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The medium used in most traditionally painted icons is egg tempera, which requires a rigid support. Panels for icons are made of solid wood, usually poplar or mahogany , varieties of wood which are chosen for their stable, non-warping qualities. Solid oak struts are inserted in grooves cut into the back of each panel, across the grain to retard warping. Most panels are constructed with raised borders on the surface of the icon which also counteract warping--as well as helping to define the icon spatially. Paint cannot be applied directly to the wood itself. A complex panel preparation is required for proper and permanent adhesion of the paint. The panel is saturated with two coats of hot hide glue, which penetrates the fibers of the wood. Each coat is allowed to dry thoroughly. A piece of linen cloth cut slightly larger than the panel itself is soaked in the hot glue, and carefully applied to the panel and allowed to dry. This phase can take several days, depending on weather conditions. The dried, linen-covered panel is then sized with two more coats of the hot hide glue, to which have been added a small amount of powdered marble, to give it more ‚tooth‛ and substance. After drying overnight, the panel is ready for painting with multiple coats of gesso, a white, plaster-like preparation made of marble dust, water and the hide glue. The gesso, when gently heated has the consistency of heavy cream, and when brushed on in thin layers, it dries to a hard, permanent surface. The first few coats are applied and rubbed by hand into the rough ‘tooth’ provided by the

linen. Thin coats of gesso follow, one after the other, and when done, 15 to 20 thin coats of gesso create an extremely durable surface.

dull and lifeless when dry. The first is called ‚water gilding‛: 4-5 layers of yellow clay bole. that the gold leaf is applied. containing some hide glue. Usually a general sketch in sepia-toned pigment and water locates the subject on the panel. it is usually at this stage. earth. Egg tempera is a medium of unsurpassed beauty. If the background is going to be made of gold leaf. and a loose sheet of gold quickly laid onto the surface of the puddle of water. vivid colours and an unflawed surface. This preliminary drawing gradually is replaced by a more defined drawing and a little egg yolk is added to give the sketch some permanency. There are two different methods to apply the gold. are painted onto the gesso and polished when dry. on the other hand. Modern acrylic-based paints tend to become brittle.When the gessoed panel has thoroughly dried (a seasonal matter--thorough drying can take a number of days) the surface is carefully sanded and polished to a marblelike smoothness and only then does the painting begin. cracks and flakes. which then . It is the egg yolk that gives centuries -old icons their lasting quality. Pigments are. and establishes the proportions and composition. proven permanency and stability over time. We have egg tempera icons centuries old. after a comparatively short time dries out. Small nuggets of gold are been pounded out until they become extremely and uniformly thin. and minerals. finely-ground stone. when cleaned. which. and have the further problem of being inherently opaque-lacking the translucence possible with egg tempera which has always been a striking feature of icons. once the drawing on the panel has been completed. A sable brush is used to float a puddle of water onto the clay bole. Oil painting. Twenty three karat gold is the norm for gilding icons. have retained fresh. and if applied with water alone will rub off when dry. for the most part.

pulling the gold onto the wetted. the gold is applied and left at that stage. elsewhere. and temporarily adhesive surface. agate is used. Application of the clay bole: . When the glue becomes tacky. the gold is burnished with a smooth canine tooth-shaped implement called a burnisher which makes the gold extremely smooth and reflective.sinks into the clay. This kind of gold cannot be burnished. When dry. Here. we apply a layer of an oil based glue where-ever the gold is to go. Another method of gilding is called Mordant gilding. In Russia the burnisher is almost always a wolf’s tooth.



The gilded panel. after burnishing: .

