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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Icon-a-long with Anna 1: Boards

I have a few commissions coming up, and I decided I wanted to blog(ish) the process rather than keep it under wraps, since they aren’t gifts. I had to decided if I was going to do it on Facebook between my personal account, or my SCA persona page (which I rarely post on), and decided that I should just put it here, so it’s more accessible for those that don’t spend their day on social media as much as I do. It will also help me be more accountable in making regular updates.

So, to begin, let’s talk about the actual surface on which to be painted.

Icon boards, in their most simplest, are layers of gesso (calcium carbonate and hide glue) on a sanded and prepped wooden surface. Well-made boards have a layer of linen glued to the surface of the board before application of the gesso. In early period, this was mostly basswood. In early-modern and modern icons, it’s typically poplar. Both woods are still available today, of course. Basswood is not that durable, it’s a soft wood used for wooden models. I do have a panel of it somewhere I plan to paint someday, but until then, I spend money and have other people do this for me.

I have made my own panels. They are not good, but I did it. Using pre-sanded and drilled birch panels from an art store, I had a heck of a time applying gesso and sanding. This is not the job for me. And that’s okay, because the creation of icon boards is an artform in its own right, and was probably done by a different person in period than the actual painter. The Norman has more experience with woodworking and patience than I do, so my own boards are on the horizon, just not imminently so.

I purchase my high-end boards commercially. And by “commercially”, I mean, from Pandora Icon Supplies, which is a subsidiary of the Prosopon School based here in the states. They are not “manufactured”, because, much like high end papers for the C&I community, it requires a level of craftsmanship, and the price reflects this, so I’d call them more of a purveyor of fine art supplies.  I just recently made an order after scrimping and saving for 2 years just to buy new materials, but they’re worth every penny. Sometimes there’s a turnaround time, sometimes they ship right away. These are handcrafted, so you have to anticipate some leeway.  Pandora offers a lower-cost alternative in the form of the birch gessoed panel, which is still professional grade, but does not have the same thickness or carved surface of the fine icon board. Their larger fine board will have the slats in the back to help control the inevitable warping over time. Smaller boards, like the one I have below, do not. I can’t currently justify the cost of a larger, high-end board until I use up my supply on hand. I already want to start hoarding these like fabric.

Basswood, poplar, and birch are all Old World AND New World woods. In Europe, “linden” is the name of basswood, and “aspen” is used for some poplar variants. Black poplar is probably the one that was used most for boards in period, and that also grows here in North America. The taxonomic differences are probably minimal, which means that if someone were to go to a hardwood supplier here in the states, they would get wood suitable for making panels, without having to spend an exorbitant amount of money importing something we don’t have.

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My current collection. The top row I have 2 11″x14″ Pandora “BGP” (Birch Gessoed Panels), which is a more affordable way to invest in a well-made board without breaking the bank, next to my own smaller panel that is currently getting worked on with St. Nicholas. At the bottom, you have a larger 10×15″ BGP still wrapped in paper, and a fine, 8″x10″ poplar panel with a kovcheg (recess). The BGPs pictured here were $60 a piece, and the fine board was $80. My 8″x10″ panel was like $20 of supplies a lot of swearing.

 

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The backs of the board so you can see the exposed grain of the wood. The birch is nice, but the poplar is mesmerizing.

My upcoming projects are a commission of St. Martin of Tours, and St. Michael the Archangel for myself, because I need to start keeping some art. St. Nicholas of Myra as the patron saint of sailors is for my husband.

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Coming next: Patterning the icon, and preparing the surface for gilding.

Ask me anything!

So, while I’m taking a short break from heavy SCA sewing and research, I want everybody to help me keep my brain ticking.

Every week, or however often I get questions, I’m going to have a question/answer column here on my blog. Feel free to ask me anything about Roman and Byzantine history, textiles, clothing, etc, and I’ll give you a complete answer, or as complete as I can, with citations to send you on your way. General ancient and medieval history  questions can also be fielded if you’re looking for something more broad.

If this gets busy, I don’t know how many questions I’ll be able to answer, but I’ll do my best to make sure that everybody is covered.

Got a question for me?

Hit me up at syrakousina at gmail.com.

We’re moving!

