Icon Diploma Student

Learning to see with the eye of the heart

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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

Face up to the detail

This icon is of Archangel Raphael, one of a pair of standing angels which are based on the frescos of Chora in Istanbul, painted high up in the dome. As I mentioned in my last post, I was not too pleased with the expression.

To make a start adjusting the features, I covered the face with four or five glazes of French Ochre Havanna. This helps to return to the point where you make the first glazes over the underpainting.

Then, taking Ochre Avana and a very small amount of raw umber, deepen the hair, brow and jaw line.

I also decided to deepen the colour of the wings with a few more glazes of lapis lazuli to send them back so to speak.

In the photos below, I have added more layers of light glazes for the facial highlights. Somewhere along the line, the gaze of the angel moved to a different direction. The tiniest detail makes all the difference.

To summarise – the hair is deepened with red ochre and a touch of black. The right eye brow has been lowered and softened. The brow has been adjusted to remove the central highlight and instead bring the highlight towards the viewer. The highlights below the eyes adjusted. The nose is still a work in progress but the shape fits better with the face. The mouth has a warmth and the chin is less pointed.

I’m so glad I worked on these faces! It’s easy to leave things as they are when you have already put so much time into the icon but egg tempera is a wonderfully versatile medium and revives easily. Painting over faces with glazes is a straightforward way to make the adjustments that you know are needed. Another thing that helps is to take a photo of the face, turn it to black and white and print it off. That way, you can see clearly what isn’t working and what needs to be done.

Here’s the finished icon complete with the ribbons which symbolise Divine Listening.

The finished icon can be seen here .

As ever, thanks for reading!

Ronnie 🙂

Always we begin again

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.

Glazes of French Ochre Havanna even out the skin tones and deepen the gold mid tones. I also applied a few washes of English Red Ochre Light over the hair to deepen the mid-tones so I could tidy up the modelling. I’ve found that leaving the glazes to dry overnight means less likelihood of making holes in it when applying the next layers.

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!

Painting on the first layer of face highlights

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.

Thanks as ever for reading and your patience!

Ronnie

Living up a Tree (St David pt 2 of 3)

study on watercolour paper of st david of thessaloniki

St David offering food to a bird

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 st David

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 sketch of st David

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.

 

English ochre and black - colour palette

Colour palette – English ochre and black

Here’s the overall study with some more icons of this tree dweller.

st david of thessaloniki icon

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 st David
Drawing of St David of Thessaloniki

Last part of this article will be about the finished icon…to be continued soon.

Thanks for reading,

Ronnie

 

St David the Dendrite (pt 1 of 3)

Mosaic of Christ in Majesty at Hosios David, Thessaloniki

Mosaic of Christ in Majesty at Hosios David, Thessaloniki

I’d like to dedicate the next few posts to my brother David, in Canada who will shortly be celebrating his 70th birthday. This will only be a matter of weeks after my nephew Joe marries Yasmin, so it’s a momentous time for the Canadian Sharps.

Reflecting on our icon diploma trip to Thessaloniki in 2015, one place remains firmly in my mind – Hosios David; Hosios/Osios is the title used for a monastic male saint in Greek. This was the first place we visited, climbing up the hill, looking out over the city and sea, then finding it was closed!

Janina, Keith and Susan climbing the streets aof Thessaloniki

Janina, Keith and Susan climbing the streets of Thessaloniki

The church is dedicated to St David, one of the patron saints of Thessaloniki, a 6th century Dendrite or ‘tree dweller’ and renowned ‘holy fool’.

Thessaloniki has a lot of happy memories for our family. We first heard about it when David drove his new Hillman overland from UK to Bahrain with Mum in 1975, forty years before our diploma trip. We lived in Bahrain for a few years and David taught at Gulf Technical College.

 

 

Entrance to the church of St David the Dendrite of Thessaloniki

Entrance to the church of St David the Dendrite of Thessaloniki

We went back to Hosios David later in the week and this time we went inside this late 5th century church which has a full mosaic of the vision of Ezekiel made in the late fifth/early sixth century.

St David the Dendrite came from Mesopotamia and became a monk at the Monastery of Saints Merkourios and Theodore outside Thessaloniki.

