Icon Diploma Student

Learning to see with the eye of the heart

Posts tagged ‘egg tempera’

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

For the Feast of St Francis

Today, 4th October is the Feast of St Francis. I’d like to share some of my work from my student days on Aidan Hart’s diploma course when we were encouraged to paint monochrome studies on watercolour paper. I found these studies a little less intimidating as they were ‘only on paper’ rather than the gessoed boards which we had all spent several days preparing.

I knew I was going to paint an icon of St Francis on a gessoed board so wanted to prepare a study on paper first.

However, instead of painting a monochrome, I decided to see how painting an egg tempera icon on paper would turn out. The drawing above is taken from one of Aidan Hart’s icons of St Francis. This is the traced outline over the pencil sketch which I made from his prototype which you can see here.

I can’t find any record photos of the underpainting on paper but it would have been with thin layers of Terre Verte pigment and a few washes of the Yellow Ochre Maimeri mixed with a tiny dash of English Red Ochre, applied in thin washes.

The process on paper is the same as on a gessoed board – I followed exactly the same steps.

Returning to the icon on paper, you can see both the underpainting of face and garments have had ‘membranes’ of colour and I’ve begun to add some facial shading and highlights.

I like faces to have soft highlights – I have often added the brightest areas only to wash them back with French Ochre Havanna so they blend in. There is a lot of flexibility in egg tempera – it is surprising how thin washes of one pigment over another can help things sit better together.

Finally we arrive at the lettering and gilding the halo.

Working on paper, I applied a dilute coat of upva glue (flexible when dry) over the surface to be gilded – this acts as a seal over the paper. About 20-30 minutes later I applied a second less dilute coat and as soon as it was just about dry I applied 23.5 carat transfer gold leaf.

I referred back to the drawing for the centre point of the halo, placed a strip of cardboard over the face for protection from the compass point, held it all very steady and drew a circle around the halo. I pencilled out the lettering and then traced and painted them on.

Finally, the work was framed and included in the final student exhibition at the PSTA in Shoreditch. It is now available to purchase from my Etsy shop here.

It’s almost the end of the day here but just in time to wish you peace and blessings on the feast of this gentle yet powerful saint.

Thanks for reading,
Ronnie

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

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