Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Icon Painter

The work was laborious, the task always long. The icon painter's art required silence and solitude and he preferred the late hours of the night, those quiet, unhallowed hours while others slept. Each time he sat down in the lamplight at the bench, he bowed his head to ask a blessing through prayer, so that the image he created should be worthy of that venerated saint.

He followed the steps laid down by the ancient masters, giving to each meticulous process its necessary time and care. The seasoned oak panel again. Coat by coat, he built the plaster-like base of whitest gesso, sanding the flaws from each dried layer until the finish was smooth as glass. With compasses and ruler, he traced the design's sacred geometry - the underlying cross, the squares, circles and triangles, painstakingly checking measurements and the calculated proportions, four nose-lengths in the figure's face, two nose-lengths from nose tip to chin.

The gold-leaf background was too delicate for fingers. Instead, he ran a squirrel-hair brush through his own hair, giving the bristles the trace of oil they needed to lift the precious tissue. On the glue-soaked polished surface, he lay dan overlapping leaves until the base was covered and, with the agate-tipped burnisher inherited from his father, spent hours coaxing the gold into a rich glow. Then, to painting. Night after night, he mixed the tempera white from yolk. With care, he rolled the soft yolk ball from palm to palm, passing it from hand to hand until its skin was dry, then pinching the sac over a porcelain bowl, he pricked it, and let the yolk run from the sac as his emulsion. He ground the pigments finely on a marble slab, and mixed with the prescribed colours - vermilion, raw sienna, titanium white - with the egg yolk, adding vinegar and water to the right consistency. He applied the paint in the required symbolic order, working from dark to light - robes and hair, then flesh tones, then the highlights which made the holy figure radiate its sacred light. And, when all was done, and dry, he mixed his varnish to the secret recipe, and glazed the icon to enhance its mystical glow.

(Anne Zoroudi)

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