St. Michael

This is the first icon I attempted "properly". By that, I mean I used multi-layering of paint, refining the under-painting with each successive layer. Plus, I _did_ include prayers and lighting of candles during the process.

This was done in acrylic on wood, but I learned enough in the process, I believe, to be able to do future icons in oil (I _really_ hate acrylics!!!).


Daniel Nichols said...

Everything I have read says that oils are not a suitable medium for icons; too sensual and rich.
What sort of acrylics did you use? Many of them have a plasic feel and are unpleasant to work with. Most iconographers who use acrylic use Jo Sonja acrylic gouache. It dries matte and does not have that plasticky feel; those who have used both say it mimics the properties of egg tempera.
Rather than oils, you could try Jo Sonja (available from Dick Blick online) or if you have the patience and a teacher, the more tempermental but also more traditional tempera.
Very nice work, this first icon. Did you have a teacher or are you self taught?

Daniel Nichols said...

Also, it appears that you are using the medium too thickly; the paint should be diluted to the consistency of cream.
And your work would profit from the use of a ruling pen and ruler and compass for the straigh lines and halo, respectively

Theodore said...

Here's another vote for egg tempera.

I took a workshop from the Prosopon http://www.prosoponschool.org/ school about 5 years ago, and have been meaning to get back into it ever since. Just this fall a teacher from the school started classes here in Scranton. She teaches the traditional methods of writing icons. . It has been very difficult (esp since I'm am so impatient!) but very rewarding. I'll hopefully (one day!) be posting my finished icon.

Jef Murray said...

Thanks for feedback, although I'd love input on this painting in particular rather than iconography in general ;-)

Regarding icons, there are about a million different "schools", and so choices such as tempura, gouache, oil, mozaics, etc. depend on what you're trying to achieve (and which school, if any, you subscribe to). As an example, Byzantine iconography typically is very colourful but very flat...tempura or gouache are ideal. Russian style is less colourful but very transparent ...for that, gouache won't typically work that well because it's too opaque.

My problem with acrylics isn't the "plastic" feel...it's the fast drying time. Since I mainly paint in oils, I hate having to rush to complete each "phrase" in a painting. I do know I paint thick, but don't know whether that bothers me much unless it detracts from the results. What aspect of this attempt seems wrong because of paint thickness?

Again, here, I'm more curious about what works and what doesn't than whether or not I "followed the rules". I do not, of course, wish to be accused of being iconoclastic in this regard ;-)

Lawrence Klimecki said...

Hi Jeff, nice work. Actually traditional iconography is all about following the rules (the canons). So it kind of depends on whether or not you want to do traditional iconography or religious painting based on the rules of iconography. As you mentioned yes there are several schools of icon painting (or writing if you really want to be a purist) but what seems consistent in all of them is the theology of the image. The icon is meant to represent its subject in a divine light. It may be my monitor or the method you used to capture the image but the palette looks a little too dark around the wings and the bottom of the composition. As for painting thick, again traditional icons are built up of thin transparent colors, the idea is that the artist, including his technique, should be transparent. The viwer is supposed to be able to gaze on the icon and think of Michael, not of the artist who painted him. Now these may not apply to you either because of your intention or because of the way it looks on my monitor at this moment. But that's what I see as I look at it. Overall though it's very nicely done.

It is wonderful to see this outbreak of icon painting. We seem to have a small school of iconographers within our small Catholic Illustrators Guild. I have not been posting lately due to a hectic summer and a house remodel. One of the things I did manage to do was to take an icon painting retreat/workshop from these fine people:
Mostly I learned how much I still need to learn. When I got home I found this gentleman:
who agreed to take me on as a student. My goal is to paint icons following the traditional methods as preserved by the current crop of orthodox iconographers, russian and byzantine, and this means tempera, a medium I had not ever used before last July.
If your interested there are reasons based on tradition why panel icons should be painted in tempera.

Daniel Nichols said...

