All rights reserved.
Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography
PAINTING ICONS STEP BY STEP
As an icon is constructed, it goes through an orderly and well-planned series of
stages.
 Even though the initial stages do not  look like "art," they are essential to the
final outcome.

Painting of details is intentionally delayed until the base colors,  highlighting, and
transparent washes or "floats" are complete.

Recently I've been taking step-by-step photos of my own icons and those of my students.

If the series lacks a few early stages, I probably missed the opportunity to take pictures.  
If the final photos in the series are missing, I'm still working on the icon!

Throughout this site and especially these technical pages, you will find many photos
(including some repeated on this page) showing how the image is built up through its
many layers.

A little trouble-shooting is often necessary - so I'll mention that where it occurred.  This
can sometimes be a bit embarrassing, to admit that I didn't get it right the first time.
A small Mandylion icon takes shape.  Far left, gilding and red halo lines
are complete, and the process of painting roskrish has begun.  Center left,
the dark blue background
roskrish is complete.

Center; the line work has been completed and first highlight is in process.  
Center right; first highlights and first float have been completed; and the
background has received two additional layers of dark blue paint.  Far right;
second highlight is complete.

At right, the finished icon;
The Mandylion or The Holy Face
Egg tempera and gold leaf on panel, 5 x 6 inches, 2008

Back to Icons of Jesus
Saint Andrew the Apostle is depicted as a distinguished and confident
teacher on this postcard-sized personal icon.

Above left, roskrish is almost complete.  Next, I add a border in a strange
blotchy lavender - this remains through several stages while I work on the
figure.  Above right, second float, and detail of third highlight.

Below left, third float - and the grayish-white float on the hair looks terrible!  
Below center, a dark ochre float on the hair, and a light gold float over that
pesky lavender border.  Below right, line work and borders.  For a strong
outline, the hair was darkened where it meets the halo.
Saint Andrew the Apostle
Egg tempera and gold leaf on panel
5 x 6 inches, 2008

Back to Icons of Saints
The Fourth Day of Creation - The 2003 version at left was a wedding gift, and has
moved out of town with its owners.  I miss it!  So recently I painted a new version, this
time on an arched board to better accommodate the starry heavens.
Left to right - Bole is applied to edge of board and to areas to be gilded - including lots of stars!  In second photo,
gilding and 2 coats of roskrish are complete.  Third photo shows dark lines; and fourth photo shows first highlight.
Left; second highlight.  For this version,
I'm using an "assiste" style of highlighting,
marked by fine lines rather than gradual
shading.  The ocean waves are far more
active than in the 2003 icon.

Right; the blue background is finished  
with 3 light floats of lazurite (ground lapis
lazuli) and Egyptian blue (ground blue
glass) for sparkle and depth.

Third highlight is in progress - and I can
start painting the 8-pointed stars!  There
are so many; this takes 2 hours.

Then the inscription is added around the
wide margin - same text as for the first
version, because these words greatly
appeal to me.

Lastly, the Creator's white and golden
garments are accented with fine lines of
shell gold!  2 or 3 applications are needed
for good coverage.  After the gold dries, it
is burnished to a high sheen.

The Fourth Day of Creation
egg tempera and gold leaf on shaped sculpted
board, 11 inches x 12.5 inches, 2008
photograph by Richard Anderson
Border inscription from Bishop Seraphim Segrist
The Annunciation was the assigned icon for an intermediate-level
workshop of the
Prosopon School, with Dmitri Andrejev as instructor.

The background was gilded in advance - a big job which took me most
of a weekend, and required some 12 sheets of gold leaf.
By Orthodox tradition, the young Mary was living and working in the Temple of
Jerusalem when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to tell her that she should expect
to become the mother of a very special baby.

To enhance the other-worldly atmosphere of this icon, Mary (with her seat and
footrest) and Gabriel are shown floating in front of the background.

