In view of the Green Mountains of Vermont and enclosed within the liturgical richness of Matins and Vespers at New Skete Monastery, I have spent a number of weeks attempting to capture the likeness of Theotokos with the use of egg, water, pigment, and wood.
Pat Reid, the iconographer at the Companions of New Skete, agreed last year to take me on as an apprentice. Under her very excellent and patient tutelage, I have come to a profound appreciation for the devotion and discipline required to portray a holy face.
The painting, or writing, of icons is a spiritual exercise, requiring first of all, love of God. We can paint authentically only what we truly love. The icon painter must have a profound devotion to our Lord, His Mother and the saints and must be engaged in a life of personal and corporate prayer. This is essential in order to attempt to portray their likeness.
Further, love of neighbor is necessary to motivate the iconographer to keep the likeness clean and free of ego so that the painter is out of the way, does not intrude, and allows the image to confront the viewer as directly as possible.
Icon painting is not only a devotion but also a discipline. The devotion and commitment to God is essential for motivation and desire; the discipline is essential to hone one's talents and focus one's ability to bring about the appropriate image.
The iconographer must accept the canonical rules of iconographic painting, submitting herself to them. Having come from some experience with watercolor in which the unpredictable flow of the water creates a certain quixotic beauty, I learned that quite a different approach is required with icons. In fact, as Pat pointed out, it may be more difficult to paint icons if one has studied and practiced Western styles of painting because the technique is so different. For example, icon painting involves the building up of "lights" in which brush strokes are not seen on the areas of the face. In watercolor, the evidence of the brush, in many instances, is highly desirable.
However, the allegiance to structure and rules must be balanced by a surrender to the Holy Spirit Who guides the artist. Icons should never be slavish copies but should express a balance between a particular manifestation of the Spirit integrated with the classic rules of icon painting.
There were many exciting and challenging moments in the limited icon painting experience that I had: learning the technique of lights in which one layers on wash after wash of ochre to build up the planes of the face with the final lights bringing the face fully into form; the critical task of defining the eyes, which at a certain point begin looking back at you; the careful modeling of the mouth to keep the expression serene, gentle, yet firm and strong; the challenge of portraying the Babe as vulnerable, yet not infantile.
There is also much symbolism in the painting process. Again, the layering and building up of the lights reminds one of our gradual "enlightenment" as we attempt to grow toward God. The richness of the final portrait that holds such depth, points to the mystery of the human person who is ultimately unfathomable except to God. This was a particularly vivid realization as I attempted to portray the face of the Mother of God who, in response to Gabriel's message, surrendered into the infinite freedom to become all she was called to become and who is the perfect paradigm of the response to God as He calls us into His life.
At the completion of the icon of the Theotokos, it was apparent that the gold leaf of the background and halo, in addition to the final oil finish which deepened and enriched the colors seemed to move the icon into another dimension. At some point in this process, I surrendered "ownership" and begin to understand true synergeia. Pat's wonderful pedagogy, my struggling efforts, and the Holy Spirit came together to make the wood, egg, water, oil, and pigment a holy work, providing a glimpse of the Transcendent on which the window opens slightly to reveal a hint of the awesome beauty of Truth.