A fast drying time is not a problem, as one does not "work" the paint as with oils, but applies thin glazes to achieve the luminous effect. The opacity of acrylic is not a problem if it is sufficiently diluted.
I work in the Russian style with acrylic and can testify that the desired luminosity can be achieved with this medium. (See www.eighthdayicons.com )
And to second lawrence, if you want to paint icons please do not join the troops of Catholic pseudo-iconographers who give us a bad name among the Orthodox, but rather respect the traditon.
I note on your website several "creative" icons; ie, icons with your own ideas dominating.
I suggest further respectful study of the iconographic tradition before you attempt it again.
I am not trying to offend you, and hope take this as the exhortation I intend it to be.

Daniel Nichols said...

As for the old acrylic vs tempera debate, as one of my teachers said, some people will make a religion out of anything, even paint. :^) Not that oils are okay!
Actually, as a father of 5, working 50-60 hours a week, I appreciate the simplicity of acrylics: there is no preparation time and they are very easy to use. I can grab 15 minutes here and there without the elaborate preparations, let alone the difficulty of tempera.

Abigail said...

I haven't used it myself, but they do sell acrylic retarder to slow the drying time. I've heard some good things about that.

Jef Murray said...

I'll try to answer some of the issues brought up quickly:

Ted - Yes, I agree. Classic iconography does take tremendous patience, and it is a very different sort of discipline than most other forms of creative work.

Lawrence - Thanks for the overview of the philosophy of iconography. I'm very aware of most of this, but you captured it quite well. In terms of my intentions...well, that's what I'm exploring here. I suspect I'm not "traditional iconographer" material; I always want to experiment and play around with different techniques and options.

My understanding, however, is that there is a "contemporary" style of iconography that is developing that is not strictly Byzantine, Coptic, Russian, etc. I am intrigued with blending the older styles. But, as you mention, much of my interest may more clearly be "religious painting based on the rules of iconography."

Thanks, also, for comments on palette. I agree...wings could be higher value. But, I rather wanted body image to fade nearly to black at bottom (reproduction might not make this clear).

Daniel - W.r.t. following the tradition, were I to claim that I was, in fact, a legitimate iconographer, I would of course be following the rules of tradition more closely. But, as I said, I'm exploring. And, as you've noted, I have a number of "icon-like" images on my website. I've never claimed these as true icons, nor would I.

BTW, I'll debate you on the oil paint issue (see next post for an example of an oil-based icon), as there is nothing that can be done in acrylic that cannot also be done in oil with suitable mediums.

Abigail - Thanks for comment on retarders and acrylics. I've tried them; they extend a 20-minute drying time to 40-minutes, tops. That's better, but still way too fast for me. I typically spend 6-10 hours on a painting, and sometimes over multiple days. And I really hate to have to paint over a mistake rather than wiping it clean and starting anew.

Enjoying this discussion, everyone! I second Lawrence in my happiness that this issue is getting some air play on the site!

Daniel Nichols said...

I really have no desire to debate oils with you. I am only saying what is traditional. Oils only began to be used in the 18th century by iconographers, and accompanied the westernization and decline of iconography. The modern revival has seen a return to traditional materials, and acrylics have become common, though as you see not uncontroversial.
I spend around 20-30 hours painting an icon; the difference is not so much in the time used but the technique: traditional iconography works from dark to light, using thin glazes (though the Greeks and Cypriots work more opaquely).

Theodore said...

This is a very interesting discussion!

I've heard the following distinction used. There are Liturgical Icon which follow the rules and tradtions from the eastern rite churches

and then there are just icons. Images that may or maynot be useful for private devotions

Daniel, if you would like, please use the link on the side bar to email me to join the Guild and share your work.

Jef Murray said...


Yes, do please join the group! I think you would have a lot to offer, and I know a more permanent link to your website would be great!

Regarding the tradition of egg tempera, you mentioned your teacher (was it Pearson, by any chance?) as saying that one can make a religion out of anything, even paint. One can also make a "tradition" out of anything, and I have to point out that the earliest surviving icons were painted using encaustic (hot wax with pigments), not egg tempera.

