Icon writing process
Commissioning: when commissioning an icon, one needs to take into account some important variables.
Firstly, one needs to determine the subject (Christ, Virgin Mary, a saint, festal) and the size of the icon. The table below gives some examples of subjects and their corresponding proportions.
After determining the subject and size of the icon, the commissioner can decide whether to have the wooden board made flat or with raised edges. For the content of the icon, one can also ask to include Bible verses, Saints quotes…etc, a certain landscape or a special wish. The final variable to take into account is the option to have the icon gilded. The commissioner can choose oil gilding, water gilding, assist (thin gold lines, as sometimes on Jesus coat) or no gilding at all.
Note: Kindly discuss these elements with the iconographer to determine the appropriate price of the icon.
Board preparation: as mentioned above, one can choose whether or not to have the wooden board routed (raised edges). After routing, a piece of cloth is glued to the wooden board and is left overnight to dry. The following day, gessoing (applying 15 thin layers of gesso and left drying overnight) begins. The gessoed board is then hand sanded to smooth the surface up to very thin grades (some hours) followed by painting the two back sides of the board.
Drawing: a research of good prototypes and on the history of the icon, its theology, eventually biblical, liturgical/ biography and writings, are part of the preparatory process.
A good drawing is the basis for a good icon, a task which is generally time-consuming and could take several weeks to realize.
Gilding: gold, a metal without corrosion, with dark and light reflection, is an image of the divine and eternal light. It's a very delicate work, technically demanding and of course, expensive, as 22 carats or more are being used. It will eventually be protected by varnish.
We use two different techniques, oil gilding, in which one layer of gold is used, and water gilding, where two layers of gold are applied on top of bole clay. This second technique is used for burnishing, polish finish and/ or embossing and patterns (generally for halos). Water gilding is a full day's work.
Painting: we use the traditional technique called "tempera", which is a mix of natural mineral pigments with egg yolk. The painting is made of many thin layers, translucent, to enhance the divine light present in Christ, the saints and the transfigured creation. It is a slow process, providing the best and spiritual result.
Icons at Lichfield Cathedral in the United Kingdom
On two occasions, the Lichfield Anglican Cathedral commissioned from lan Knowles and the Bethlehem Icon Centre, two large panels of the Annunciation in 2016 and a two-side icon Cross of 2.50 meters width by 3.90 meters height, in 2018. One of the Holy Land Iconographers, Sister Esther, was part of the team who worked on the latter project for six weeks. She worked on water gilding for two weeks and a half and on painting foliage and the Golgotha.
The team was invited to meet Prince Charles, who was a great supporter of the Bethlehem Icon School project as defined by lan Knowles. He is now looking at us with interest.