‛ That remains true for any iconographer concerned for traditional painting. drawing and reflecting on the achievements that have been passed to him. The icon depicts only what is necessary. building up the forms and shapes. Leonid Ouspensky (1902-1987) always said. photographs and books on old icons aid the painter in understanding the tradition. with regard to learning the craft of icon painting. The iconographer adds the inscriptions and titles that identify the icon. No icon is complete without the name of the saint or of the feast depicted. the iconographer applies lighter colors. that. . the base colours are painted onto the gessoed surface. In addition to the several manuals specifically written to help the painter understand how a given subject is to be presented. Under no circumstances does the iconographer sign the icon. ‚the best teachers are the ancient icons. and the gold is laid.Once a satisfactory drawing has been completed. and variety of thicknesses of color. This western practice has become common in some Orthodox workshops but is practically unknown in traditional iconography: the few attested exceptions prove the rule. the iconographer is always studying the work of his predecessors. With the base colours down. lines. While actively painting. and continues painting with combinations of glazes. and that does not include the name of the painter or the workshop where the icon was made.

Painting of the flat colors: .


Painting of the lighter colors to build up forms and shapes: .

The varnish also deepens and enhances the colours. . much is seasonally determined. When all is done and well dried out. This can take a long time and again. the final work begins--applying the varnish which has been used at least since the Middle Ages and which ensures that the painted surface will ‚lock together‛ and have a protective surface.When the painting is done the icon is set aside and allowed to dry completely.

Throughout the day. and forms a film on the surface of the paint. At that point the excess varnish is scraped off. the panel is set aside to dry for days. varnishing usually takes the better part of one day--10 hours from first to last. but we have had panels whose varnishing has kept the community up literally all night. and only experience and the discernment that comes from experience indicates when that moment has arrived. and the varnish poured over it in a thick coat. leaving the final varnish coat behind. the varnish is absorbed by the paint. Once again. . The icon is taken to the church and blessed by the priest before being given to the individual who commissioned it. Depending on humidity. At a certain point the varnish becomes viscous. or prior to its installation in church.The varnish used is made of linseed oil and additives to hasten the drying process. as it thickens. The icon is laid flat.

Having practiced the technique of olifa oil varnish for more than 20 years. you really must find someone who can show you how it works. In a damp winter. for example). This varnishing technique is one that works best if the varnisher understands what is happening during the process. If you are new to varnishing with olifa. There are many parts of the process that are unpredictable and irreversible. I prepared the following instructions for students to whom I have taught the process. and properly dried. Olifa is a very difficult varnishing process to learn. best done by watching or assisting someone with experience doing it. allowing for varying techniques of different schools. I can attest to the wisdom of this statement. and knows what to look for. and experiences. and the natural light is gone. making a muddy mess of the olifa. I strongly recommend that a few small practice panels with a paint surface similar to what is to be varnished should be made. In a humid climate. It cannot be communicated by reading. the paint surface takes longer to cure than in a dry summer. The application of olifa should be tried and practiced before being used for a finished icon.‛ -Leonid Ouspensky talking about the varnishing technique known as Olifa. The varnishing must be planned for a day when you can remain with the icon into the evening. or in a rainy season. In a dry climate. I would wait 3 weeks.Olifa: Linseed Oil Varnish for the Egg Tempera Icon ‚This process must be shown by someone who knows it. when strength can be low. as the part of the process that can be physically demanding comes at the end of the day. particularly reds. This paper describes what my teacher taught me. the varnishing process may dislodge certain colors. once begun cannot be stopped or interrupted. A longer . The paint surface and proper tempering of the colors: The first consideration of varnishing an icon painted in egg tempera is the condition of the paint surface to be varnished: (1) Is the paint cured (dried) enough? If the paint surface is too new (a few days old. Do not varnish on a day where you have another commitment. together with some of my own observations. It is a process that. I would allow the icon to dry for 1-2 weeks. These instructions may be useful to someone having trouble with the process. Start early in the day.