So, for any tradition, one must draw the line somewhere, and that line changes. For the contemporary iconography community, that line seems to be drawn at oil painting, but I've never heard anyone satisfactorily convince me why that is so, from a purely technical perspective. My suspicion is that it's an unexamined prejudice.

Not trying to be obnoxious, here, just stating what I've discovered over my years of studying both western and eastern painting techniques.

Also, regarding time spent on a painting, I was remiss in not clarifying that I typically spend 6-10 hours _at_a_sitting_ on a work. This was the time I was referencing as wanting to have my paints remain workable. Total time for a painting can and usually does greatly exceed this, as with your icons.

Daniel Nichols said...

As I am not these days a "Catholic Illustrator", and would be out of my league among the very talented artists here even when I was, I must decline the invitation.
I have, however, asked Regina Doman, who designed and hosts my website, to post one of my icons to illustrate what I meant about technique, but I haven't heard back from her.
And Theodore- I don't think the distinction you are looking for is between "liturgical icons" and "personal icons". "Icon" of course means simply "image" and the word is thrown around rather too freely these days. You know, "Paris Hilton is an icon" etc.
Within the Church, though, "icon" should refer only to those religious images painted in accordance with the traditon. Iconography is not a way to be creative or bestow your insights to the rest of the world. Rather, it is the province of the Church. It is like the Liturgy: the priest must be faithful to the rubrics, not use the Liturgy as his personal expression.
Does this not mean a dry and uncreative experience?
By no means; it is like Chesterton's wall around a garden (his image for orthodoxy). Within the wall one may blossom, and painting becomes prayer becomes painting.
I realize, Jeff, that icons were originally painted in wax encaustic. The medium is not some eternally established thing (hence I use acrylic), but the consensus among iconographers is that oil just doesn't look right; too sensual and rich.
Of course if you have decided to paint religious oil paintings loosely rooted in the iconographic tradition, that is fine. You did, in your initial post, refer to your St Michael as an "icon" and indicated that you were trying to work in a more traditional manner. That is what I was responding to, and I tell you that the long drying time for oils is actually a hindrance; we do not work wet paint into wet paint as in oils. Both tempera and acrylic dry quickly, which is desirable, as there is no long wait to do the next glaze.

And no, my teacher was not Peter Pearson. Rev Pearson is an apostate, raised Roman Catholic and now an Episcopal clergyman, pastor of a parish that boasts of attending the local Gay Pride march...
I was taught by Bob Wiesner, who was taught by Phil Zimmerman, though my technique differs a good bit from theirs' these days.

Oh, and I keep forgetting to mention that an icon is not complete until the name of the holy one depicted is inscribed on it.
I also have enjoyed the discussion, and am grateful that no one has been offended...

Theodore said...

If I was REALLY mischievous I would post what Chesterton thought of icons. :)

Let me know Daniel if you change your mind about joining, we have a _very_ loose definition of an illustrator. But in any case please do continue to post your thoughtful comments.

rebecca said...

Hi Jef,

I've been following this friendly discussion and would like to share my own experience with icons, for what it's worth.

I have a BFA in Illustration and long held (naively) that Western ideals of beauty were the epitome for liturgical art. I thought icons were painted by artistically primitive cultures, and was never exposed to the theology behind them. Eventually I matured in my faith, began attending an Eastern Rite Catholic Church, and was able to study iconography for a few years.

What I realized astonished and humbled me. I should point out that before taking these icon classes, I had, like you, been "writing" icons (though in graphite for a monastic publication) on my own - let me stress the "on my own" part - enjoying my freedom of expression and taking every liberty I felt I could, softening this line or that feature to suit my tastes or understanding.

I learned in the icon class that in order to make an icon "speak" to the Truth it was portraying, an iconographer has to leave his ego at the door and vanish behind the mystical reality of the image. This assumes the icon is going to be blessed and used as a sacramental - otherwise it's just.....a facsimile of an icon, sort of empty of meaning and purpose; impotent, really.

