How to make a religious icon

Written by tracy stefan
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The word icon comes from the Greek work "eikon," which means image. A religious icon is an image created for religious veneration. The most popular religious icons are Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Religious icons are usually a painted or carved portable object of the Orthodox Eastern faith. Devotees have been making and using religious icons since the 6th century to aid them in making prayers to the holy figure represented in the icon. Religious icons are considered sacred, spiritual and even miraculous. Religious icons are often illuminated with lamps or candles. Icons are still widely venerated today in Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging

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Things you need

  • Small, portable piece of wood
  • Piece of gauze or white canvas the same size as wood
  • Stucco
  • Glue
  • Water
  • Pencil for tracing on gauze
  • Gold leaf and gold paint
  • Light resistant permanent paint
  • Varnish
  • Detail paint brushes

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Instructions

  1. 1

    Pick a piece of solid wood that is easily portable. Adhere a piece of gauze or white canvas to the wood with stucco, or a mixture of glue and water. You can also use a modernised version of this adhesive in the form of a latex ceramic tile adhesive which comes conveniently premixed and can be found at most hardware stores.

    The gauze or white canvas provides a light reflective background that will give greater contrast to the colours than if you were to paint directly on the wood itself. Wood is generally very porous and will absorb most of the paint and colour if is not prepared with a backing.

  2. 2

    Trace an iconic figure on the gauze or white canvas. The most commonly used are stylised renditions of the face of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Buddha or one of the saints.

    Cover the background figure you traced on the gauze with three layers of shellac.The layering of shellac will give the illusion of added depth when painted on. It is also put on after the final layer of paint has dried to protect it against UV damage and deterioration. Adding shellac before painting as well as after will enhance the depth of the image, giving it a 3-D effect.

    Use thin layers of shellac at a time, applying it evenly with a fine paintbrush. Allow each coat to dry thoroughly before applying the next coat to avoid clumping and running. After the the third layer of shellac has dried completely, apply gold leaves around the background with glue and paint a halo with gold paint over the iconic figure's head.

  3. 3

    Start applying paint to the icon. There are different procedures for applying paint. Icons have a very stylised tradition that has not changed much through the ages. The colours are dark and rudimentary, true to their origins. The colours are stylised and in the tradition of the original, limited colour varieties available to ancient painters who had to make their own paint colours from plants and shrubs. The colours used tend to be generic, dark and intense. Green and brown were use as a basis of skin colour as many of our ancestors had olive and or dark skin. Start with the mid-range colours, adding the darkest tones and highlights at the end.

    With a detail paintbrush, brush in the face, hands and feet with brown and olive green. Paint the clothing green, red, brown and blue. The colours used in the clothing of religious icons are deliberately chosen for their spiritual symbolism: gold symbolises the radiance of heaven, red symbolises divine life, blue symbolises human life and white symbolises the uncreated essence of God. Jesus is typified with a red undergarment and blue outer garment to symbolise God in human form. Mary is typically seen in a blue undergarment with a red outer garment which symbolises a human granted gifts by God.

  4. 4

    Take another detail brush and trace the edges of the face, hands and feet with darker versions of brown and red, adding the shadow. Trace the lines of the clothes with a fine line of blue and black for increased definition and depth.

  5. 5

    Paint the face, hands and feet with a flesh colour. Use the same colour to highlight background mountains, buildings and clothes.

  6. 6

    Highlight the face with white paint giving it a shiny, illumined look--that is, on the forehead, cheeks, lips and nose. This does not require a lot of paint and in many cases for the final highlights, less is more, so apply it sparingly and gradually until you gain the effect of light radiating from the icon's face.

  7. 7

    Let your final painting dry for at least a couple of days. After that, apply one to three coats of varnish, letting each coat dry thoroughly, to protect colour intensity and protect the paint.

Tips and warnings

  • The primary motivation to make religious icons is to portray the mystical aspects of a divine being, recognising that the icon is not the being itself.
  • Some people do not take kindly to religious icons, so be careful how you use them.

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