Icon Diploma Student

Learning to see with the eye of the heart

Posts tagged ‘Christmas icon’

Advent Two: The Shepherds Their Wonder

Quote from the Festal Manaion – Nativity Vespers

The profoundly beautiful Armenian Nativity created by T’oros Roslin in the 13th Century remains my favourite Nativity icon. I painted my own version on vellum back in January 2016 in preparation for the Festal Nativity icon (on a large gessoed panel) which was part of the final year of the Diploma.

This is a silly busy time of year for many of us but I’m posting this here now for you to find sometime in future when you do find a quiet moment.

The primary shepherd on the large Nativity icon (above left) was a direct reference to the figure in the Armenian Nativity scene. I liked his expression and woolly tunic!

Caput Mortuum is a mysterious rich deep maroon colour and looks to me the colour used in the Armenian Nativity original. The name translation from Latin is ‘dead head’. In the Merriam Webster Definitions dictionary we find one definition “alchemy the residuum after distillation or sublimation” also “a red iron-oxide pigment made by calcining iron sulfate“. To me it’s the colour of an aubergine and when placed next to lapis lazuli, the colours sing.

Caput Mortuum next to Lapis Lazuli

Reflecting back to the time that I painted the Armenian Nativity, you’ll have no idea how over the moon I was to participate in the exhibition curated by Patricia Lovett and held in the window of Cornelissen’s . It was all part of the Heritage Craft Week 2016 which I wrote about here. If you’ve never heard of Cornelissen’s then treat yourself to a minute inside their London shop here.

Patricia – if you are reading this, that exhibition and subsequent synchronicities led to the class of 2013-16 final-year diploma icons being displayed in the same window (below) and repeated three years later with the next icon student intake – THANK YOU!

Window shopping – Cornelissen’s, London

Back to work…

These shepherds have been shuffled around to get a balanced composition. Photocopying and cutting out the figures allows you to move them and see how they work in relationship to one another. It’s interesting how small shifts can make a difference in how your eye is led around the figures and around the overall composition.

Pencil drawing of three shepherds, photocopied and placed on the icon panel

Lines are transcribed onto the panel by rubbing red ochre onto the back of your traced drawing. The lines are fixed with a dilute mix of egg tempera in red ochre. Applying a dilute mix means it’s easy to blend into the layers that follow.

Composition settled and anchored on to the icon panel in a light red ochre line.

Yellow Ochre Maimeri and Ivory Black pigments mixed together give a lovely green for underpainting flesh tones – an alternative to Terre Verte which can be a bit sticky.

Since I had this earthy mix, I used it to under-paint the garments of the primary shepherd. I’ve used thin washes of earth ochre pigments to build up the landscape.

Colours vary here as I’ve taken photos at different times of the day.

When working on an icon, it’s important to work on it as a whole to keep it balanced. Sometimes weeks if not months go by between underpainting, mid-tones and highlights of the different clusters of figures.

Let’s close this post on these shepherds – almost finished. Just a few more highlights to add on their faces and hair.

Thanks for reading, whenever that might be 🙂

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