the journey of an icon

Last week nine of us met on the Isle of Cumbrae at the Cathedral of The Isles for an Icon Workshop. Some had been the year before and were back desperate to create another masterpiece and they were the ones to reassure us that although we thought we weren’t ‘artistic enough’ we definitely would paint an icon worthy of hanging on the walls. Our teacher was Tatiana, a young woman from Romania, who spends her life painting icons and frescoes for churches and people. She is softly spoken, gentle and the most affirming teacher I’ve ever had. Those who had been before brought copies of icons they wanted to use and Tatiana had other copies of Jesus or Mary icons if we wanted one. I wanted to do an icon of St Fillan because my church is rather plain and I felt could do with a holy picture on its walls. There is only one icon of St Fillan that I could find on the internet and really it could be of any old man and as there are many and various tales of umpteen St Fillans I reckoned nobody would dispute what he looked like.

The next day we began in the Gallery after breakfast with our blank gesso boards, pigments of beautiful colours in small pots and a wee dish with an egg and water mix. There are many stages in painting an icon and I won’t remember them all but I did photograph each stage as I went along. We began with a prayer. Yes, there is a special prayer that Tatiana uses when she paints an icon. It is to remind us that what we do is for the glory of God.

(Do you paint an icon or write an icon? In many books you will read that the correct words to us is ‘write’ but when I asked Tatiana she laughed. It’s paint, she said. But the books say write, I said. It’s the same word in translation, she said. Write is just pretentious! So I shall use the word paint here for that is what we did.)

We then traced or copied the outline of our images on to the board, including all the shadows. You’ll notice in icons that the shadows are almost shapes of different colours, not necessarily blended in as you would see in art. The faces are quite stylised with blocks of different colours to indicate shading so it was easy to outline where they would be. After we had an outline we scored over the lines with a pointy tool. This is so that when we lay the first layer of colour we can feel where the lines for shadows or outlines are. Then we had to decide where we wanted the gold leaf to go – all over the background or just the halo and other objects like books etc. I’ve heard that gold leaf is not easy to work with so I opted for a simple gold halo, if a halo can ever be simple! Later, when I saw the others, I wished that I had gone for gold all over but she who hesitates… must live with her decisions. You have to use special size to paint over the area where the gold will be, and then carefully rub it on with cottonwool pads, smoothing out the wrinkles and patching where necessary.

There was fiddly work to be done then, scraping away the bits that were where they shouldn’t be and removing the size so that paint would stick later. Throughout the day there were periods of silence as we all concentrated on our own images with just the sound of scratching and rubbing and occasionally shouts of ‘Tatiana!’ as we struggled with something we weren’t sure of. And gentle, loving Tatiana would come over and whisper “Good. Good. That’s very good” even when it clearly wasn’t. And she would show us how to fix it and step back to allow us to do it ourselves.

We did stop for lunch and reluctantly pulled ourselves away but we hadn’t even noticed that we hadn’t had a coffee break. By the time it came for Evening Prayer we couldn’t believe a day had gone by. I was also surprised at what a spiritual experience it had been from the prayer to start us off through each of the stages of preparation. I wanted this icon to be special, and yes, for the glory of God and St Fillan and St Fillan’s. I wanted it to be as good as it could be. And some of the prayers that went into it were of the ‘Help me God!’ type as well. In the evening Tatiana showed us some icons and their stories. Apparantly a beginner should always start with the Transfiguration. By 9 o’clock we were yawning our heads off and most were in bed by 10pm! Dear reader, this is not my usual experience when staying in the Cathedral of The Isles. Many a time, I’ve found myself in the library or lounge sipping Gin until the wee small hours amidst much hilarity. It is tiring work, being creative.

The next morning it was time to add some colour. This involved a bit of pigment and a bit of egg mix and some swirling with a paint brush until the colour brightened and we started to colour in our faces, hair and hands with the olive colour. There were to be no white-skinned Jesuses here! That was when we saw the benefit of scoring our outlines for the paint is dense with colour and you couldn’t see where the face ended and the hair began. Then everyone did it differently. Some worked on faces and the detail of shading and outlines, and some painted in cloaks and clothing wanting to get as much colour on as possible. Again Tatiana was on hand to guide and occasionally lean over and add a dot or a line which transformed our amateur colouring-in. We learned the names of the colours and throughout the week the most plaintive cry was ‘Is this the ochre?’, the colour most used for shadows and shading and mixing with others. We began to share with one another when we just needed a splodge of one colour and didn’t want to mix a batch, ever mindful of not wasting the precious pigments.


You’ll see that in my original picture of St Fillan he has both hands palms out. Overnight this had played on my mind. You see, even in our dreams we were thinking of our icons. How would people know it was St Fillan? Most saints have a symbol in art. St Peter has his keys, St Agatha has her boobs on a plate, St Lucy has an eye and St Fillan is usually associated with a wolf. I knew that a wolf was beyond my artistic capabilities but I also knew that when the Sunday School of St Fillan’s, many years before, had acted out the story he was known to have a beautiful crozier. The cardboard crook they made is still in existance in somebody’s garage and she produced it earlier this year on St Fillan’s Day. I think the original is in the Museum of Scotland and there are photographs of it so I told Tatiana that I’d like to add it in. With a bit of jiggery pokery, we (I say ‘we’ but it was mostly Tatiana really) added in the crozier outline and Tatiana adjusted the hand to hold it. The crook part has some distinctive markings on it and I did manage to replicate those after a fashion.

