How an Icon is made


Icons by the Trust’s iconographers¬†were painted (or written) using traditional methods and materials and consists of the following stages:

The Panel

The panel is traditionally of wood. Plywood or MDF (medium density fibre board) is often used as cheaper options, especially for large panels, but the longevity of these as a support is unknown. We know that icons on wood have survived many centuries but MDF and plywood are inventions of the twentieth century so only time will tell. The board is sized with an animal based glue and allowed to dry.

The Ground

This is made of gesso, which is the Italian word for gypsum, or calcium sulphate. The gesso is made by mixing the gypsum, or whiting powder, in an animal based glue such as rabbit skin glue or gelatin. Several coats of gesso are then applied with a brush and allowed to dry between coats. Usually at least 8 coats of gesso are needed to make a good ground.
The ground is then smoothed with an abrasive paper or scraper. The resulting surface is white and smooth and is the only suitable surface for painting in egg tempera.

The Drawing

A line drawing is made of the icon to be painted and this is transferred to the gessoed panel by coating the back of the drawing with a powder pigment and tracing with a suitable instrument. The drawing is then brushed over with ink to make it more stable for painting.

The Gilding

Usually the haloes and (if required) the background are then gilded. This may be oil gilded (using transfer gold) or water gilded using layers of bole (a type of red clay) and gold leaf. In either case real gold is used. Water gilding allows tooling (embossing) of the gold and finishing with olipha. If oil gilding is used then the icon may be finished with shellac or a proprietary varnish.

The Painting

The icon is painted with pure powdered pigments, mainly earth colours, which are mixed (tempered) with egg yolk. The dark colours are painted first and then the lighter colours are added. Any very small gold details are then added. Finally the face and hands are painted – this brings the whole icon to life.


The icon is then allowed to dry for a few weeks and is then be coated with a varnish for protection. The varnish is usually olipha, which is a mixture of refined linseed oil and stand oil.


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