Well, I’m moving, anyway. I’ve successfully completed my masters program, and I’m relocating to join my lord husband across the country at his naval posting. I have lots of cool stuff on my master’s thesis I can’t wait to share, but this blog will be on hold a bit while I pack up here in the East Kingdom, and get to my new home in Caid. I expect it will take several weeks to really settle in, considering I’m as East Coast as a hurricane smoking a clove, and I’m being transplanted to California.

I am teaching at Pennsic, (Yes, I’m flying from CA to PA, I’m insane) and will be posting more on that next month.

I hope everybody enjoys the start of summer, and I hope to see you all at a Caidan event soon!  In the meantime, here’s a photo of me wearing my master’s project. Yeah, I got to make garb, talk about playing off of your strengths.

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Surprise! Icon!

I took a break from iconography for a while because I felt like my art wasn’t up to snuff, and I was thinking of giving up. By the way: never give up. I had the pleasure of working at the Museum of Russian Icons over the fall semester of 2015, and I learned a lot while I was there, including getting the change to work with the entire inventory, and examine, and touch, period icons. While I was there, I went ahead and purchased some better accurate pigments and more gold, and decided it was time to get back into the swing of things. Initially, I was going to try my hand at turning an icon into my husband’s backlog scroll for the Order of the Silver Crescent, but then I got an offer I couldn’t refuse: Konstantia, my blue twin out in Calontir, was to receive her Herald Extraordinary, and the now-Gold Falcon Herald, Uji, invited me in on the shenanigans.

Initially, I was asked to just do the words. Here is what I came up with instead. Oops?

First, I purchased real icon boards from Pandora Iconography Supplies. It doesn’t have a kovcheg (recess), but that’s because those are expensive. Each 11×14″ board is $55 a piece as is, and custom made upon ordering.  I tried my hand at gessoing my own panels, and uh, yeah, nothing beats the real thing by the professionals, even at the price.

So I laid it out, as you do. The pattern is from an actual 13th Century icon of St. Gabriel the Archangel (Herald of God, and the end of the world, and stuff.) and is still popular today.

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Then I prepared the halo for gilding with real red clay bole, which I also purchased from Pandora. As you can see this go around, I also bole’d the edges. This is something I learned at the museum. It symbolizes the artist being mortal, and rough around the edges, therefore, it doesn’t get sanded and burnished like the halo does.

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Note the thickness of the application here. This is vital to a good leaf adherence. You literally just puddle the liquid bole on, try not to get air bubbles, and let it dry.

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After the nice thick layer of bole dried overnight, I burnished it with agate to bring out that blingy shine.

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After the gold leaf (23kt double gold in this case) was down, the sankir and roskrish are applied, including real vermilion for the cloak. That’s mercury sulfide. You know, death in paint form. (To quote my  grad school classmate and fellow SCAdian Wilhelm: “Only in the Middle Ages could something so mundanely boring potentially kill you.”) The stuff was like painting on a cloud though, but at $18 for a smidgin, I don’t see myself using it all the time. This was a special occasion that warranted potentially poisoning myself.

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I tested the shell gold on the vermilion once it was dry to see how it would turn out, and decided yes.
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And the highlighting process begins, with poor Gabriel looking as if he literally can’t even.

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Some hot dry pigment action:

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More highlighting:

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And then ALL THE SHELL GOLD. OMG, SO MUCH GOLD.

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*BLING!*

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Roll that beautiful inscription footage, ah yiss…

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And then, the actual “scroll” wording needed to go down. I based this on some period examples of text included in the borders of icons. I need to work on my lettering, but I think I did a fair job, considering this is my first icon “scroll” ever. I kept with the plain yellow ochre border, as it was an extremely common choice in period. It’s also affordable and predictable.

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And DING! SCROLL IS DONE! Words are based on the Akathistos Hymn to Mary.

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Gabriel can’t even. Literally.

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Obviously, I had to send it from the East to Calontir, and I managed to sneak it in the mail the day I left for Spring Break. Now that it’s signed, she needs to send it back so I can apply the oil varnish and make sure that it’s protected properly.

Oh, the kicker? I did her garb for her Stepping-Down from Gold Falcon, and surprise Herald Extraordinary bestowal as well. 😉 Which at least, she commissioned and knew was coming.

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I am so dead the next time I see her. *shifty eyes*

Icon do it! St. Lucia of Syracuse icon completed!

So last spring after another botched attempt at iconography, I was prepared to give up the art form entirely. I’m not a painter, and the stuff I draw primarily is Japanese anime, which is, uh, so not period or even appropriate for icons at all.