From Wikipedia he was: ‘Famed for his sound advice, he was hounded by crowds seeking words of wisdom and prayer. Wishing a quiet, contemplative life, David fled to the seclusion of an almond tree, where he lived for three years.  He left the tree to petition the Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great in Constantinople to send soldiers to defend Thessaloniki from attack. David died in 540 as his ship was en route to Macedonia.’

Hokku writes: ‘After that time, an angel appeared to him (David), saying that God had heard his prayers, but that it was time for David to climb down and live in a monastic cell like other monks.  Because of his eccentric asceticism, David gained a local reputation as a holy man and healer, and was visited by many people seeking his help.’

The church is full of wonderful mosaics and frescos. The lighting was low but here are a few photos.

first glimpse of the mosaic in the apse

First glimpse of the 5-6th C mosaic in the apse with an icon of St David the Dendrite at the right

Hosios David Thessaloniki sketch

Sketch of the mosaic of the ‘Beardless Christ’ in the apse of Hosios David

Detail of a fresco of the nativity

Detail of a fresco of the nativity

detail of mosaic

Glimpse of mosaic in the apse, St David’s church, Thessaloniki

thessaloniki cat

Thessaloniki cat

St David is commemorated on June 26 by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church on July 17.

To be continued…

Thanks for reading

Ronnie

Cornelia and Hironmoy remembered

paionting of lord krishna on watercolour paper

Lord Krishna

My great aunt, Cornelia Maria Georgina Sharp, was born on 8th December 1891, the second child in a family of six. It was years later that we discovered a little more of this courageous woman’s life when Dad’s cousin researched into what had happened to his absent father.

I am touching on her story here as I was delighted to be commissioned to paint an icon of Lord Krishna, the god of compassion, tenderness and love in Hinduism and happy that we have a family connection to this rich faith.

lord krishna outline drawing

Transcribing the lines of outline drawing onto paper

In brief, Cornelia, a young English Catholic woman working in service, married a young Indian Hindu man named Hironmoy Roy-Chowdury in the Church of the Holy Rood, Watford. All the more extraordinary was that her new husband was the nephew of poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature  Rabindranath Tagore 

Hironmoy was a sculptor studying at the Royal College of Art. Their only child, Francis Roy Chowdury (Dad’s cousin), was born in October 1914 two months after the outbreak of the first world war. The marriage wasn’t to last long as Hironmoy went to France to volunteer in an abulance unit and then his family heard of the marriage and insisted he return to India.

2 line on paper

First lines on paper

Back to the icon of Lord Krishna where I’ve depicted him as a young man playing the flute, standing on a lotus flower. He is painted on 600gsm hot pressed paper mounted on a 25mm ply board rather than on gesso thereby avoiding the use of rabbit skin size.

gold leaf on lord krishna drawing

Applying 24 carat transfer gold leaf over acrylic size coloured with a little red ochre

lord krishna on heavenly gold background

Lord Krishna standing against the gold of heaven

5 underpainting

Underpainting the figure and garments

egg tempera

Applying the paint in thin layers

lapis lazuli

Flesh tones painted in Lapis Lazuli

The colours on images of Lord Krishna are vibrant but to avoid them clashing, I limited the palette to English red ochre, yellow ochre maimeri, lapis lazuli, black and white. The greens were mixed from malachite.

I chose to use Lapis Lazuli as its deep, celestial blue remains the symbol of royalty and honor, gods and power, spirit and vision, wisdom and truth. Its name comes from the Latin lapis, “stone,” and the Persian lazhuward, “blue.”

qualities of Lord krishna

Some of the many qualities with which Lord Krishna is associated

Lord Krishna painted using the icon method

Lord Krishna ready for his new home

There must be enough for a book on the subject of Cornelia and Hironmoy’s brief lives together and it is a treasure that we know of this through their son’s research.

I will close with a quote from ‘Fruit Gathering’ by Rabindranath Tagore;

        ‘Send me the love which is cool and pure like your rain that blesses the thirsty earth       and fills the homely earthen jars.

         Send me the love that would soak down into the centre of being, and from there would spread like the unseen sap through the branching tree of life, giving birth to fruits and flowers.’

Thanks for reading,

Ronnie

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.

