In May, 2015 I finally finished an icon of the Miracle of St. Michael at Chonae. I say “finally” because I struggled with this icon quite a bit. The event portrayed in the icon is commemorated on September 6 in the Orthodox church calendar. St Michael answers the prayers of the monk Archippus, saving the church and town of Chonae from a flood by striking the rock to create a chasm and directing all the water into it.
For me the time of the most decision making that will affect an icon’s final outcome is right at the beginning when choosing and laying down the first colors. Since I normally paint from dark to light, these first colors (called “proplasmos” in the Greek school or “Roskrish” by some in the Russian school) can feel dark and muddy, especially when working with earth pigments. Dark green umber. Yellow ocher. Dark brown. Deep reddish brown. Earthy and muted. They don’t excite me so much. There are times when I put down what seems like it might be a good color scheme, and then scrape all the paint off in frustration and try again. And again.
In the case of the Miracle, the first colors really didn’t inspire me at all. I was looking at the prototype (an icon in the Novgorod Tablets), and I laid down a deep caramel color, then was struck with immediate dislike of it. I scraped it off and tried again, with a lighter warmer color that was less offensive. Still, I found this icon frustrating (so much brown!), and laid it aside in favor of other pursuits in brighter colors. I somewhat affectionately called it my “caca icon”, since it felt like every color I tried on it looked like, well, you know. Everything except of course the bright vermilion of Archangel Michael’s outer garment.
What I finally needed to make this icon come together was encouragement from my teacher Marek to keep going: I needn’t scrape it all off (again). That’s why even though I work alone most of the time, it’s always so helpful to share photos with others to get feedback! I brought the icon with me to a Hexaemeron workshop at St Nicholas Ranch in Dunlap, CA. I figured five days away from all opportunities for procrastination would force me past my blocks, and it did.
Once I start laying the new colors over those dark base coats, the icon comes to life. That’s when the magic happens. With scenes, I start with the surroundings, in this case the mountains and church. Inspired by the prototype, a cool transparent blue-white over that caramel colored ground and mountain tops made the icon feel less “brown” and more interesting. This color also coordinates with the blue of the building, water and angel’s inner garment. The sides of the mountains are shaded in tones of earthy red and brown which echo Michael’s red garment and Archippus’ brown robe.
Painting a festal scene is quite a different experience from a basic half-figure because there are many more elements to balance one with another. As the late Bob Perine, one of my teachers in art school, used to say, “Good design is about restraint.” In this case, a unified and harmonious color scheme ties it all together. And all these colors are mixed from just a handful of pigments.
Then it was time to highlight the garments. I like to use a polychromatic system for at least some of the garments in every icon I paint. In this case, highlighting blues on top of dark green for the angel, and for Archippus, a muted greenish color over brown, with dark red in the shadows and dark blue lines defining the folds.
Archippus’ robe is damaged or worn away in the original, so I had to improvise there. Otherwise, I followed the prototype since it was such a harmonious composition. In general the Novgorod Tablets can be very useful for study, but some of them don’t appeal to me aesthetically at all. This one, however, is one of my favorites, and I hope I was faithful to the spirit of the original prototype in my version of the Miracle.