which seems . Consistent tempering can be helped during the painting of the icon by the daily application of a wash of very diluted medium prior to the day’s work (one brush full of egg medium. with ‚undertempered‛ colors letting go and making the varnish dirty. In my experience. also covering all lettering. When making a new batch of olifa. I usually keep new olifa on a window sill. I mix a little aged olifa into the new batch. Colors that are not tempered enough will varnish unevenly. and contours that overlap onto the gold. Drop the liquid cobalt dryer into the linseed oil with a calibrated measuring dropper (fig 1). the paint surface should have a slight shine.S. I varnish gold leaf (water gilded) with shellac. Evenly and adequately tempered colors will be much easier to varnish. old olifa is superior to newly made olifa. OLIFA RECIPE: 2 ml liquid cobalt acetate dryer 250 ml refined linseed oil or . Allowing the icon to sit in the sun in a sunny window will facilitate the drying process.25 oz refined linseed oil or 8 ml liquid cobalt acetate dryer 1 quart refined linseed oil These recipes have the same proportions. the different measures are given to accommodate the differing measures in which linseed oil is sold in the U. If the surface is very matte. it changes color to become a beautiful golden amber. leaving dry spots that are difficult to fix. like a piece of velvet. on the right newly made olifa). If the colors do not have enough egg. With time. the result will be poor. and seven of water). it is under-tempered. Stir thoroughly (fig 2). so that the light and heat of the sun will thicken it a little. (2) Are the colors tempered enough? To add egg yoke medium to the pigment is to temper it. and will give trouble during the varnishing.drying time is better but not usually possible in my experience. and works better (fig 3: on the left. Prior to the olifa process. In my experience. (3) Gold leaf can present difficulties. and has no surface reflection at all. two year old olifa.8 ml liquid cobalt acetate dryer 4. Ouspensky usually coated his reds (vermilion or cadmium red) with a little pure egg medium as an extra precaution against dislodging color. lines of haloes. but not a high gloss. Shellac painted over paint that sits on gold (lettering and haloes) will hold it in place during the olifa process. New olifa is thin and brown. it thickens somewhat.

The icon should also be shielded from birds flying overhead. or dry too quickly. If the icon is sitting outside. Since where I tend to work with such large amounts of olifa. the faster the process will go. and spread with the fingers over the entire surface of the panel (figs 6-8). it will all disappear into the paint over the course of the day. (3) A permanent film of varnish will slowly form directly on top of the surface of the paint. for a large icon) may be used. be careful to: (1) keep the lamp far enough from the icon to make the surface warm. the olifa is then poured out onto the surface (figs 4-5). in the sun. If using a heat lamp. in an uncontrolled manner. I like to apply a little less than the maximum amount of varnish the surface will hold. Some insects will eat the egg in the paint. an ultraviolet heat lamp (or several. either in a window. and. Put the icon. In the following few hours. you will want to watch over it. If the weather is bad. as the surface will hold only so much varnish before it runs off the sides. and keep insects from landing on it. To varnish a work executed in egg tempera: The technique works best if the weather is dry and sunny. and this will make the varnish film develop unevenly. if it is warm. The icon and the jar of olifa should be warmed in the sun for about 10 minutes. (2) make sure that the surface is warmed evenly by moving the panel slightly every few minutes. It is possible to do the process on a wet. With the icon lying flat. or under an artificial heat/ light source. or outside. If you use too little varnish. as soon as the sun is strong enough to warm the surface of the icon. each absorbing different amounts at different rates of time. but not very hot. Some heat lamp bulbs direct a pinpoint of very strong heat onto a small part of the surface. Application of the olifa The varnishing should begin early in the day. How much olifa to pour onto the surface is a matter of preference and experience. not to mention slower. instead of facilitate this beneficial aging process. Too much heat could damage both the paint film and the gilding. 1. and underneath thickening linseed oil. it seems the better part of wisdom. I've taken to using latex gloves while doing olifa to prevent contact with the cobalt dryer. as the less varnish that is used. due to the action of light and heat. During the process. In theory. The air coming into contact with the olifa also helps to age it. It is also a good idea to keep the olifa in a wide mouth jar that is larger than the volume of olifa being stored. but it is much more difficult. (2) The varnish will thicken. and excess varnish will be removed later on in the process anyway. you cannot apply too much oil. rainy day. 3 things will happen: (1) The colors will absorb varnish. . lying flat. the icon should sit in sunlight.