Anyway, obedience to the tradition of iconography is paramount in this process, and eventually I became more and more comfortable letting the icon shape me, instead of me trying in my vanity to shape the icon. At first, my hand wanted so badly to make certain garment lines, for example, sensually curving, instead of stiff and geometrically rigid, but that was before I learned what those straight lines were all about. I wanted to tinker with the colors, but that was before I understood the theology of color in an icon. I wanted to "fix" those awful backgrounds, the out-of-kilter buildings and weird rock formations, but then learned about the elimination of time and space in an icon.

I should also add that even though you're hemmed in by tradition, writing an icon cannot escape the "handwriting", so to speak, of the person writing it. In my icon class, 6 people literally traced the same exact drawing on their gessoed boards, following fairly strict instructions, and in the end there were 6 very distinctive St Michaels gazing back at us, each one with a character and power all its own. It's an amazing phenomenon, but reminds us that even though we all follow the One True Way, God is infinitely creative in each of us!

It took me some time to train my eyes away from my desires to see and express things "my way" and want instead to express according to their tradition. An iconographer, if he intends to be faithful to the spiritual reality he's trying to portray, can no more tinker with the image, adding this feature or that whatever, than a scripture scholar can invent for the sake of literary creativity. An iconographer must conform himself in humility, and let God use the iconographer's ability in order to bring words to image, so that the image might bring Light to whoever prays before it.

I hope you read this as the supportive encouragement it's meant to be. I also hope someday you can take an icon class with someone who teaches according to tradition, for I promise you that you'll experience a spiritual and artistic growth that merely "copying" an icon, hybrid-style, can never give you.

God bless you!

Jef Murray said...

Again, I'll try to respond to folks briefly:

Daniel - First, thanks for your forbearance in this discussion! I certainly view this as an interesting and important topic, and value the chance to speak openly without offense being taken (certainly, none is intended).

I rather disagree with you on insisting that the word "icon" can only mean what Ted refers to as a "liturgical icon." I think the latter is a good way to distinguish those icons that are traditional and are strictly for and sanctioned by the Church; seems a helpful distinction. And, at risk of appearing petty rather than trying to correct a misconception, I want to assure you that oils need not have long drying times. Using alkyd paints and/or media, one can paint wet into dry within an hour of a previous coat. So, building up of layers with oils is not a problem. Glazing was and is, of course, a common method of oil painting, and was used extensively by Renoir, etc.

Ted - Go ahead, be mischievous ;-)

Rebecca - Thanks for the delightful description of how icons have "worked" on you over the years! This was very moving! I, too, attend an Eastern rite Catholic church (Melkite), and am quite aware of the history and tradition of iconography. Your experience is "spot on" w.r.t. the way icon writing _should_ work.

But, here seems to me to be the crux of our whole discussion. God made each of us with different talents and different weaknesses. We're all required to "make good" with what we've got, and that emphatically does _not_ mean that all of us could and should become "liturgical iconographers" (pace, Daniel!).

I rather liken all of this to music. Some artists are great performers, and listening to a masterful pianist play Beethoven can be a divine experience. Other musicians are brilliant at composing, and although they may be able to play their own works, their gift isn't in the performance as much as in the (sub-)creation of new works. Both of these talents require creativity, practice, discipline, and grace. But they're not the same.

So, I know that following the path you've described, Rebecca (and I have followed it, but to a lesser degree than you, I know) can be grace-filled, but only if that is one's calling. I tend to be more like Ted, I expect (no offense meant, Ted, just taking your comments at face value)...I'm fascinated more by the composition and expression of the timeless in new ways than with the deep contemplation of the existing canon.

To use a western example, I'm, at heart, a Franciscan rather than a Cistercian. I look for God in all things, and can't quite get my hand around the concept that an image, approached with the right intend (ad majorem Dei gloriam) and with prayer and reverence, can _ever_ be "impotent" just because one did not follow the exact right formula. Flannery O'Connor once said "“I think most people come to the Church by means the Church does not allow..." And I think the same is true of religious art; our job as artists is to do whatever we can with the talents God gives us, and leave the rest in His hands.

Pax et bonum!


Ben hatke said...

This is great.

