The technique of byzantine icons is complex
and specific, following an old tradition described in ancient books called
“ERMINIES”, written many centuries ago by old painters and preserved until
today in a few monasteries in the East, where the Byzantine style developed.
The materials used are the same as centuries ago: wood, canvas, chalk powder, bone glue, tempera mixed with egg yolk and golden foil. According to the “ERMINIES”, we paint an icon through several stages:
1. CHOOSING THE WOOD
The best wood essence is the lime wood, light
and slightly porous, resisting well in time to temperature differences. The
correct technique calls for the use of transversal beams of stronger wood
essence (i.e. beech wood), that are placed on the back of the icon to prevent
it from curving in time due to air humidity.
2. PREPARING THE SUPPORT
On carefully selected wood, we apply a layer
of canvas soaked in bone glue. The canvas has the role of protecting the painting
from cracks that may appear due to the process of gradual drying of the wooden
support or possible hits. On this canvas we apply 7 to 10 layers of primer
made from the same bone glue mixed with chalk powder. This chalky background,
after drying, is polished with sandpaper until it becomes very fine.
3. DRAWING AND GILDING
The saint or the scene that we intend to paint
is drawn in pencil on the polished surface.Then the background must be covered
with gold leaf, following a complex procedure. For this, several layers of
“shellac”(a special lacquer) are applied carefully only to those places where
the gold leaf is to be placed. Then the gold leaf is applied by means of a
special glue called “mixtion”, that needs 12 hours of dryg. There is another
gilding technique, the water gilding, but we prefer the one detailed here.
4. “PROPLASMOS”-BACKGROUND COLORS
The traditional Byzantine painting calls for
the use of tempera mixed with egg yolk emulsion, because the color prepared
this way has an outstanding resilience in time (even when exposed to sun light
and humidity). The emulsion is made of egg yolk, water and vinegar. The first
layer of paint is called “proplasmos”; the content is drew on it as well as
the shadow areas of the darker base color. The subsequent layers of paint
are applied from darker to lighter in order to suggest the inner light of
5. “GLYKASMOS” –INTERMEDIARY SHADES
The next color shades (3-4) are called “Glykasmos”
and are applied in thin layers on increasingly smaller areas. They are obtained
from mixing the base color with lighter ones as needed but can also be made
of other colors as well.
6. THE LIGHTS ON THE CLOTHES
They are applied on small areas throughout
the body, respecting the natural shape of the figure, usually on prominent
areas. It must be acknowledged that excessive line rigidity and light graphics
can damage the overall artistic effect.
7. THE FACE AND THE HANDS
The last ones to be realized.With very thin
lines we sketch the eyes, the hair and the eyebrows, then the lines are thickened.Then
we prepare a new color – called “sarcomata” (the flesh tones) – out of ochre,
white and vermilion and we mix it with the face proplasma to achieve the intermediary
shades. The last lines of light are applied on restrained areas, highlighting
Then the icon is stored for a few days to allow the paint to dry thoroughly.
The last step is to cover the icon with a layer of varnish, in order to achieve higher resistance in time to dust, humidity and sunlight.