The sunlight’s refraction in the oil surface is very strong. but try not to rub so hard that you take this film off altogether. If this becomes the case. the olifa will become thicker. . you will begin to feel this film under the movable olifa. but you must continue to move it around every 15 minutes.Be very careful when looking at the surface of the varnish in direct sunlight. and under the thickening linseed oil. and keep the developing film evenly spread over the surface of the panel. 2. return every 15 minutes and move the thickening olifa around with your fingers. the thin varnish will move and recede. leaving dry areas. and working on it. Continue to do this throughout the day. becoming the final varnish coat. (or turn off the heat lamp(s) and let it cool. The surface should become evenly thick. in small circles. Never look at the surface of the oil directly. Two very important warnings! DANGER! 1-The panel may become too hot to touch if it is in strong sunlight or too close to a heat lamp. and finally. it will be impossible to remove by the end of the process.2. and you want to break them up. You could permanently injure your eyes. Again. Although you could easily remove it at this point by rubbing hard with your fingers. Within an hour or so. redistribute them. as it begins to stick to the paint. then move the olifa around with your fingers. If you feel small patches of coagulated olifa on the surface of the paint. and can injure the eyes. and you must redistribute it evenly. you should notice a film of permanent varnish forming right on the surface of the paint. During the first few hours. and it will not leave dry areas. As you rub your fingers across the surface of the panel. When using heat lamps. and to attend to it there. here it is best to move the icon into the shade. You still rub the surface firmly. This film will thicken and harden. it will become firmer in the coming hours. move the panel into the shade or indoors. over the surface of the panel (figs 10-12). 3. break them up as you move the thickening olifa around. The olifa varnish will begin with the consistency of thin oil. The developing paint film After about 2 hours. turn off the lamps before looking at the icon. or indoors. as small pockets of varnish will coagulate. then become very viscous. Redistributing the olifa throughout the day Leaving the icon in the light/ heat source (fig 9). rubbing. due to the reflected light of the sun. and become one with the paint surface. then become like honey.

You may remove some of the olifa when there is enough of a film formed on the surface. start small. Do this by lightly wiping off olifa with your fingers systematically over the whole panel. There are many possibilities at this point. If you are beginner. leaving a good amount on the surface to continue the process. Removing a little excess olifa When you see that a good film of olifa varnish is forming on the surface of the paint.4. Scrape the thickened olifa off your hand with the knife (fig. You may take more off at a time.17). You can remove the unneeded thickened olifa. This depends on atmospheric conditions. 16. removing a square of olifa about the size of your hand at a time (figs 13 -14). 18-19). 6. about 6 square inches. or not. Practice panels will help the beginner. The final removal of all the excess olifa When the olifa becomes so thick that it begins to ‚grab‛ your fingers. you may carefully remove some of the thickened olifa. 5. the age of the olifa. How do you know when or if you may remove some of the olifa? Experience counts for much here. or scrape it into a tin can if you have a lot of olifa on the knife (fig. You can only discern what is ‚enough‛ or ‚more than enough‛ by experience. This removed thickened olifa can be stored in a small glass jar for later use and retouching (fig 15). You may not have put enough olifa on the icon at the beginning of the day to remove any now. NOTE: Some varnishers skip this part of the process. Scrape off a section of olifa with your hand from the lower left hand corner of the panel (fig. 2. removing the excess olifa in one step only. 20). Influencing the speed of the varnishing process There are two ways that the varnishing can be relatively speeded up or slowed down: 1. and there is more olifa on this film than you will need to complete the process. To remove the excess olifa: have a large knife (not too sharp) and a lint-free towel ready (cloth or paper). trial and error. which becomes the varnish coat.) Take the icon out of the light and heat source to slow the process down. Remove all the olifa in this way. when you gain experience. Removing the extra thickened olifa accelerates the varnishing process. how much olifa you have applied. You may vary the amount of time you leave the icon with the developing olifa in the sun ( or under the heat lamps. and the condition of your paint. which you may or may not want on a given day. You may find that the olifa is not thickening as fast as you would like. The time it takes to reach this point after the initial application of the olifa varies: 2-3 hours at least. and wipe the knife with the towel. moving across the . leaving a thin film behind. and the panel moves around as you attempt to redistribute the olifa. as described below. it is time to remove the rest of the excess olifa. and need to remove quite a bit to accelerate the drying. but you may need 5-6 hours(or more).