This fall, I was asked to offer my skills as an artisan to the East Kingdom gift baskets to be given out at Pennsic. I accepted, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I decided, reluctantly, to pick up the brush again, but first I needed to practice.

I invested in new supplies: new pigment colors, new brushes, real gesso, and bole and olifa from an icon supply place on the internet.  I also went and got some real gold leaf, despite still having way too much composite from my previous projects I should use up first. I have silver and copper composite leaves that I picked up cheap from an art supply store locally, so I wondered if they would be of any use on practice pieces before I potentially wasted the good stuff.

Most icons are done in gold, but there are a few in silver encasement. After I did some digging, I did find this 11th Century icon with embossed silver leaf, so I figured that was at least some evidence that silver was being used in period on icons.  I used this as an excuse to blow through 4 sheets of composite silver on this piece.

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Embossed silver icon from the 11th Century.

I chose St. Lucia since she was from the same town as my persona. Local saints were prized in the Middle Ages, and that’s a good enough reason to assume that I would have strongly venerated her. She is also a patron of seamstresses, so a little saintly intervention in the sewing room can’t hurt. 😉 There’s plenty of modern icons patterns to choose from on the internet, so I picked the one I wanted, grabbed one of my remaining Gessobords (This one is 9″x12″), played with carbon paper, and followed the same steps as I did previously, only on the pretense of leafing all the things. The leafing took about 3 hours. Even with the larger sheets of fake stuff.

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I soon learned that embossing composite leaf was not going to work. I did more damage than anything, so I repaired the leaf where I borked it up, and decided to leave it flat. There’s plenty of flat gold icons. I may not be able to find a flat silver one, but we’ll call this a creative anachronism. (I mean, composite after all.)

So the painting started, with the layers being applied over several days. Mostly snow days, thanks to the lovely winter we’re having in New England. (Lovely as in @@#!#$$!!!!)

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I started to get nervous as I began to work toward the upper most highlight layers, this is where I had screwed up before. So, taking deep breaths, and using my new, thin brushes, I worked carefully, putting in no more than 2 hours a day over the course of about 7 days total. The finished results shocked me, they shocked my husband, they shocked my friends. I couldn’t believe I pulled off an icon that well, looked like an icon.

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I did it! I really actually DID IT. The best part is that she’s for meeeeee! I get to keep her and admire her next to poor Archangel Michael and show her off in displays without feeling mortified at my attempt.

The only real thing I don’t think I will ever do again is leaf or gild an entire panel. It was a pain it the butt to paint over where it accidentally got on the drawing. In fact, her halo and inscription are actually in acrylic. I had to cheat in order to get anything on the leaf. I’m sure that the real gold won’t act like the fake stuff, but I’m not about to try it right now and find out. Let’s get better at what I’m doing before I start ruining sheets of 22k gold.

In the mean time, Lucia is aging over the next week or so before I seal the leaf and oil the painting with olifa. And I plan to bring her and some other goods with me up to Montreal for King and Queen’s Arts and Sciences next month.

I also re-did my Iconography page with a more complete gallery and link to my tagged archive. Do go check it out.

Icon the Third.

Let me tell you all how hard it is to paint very light gray hair.

Also learned: Sometimes, your egg tempera medium just blows, and doesn’t work well. I had a really rough time dealing with my yellow ochre and vine black pigments this project, and I’m unsure why. Apparently it could do with the temperature of the medium (using it right out of the fridge) or my ratio of egg to wine.

This is an icon of St. Kenric I of Warwick, late King of the East. His martyrdom is signified by the wearing of a red cloak, and his death by black arrow is immortalized. This is a great schtick we have going in the East Kingdom right now as we try to discover the murderer of our former king. This icon is a donation to the Silent Auction we are running this weekend at the Coronation of Brennan and Caoilfhoinn to benefit the Royal War Chest Coffers.

I based this particular one off of an icon of Christ, and tried to mimic the earlier Orthodox church’s designs from the 6th and 7th Century, hence the freeform inscription, which reads, KENRIC BASILEUS ANATOLIKIS. “Kenric, King of the East.”

As you can see, I’m getting better, but not great yet. This was a great opportunity for practice, and man did it take some time.

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I’ll be making a page for my iconography soon. I figure it’s the best way to document my journey through the art form rather than scattered blog posts.