A brief history of the iconscreen:
Portable icons have a long history in the Church. They are a window to heaven, and an affirmation of the role of the material world in the spiritual life. (For a summary of the history and theology of icons, read the article “Sacred Icons” in the “Articles” section of this website.)
The oldest surviving portable icons are from the early sixth century, and are found in St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. These are painted in encaustic, or wax mixed with pigment. From about the ninth century the egg tempera technique replaced this encaustic method. It is this ancient egg tempera method that Aidan uses. A simplified description of the process that he follows is as follows.
First the subject matter is researched (for example I read the life of the saint, or the appropriate hymns if the icon is of a feast). On the basis of this and a study of existing icons a design is made on paper. A board is then cut from hardwood (oak, ash, sycamore and lime are commonly used) and hollowed out. If the board is wider than about 20 cm then tapered and dove-tailed battens are inserted into the back to reduce warping but allow seasonal movements in the wood.
Two layers of hot rabbit skin glue size are then applied, followed later by a layer of open weave linen. Then two layers of size and a little whiting (a very fine inert powder) are applied as a sort of primer. Then the gesso proper is applied in about fifteen layers. This consists of size with a lot of whiting.
The gesso is sanded very smooth, using seven to eight grades of sandpaper. The design is then transferred. If the icon is to be water gilded, then about six layers of bole are applied to the area to be gilded (bole is size mixed with a clay, usually red). This bole is sanded with the four finest grades of sandpaper and polished with a cloth. Gilding is done by wetting an area at a time with water and alcohol and then applying loose gold leaf (23 1/2 carats). After a short time the gold is burnished with an agate stone.
The painting then begins. The paint consists of egg yolk and water and a little vinegar mixed with natural pigments. These are generally taken from the earth (e.g. ochre, sienna, umber) and from finely ground semi precious stones (I particularly use azurite, cinnabar, malachite and lapis lazuli).
After the name of the saint or feast has been written, the icon is completed and is delivered. It is traditional for the owner to take it to church to be blessed. As egg tempera continues to harden over time it is best not to varnish it immediately after painting, and so I ask that the icon be returned for varnishing after a year.