Icon Diploma Student

Learning to see with the eye of the heart

Posts tagged ‘gessoing icon boards’

Oil Gilding the Council of Archangel Michael (pt2)

Summer is the best time for gessoing icon boards. It’s a messy job and I like to make the most of working outside especially sanding the boards. I wrote about the method of gessoing on an earlier post here.

3 sanding the large icon board.jpg

Making the most of a dry sunny day to sand the gesso smooth

I felt that the icon of the Council of the Archangel Michael should be painted on a large board as there are a lot of figures. I don’t know the size of the original icon, but small faces can be tricky so the size I went for was the optimum I can work with at home: 40 x 42cm. With it being cut from 24mm birch ply it’s quite heavy.

I placed the board on a towel to prevent it from sliding around the table whilst I sand. Red ochre rubbed over the surface helps to show up any scratches I had missed.

Once it had been sanded down with 1200 grade sandpaper, it was ready to oil gild. I chose the oil gilding method (matt finish gold) because it’s more robust than water gilding.  Having so many figures and faces it will be handled quite a bit during painting.

finding scratches

Red ochre shows up scratches which still need to be sanded

I moved my drawings on to tracing paper so it was ready to transcribe on to the gesso. Although it is possible to oil gild after painting, I prefer to gild before painting the faces. I find both methods of gilding challenging so I will keep practising!

It isn’t necessary to scribe the areas to be gilded with the oil gilding method but I find it helps contain the shellac. Aidan Hart protects the gesso from the compass points with a wooden ruler which works very well but if you don’t have a ruler to hand, several layers of masking tape over some card helps (see photos below).

transcribing halo on icon

compass points on gesso

Protecting the gesso from compass puncture marks

Anyone of a ‘certain age’ will understand when I say that some red ochre rubbed over the scribed areas helps me to see where I’m going!

transcribing drawing

Aidan taught us the following method of oil gilding which I will summarise below. You can also see some amatuer video clips from our class demonstration on You Tube here.

Gold transfer leaf is applied on to several layers of shellac but first the gesso is sealed by painting on a thin layer of tinted shellac. Tinting is done with a pinch of red ochre or vermillion. Leave it to dry for a day then lightly sand working your way through the sandpaper grades from 600-1200. The following day, repeat the process but using untinted shellac. Leave it for a day and then sand as before.

shellac on halos for icon gilding

Shellac ready to sand

It is then ready to gild. Aidan suggested using Le Franc’s 3 hour gold size. Shake well then apply one very thin layer and place it in a dust free place, like a plastic box.

Wait for an hour at least (1-3 hours) then test whether it is ready to gild by touching the surface with your knuckle. If it squeaks, it is ready to apply gold transfer leaf. If not, wait a little longer and re-test. Drying time depends on the thickness of the layer and the drying conditions.

Small areas of shellac are fiddly to sand smooth and as you can see under the scrutiny of the camera, there are a few missing dots. However, I’ve since touched these up with some shell gold.

oil gilding on icon

Oil gilded halos

Wait two or three hours and then it should be ready to polish the gold using a gilder’s mop, working from light to medium pressure.

After waiting a few days to let the gilding harden, I could carry on with transferring the rest of my drawing.

transfer of whole drawing

Gilding complete, time to transcribe the rest of the drawing

I kept the compass protection pads on so I could add the halo outlines as soon as the sky had been painted. That’s all for this post but I will sign off with a photo of the icon a bit further along.

underpainting icon of Council of Archangel Michael

Outlines of figures applied and underpainting begins

Once again, thanks for reading!


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.


Dylan Hartley’s Top Tips for Gessoing Icon Boards

Dylan and Christina hartley with Icon Diploma Students

Dylan and Christina Hartley (seated) with Icon Diploma Students. Left to right Fran, Joan, Ekatarina, Olga, Ronnie, Rosie, Lee, Susan H, Janina, Michael. Martin is absent on honey moon!


icon diploma students

A quick shuffle up and this one includes Susan M!

