Atelier saint André Icon painting
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Choosing and preparing pigments

Throughout the centuries icon painters had employed only those pigments that were available in their countries and that were used in the schools to which they were attached. Today, pigments are manufactured in a large range of colors and sold in fine art stores.


The best producers of these pigments are Sennelier, Kremer and Zecchi. These good quality pigments may be mixed with water, blended until a homogeneous paste is created and this paste may be stored for several days. To preserve this paste, put it into a small hermetic container, photo film containers work very well, and add a little distilled water on top. Keep sealed until you are ready to use.

Some colors, such as emerald green and ultramarine blue, dry more quickly and so it is important to add more water to them and to stir them from time to time. Others, such as titanium white, produce lumps when drying; and yellow ochre, that is used to paint faces, must be refined with a glass muller on a glass slab.

Some colors, such as emerald green and vermillion, are also very hard to dilute with water and should be diluted first with alcohol which will evaporate. A limited number of pigments (about fifteen) are used for the majority of icons and the individual colors are not used in pure form but always mixed with other colors. The basic pallet of colors for iconography is:
            • Ultramarine Blue
            • Emerald Green substitute
            • Veronese Green
            • Cadmium Yellow substitute
            • Yellow Ochre, clear
            • Red Ochre
            • Lead White
            • Titanium White
            • Burnt Sienna
            • Cobalt Blue
            • Cadmium Red
            • Red Vermillion
            • Naples Yellow substitute
            • Lamp Black

Caution : Some colors are incompatible with other colors (see the table of colors). For example Cadmium yellow will degrade Yellow Ochre, that is used on faces, after a few years. And Zinc Oxide will turn to gray very quickly when used alone.

And some colors, such as lead white, are toxic and precautions must be taken when using them.

Egg tempera preparation (emulsion)

Egg Tempera is used as the binder for pigments in painting icons. Although ready-made egg tempera colors are available in art supply stores they contain preservatives that may harm the solidity of some colors. So it is preferable to make them oneself and there are several formulas for preparing egg tempera.

  • First recipe: to one volume egg yolk add one volume of lager.
  • Second recipe: to one volume egg yolk add two volumes of white wine.

Mix the preparation together and keep it in the freezer. Use a dropper to dispense for painting.

Choosing brushes

Brushes that are used for egg tempera should have bristles that are short yet firm enough for lining, and have a body that is round enough to hold the liquid medium used for painting. They must have and hold a good point when wet. Ask to check for all these features prior to purchasing your brushes. Kolinsky sable watercolor brushes are the best; but they are also the most expensive. Isaby brushes are also of very good quality. In addition it is useful to have a 1" to 3" flat watercolor brush for background washes and for edges.
The best way to take care of your brushes is to wash them immediately after use with clear water and hang them with the point down to dry. Do not allow pigment to dry in them. If a brush is not used for a long time, gently smooth it with oil. To try to save a brush that has lost its shape, dip it in egg tempera, point it, and let it dry.

For the beginner to paint a small sized icon three brushes will be sufficient:

  • A Kolinsky sable #0 for detail work;
  • A medium synthetic hair brush #2 or #3 for drawing, puddling on color and dry brushing;
  • A large synthetic brush #4 or #5 for puddling large areas and glazing.

Color preparation

Determining the exact proportion of emulsion to be added to pigments is difficult because of two factors:

  • There are pigments that absorb more emulsion that others . (see the table of colors)
  • The degree of transparency one strives for in an icon, the proportions vary from one school to another

Generally, it is better to use less emulsion than more emulsion.

Put some of the color paste on a palette, a simple white porcelain plate is sufficient. To this add one or two drops of emulsion and mix with a brush. The mixture must be homogeneous and remain stable while stirring. If the pigment separates form the mixture add a drop of emulsion. If the color is to "waxy" add more water.

Painting garments

The steps involved in painting a garment are essentially alternating light puddles of color with lining as follows:

Click on the picture...

  • First stage : tracing the garments lines.