I really don't have much of value to contribute to this, except to say that I'm enjoying it and it's getting me thinking.

And thanks to Daniel Nichols for posting here -the blog is the better for it.

Daniel Nichols said...

Thank you, Rebecca, that was beautifully said. What you say about the inevitable individuality of icons is true; I teach a class each summer and we all use the same pattern and it is astonishing how each icon reflects the personality (and talent) of the individual iconographer. However, this occurs naturally; one does not try to express anything but the mind of the Church when painting. The individuality just comes with the territory.
Jef- I never said everyone should be an iconographer. I do say if you are going to do icons you should do them right. And yes, there most emphatically is a right way. There are numerous Catholic "iconographers" who scandalize our Orthodox brethren, many who do not believe a non-Orthodox Christian should paint icons. I disagree, of course, but the reaction is understandable when one considers, for example, the homoerotic and heretical "icons" of Robert Lentz, OFM, or Rev William Hart McNichols, SJ. That these guys are not reigned in by their religious superiors is a scandal.
But I digress...
Like I said, if you want to paint religious oil paintings, go ahead. But I really think if you want to "express the timeless" in "new ways" you ought to go all the way and not imitate icons.
Even personal icons are liturgical and ecclesial; they are blessed by the Church and bring the temple into the home.

Lawrence Klimecki said...

My own unworthy thoughts and humble opinions:
Jeff: I agree that we all have unique gifts and talents that we need to use to build up the body of Christ. In the case of artistic gifts that will manifest itself in a variety of ways. But icons are, and should be, set apart as something more than just art. Think of the chalice used at mass. It is (usually) a beautiful work of art in itself. But when it is sacramentalized, blessed for liturgical use, it is set apart and becomes something else entirely. It remains a beautiful cup but it is now more than that as well. Now, you cannot take any old glass out of your cupboard and have it blessed for use in the liturgy, regardless of how pretty the picture is on it. To be consecrated for use in the mass it has to be made according to certain guidelines.
So too with the icon. It is art, but when it is blessed for ecclesial or liturgical use it becomes something else as well. And to receive this blessing it has to follow certain rules.
The materials and medium is not really the issue, tradition supports a variety of appoaches. Even style has a somewhat broader range than casual observance may suggest. But what is consistent is the intent that what is being created is for use of the church and is created according to the established canon.
Of course as catholics we are not bound to comply with the canons of the orthodox church however, lacking any directives from Rome I suggest we do so. Icons are the art of the undivided church. It is possible that icons may play their part in bringing the now divided church back together. But if that happens it will only happen if we in the west are sensitive to the tradition held in the east, AND educate ourselves as to the theology of the icon.
Ted: I think the distinction between icon and "liturgical" icon just muddies the waters. Use of the term "icon" as we do today is barely 100 years old. I think it was an art dealer who coined the term as we now understand it. "Non-liturgical icons" just invites the abuse Daniel mentioned. This in turn leads to some extreme prejudices which Daniel also alluded to. Language is important, words have specific meanings. And when a piece of art that does not follow tradition is touted as an icon, it raises the hackles on the necks of our orthodox bretheren. Broadening the definition of what an icon is does no good service to anyone. That being said, what does and does not constitute an icon is still debatable even among iconographers. For example; is a printed card depicting an icon, an icon in itself? What all, (well most), can agree on however is that what we call an icon has to follow certain traditions and rules.
I think a better distinction is icon vs. religious art.
Religious art is also a much needed and highly valued product. It can touch people and provide insights in a way that even icons cannot. Is everyone familiar with Thomas Blackshear's "Forgiven?"
Icons and religious art are both necessary to help us on our way back to God, but they are not the same thing.
Ted: I would love to hear what Chesterton said about icons.

Daniel Nichola said...

Well said, Lawrence...
And yes, praytell, what did St Gilbert say about icons?

Kevin said...

God’s will or ours?

