The materials that are used in writing an icon have traditional meanings, and Sr. Nancy is adept with both the original method of working in “egg tempera” that dates back to the third century, the costlier and more time-consuming technique; and, the less expensive and somewhat quicker modern shortcut method of using “acrylics.” The icon, Jeanne Chézard de Matel, The Vessel of God, is written in the ancient technique of egg tempera.
Sr. Nancy spends an incredible amount of time preparing the surfaces on which she will work, and takes painstaking care to follow time-honored techniques. In doing the icon of Jeanne, she began with a circular board of mahogany cut to size, ¾ inches thick, 34 inches in diameter, and reinforced on the back with splines to prevent warping. She commissioned a Russian Orthodox pastor, living in New Jersey and specializing in working with wood, to do this first preparation of the board.
A solution of 5% rabbit skin glue to 95% water is made by adding glue to cold water, and applied to the entire board. After being laundered to remove sizing, cheesecloth is measured, one inch larger than the board, and then folded methodically so it will unwrap to fit the glue-covered board. After being dropped into a solution of 20% glue to 80% water, it is placed on the board smoothly and evenly, with NO air bubbles whatsoever. Of course, easing this into a circle provides extra challenges.
After the glue and cloth on the board are completely dry and the excess is carefully trimmed from the edges, gesso is prepared by adding chemist’s chalk to a hot solution of 10% glue and 90% water, until the “solution will not eat any more. This solution is strained into a container, and refrigerated. After twelve hours the gesso is wrapped in paper towels saturated with throat spray, and is refrigerated again until it is used. Seven to ten coats of gesso are applied to the surface of the board with a spackling knife, one at a time. Each coat is dried for at least twenty-four hours. At the end, the board is sanded to butter smoothness. It is essential that all coats of gesso come from the same batch to avoid cracking.
The original sketch of the icon, called a “cartoon,” is then transferred onto the surface of the smooth gesso-covered board using India ink and a brush. An outline is etched to separate all the areas to be painted from the gold leaf background.
Tree rosin is mixed with 91% isopropyl alcohol for five days. After being stirred well, this shellac is applied with a band aid to all areas of the board that will be gold-leafed. Two coats are applied, with twenty-four hours between coats. A small amount of bronze is mixed with spar varnish. The spar varnish is applied to the same area as the shellac where the gold leaf is to be applied, after removing all checks with a razor. Two coats are applied, with twenty-four hours between coats. Gold size is then applied and allowed to set for twelve hours. The gold leaf is applied when the board is still tacky. The iconographer breathes on a small area of the prepared board, one area at a time, and applies the gold leaf immediately to the vapored area. Gold leaf is reapplied to the holidays (skips) after two days. After all the gold leaf has been applied, two coats of spar varnish are applied to all the gold-leaf areas.
The board is then ready for the figure to be painted. The egg tempera paint is applied after the paintbrush is immersed into a mixture of egg yolk, distilled water and wine vinegar and then dipped into the colors created from pulverized natural raw minerals and clays from the earth. Startling blue of lapis lazuli, warm red of cinnabar, and subtle pink of clay from Georgia, formerly a USSR republic are a few of these raw minerals.