Immanuel Icons

an orthodox christian iconography studio
in pittsburgh, pennsylvania

Almighty God, our help and refuge,
Source of all wisdom and
Pillar of strength,
You know that without You I am powerless.
I firmly believe that 'apart from You I can do nothing."
Send Your grace to enable me to complete the task I am about to undertake.
Help me to accomplish it faithfully and diligently
So that it may prove helpful to myself and others.
And that it may bring glory to Your holy Name.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glofy of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit now and forever

A Prayer Before Undertaking Any Task
In iconography, unlike in other styles of painting, you start with a dark base layer and gradually build up the highlights. Scroll down to see how the layers are built up on this Cretan style icon.

Iconography is first and foremost an act of prayer and service.  Humility, not artistic skill, is the basic requirement.  In fact, many people report that even if they relied on their skills as an artist at the beginning, the process itself is so demanding that they end up being forced to rely on God!  The iconographer's dependence on a set of wily, technically challenging materials mirrors humanity's dependence on God.

Similarly, as Father Alexander Schmemann interprets the creation story, Adam and Eve clamor at in-dependence from God by eating the one food forbidden to them.  Neither given nor blessed by God, the fruit represents a means towards the end of human self-sufficiency.  The first couple discovers, however, that denying communion with the divine by attempting surreptitiously to claim power over the material world entails alienation from their true created nature. 

Father Schmemann defines this original human nature as priestly.  All are called to transform their dependence on the world into an offering of communion with God.  In the attempt to circumvent this communion, humanity commits the sin of transforming dependence into a closed and therefore dying circuit with the material world.  In such a case, writes Schmemann, the human "forgets that the world, its air or its food cannot by themselves bring life, but only as they are received and accepted for God's sake, in God and as bearers of the divine gift of life" (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World:  Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, New York:  St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2000), p. 17). 

To remember our Creator God, the iconographer working in egg tempera gathers up the materials--metaphorically the whole world in the elements of animal, vegetable, and mineral--and offers them back to God.

In practice, I begin by cutting and otherwise preparing a board and applying layers of liquefied rabbit skin followed by ten or so thin layers of gesso, a combination of of the rabbit skin and calcium carbonate.  I then sand the board with increasingly fine sandpaper, ending up with an incredibly durable yet elastic, marble-like surface that will last for centuries.

After working up my own drawing by analyzing the geometry underlying several good models, I apply a simplified outline of the iconographic image.  I begin by gilding the halo.  Then I build up the image by applying literally dozens of thin layers of egg tempera paint:  a combination of egg yolk and various ground pigments from rock and other natural sources.  The layers create a depth and texture impossible to replicate with acrylic, a plastic-based paint often used for iconography in this country.  Needless to say, a hand-painted icon of any medium couldn't be aesthetically and spiritually farther from the icon reproductions--essentially xeroxes mounted to boards--that most people are used to today. 

The process, even for a simple icon, takes well over a week of full-time work.  Of course, the work itself takes place in the timeless realm of prayer and, as with liturgy, it doesn't make sense to measure it in hours, layers, or dollars.  The icon is literally breathed into being, both because breath is often incorporated into the gilding process and because the iconographer breathes or brush-strokes prayers such as the Jesus Prayer (see sidebar) into the icon.  The resulting icon is merely a signpost, a window only "through a glass darkly," but its object, the subject really, gives the icon its status as sacred.


One way iconography has traditionally been structured is as a studio in a monastic setting.  In this context, the iconographer is spiritually supported by the daily rhythm of prayer and community life.  Often there is material support in the form of delegating different stages (board-building, painting faces, guilding, etc.) to different people.  Always the iconographer is freed from the ethos of the business and art worlds which are so contrary to the ethos of iconography.

When I am not in my studio painting icons I am tend to my family, including homeschooling four children, age 4-17.  I find there are some surprising similarities to monastic life in family life!  The disciplining of my meals and sleep, the prayers for patience with my little community, the need for constant denial of my (false) self:  the similarities with traditional monasticism go on and on.

In fact, monastic life is just a concentrated form of what we all should be doing, just as the saints are not supposed to be thought of as set apart, with their good works a form of unattainable mastery, but examples we can all follow by living whole-heartedly in the center of God's will.  I'm sure I fall short in one-hundred-and-one ways, but with God's grace I try to see my whole life as informed by the ethos of monasticism, of iconography, rather than enclosing a pious sphere within the walls of my studio.

This picture from a summer intensive is great: One person is painting, one mixing, one dipping.... (See the Home page for info on an upcoming summer intensive.)
Do what comes to hand.  Whatsoever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.  After all, God is with us.  It shows too much conceit to trust to ourselves, to be discouraged at what we ourselves can accomplish.  It is lacking in faith in God to be discouraged.  After all, we are going to proceed with His help.  We offer Him what we are going to do.  If He wishes it to prosper, it will.  We must depend solely on Him.  Work as though everything depended on ourselves, and pray as though everything depended on God, as St. Ignatius says.  (Dorothy Day)
Theotokos of Tenderness (or Virgin Eleousa), based on an icon at the Cleveland Museum of Art. In general, since iconography is a living tradition, most of my icons are based on my own drawings. However, I find it very beneficial to closely copy iconographic masterpeices such as this one as a way of learning how other iconographers have worked. This is a Cretan icon, which could be considered a half-way point between the Byzantine style popular in Greece and more Western styles flourishing in Italy.
If YOU would like to learn iconography, draw, draw, and draw some more!  For a short-term project, see my Gallery, Glass Icons page.  E-mail me to get on a contact list for upcoming classes ( or inquire about private classes.