With it. Gilded areas should have the same film as the paint. The final step of the process: ‚brushing‛ the varnish After 15 minutes. in an environment as dust-free as possible. lay the icon flat on the table. This is also a matter of personal preference. the olifa may be removed very quickly (fig 22-26). If you try to take off the excess olifa too late. however.panel. (working in 6 square inch sections. because you can remove it quickly. I suggest that you take off all the excess olifa. and pulled off. If there is pigment that does not have enough egg medium in it. and work at a right angle to what you have been doing (figs 27-30). How much olifa is taken away? Olifa is removed until a thin layer of hardened olifa is left on the surface of the paint. taking care not to touch the surface of the varnish. However you choose to remove the olifa. but be careful over gold. sticky film of linseed oil which never becomes totally transparent or evenly shiny. exhausting. In this way the limitations and the characteristics of olifa are learned. with disastrous results. The pressure of your hand should be firm. You should be able to see any thick brush strokes. If this happens the icon may be varnished a second time in the same way. If you are acting at the correct time. work systematically up the panel. The texture of the paint can be seen. NOTE: I have begun to use a soft rubber silk screen squeegee to remove olifa (fig 21). The work can certainly be ruined at this point. If you remove the olifa too soon. The icon will be very shiny and very tacky at this point. Try it on test panels. as gold or shellac may be caught in a suction. and there is a good case for believing that this process is best learned only by making painful mistakes in the early attempts at the varnishing. Do not try this for the first time on an important work. working systematically. The olifa may be thicker or thinner. loose paint and all. Removing the olifa by hand is usually very strenuous. it will disappear into the paint. it should have a substantial varnish. depending on the decision of the varnisher. if necessary (and sometimes it is necessary to move very quickly. You will probably have to go over each part of the surface several times. but do not make any quick pulls over it. You will have to press very hard to remove this thickened olifa. If an icon is for a church.) You can leave the thickened olifa on the panel longer. Gently but firmly brush the surface with the out-side . you will be taking every bit of the olifa which can come off. and difficult.) then continuing up the panel. It should be leaned with the varnished side towards a wall. leaving the paint dry and unvarnished. it will smear at this point. you will be left with a thick. and try to fix the icon when the varnishing is completed if you can. when examined against the light (figs 31-32). then turn the panel sideways. which is not really fixable. 7. If this does happen.

Doing this for the next hour or so. it is necessary to do a little retouching. so add shellac. or in a sunny window. but this should go away overnight. Carefully. For this reason. and pay close attention to what happens when you brush the olifa: does it become dull. will make the icon less sticky and shiny. not becoming shiny again? It is probably time to stop. Do not touch the surface of the varnish until it has cooled. Mix up the paint in the usual way. Mix in a little ox gall (available at most art stores). which can only be learned through experience. or any other retouch varnish to the olifa. Begin in the lower corner of the icon and brush in slow. if possible. pulling your hand towards you. although it will be a little tacky for a few days. This is a wetting agent. Sometimes. As the olifa begins to dry and harden. When not brushing the icon. with the panel between you and the light source. This should help in the drying. If the icon is tacky after two days. or if the varnish becomes very dull. Repeat for the next horizontal 6 inch band. If the olifa makes a squeaky noise. If it is very shiny and tacky. it will remain shiny and sticky. This is pretty easy to fix. but for small repairs only. It should dry with time. Do your repairs. It will be very sticky. and to learn to watch for the signs. Lean the panel towards a wall. A good olifa surface is slightly glossy. and brush with the other hand. I have gotten into the practice of not touching the icon until two days after I varnish. . it should be leaned. so position yourself accordingly. with the icon between you and the window. downward strokes. It is easier to see the surface of the varnish in daylight rather than in electric light. It helps the paint not to bead up on the non-absorbent olifa. face against the wall. anyhow. When the fresh olifa is warm. This method cannot be used for large areas. it is also soft. a little of the paint which lies on top of gold comes off during the varnishing. and continue to move up the panel until it has been brushed entirely You need be able to see the reflection of the light on the surface of the varnish. it probably was not brushed enough.half of the palm of your hand or with your fingers. try putting it in the sun. always begin in the lower corner. so sit opposite a window. let dry an hour or so. Remember that the shellac will degrade and discolor in different ways that the olifa. and won’t become shiny again. varnish over the repairs or retouchings with a little shellac. then become shiny again? All is well. and you may progress." It should not be sticky. brushing it will make the surface mat. it is time to stop. every 10 or 15 minutes. moving sideways across the panel with each stroke. but then the shine slowly returns (fig 33). but not altogether shiny. The difficulty here is to stop touching the varnish before the time when it is too late to touch it. bearing that eventuality in mind. or so of the panel. thus treating the bottom 6 inches. If the icon is not brushed in this way. The olifa may be slightly tacky for several days. Occasionally. and do not touch it until the next day. It should not look "candy-coated. Hold the bottom of the panel with one hand. and fingerprints can become permanent. Does the varnish make a frightening sounding squeak or become very dull.

