Icons are painted according to specific guidelines and rules called canons by iconographers, who have studied the canons and carry out their work in prayerful manner. The iconic style came about normally, as a result of many small contributions by people, often anonymous, who led holy lives completely centered on God, throughout the two thousand history of the Church.
The medium used in most traditionally painted icons is egg tempera, which required rigid support. Panels for icons are made of solid wood, cut to appropriate size. Most panels are constructed with raised borders on the icon which counteract warping, as well as help to define the icon spatially. The paint cannot be applied to the wood itself. The panel is saturated with two coats of hot hide glue, which penetrates the fibers of the wood. A piece of linen cloth is soaked in the hot rabbit skin glue, and carefully applied to the panel and allowed to dry.
The dry, linen covered panel is then sized with two more coats of hot rabbit skin glue. After drying overnight, the panel is ready for the application of multiple coats of gesso, consisting of marble dust, water and rabbit skin glue. The gesso, when gently heated has the consistency of a heavy cream, and when brushed on in thin layers, it dries to a hard, permanent surface. 15-16 thin coats of gesso are applied, and when dried, they create an extremely durable surface.
When the gessoed panel has thoroughly dried (it could take a few days) the surface is carefully sanded and polished to a marble- like smoothness, ready for drawing, gilding and painting. A defined drawing is prepared, and its outlines transferred onto the panel. If the background is going to be made of gold leaf, it is usually at this stage, once the drawing on the panel has been completed, that the gold leaf is applied. 23-karat gold leaf is the norm for gilding icons.
When a drawing has been completed, and the gold leaf is applied, the base colors are painted onto the gessoed surface. Egg tempera is used and consists of natural pigment colors mixed with a solution of egg yolk, vinegar and water. With the base color done, the iconographer applies lighter colors, building up the forms and shapes, and continues painting with combinations of glazes, lines and color. The artist then adds the inscriptions and titles that identify the icon. No icon is complete without the name of the saint or of the feast depicted. Under no circumstances does the iconographer sign the icon.
When the painting is done, the icon is set aside for
at least a few weeks, and allowed to dry completely. After all this is done
- the icon can be carefully varnished, and once again, the icon is set aside
to dry for several days. Egg tempera is a medium of unsurpassed beauty, proven
permanency and stability over time. It is the egg yolk that gives centuries-old
icons their lasting quality, and vivid colors, which become even deeper and
more brilliant with the passing of time.