The building and its architectural features are shown in an inversed perspective,
folded outward to display an event taking place indoors   This arrangement is very
illogical to our Western ways of thinking, but it enables the viewer to behold both
the inside and the outside of the building simultaneously.   For more, see the
Landscape, Buildings, and Furniture page.

The Temple and its special features, as well as the figures of Gabriel and Mary, are
full of symbolic meaning.  I found it challenging to incorporate all these elements in
an artistically unified and harmonious way, and to make the figures "read" clearly
against the complicated background.
When an icon includes figures of this small scale (face smaller than 17 mm, the size of a
dime) it is OK to use only 2 series of highlights and floats.  You can paint some second
highlight over the first highlight, as shown at left above, before floating.

After the first float, the second highlight is continued and elaborated, then proceeding directly
into the third highlight.
Ubuntu Trinity, although contemporary in theme, is based in concept
and general layout on the famous Rublev icon.  For the three angelic
figures, I used the drawing for Holy Trinity, but lowered the figures on
the board so that they could be shown sitting on the ground.

Sankir, the base color for flesh areas, is different for each figure - but
highlight and float colors are the same for each of them.  Similarly, the
roskrish or base color is different for each robe, but all are highlighted
and floated with the same pale gold, followed by white.
The leaves, birds, fish, and stars were painted as finishing
touches, after their backgrounds were completed.  Although
the water was painted early in the process, the waves wore
away and had to be re-painted at the end.  The light gold
background became overly blotchy - and had to be carefully
re-painted, using a tiny brush to get between the leaves.
Ubuntu Trinity
egg tempera and gold leaf on shaped panel,
11 inches x 12.5 inches, 2008
photograph by Richard Anderson

Back to Icons of Creation
This complex icon is full of movement in multiple directions, with many
diagonal lines.  At times its components seemed to be "flying apart" as
in an abstract painting by Kandinsky.

At the suggestion of
Patricia K. Kelly, Gabriel's wings were floated to a
lighter color, so that they fade somewhat into the background.  The
figures are now more nearly equivalent in visual weight.  The strongest
diagonal line (the upraised wing) is much reduced in visual impact, and
the composition has become more stable.  The decorative line with lily
corner motif repeats the lily at from Gabriel's spear, and breaks up the
disproportionately wide border.

The Annunciation
egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board,
11 inches x 14 inches, 2008
photograph by Richard Anderson

Back to Icons of Mary
Back to Home Page

Back to Gallery

Back to Main Technical Page
Our Lady of Vladimir - For this icon, I wanted
to become more familiar with
shell gold and
how to use it.  In order to provide a good dark
background for the golden brush strokes,
Mary's reddish-purple robe received only a
first highlight; no second or third highlights.  In
retrospect, I think it would have looked better
with a second highlight.

The shell gold came out somewhat grainier
and coarser than ideal - maybe I didn't grind it
long enough and patiently enough!

For instructions on how to make the floral
pattern in the halo, see bottom of
gilding page.
Our Lady of Vladimir
egg tempera, gold leaf, and shell
gold on sculpted board
11 x 14 inches, 2008

Back to Icons of Mary
Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, with his disciple and scribe Saint
Prochoros, imprisoned on the Island of Patmos

In icons of the 4 evangelists, Mark, Matthew, and Luke are depicted at desks,
peacefully writing their gospels.  By contrast, John is shown accompanied by
his young disciple Prochoros, in a cave on the prison island of Patmos, while
receiving inspiration directly from heaven.

This highly stylized depiction shows the two sitting on rustic furniture in a cave
which occupies almost the entire island.  The size of the island is exaggeratedly
small to graphically indicate that they have no escape.  The strong diagonals of
the rocks, the agitated ocean waves, and John's tense posture emphasize the
urgency of their task.

Note that the rays from heaven are not painted until late in the process.  The
white garments and the starry heaven are enhanced with
shell gold.

Back to Icons of Saints