02 June 2017

Binders in technology of icon writing

For modern icon writer, a large number of various ancient icons are available, which greatly expands the knowledge of the Christian tradition. It is important to study not only the features of iconography, but also those various methods of writing, which was used in creation of old icons. The technique of writing in the structure of the icon is associated with the content of the holy image, with its depth.

With the availability of various examples of icons, the process of creating icons is often considered the same. And a very limited number of techniques which were used by icon writers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, considered the canonical and the only possible. This opinion makes the damage to the iconography and limits the creative ways for modern icon writers. Restoration studies and ancient treatises on writing clearly show a great variety of techniques and materials used by ancient masters.

The study of layers of writing on ancient icons is important, because it is the medium that forms the principle of working on the icon, determining the choice of the palette of pigments, the composition of gesso and the final varnish coating. Restoration studies of Byzantine and Russian icons confirm a wide variety of applied art materials and techniques.

St. Peter and Paul of the XI century

St. Peter and Paul of the XI century (the Novgorod museum)

In the early Christian period, icon writers used beeswax dissolved with alkali in the water, to make water soluble tempera. Restoration studies of the icons created in the V-VIII century determined that the main binding of natural pigments is a modified wax. In the practice of the icon writing workshop of Pavel and Andrei Zharov, the wax emulsion mixed with vegetable oils and resins, as well as glue and has unique artistic capabilities and is perfectly suited for icon writing.

During the Middle Ages, icon writers used tempera on the basis of egg yolk, method of writing, which was well known for antiquity. Egg yolk gives stable emulsions with various essential and vegetable oils, resins and wax. The addition of oils and soft resins to the egg emulsion creates a variety of textures and optical properties of the paint layers. In the modern using of this method in icon writing, good results are obtained by combining linseed oil with mastic resin, the mixture of which is emulsified in egg yolk, then the egg-varnish emulsion is diluted with wine vinegar. This emulsion has a special visual transparency and is much less lightened when dried, in contrast to the usual egg tempera. Also, as a binder for pigments were used: egg white, glutinous glue (bone, fish and parchment), plant juices (gummi), oil and resin varnishes and beeswax.

Famous restorer of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, S.I. Golubev for many years studied the technology of Byzantine and Russian icons, in particular the composition of the binders of painting layers. The study of the binder on the icon “Praise of the Mother of God with the Akathist” XVI century (The State Russian Museum) showed, that it is the egg yolk in conjunction with the vegetable oil. On the icon “Our Lady on the throne with the Holy Clement of Rome” XIV century, the pigment binder does not contain the egg yolk at all, but consists of a composition of transparent oil-resin varnishes. In the technology of drawing faces on the icon of Our Lady of the Odigitria “Toropetskaja” of the first half of the 14th century, a technique based on oil varnish, because the  green copper pigment (which was used  here in sankir)  usually  connected with the oil varnish and not with  the egg. The technique of colored varnishes is also known in a number of Byzantine icons of the 12th-13th centuries, preserved in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai.

Glue tempera was also used in icon writing. Thanks to absolute transparency, glue binders do not distort the colors of blue pigments such as lazurite and azurite. In the icon of St. Peter and Paul of the XI century (the Novgorod museum) the blue garments were created with lazurite mixed with organic glue as a binder.

The use of various binders is confirmed by the texts of treatises on painting.  Each author describes several variations of such recipes. The authors of the ancient treatises Pliny the Elder and Vitruvius mention wax and resin as a  binder. Theophilus and Heraclius describe the egg tempera and oil varnishes. Chenino Chenini in his “Book of Art or a treatise on painting” written in 1427, mention several variants of egg and glue tempera, as well as a binder based on oil varnish.  Dionysius of Fourna describes the recipes of the wax tempera used, apparently since antiquity.

In modern practice of icon writing our workshop using various binders for natural pigments and writing icons for many years. Very good results were obtained with the use of wax tempera (cold encaustic). Another method is the connection of pigments with oil varnish, prepared according to the recipe of Heraclius. This of linseed oil varnish is prepared by adding of lime. It is drying for several hours, and allows working very quickly and creating full-fledged effects of oil painting.

Studying various traditional methods of painting helps the icon writer to significantly expand the usual range of artistic techniques, create durable and deep icons, to show the diversity and beauty of the Christian tradition.

Written by Andrei Zharov.