We have been learning about the process of making and gessoing icon boards. I used to think that gessoing was simply a matter of applying a few layers of whiting to some linen on a board and Bob’s your uncle. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Dylan Hartley demonstrating hown to mix gesso in slow cooker

Dylan Hartley demonstrating how to mix gesso to Icon Diploma students

Just as well our teacher Aidan Hart, had set up a three day session with Dylan Hartley, to demonstrate the technique in his Ironbridge workshop.

Chisels of an icon board maker

Tools of a Master

These were three full days – no slacking for a minute! Dylan was taught by Aidan and through years of experience, he has found Aidan’s method to be the most fail safe – as long as he follows the instructions to the letter.  This method is described in full in Aidan’s book ‘The Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting‘.

My notes/photos from the workshop are attached here: Dylan Hartleys Gesso workshop May 2014 but there is no way around it, gessoing boards is a labour intensive process. However, if done correctly, the results are of a very high standard.  The workshop has changed my view of icon boards and I now regard them as works of art of  in their own right.

http://youtu.be/hPqtXk3bEcc Link to a short clip of Dylan demonstrating the application of the first coat of gesso.

Dylan is always looking for ways to simplify the process or to avoid common pitfalls and he shared many of his tips with us during the workshop, ten of which are listed below. Dylan runs gessoing workshops from time to time, and I can thoroughly recommend attending. Not only is Dylan a very clear and wise teacher, but the workshops are held in Ironbridge – full of architectural and engineering treasures.

Encaustic tile details on the Jackfield Tile Museum

Encaustic tile details on the Jackfield Tile Museum

I have picked out ten of the best tips for you below.

1. Buy a slow cooker. Get one with a lift out bowl in a heated container, such as this one sold by Tesco for about £10 to £15. It keeps the gesso/glue mix warm for ages and is a lot simpler to use than a bain marie.

Slow Cooker

Slow cooker and cooking thermometer. Scrim has just been ‘dunked’ into the size.

2. Choose the best wood.  Given the amount of work that goes into the gessoing process, it is a false economy to skimp on the wood – only use the best quality.

3 Mix Plenty. Mix over and above the amount of glue/gesso mix required to allow for evaporation. You don’t want to run out just before you have finished!

4. Work in sequence.  Write numbers on the back of your boards then keep record sheets of when you apply the gesso coats. This is really important. You just have to get one distraction and you can forget where you were and scupper the sequence.

5 Prepare well in advance. Get all the materials and tools together. Turn off your phone, ignore the door bell,  pack sandwiches and have cold drink/flask beside you.

sketch of kit for gessoing icons

Sketch of the kit you need to gesso icon boards

6. Find the front of the (hardwood) icon board.  Pick up the wood and look at the short edge. If the curve of the end grain corresponds with the curve of your eye brow, then the side of the board facing you is the front. If not, then turn the board!

determining the front of an icon board

Finding the front of the icon board – look at the curves of the growth rings.

7. Mind where you position joins. If you are ordering (or making) an icon board which needs a join, it doesn’t have to be placed in the middle. Think about the image and ensure the join does not cross through a critical place (ie through the face).

position of join in icon board

Sketch to show how it is better not to have a central join in an icon board

8. Support your board.  A wooden plinth made out of battens helps to lift the icon board up from the surface and gesso drips/fallout building up below.

timber plinth for gessoing icon boards

Timber plinth for gessoing icon boards plus some chisels and a gauge to measure depth of kovchek

9. Work with the weather.  Gessoing is a job best saved until mild weather – too hot and the boards dry too fast, too cold and they take longer to dry. Ideal temperature is 18-24 degrees, so you can open and close the windows to help adjust the drying speed. Start early in the day. Get everything set up beforehand.

10. WARNING! Never let steel (or any metal objects for that matter apart from Stainless steel) touch the oak. The metal draws out the tannic acids a stain such as this below will gradually appear and you cannot get rid of it.


Thanks for reading!