Painting an icon

The entire process of painting an icon is very time intensive and consists of many stages. Painting an icon is an act of prayer in itself. Each stage is imbued with symbolism, theology and faith references. Following is a breakdown of the key stages. There is some debate amongst iconographers about the term "writing" an icon. In the west this has been understood to mean that the icon painter is "writing" the gospel in line and colour. However it has really come out of a mistranslation of the Russian word for painting which denotes that any type of painted artwork is "written" according to the Russian language.


Wood panel


Trimming off the excess cloth.

From the third century, icons have always been written on solid wooden boards. Canvas is a later addition in the history of western art, first making an appearance in the 15th century. Even with this new vehicle for art, the wooden panel remains the proper material for receiving an icon.

board preparation

Icon boards are usually made of a variety of woods such as birch, poplar, oak and similar. Processed wood board such as MDF is not suitable as it can swell and warp from the application of glue and gesso. A rectangular recess is carved into the front of the board which gives the effect of a frame. The wood of the board can be interpreted as a reference to the tree of life or the tree of knowledge in the garden of eden which are both references to Christ Himself.

Rabbit skin glue (also known as size) is applied to the board and then a linen cloth soaked in glue is applied. The white linen cloth becomes a reminder of the pure white robes of baptism, the swaddling clothes of the infant Jesus or the burial cloth of the crucified Christ. The glue is then mixed with white chalk and marble dust to create gesso which is applied in multiple layers, allowed to dry and sanded until the build up is complete. 

A sized and gessoed board ready to receive the holy image.



Applying the image to the board.

The image needs to be inscribed or etched into the dry gesso. The etching process reminds us that we are entering into the depth of the mystery of our salvation and sets the tone for the way ahead.


A black and white line drawing of the image is first prepared on paper to the correct size. The underside of the paper is covered with coloured chalk dust or graphite so that when it is traced over a line image is left on the board as a guide. The next step is to lightly gouge out the line image which is the etching process. A special tool made from a blunt needle stylus inserted into a wooden handle is used.  

Etching over the line work.

Gold leaf


Red clay bole is applied over a masking film.

Either the halo of the holy person or the entire background will be gilded with 23 - 24 kt gold leaf. Lower carat gold leaf is an alloy and such “impurities” can affect the ability of the gold to bind to the clay. To prepare the surface to receive the gold leaf a mixture of red clay and animal skin glue is applied first. The red clay, referred to as clay bole enhances the yellow tone of the gold which is not entirely opaque. Silver leaf can sometimes be used and a blue gray clay bole is preferable.


Once the clay bole is dried, sanded and burnished to a smooth finish, the gold leaf can then be applied. In the Russian tradition of gilding, the artist becomes an integral part of the process. Here the iconographer breathes for a few seconds on the dry clay bole. The heat and moisture of their breath is just sufficient to re-activate the glue and the delicate gold leaf can be applied. The action also has significance. The iconographer will contemplate the creation account of Adam being formed out of clay and his spirit is breathed into him by the breath of God - the holy re-spire-ation or holy spirit. The gold symbolizes the spiritual world or heavenly realm while the clay stands for the earthly and physical world. 

The dried clay bole is polished using an agate stone burnisher. The finish should be hard, smooth and reflective.

Gold leaf is transported and applied using wax paper.

Three layers of gold leaf have been applied. A ball ended tool is used for adding decorative detail once the gilding is complete. 

Egg tempera and pigment


Examples of a few powdered pigments.

Egg tempera is a painting process that uses egg yolk to bind pigments. The artist must manufacture the tempera painting medium by the simple process of mixing finely ground pigment and egg yolk diluted with water or white wine. The three main forms of pigment are oxides, organic or earth based. There are over 2,500 different powdered pigments, however about 50 - 80 pigments are sufficient for iconography. Egg tempera has an “eternal” quality. Unlike oil and acrylic paint which both loose vibrancy over time, egg tempera simply does not fade. Icons available to us today from antiquity are still as rich and vibrant as the day they were first painted.

Painting an icon

The first stage of painting with tempera is to apply a flat continuous base tone. It is more like pushing a puddle around on the board surface than painting brush strokes and the method is called “petite lac” (little lake). The etching process assists with this since the inscribed boundaries stop the paint from bleeding into neighboring areas.

Once the entire board is covered it is then a process of painting highlights over the top followed with transparent washes of thinned tempera. The icon painting process always starts from the darkest values and works upwards towards the lightest. This should be a reflection of our own faith journey of constantly moving from darkness to illumination.

Egg tempera preparation.

Application of petite lac.

Layers of highlights have been painted followed by a transparent wash.

Final stages


Powdered gold leaf is bound in gum arabic.

Once all painting with egg tempera has been completed the last few steps involve painting any necessary gold highlights before sealing up the icon with either varnish or linseed oil. Icons of the infant Jesus typically depict Him in golden-orange robes highlighted with 23.5 kt powdered gold leaf. 

This colouring refers to the “uncreated light” of God emanating from Christ. It is stating that he is full of the power of God – “I AM the way, the truth and the light.” 

Similarly the background of the icon is either painted in a yellow gold colour or is completely gilded over, also referring to the uncreated light of God. Overall, the icon is effectively a window into eternity and the heavenly realm.

The last stage of sealing the icon makes use of shellac, derived from insects, or refined linseed oil. The oiling of the icon in this way is a reminder of the sacrament of confirmation whereby the Christian is annointed with holy oils and is called to be missionaries in their journey of faith. So too the icon has the power to evangelize and quietly speak the Word of God in line and colour.

With a wet brush the gold can be painted directly onto the surface of the dry egg tempera.