting.

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.

Next up will be the standing angel faces

Thank you for reading

Ronnie 🙂

Feet in the Clouds

The Icon of the Council of Archangel Michael – Part 3

Underpainting of the angel’s feet standing on swirls of clouds

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:

Outlines in place, gilding of halos complete and starting to lay down layers of background underpainting.

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.

Azurite is a beautiful semi-precious mineral – I mix small quantities at a time

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.

As always, thank you for reading,

Ronnie 🙂

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 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

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