Iconography Technique

First day of class

The icons produced by Icon Arts are written in the traditional fifteenth century icon-writing technique of egg-tempera following from the works of  St. Andrei Rublev icons and the liturgical process of icon writing as described by Eastern Church Tradition.

Considering the icon is a Holy Image, the icon should not contain anything synthetic or artificial. Only pure and natural materials are chosen for the writing of the icons. The materials include: solid wood board, linen fabric, natural gesso and glues, clay, 24KT. gold leaf, natural ground and raw pigments, eggs and wine or vinegar and water.

Prayer and contemplation begin and end each step of the icon writing process as it is a liturgical art. Through prayer while working on an icon, the iconographer may discover insights and associations between the practical aspect of the process and Scriptures or his own spiritual state.

Here are some details of our iconography techniques:


  1. Choosing of the wood: Bass, poplar or birch are good choices for an icon board. The wood is the foundation or support for the icon just as the cross is the support of the Christian.
  2. The indentation in the center space of the board is called ‘covcheg’, which means ark. The associations between this word and area of the board where the image will be drawn recalls the Christian Church as the ark which holds the faithful and where the Christian mystery takes place. It is a place of refuge, as the ark was for Noah, his famiy and all the animals.
  3. Sealing of the wood and application of linen: The wood is sealed and the linen cloth is applied. This prevents the painted surface from cracking in the event that the wood as it gets old cracks. The linen cloth covers the board as the linen cloth covered Christ’s body after the Crucifixion.
  4. Application of 10 or more coats of gesso or ‘levkas’: Gesso is made from marble dust, chalk, and rabbit skin glue. The gesso represents the light of creation.
  5. Transferring the drawing and etching the image into the gesso: The drawing is transferred onto the gesso and then etched with a pointed tool. The shape created at this stage is essentially selection of a particular image, in essence it is naming the figure by tracing its contours.
  6. Application and burnishing of clay: Following the etching, a red clay or ‘Bole’ is applied on the areas to be gilded and on the borders of the board. This clay is then sanded and burnished. The clay on the halo symbolizes our physical body  as expressed in Genesis (2:7.)
  7. Application of the gold: The best gold leaf should be used and it is adhered to the clay through the breath of the iconographer. The gold in iconography is symbol of the heavenly, the spiritual part of man.  The gilding is done by breathing on the clay like when gilding on paper or vellum.  Sometimes directly and sometimes using a bamboo tube for a more comfortable position while gilding.
  8. Red line around the gilded halo: This bright red line symbolizes the end of the process of gilding of covering the clay with gold, uniting the man made of clay to the heavens through the breath used in gilding.


 Light and Color 

This part of the process is the development of light on a base of dark colors. Thus, the dark more rough colors receive light and other subtle layers of color to develop a rich surface which has harmony, texture and also depth.  The transparent layers reveals the depth and give the icon the typical rich and harmonious look of traditional Russian icons of the XIV – XVI centuries.

Preparation of egg-tempera medium: The binding medium is an emulsion of egg-yolk, pure water and vinegar or egg yolk with white wine. Depending on the particulars of the technique, the egg yolk can be used mixed with water alone.   The natural ground pigments are then mixed with it to make our paint. The application of color and highlights in multiple layers is the most complex aspect of the process. It mirrors the theological symbolism and associations that relate to the parts of the Church temple and also the Liturgy.  It is a journey from darkness of the unredeemed world, through purification, illumination and  ending in communion with God.

  1. First layer of colors, or ‘roskrish’: This layer of gritty, earthy colors is dark and dense.
  2. Redrawing the lines etched on the gesso: This step differentiates the shapes of colors establishing boundaries between them.
  3. The first layer of highlights defines the shapes of objects and are the foundation of the next lights. In this sense it is similar to the process the catechumen goes through before illumination at Baptism. These lights are then covered with a thin veil or of color not unlike a glaze in oil painting.  It allows the lights applied to blend with the previous color, harmonize with it and become one with it.
  4. The second layer of highlights can be related to the light of illumination of those who have been initiated into the Christian mysteries.  Such a Christian begins an inner life and relationship with Christ in his heart.  These lights are again covered with another veil of purer and finer color.
  5. The third layer of highlights is made and brighter and purer transparent colors are applied over them. This layer corresponds to the stage of the Liturgy where the faithful join the Angelic hosts in the bringing of the gifts to the altar. We become transported into the angelic realm, the Heavenly Liturgy.
  6. Following the lines are redrawn, details are painted, the icon is named again with the name of the person or persons depicted, or scene depicted.


  1. Application of bright wisps of light or life-giving lines. This step is symbolic of  having attained to the Vision of God, it is the transfiguration of the person and its participation in the Divine life.  These appear on a few parts of the clothes, on the faces and other body parts like hands, feet, etc.
  2. White line around halo and next to the irises: These white highlights are the culmination of the spiritual journey of Theosis, or becoming like God.  It represents the perfected spirit of man through his communion with God.
  3. Sealing of the icon, or anointing with linseed oil, “olipha,” and the blessing given to the icon by the priest during the liturgy: This blessing establishes a connection between the image of the person depicted and its prototype. It establishes a connection between the icon and its prototype; thus, transforming the icon into a perfect instrument for prayer and contemplation. This is the time when one can truly say that the icon has become a window to Heaven.
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