Icon-a-long with Anna 3: Gilding

So. Part of blogging a process as you go along means it’s harder to hide mistakes. Mistakes are a natural process of life, and as such, I hate them. But, as part of a learning process, I’m not sugar coating this post. I made some booboos, and learned that Florida humidity is unkind to the icon gilding process.

The icon process is pretty specific. You breathe an open-mouthed hot breath on the bole to create condensation, and the loose gold will adhere. It’s basically a form of water gilding with mouth moisture. (ewww.) But, this is symbolic of the breath of God, it’s also super period. After yesterday, I may have to cheat for the few years I’m down here.

I grew up in Florida, so the heat and humidity aren’t any sort of surprise. I don’t think I’m as tolerant of it as I used to be after living in New England and experiencing seasons, and living in perfect-almost-all-the-time Southern California. I learned how to gild in New England. I used fake composite gold in Rhode Island, but had graduated to real gold in New Hampshire. In retrospect, all of my icon work up there was during the winter. In California, I only gilded the halo of St. Nicholas, but I remember it being almost too perfect.

And now, I’ve returned to Hell Incarnate, and failed to prepare myself for the difficulty that awaited me. Anyways, here’s some pictures.

 

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Avengers assemble! 2 burnishers, some 23kt double gold loose leaf, and cut wax paper.

First thing first, I burnished the bole on the halos to a high sheen. I screwed up here. Twice, on both icons. I either pushed too hard, or it wasn’t set up right, because I ripped up spots of bole on each one and had to put more down, and let it set. This would bite me for the rest of the day.

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Michael’s halo partially burnished to a high shine.
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Burnishing Martin’s halo. This takes time. If you go too hard or too fast, you WILL rip up the bole.

Once I succeeded, I prepared the gold leaf. The easiest way to do this is to use wax paper to catch the leaf versus trying to use a gilders knife. At least, that’s the way I was taught?

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So shiny!
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Wax on…
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Wax off.
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You can cut the leaf once it’s on the wax paper with ordinary scissors. No cushion or knife required.

Once the gold was transferred to the wax paper and cut, all I had to do was breathe some hot air and slap it down, right? No. The first piece I used didn’t adhere at all. Naturally, I don’t have pictures of this part, since I was super perplexed, and then it became a fight. Then war was declared. And what is supposed to be a meditative, relaxing art for me turned into digging into the trenches and not coming out of the room until I had this gold down, dammit.

This was probably not the best approach. What I SHOULD have done, was troubleshoot via the internet and the scribal community.

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This is Martin, as I’m fighting to get coverage on one side of the halo after the first layer bombed. You can see the layers of leaf I was using to get it to stick, and how it wasn’t TOUCHING a few spots. Pinholes are normal, gaping holes are not. Layers are normal, layers that don’t cover gaping holes are not.

While I was getting frustrated, I must have spittled on the icon a bit, or too much condensation built up, and gold went down ONTO MARTIN’S FACE.

I honestly assumed that with the extra humidity, regardless of central AC, that the gold would be wanting to stick to literally everything, and I would have had the opposite problem. It wanted nothing to do with it. The equilibrium between the temperature of my breath and the board, or the amount of water in the air and my breath, must have  been off. Boards do absorb water, which leads them to warp with age, so it was suggested after my Facebook venting by a Trimarian scribe that I should put the board in the fridge for a while next time, to see if I can dehydrate it and cool it off, and get more condensation.

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Michael’s first layer. I was flabbergasted.

After the first round. I went downstairs, had some tea, and attempted to re-center myself. I didn’t take pictures of the gold on the wax paper, I wish I had: It was terribly patchy. And while it’s normal for it to come off in smaller pieces if I’m focusing on an area, it was doing that the whole time. I was getting bubbles and oxidation I had never seen before.

After my break, I figured enough time had passed for me to go ahead and burnish Martin’s halo. NOPE. It started great, and then the leaf just started coming right up, and exposed the bole. I gave up, regilded his whole halo, and decided that was enough handling of that icon for the time being.

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Shiny enough to reflect my phone and then…ACK!
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3 sheets of gold later: Those nice forehead smudges. I should be able to sand it down and paint over it, but that’s not the point.

I went back to Michael with a new plan of attack: Tenting the halo with the wax paper as I breathed on it, and then slamming the gold down quickly.  It seemed a bit violent, but it worked. I didn’t dare attempt to burnish.

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There’s still some exposed spots and pinholes, but I’ve decided to fix that with shell gold, and the painted halo outline.

For comparison, here’s Nicholas, who I gilded in California. Practically no blemishes, and a thickness nice enough to press a design into even on my rough, homemade board.

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I went downstairs after all of this, and had a stiff drink. This was 4 solid hours of work from start to finish. While one should take their time, that seems a bit excessive for simple gilding. The gold is down for these guys, but I need to reassess my approach now that I’m living in the swamp again.

Painting is up next. Let’s hope the threat of cockroaches eating fresh egg tempera doesn’t come true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Icon-a-long with Anna 2: Patterns and Bole

This post shows you the deepest darkest secret of iconography: the patterning process.

This is tongue in cheek for obvious reasons. Why?

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I will let you all stop screaming.