    • Mix a color that is high in density with just a little water to make a lines that are pronounced and precise;
    • Even if the drawing has been engraved be sure to retrace the lines of the drawing with a fine brush liner. Use a color that is darker than the local tone of the whole garment, i.e., red ochre to darken yellow ochre, blue to darken red, black to darken blue, blue and black to darken green, burnt Sienna or black to darken red ochre, etc. Test your color on paper before applying to the drawing. Let dry.
    • To give movement and life to the lines, pull the brush away from the painter outward toward the outside of the board in fast and assured movements. Practice this movement before drawing on the board:
      • Control your movement by placing your elbow on the table and using it as an axis of rotation;
      • Turn the board as you "feel" for the direction of the lines that flow away from you;
      • Keep your wrist flexible and supple;
      • Allow the line to "die" at the end by tapering off to nothing;
      • Make any corrections in your drawing or engraving at this time by modifying the lines.

  • Second stage : first modeling.

    • To the color of the first stage add a 1:1 ration of water;
    • Make a very careful study of the direction and movement of the folds of the garment and identify areas of greatest highlight. This will establish the pattern upon which all work will follow;
    • Gradually apply color to these by pushing the greatest density of pigment toward the area of greatest highlight. If you have too much pigment on your brush dry it off so that you don't dump a large amount of pigment onto the garment. Determine if the area of the greatest density of pigment is correct. If not use the point of the brush to "push" the pigment into place.
    • This is a technique that is somewhere between the "puddling" technique described in step three and the technique of lining with the brush. Work quickly so that the color does not lift from the levkas. If this occurs, allow it to dry completely and then gently scrape the color off with a razor and begin again. Be very careful to not damage the levkas. Do not be too concerned if the lines are lost during this process as they will be redrawn several times during the following stages;
    • Repeat this process on each of the garments.

  • Third stage : application of transparent "puddles" on the garments.

    • Mix the color for the garment by adding far more water than egg. This is similar to the way watercolors look;
    • Begin application at a "corner" of the garment with either a medium or large brush depending on the size of the icon. Make sure the brush if very full of color and gradually create a puddle of color over the entire area to be colored. Keep the mixture of the same density throughout the puddle and avoid uneven deposits of color;
    • The pigments and egg will settle leaving water on the surface. Allow this to dry without touching as the egg and pigment will "lift" if touched. If this happens it will create a defect that can be repaired only after the entire area is dry;
    • Work on a flat surface so the colors will dry evenly. As drying occurs the lines that may have disappeared will reappear;
    • Once dry, gently rub the color with a finger to remove thickness;
    • Wash with a very light, 1:1 ratio layer of emulsion;
    • Repeat the "puddling" of color two or three times if necessary;
    • Allow to dry between layers and rub slightly with your finger after each "puddle";
    • To create soft transitions between the colored areas that have to sharp a contrast either; use the same color with less liquid and apply it in small brush strokes or cover the entire high-lightened area with a little color in a transparent wash;
    • If any holes appear in the painting fill them with a small puddle of the local color. After the puddle dries, blend by delicately brushing the edges;
    • It is possible to give nuance to the applied color and to modify it through glazing. Mix a small quantity of color in the emulsion and apply the glaze over the designated area in one pass. Allow this to dry before determining the need for another glaze. It is important to strive for transparency in the glaze as it will allow the nuance of the colors underneath to shine through. An example of this is the "maphorion" or outer garment of the Mother of God. If this garment appears dull or to "earthy" it can be warmed up with a red glaze. Several transparent glazes may be applied but care must be taken that the paint doesn't become to thick;
    • Retrace the lines of the contours and folds of all the garments. This gives them strength and crispness;
    • Wash the entire area of the garments with a light egg wash before beginning the next stage.

  • Fourth stage : garment highlights.

    • To mix the highlighting color, mix the local color with a little lead white (toxic) and a point of titanium. A point is the amount of pigment picked up on the tip of the brush when it is dipped lightly into the pigment. For reds use a little yellow or orange, for browns and greens use a little yellow ochre. Make preliminary color studies;
    • Apply the color to the area to be high-lighted by stumping. Stumping is a dry brush technique that gradually tapers the color. With a dry brush, work from the lightest to the darkest areas with fast, light brush strokes;
    • Repeat this process two or three times increasing the proportion of titanium white and reducing the highlighted surface;
    • The last lines are then applied with a mix of 80% titanium white;
    • Retrace the lines;
    • Apply a fine wash of egg emulsion over the whole garment.

  • Finishing

    • It is sometimes necessary to retrace the final white highlights as they tend to become absorbed and to lose their strength after drying.

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Last update : Tue, Dec 9, 2008, P. Grall © ASA 2000 - 2009 All rights reserved.