A Few Words on the Technique of Iconography…

An Icon is not just a painting with a religious meaning but rather a sacred image, which ascends to the Archetype; it is a window into a different, spiritual world.
The technique of writing an icon (icons are “written” not painted) originated from ancient times and must follow strict guidelines and requirements referred to as cannons. Along with writing the icon there are preparatory stages such as preparation of the wooden board, paints, the techniques of writing the icon and the fact that the icon must be similar if not identical to the icon samples from which one creates a new image
Traditionally, icons are written on a well-dried wooden board, which is prepared using a special method. First, several layers of glue are applied on the board, and then the canvas is glued on top of the board. The most common type of canvas attached is made out of linen cloth and serves as a joining agent between the gesso and the surface.
The next step is the application of the gesso. Gesso is a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, glue, and oil varnish. Sometimes instead of the oil, varnish honey is added. The gesso is applied which about 5-6 layers. It is important to have the surface fully dried after the application of each additional layer. Afterwards the surface needs to be polished and the areas where the gold leaf is to be applied must be extra smooth.
Once the board is ready, the drawing can be outlined on it. In most cases, iconographers use thin paper on which the image is already depicted to trace it unto the board. The more experienced iconographers will paint directly on the gesso.
After the image has been drawn on the wooden board, the gold leaf is applied unto the icon which by now is covered with either water or oil varnish. This step requires diligence and attention to detail. Usually the gold leaf is applied to the halo and the background of the icon.
Icons are not written with standard paints and iconographers must prepare the paints themselves. The paints consist of pigments – well ground minerals and a binding agent in the form of egg yolk. This mixture is combined with a liquid mixture using a 1:4 ration. The liquid mixture is usually beer of water with vinegar. The result must resemble a more liquid form of sour cream.
The colors are applied with a thin layer as the space on the icon must be able to “breathe”. Both large and small round paintbrushes are used in the process. Because every color has is significant in its symbolic meaning it is important for the colors to be clear and easy to identify.
The first aspects of the icon that are written includes clothing, buildings and background architecture as well as landscapes  and everything else with the exception of the faces, hands and feet on the image. The technique requires a gradual brightening of the image, usually in about three steps. Each crease on the clothing of saints as well as the brightened colors imply transfiguration and immateriality of the fabric. The clothing symbolizes the good deeds of the saints and the return to God’s grace from sin.
The next step involves writing the faces, hands and feet on the image and is similar to the previous step but will require more layers and time. Finally, the image need to be drawn-through with cinnabar (red paint) and whitened to improve the sharpness and clarity of the image.
Assist is applied towards the end of the icon painting process. Assist is a thin golden drawing that is found on the clothing of Christ, Mother of God, and some of the saints, which signifies the Divinity in their essence.
Inscriptions and outlines are also very important in the creation of the icon. These two aspects are the final pieces to the puzzle. Only after the inscription is added to the image can it be referred to as an icon.
Then the icon need to be covered with oil varnish and polish. It is a very important step in the process and the icon needs to have fully dried by
the time this part begins. Finally, the last step is the blessing of the icon.
It is best to keep an icon in a wooden case (kiot) covered with glass. This will guarantee protection from various outside and environmental factors such as dust, smoke, humidity and temperature changes that can in one way or another damage the sacred image.

About the author

Daria Chechko
A philologist; an author and designer of St. Elisabeth Convent's website.


  1. The term “writing” is ok to use but if you want to go back to sacred tradition, “icon painter” or “iconographer” is the more correct. https://youtu.be/MQJ6eh1Ci38. Also icons, according to the seventh ecumenical council are blessed as soon as the name is written in the icon.

    “Let them hear the truth. Many things that we regard as sacred do not receive a prayer for consecration because, per se, and due to the name they bear, they are full of blessings and grace. That’s why we honor and venerate them as holy things. So, the representation of the life-giving Cross is venerable, without a prayer or consecration being necessary; and we only have to receive a blessing by this representation. And we believe that the devils are defeated by the veneration we owe to it [the cross] and by the sign we make on our forehead or in the air. And when we honor and venerate it piously, we take part to its blessings. It is the same thing for the icon due to the One which name it’s bearing” (session 6, Mansi 13, 269 D,E).
    This is why we put the name on last. It is redundant, irrelevant, and sinful to place it in the alter for forty days or blessed by the priest.

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