At one stage when Tatiana was over near me she did gently say “Are you sure you want to do this background in purple?” There was laughter around the room from those who knew me. Yes, purple. “It might be quite dark,” she softly said. Yes, purple. And I explained that St Fillan’s has purple doors (which, in case there is any doubt, were painted purple before I came.) Our local primary school wear purple uniforms so it is a kind of corporate colour for the area of Buckstone. They really had no choice but to hire me!

I think the talk Tatiana gave that night was about frescos but I’m afraid I slept through most of it. And yes, dear reader, I snored too. And woke myself up. Early bed again. It’s exhausting, this icon painting. It must be the concentration, the intense scrutiny, the creation of tiny marks to make a face good enough to pray through. And sometimes the hunt for olive pigment to paint it all over and start again. Of course it wasn’t all angst and silence. There were moments of hilarity too. Andrew’s ox who looked like a guinea pig, Gordon’s baby Jesus who looked ugly as anything before he became beautiful, Kirstin’s St Ruth who looked like a Tennant’s lager ad babe… you had to be there!

We couldn’t wait to get going next day. This was to be the day when we really finished so that varnishing could take place and all would be well for our last day when we would have a Eucharist and have them blessed. Some were further on than others. Sometimes the paint just took longer to dry. Some were panicking that they just couldn’t get things right. The plaintive cry of ‘Tatiana!’ was heard more and more throughout the land. She whirled from one icon to another muttering ‘beautiful, beautiful’ and added little touches and advised on shadows. For one so young, Tatiana is really a traditionalist at heart. She likes icons to look like icons. There is a right way of doing an icon and that was what she expected from us. Oh, we could suggest little innovations all we liked and she would quietly say, ‘Yes, I see, I see. But why don’t you do this…?’ and we’d find ourselves doing it the traditional way after all.

And traditional icons have a red border round the board, and sometimes a thin cream inner line too. Then the lettering had to go on and that was when I wished I had my calligraphy pens with me and not a very fine paintbrush. We looked at one another’s icons and gasped in amazement. How clever are we? Each one was beautiful. Guinea pigs had become oxen, the baby Jesus had become adorable, the sheep were sheep-like, the Tennant’s lager T looked fine when the other lettering was done, and only I know that St Fillan once had two hands facing out and no crozier. And bit by bit, Tatiana whispered ‘I think you’re ready to varnish now’ and then the fumes spread throughout the land.

Our talk that night was Tatiana showing us some of her own icons, modestly. And she also spoke about praying with icons. She does it every day. She told us about gazing into the face of an icon, gazing and gazing and stilling ourselves until we encountered deep peace and connection with God. She made it sound so simple. But when I gazed at some of the icons I could indeed see the glory of God. I could feel peace and serenity and God gazing back at me. And I think God was pleased with our work.

I shall never look at an icon the same again. I have a few in my collection. Most of them are paper pictures stuck on wood with lots of varnish. Now I look at the faces and the shadows and the hands and the colours. Now I look at the techniques, the gold leaf, the composition. Now I look at the faces of God and I feel God’s presence in the icon. Now I want to go and paint another icon for myself.

On our last day we painted the backs of our boards and put the special lettering which I think translates as God is Fabby. We took them carefully over to the Cathedral and one by one we brought them to the altar rail and had them sprinkled with holy water, censed and blessed. We then put them on the altar and gazed at them during the Eucharist. Icons of glory to God. Only one was missing, for Mother Anne had to leave early on our last day. We blessed hers at Morning Prayer but it doesn’t appear on the altar so I’ve shown it seperately.
2017-08-24 17.27.59 2017-08-24 17.21.24


5 thoughts on “the journey of an icon

  1. This was particularly interesting for me Ruth because I ‘had a bash’ at Icon writing/painting about
    three years ago. We had first of all a one-day workshop which was very rudimentary, then about a year later a course which had around 6 or seven 2-hour sessions. This was one where we all painted the Archangel Gabriel.
    Finally the following year we each chose our own Icon (mine being St Joseph husband of The Virgin Mary.
    It was not a brilliant bit of work but I find I am more pleased with it than when I first did it. It is either developing a character of its own or I am getting used to it.
    As the least gifted person in the world I was pleasantly surprised by the end result.
    I hope you will enjoy your work for many years to come, and the congregation too of course.

  2. Thank you for your beautiful description of the work that has gone into it – your icon is truly special, Ruth. Every Blessing. Freda

  3. Earlier comment disappeared – I wanted to say thank you for posting such a clear and lovely description of your icon – illuminating in every sense. It will bring so much deep joy to those who see it – the sense of your own prayers, drawing others in to pray with and through the Icon.

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