Reflections on Spirituality and Technique
The letter to the Colossians tells us that Jesus Christ is the protoicon of God made visible—made present to us in the incarnation. This bold statement lies at the heart of understanding the spiritual significance of icons within Eastern churches, where everything that has been created is viewed as good because God created it and we, like Jesus, although imperfect, reflect the image of God into the world. Icons give us a glimpse of the beauty to which we are invited and called. They inspire us to embrace God's love and to be transfigured through our own surrender to God's will. This integrated, holistic way of relating to the world is a primary characteristic of the Eastern church and immediately apparent in the Eastern (Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic) liturgy.
Enter any Eastern Orthodox or Byzantine Rite church and the first things you'll probably notice are the smell of incense, the dimly lit space, and the reflection of flickering candles in the icon's halos. As your eyes grow accustomed to the dimness, images of saints begin emerging from the shadows and appear on almost every surface that could possibly support an image. The church is filled with movement as people visit small podiums decked with lavishly embroidered cloth coverings on which even more icons are displayed. Worshippers kiss the icons and bow and cross themselves over and over again, whether the service has started or not.
An Orthodox woman once approached me to confide, "The East is full of tricks to get you away from your head. When you get into your head, you get into trouble." Her comment reminded me of when I lived outside of Washington, DC, and often visited a small Eastern Orthodox monastery near Catholic University for vespers on Saturday evenings. I began doing this as a Lenten practice and ended up going there regularly to begin my celebration of the Lord's Day. It took a while to become comfortable with the experience, but it happened not by thinking it through, but by simply giving myself up to the experience, by letting myself go. I had become used to the order and linear progressions of the liturgy of the Roman rite, where only one thing happens at a time and everyone stays put until told to move. That simply doesn't happen in an Eastern liturgy.
A whole new level of complexity is added to this already complicated experience once liturgy begins—doors open and close on the iconostasis (icon screen), and people pop in and out of them. Prayers, repeated as often as forty times, offer richly poetic images that come at us too quickly to absorb. Chants bounce back and forth between the choir, the cantors, the priest, the deacon, the reader, and the people. And oddly enough, all this happens simultaneously.
For Westerners, this experience is as unbelievable as it's overwhelming. We often find ourselves unable to take it all in because we try to understand it all, to think it all through, which is impossible because what we're experiencing is a dance—the dance of God. Those of us from Western church tradition are far too heady, far too controlled, and far too self-conscious to allow ourselves to be taken by the dance, no matter whose dance it is. But that's exactly what the spiritual life is unceasingly inviting us to do, whether we've been brought up in Manhattan or Moscow. Yes, the Eastern church has lots of ways to get us out of our heads so we might become whole and holy people who aren't afraid to dance with God.
I encourage my students to continue studying with a teacher or even several teachers. It doesn't really matter which teacher, or which style they prefer, or what medium they use. Just study. Everything a teacher offers is transformed within and by the student anyway, and emerges as a new development rather than a new entity. Teachers simply enhance the painting we already do and I, for one, can never be enhanced enough.
Over the years, I've been blessed to study with perhaps seven or eight different iconographers and each one has taught me something that has become part of my work. From Charles Rohrbacher, I learned to appreciate the translucence of colors and how to construct a strong initial drawing grounded in sacred geometry. Nick Papas taught me to use fluid paint boldly, to layer colors and infuse my icons with some playfulness. Nina Bouroff helped me to literally touch the earthiness and rich history of Russia by teaching me how to make just about everything from scratch. Phil Zimmerman transmitted a wealth of technical information, taught me to teach, introduced me to color theory in a way that finally made sense, and offered lots of encouragement along the way. Valentin Strelzov inspired me to simplify, to experiment a bit, and trust my instincts. Father Damian shared his profound grasp of the theology behind what we do as iconographers and showed me a great deal about the spontaneity of what knowing the tradition deeply can give birth to. Marek Czarnecki blessed me with his incredible understanding of the process of modeling garments with light and inverse perspective.
I spent a week at Saint Tikhon's Orthodox Monastery in northeastern Pennsylvania studying with Xenia Pokrovsky, her daughter Anna Pokrovskya-Gouriev, and Marek Czarnecki. I learned a great deal and felt more than a little challenged because they use egg tempera, which I haven't used in years. It was a humbling experience. I felt like I was starting from scratch and recognized in myself the anxiety I often observe in my own students. Even after decades of painting icons, I learned something new. Actually, I learned a bunch of seemingly small things that became exciting revelations.
