Painting an icon can be a grueling and self effacing affair. There have been times I have painted and erased and repainted an area 5 or 6 times, and it may be an allegory of the way God might work on us over our lifetime. So many considerations, so many permutations…in color mixing, lighting, application–the list goes on. The icon becomes, in a very real way, as unique as the human being who created it. By the time we are finished, we/the icon have become the assemblage of numerous failings that have received correction.
Is it the hand or the eye that is most important for an artist? I would argue for the eye, for although both must undergo a long training in order to work in tandem to create the sublime, in the end it must be the eye that guides the hand. It is simple to tell that some thing or more often some things are not right with your icon. The trick is in diagnosing the fixes. In working with a prototype, you may look between it and your own board a hundred times before you see that, “ah, that shadow needs alignment with the divot below the nose.” Again, it is erase, and repaint.
Erasures in icon painting are much like “erasures” in human behavior. They are never truly erased, but they are blended out, and painted over to remain there forever part of the piece. So in a very real way, erasures or failures you will have, in effect, become the scaffolding or the skeletal form of the beautiful end result, if one persists in one’s effort. In this case, the most minute detail — the curl of a lip, for example, may need to be viewed and assayed time and again. This is crucial, because a fresh eye allows one to see most clearly that which was invisible to it before. Each time, magically, something is clarified. Suddenly the lens of your eye brings into focus that which was invisible before! And in this way again we are much like our own icons, rarely seeing our own faults, often myriad, until they cause us enough pain to force us to look again and again and deal with them and fix them, blending them into the background of our selves, finally corrected.
There are some times when one feels one is being tested. Days go by. Results approach a pleasing end and…are suddenly lost again. Egg tempera is the most unforgiving of masters, and requires a rigor and commitment beyond many. Your heart must be in it. Your soul must be in it. All in or all out. Or stay out. Your work will show which it is. Just how it is, not my rules.
And so, as I have become a better icon painter, I have become a slower icon painter. This might seem a contradiction. But, my eye has learned discernment, my hand has learned refinement, and I have learned the advantage of humility. There is much more scaffolding to build, but I have the advantage of time, for 20 more years anyway.