This discussion is amazing! Rebecca, your stunning description of how writing icons “works” on a person, as well as everyone else’s input, has brought to mind a parallel thought regarding conversion. The key to growing in faith, to having a true conversion experience, is to lesson your own will in favor of God’s will. Artists tend to have egos. Even when using our God given talents in His service, we can let our will overshadow God’s and our work becomes less than what it could be. Icon writing, as I understand it, is the ultimate surrendering of the will for an artist. The amazing thing is, in icon writing or in our day to day lives, as Rebecca so eloquently put it, by letting the icon shape us, our “handwriting” is still seen, in its full glory, because “God is infinitely creative in each of us!”
Now, I have no personal experience in writing icons, although I have connections to those who do. Regardless, I see the value of submitting to God’s will in any form of art we attempt. I personally do this by consulting outside resources for advice and direction, by using “the Body of Christ” around me. In my case, these are mostly my wife and children, and now, hopefully, this Guild. Each work God presents through me starts out quite differently than how it ends. But in the process of submitting to thoughts, ideas, and advice to those God has placed around me, it thrills me to watch how the “sculpture” is revealed from breaking away the stone of my original concept.

regina doman said...

Ted - I say, make a sidebar link for "Grumpy non-members who are still Amazingly Good Fonts of Inspiration" and put Daniel under there. :) Make him an advisor or outside agitator or sumptin.

Daniel - I hope you hang around, it's good for the cross-pollination. :)

All of you - I have to say that am privileged to own several of Dan's icons (I designed his site and he pays me in icons) and they are truly remarkable when you see them in person. If you are considering buying an icon, I would definitely recommend obtaining one of his. The pictures on the website (www.eighthdayicons.com) don't do them justice.

The technique is fantastic, the colors are luminous, sometimes I can barely see brush strokes. And like Rebecca said, you can see the personality in the icons. I can't help feeling that many icons are a bit too inhuman-looking for my taste, and I can't help but fault the iconographer for that. But I am very fond of the expressions on Daniel's icons: while I can't detect any discernible trace of Daniel's own personality or expression on them, I definitely do see a compassion and humility in them that is quite moving. I particularly love the Madonna and Child over my sink that Daniel did, and have looked at it many times to pray.

But on the other hand, I also have to agree with what was said above: I have known Daniel for almost fifteen years, and he has a pretty distinctive personality :) but his icons don't remind me of *him* at all, not the way his artwork does (he used to be an artist, though he will probably deny it - he doesn't think he was very good - but I love his stuff).

Dan's icons just remind me of, well, the Divine figure they represent. It's an amazing achievement of anonymnity that I often wish that liturgical artists could always achieve.

Anyhow, just had to put in a plug.

Daniel Nichols said...

Regina: I thank you for the high praise, but "grumpy"? :^(

Theodore said...

since you asked...


Daniel Nichols said...

I tried that and get nowhere; could you supply a link bychance?

Theodore said...

Sure, no problem.
a link

btw, as way of disclaimer I am just providing the text, I don't endorse his view. :) though as always, he does give one food for thought.

Daniel Nichols said...

Wow. I never ever thought I would say this, but Chesterton didn't know what he was talking about. But then I wonder what Byzantine art he had seen. He made, among other slurs, the comment that it was "dark". Early moderns mistook the nature of the icon because all they had seen had been darkened with time; the olipha- the linseed oil used for varnish- attracted dust and smoke. When the early icons were cleaned the brightness of color was astonishing. I wonder if he had seen the mosaics in Ravenna in color? Or Rublev's Trinity?

Your angel is coming along nicely, by the way...

regina doman said...

Daniel - I meant grumpy in the nicest possible way: after all, Grumpy is the most heroic of the Seven Dwarves in the Disney movie.

And I received a wondrous Archangel Raphael today from you in the mail: thank you! I love the colors! Andrew is looking for a fitting place to enshrine him, but for now, he's on the little shrine in the center of our kitchen island, near the pumpkins and pinecones the kids have collected.

I hope to post the images you sent soon, including the scan of Raphael, which I can post here so others can see.

Daniel Nichols said...

Thanks, Regina; glad you like it...
The 7 dwarves didn't occur to me, and honest, I am rarely grumpy; only when hungry, really...