For example, I learned how the highlights on garments (which they simply call "lights") are in reality more extensive than they appear to be in books. Prints of icons and actual icons are different from one another; even the best reproductions are compromised and cannot compare with originals. I discovered how the first highlight should be big, bold, and transparent, much more so than I had done in the past. The second highlight should be less transparent, brighter, and smaller but painted directly on top of the first. The third highlight is smaller still, very much less transparent, and brightest of all. Plus, my teachers made some exciting color choices, ones I hadn't previously encountered. For instance, when they make dark blue garments they don't begin with a dark blue base; instead they use a gray/green base and highlight it with lighter and lighter shades of blue. How cool is that?
Perhaps more than anything else, I always learn a great deal by simply watching other iconographers paint. It doesn't really matter whether they are masters or not. In fact, I learn from my own students all the time by observing how they hold the brush, the flow of their brush strokes, the subtle and intuitive touches of color here and there, as well as choices they make regarding color composition.
I hope my experiences encourage you to study with any and every teacher you can. Something good will surely come of it even—or especially—if you think you've already learned everything you need to know. There's always more.
Priest, Pastor, Iconographer
Speaking of study, because my other vocation as a priest allows me to take continuing education courses, I was able to spend several days at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan with Elisabeth Koenig, PhD, who offered a course on "The Jesus Prayer and Eastern Christian Spiritual Practice." This was a wonderful way to connect my practice of iconography with deeper learning about the spirituality from which this sacred art form arises.
Before arriving for this two-day intensive course, I received a reading list of about fifteen texts from the Desert Monastics of the Justinian era in the early church, the patristic writers, the compiled works of Eastern monks and mystics in the Philokalia, some Western Benedictine perspectives, along with a few modern authors reflecting back on the insights and practices of the past, including praying with icons. During discussions about the Jesus Prayer, the prayer of the heart, I encountered a concept relatively new to me (at least the term is somewhat foreign): discernment.
Discernment means going beyond constant judgments about what we like or dislike, what we want and do not want, and what we think and what we disagree with to seek God's will for us. This may or may not have anything to do with icons, but it's a huge consideration for the believer. Perhaps this is how discernment matters to us as iconographers, because our first priority, through the work of our hands, is to invite others to the transformation that can come from a life of prayer and service. Each of us is called to conversion, to be renewed and reformed into the image of Christ, the proto-icon of God. As iconographers, we have an amazing opportunity to participate in gathering others into relationship with God—if we can get our own egos out of the mix.
As an iconographer and as a priest, I marvel at how I serve best when I don't think about how I'm doing but simply do what's before me as well as I can. Being a priest and an iconographer, or a retired person, a teacher, a farmer, a nurse, a football coach, or a lawyer can all be a means of personal conversion and service to others. The trick is to do our work in such a way that points our hearts and the hearts of those around us to the heart of God.
God's grace can do amazing things; all we have to do is simply get out of the way. The most powerful icons do just that—they get out of the way even as they engage us and point our hearts toward God. Iconographer Vladislav Andreyev insists that the primary rule of iconography is that the icon be so transparent (that is, not drawing attention to itself) that it has no other role but to move you closer to God. Now that's egoless transparency! Consider this: We live in a time and a society in which almost nothing invites us to let go and to trust God. We trust in many things, but God is not usually our first choice.
Recently I've been surprised to learn something so obvious that I totally missed it for years: There's a huge difference between the way you paint large, public pieces, the way you paint medium-sized icons for chapels or homes, and the way you paint small, personal icons. Imagine that.
A few summers ago, one of my students and I replaced a number of wall panels for a church in Pittsburgh. Each panel was about nine feet high and three feet wide. We were recreating originals destroyed by water damage in the apse area of the church about twenty-five to thirty feet up and approximately several hundred feet from the first pew. As we began measuring the areas, we noticed that the surviving panels were quite rough and very "impressionistic" in their style. We tried to emulate the boldly confident brush work of the original master artist, Jan De Rosen, and although we made a valiant effort to approximate his boldness, we simply could not prevent ourselves from working as if we were doing the usual 9 x 12 or 12 x 16 inch panels. Although the panels we created did the job they were intended to do, our work lacked the confidence, playfulness, and drama of the artist we tried copying. We added too much fussy detail when we should have concentrated on the effect from a distance. Lots of what we had spent hours on disappeared once we came down from off the scaffolding. That was a real awakening for me.
On the other hand, students who have painted with me on smaller panels in classes have heard me tell folks to step back now and then to see how the icon really looks, because things that look like a big deal from four inches away really aren't that significant from three feet. It's obvious when you're working on a small panel that you need to get away from it to see it clearly. It's the old "three-foot rule," meaning that if it looks good from three feet away, it's okay.