This method is one that consolidates the paint surface ahead of time. Do not place an icon directly onto a heat source. NOTE: The stove was giving out very little heat from the top. and stored in a small jar for retouching and restoration. Never wrap an icon in plastic. Leave overnight. and was raised about 9 inches off the floor. dry heat source for the process. or under a heat lamp. under the stove. I wrap it in brown paper. 12:00 noon: Some of the thickened olifa is removed. but the studio was adequately heated by a small wood stove. 10:30. Pick up the process. 12:40: The olifa had thickened noticeably. the next day. The same could be achieved by standing the icon near a radiator.To ship an icon with fresh varnish. The icon lay face up. by putting in more olifa. 10:00: The olifa is applied. and had formed a good film on the paint surface. An Alternate Method Rub a small amount of olifa into the surface of the icon. and each 15 minutes following: The olifa is rubbed and spread. The olifa was carefully rubbed and smoothed. . The fingers leave tracks now. which provided a good. NOTE: The stove had feet. wipe most of it off. 9:30 (AM): The icon is warmed by being put face down on top of the little wood stove. A sample olifa scenario The following scenario is a record of the varnishing of a small icon (8 X 10 inches) by Leonide Ouspensky in 1981 in his Paris studio. or laying it in the sun. if the heat is at all strong. wrap the wrapped icon in cardboard. Let it sink into the paint completely. If after 1 hour. and has proved easier for some people. then box the whole thing. Two pieces of thin wood were placed to cover the sides of the area under the stove to prevent drafts. The brown paper will usually not adhere to the varnish. and proceed with the process described above. where the panel remained warm. during this time. It will damage the icon. leaving only a little behind to sink in. if there is still some varnish collecting in pools on the surface of the icon. The weather was cold and rainy outside. but not hot. 10:15: The olifa is rubbed and spread around the surface of the icon.

1:20: The icon is removed from the heat. The olifa is worked and spread. It is turned to the wall. and then turned to the wall.which soon disappear back into the olifa. . The icon is very sticky and very shiny. It is very tacky. The varnishing is complete except for the overnight drying. Each 15 minutes thereafter: the icon is brushed as described above. making sure that the developing film is even. 4:00: The brushing stops. and it is difficult to move one’s fingers across the sticky surface. 2:00: The olifa is removed by hand and fingers with great physical effort. The rubbing continues each 15 minutes. This takes about 15 minutes.

. The original drawing done in red ochre.Painting A Face: The following photos detail the painting of a face on an icon using the traditional egg tempera technique.

Red clay bole has been applied for the gilding. .

.Gold leaf has been applied and burnished.

.First layers of the flat colors have been applied.

The flat colors have been built up more. .

The flat colors are complete and dark lines have been painted. .

.The highlights have begun to be applied.

Highlights are built up more. .

Highlights are more fully developed. . but not yet complete.

Source: http://www.The completed painting.gsinai.php .com/rw/icons/technique.