Ronnie

Calling on the Apostle of Hope

icon of St Jude Thaddeus

Saint Jude Thaddeus

St Jude, or Thaddeus, has for centuries been known as the Patron Saint of The Impossible or ‘Hopeless Cases’. St Jude was a familiar name to us during childhood as Mum would often call on his help when things got difficult for friends or family at home or abroad.

It’s Pentecost as I write here tonight and it seems appropriate to share my work on St Jude as he was one of Jesus’s twelve apostles who received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

2 St Jude Drawing 1.jpg

Pencil drawing of St Jude

The name Thaddeus means ‘aimiable’ or ‘loving’. St Jude strikes me as a gentle saint who is also known as ‘the Apostle of Hope’. There is a great deal of unrest from recent tragic events in London and Manchester and with election week ahead I’m calling on this saint of hope in the midst of anxiety and will trust him to guide each of us to make wise and loving choices in the days ahead.

I will sign off with a few photos of St Jude taking shape as an icon and say thanks again for reading.

Ronnie.

dog tooth burnisher on water gilding

Burnishing the gold on the halo

St Jude's face underpainting

Underpainting the face

st jude underpainting icon

St Jude underpainting hair and beard

Membrane technique

Applying the membrane in flesh tones over the face

egg tempera painting st Jude

Applying a coat of egg stock – dilute wash as a final nourishing layer

apostle of Hope icon of st Jude

Icon complete – St Jude, the Apostle of Hope

P.S. This icon is being professionally photo-scanned and prints and cards will shortly be available to buy from Smith York Printers here

Herald of Spring

Greetings icon friends!

Warmest wishes for Candlemas on Thursday!  Here’s Archangel Gabriel, first icon of 2017.

icon by Cruwys

Archangel Gabriel

This post is short and sweet while I’m gathering my thoughts on varnishing icons…or rather questions. I’d love to hear of people’s preferences – there seem to be so many options yet each with drawbacks.

Bye for now

Ronnie

PS Prints and cards of this icon are now available from Smith York Printers.

Wetfold drapery Romanesque style

Monochrome study of St John The Evangelist

Monochrome study of St John the Evangelist, from the Lambeth Bible

At the start of our course, Aidan asked us to practice painting figures in monochrome. My first few studies were pretty awful but when I got accustomed to the egg tempera, I really enjoyed painting the lively fabric drapery known as the ‘wetfold’ style which was used in the manuscripts of the Romanesque period.

This is an unmistakable style; the garments articulate the figures in sweeping curves. The style is seen in several great manuscripts of the period including the Lambeth Bible.

Illuminated manuscript, English, c.1146. From the Lambeth Bible, Ms.3, fol.258 v. London, Lambeth Palace Library.

Illuminated manuscript, English, c.1146. From the Lambeth Bible, Ms.3, fol.258 v. London, Lambeth Palace Library.

The above illustration also gives us a glimpse of the interwoven lettering of the period.

The next stage of my study of lettering for icons comes from possibly the most beautiful manuscript of the Romanesque period, the great Bury Bible. It’s largely the work  of Master Hugo (c.1130-1160), the earliest professional artist documented in England. He was a multi-talented craftsman who produced various items for Bury: a great bell in the crossing tower, a set of decorated metal church doors, and a beautiful cross for the abbey choir. Master Hugo’s places of origin and training remain elusive but there is some speculation that he travelled within Byzantium given his dramatic style of work.

It’s a rich source of imagery for iconographers looking for inspiration from an historic western perspective.

Red ochre painting of Aaron on watercolour paper

Monochrome study in ‘English red ochre light‘ of Aaron from the Bury Bible

Further examples of the wetfold drapery technique can be found in other manuscripts of the period, the example below also shows interesting examples of buildings and trees.

I’ve been busy working on my final icon for the diploma course – a large festal icon of the Nativity. It seems a bit odd to write about this in the middle of Lent so I will write about it a bit later! In the meantime, I will sign off with a taster of my lettering from the Bury Bible below.

Thanks for reading,

Ronnie

PS if anyone has an Instagram account, I have been posting photos of my work in progress under the name of icondiplomastudent, you can see it here.

a

 ‘A’ based on lettering found in the  Bury Bible