Similar wisdom applies to painting big for church-sized images that will not be seen from up close by anyone but the person who restores it one hundred years later. Step back and see how it will look from the distance of those who will regularly look at the images. In other words, evaluate whether you have done enough or too little in context. Whether you're painting a very small icon or a large mural, you begin eliminating detail or at least minimize the fussy small stuff that a medium-sized icon would include. On small icons, faces become a bit simpler and highlights become a bit more restrained. On the other hand, very large images require bold brush strokes and less refined or less subtle layering. You allow the eye to do the blending for you rather than painting subtle transitions of color from layer to layer. There should probably be at least three classes for icon painters: miniatures, averagesized icons, and large, mural-type painting techniques. Each demands its own approach and understanding of how the icon will be viewed as well as experienced.
If you take out any book of good quality prints of old icons and spend some time examining the images before you, you'll immediately notice the strength of the composition in each icon that made it into the collection. This excellence doesn't happen by accident or by believing a weak design will somehow work itself out in the painting process. Masters spend time with the design before they ever touch brush to panel, so begin with a good, clean drawing that's well thought-out and intentional in every respect. When you edit or finalize your drawing, keep it simple. Don't add a line for every subtle fold or highlight. Simplify your drawing over and over until you have found the essence of the design. Obviously a drawing can be too simple, but I find that students more often err on the side of too much information in their drawings as well as in many other parts of this process.
For each color area, figure out what base color to use, since it's the main color before any highlights or shadows are added. Skilled iconographers in earlier times did not create lots of fussy little areas, each with its own shade of color. Base colors were rather simple. A mountain was one color. A robe was one color. Faces and hands and feet—actually the whole body—was one color. Study until you can see where the base colors go and note how the same base colors are repeated throughout the image to give unity to the icon.
The main base color areas are then sometimes shadowed a bit to enhance the basic color and give it some interest. Before you begin, study your prototype a while longer. Sometimes what can initially look like a shadow is merely the effect of the highlights on the base color areas that remain untouched.
Although the overall process is a layering of colors from dark to light, now and then shadowing is utilized. You can really see this on the sides of mountains and buildings. It can also become apparent on garments after a bit more examination. This is sometimes achieved by adding shadows on the drawing itself before any base colors are added. (See illustrations of the Saint Peter icon that I recreated using the technique of egg tempera painters on page 81.) In this case, base colors must be layered onto the drawing very transparently so the shadow will show through. If you do not put the shadow on the drawing at the beginning, it's possible to add a hint of shadow using a wash of a darker color, or perhaps a complementary color, but be very careful not to overdo it.
Next, it's time for the highlights. A thorough study of an old prototype should reveal the layers of highlights that were applied to create the sense of blending or the transition from darker base colors to light areas. The "hardness" or "softness" of these transitions varies depending on the school, the century, and the amount of influence Western art has had on the icon you're studying. Remember, too, that some icons were created for intimate, personal prayer and some were painted for large, public, liturgical spaces, which means they were viewed from significant distances.
So what about mistakes? They seem to be beginners' greatest fear and obsession; mine too at times. In my better moments, I realize my mistakes are some of my best teachers. No one wants to make a mistake on an icon that has already consumed hours of painting but sometimes that's just the way it happens. The significant question is not whether we make mistakes but whether we learn from them.
Every icon I paint is hopefully the best icon I can do at that moment—my mistakes almost guarantee this if I'm paying attention. But paying attention is the tricky part and does not happen automatically. We must stay awake in the spiritual and physical sense, focus on more than simply producing an icon, and remain teachable. This might seem like a no-brainer, but actually doing it is far more difficult than it might seem.
I've found there are usually at least three layers of highlights in iconography—that's three layers of lighter and lighter color. Any of these colors might be applied just once or may be applied in translucent layers, gradually building the intensity of the color.
Details and ornament are usually added at the end so you don't have to paint around anything. Spears, crosses, embroidery, headbands, patterns or ornaments on garments, small vegetation, and even calligraphy are all elements that can easily be added on top of the highlighted base colors after all the big work is completed. As an aside, one thing I've noticed about what separates beginners from more skilled iconographers is that beginners often get lost and overwhelmed in the details. Most details come at the end of the process rather than at the beginning. Go from big to small or from general to specific. That seems to work well for me. Besides, that's the way God created the universe. Check out the creation stories of Genesis and follow God's example.