No, really. While many iconographers draw their own images, the vast majority of them are made from patterns that have existed since the Middle Ages or Early-Modern period. You can go on Amazon right now and find dozens of books of icon patterns and line art for this purpose. Copying is period. In fact, I was able to see an actual medieval icon pattern in person, once. I was unable to take a picture, but it was made of animal skin, and had the image punched into it so the iconographer could transfer it over onto their panel with a stylus. How else do you think so many icons look identical, save details and color?

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Two icons of “Sign, Mother of God” at the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA. The same pattern, but with different colors and embellishments. Note the position of the halo on each with the border and kovcheg.

I’m too poor to afford skins I can dedicate to patterns, but I can use the modern method of carbon paper, which is how most schools today teach it. (I do believe carbon paper, or a form of it, is period, but let’s not grasp at straws for stunt documentation.)

So, the way to do this is fairly straight forward. I’m using an 11×14 panel for an 8×10 printout, so I need to measure that out to create my border. Then I play the corner matching game and tape the image with the carbon paper down to the panel with painters tape. After that, using a dull pencil or a ballpoint pen, I go ahead and trace over the lines I need to create the line art. No need to get too detailed, because I learned early on you do too much work on the pattern, and paint over and lose all those detail lines. That’s all work you do on top of the base layers.

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Drawing the guidelines.
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Taping on the stencil.
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Finished cartoon.

After you get a successful trace, go back in with a graphite pencil and fix some details and missed lines.

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Notice how the original icon has the horse tail coming out of the border. I did the same.

After you have your line art, it’s time to prep for gilding.

Always get your gold down before painting. Gold will stick to all the things, so it’s important that you get it to stick to the only thing you want for the time being, and that’s a substance called bole.

I’ve mentioned this before in my previous icon posts, but bole is a mixture of red clay and hide glue. I’ve made it before, but I also like buying it ready made from Pandora because it make my house not smell gross and my stove and floors not get stained. Since I live in military housing, paying for others to do this for me is a great convenience.

I put two thick layers of bole down on the halo, and then a rough, thin layer on the edge of the board. This is highly symbolic in the icon process, but also important: the bole provides a cushion for the gold to have a design engraved into it if desired, and the layer on the edge helps protect the board while it’s being handled. In icon speak, it’s the base of earth from which God shone the divine light at creation (halo), and the edges are symbolic of the roughness and mortality of the artist. It’s kind of dark, and I love it. Because I paint these as an historical art in a secular manner, versus something that will be used for actual veneration, I don’t dwell too much on the sanctity of the process, but it makes a great mnemonic for the process, because the order of operations matters for a practical reason, as well as spiritual.

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Thick layer of wet bole on the icon of St. Martin.
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While that dried, I patterned Archangel Michael. Don’t worry about the guidelines, they can be erased and re-drawn.
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Putting bole down on Michael’s halo.
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Second thick layer of bole on St. Martin. It’s important to be mindful of air bubbles, which can ruin the smoothness of gold adhesion.
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Coating the edges.
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Ready to dry overnight and take on gold leaf.

After the bole cures, I’ll use an agate burnisher to smooth it out, but that will have to wait until tomorrow morning. If all goes well, I’ll be able to get the gold leaf down, and the first layer of egg tempera on all three icons.

 

To put things in perspective before painting, here’s the three brushes I use most of the time.

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Experiments in Iconography part II

I DOOD IT.

Well, so far. I got the gilding down tonight. This makes me insanely happy, since it was probably the part I was most worried about.

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St. Michael the Archangel, patron of Constantinople. Naturally.
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The red stuff is called bole. It’s a mixture of red clay and animal skin glue. This is the adhesive for the gold leaf.
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GOLD LEAFS. Okay, it’s composite gold. I was too afraid to invest in the real stuff just yet. I figure after some more practice if it looks like I can get this technique down, I will take the leap of faith to the 23kt sheets.

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HOLY SHINY. LITERALLY.

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I did it! I applied gold leaf for the first time ever!

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There are a little gaps, but it’s all fixable using shell gold, which is using the leftover leaf and mixing it with gum arabic to make a paint.

After the pictures were taken, I burnished the leaf, and used a modern sealant that came with the leaf because, well, I’m a rookie, and I’d rather be careful while I learn. So tomorrow I will try mixing the natural pigments into egg tempera, which is going to be the next hurdle.

Experiments in Iconography, Part I

When many people think of the Byzantine Empire, they probably think of one of these shiny things:

I am not a religious person mundanely, but I’ve always found the artistry of Orthodox iconography to be hauntingly beautiful. Icons have been a part of the religious tradition of Greece and Russia since the Byzantine Empire, and come to find out, the techniques used to create them are pretty much spot on to what have been done in period as is used today.

So today, I spent quite a bit of money on supplies to get started on attempting to paint my first icon, using period mineral pigments and composite gold leaf (No way I can afford the real stuff right now.) I did cheat a bit with getting gesso boards instead of preparing my own with poplar wood, rabbit skin glue, and natural gesso, but I only have so much money for this, and I’d rather not spend hundreds on creating something that I may completely screw up. Even the pigments I got, although natural, are not top of the line. I will be mixing them into egg tempera, the period method of using egg yolk and white wine to create a paint medium.
I’m pretty excited about starting this project. I’m also scared to death. So this will be the next multi-post series here on ye olde Anachronistic and Impulsive.