St.Tabitha: Icon in acrylics 2

One of the most freeing and fun steps for me is applying the underpainting. You can’t really make a mistake here. Start with prayer, and then begin to apply the paint. What you are doing is doing is establishing the dark, neutral undercolors that will provide the shadows and darker areas for the icon.  In a way, this is the “ugly” stage of the icon.

Once the undertones are established, most of the modelling and definition of the features will be done through the painting of the light.  I have always liked that analogy of the light creating shape and form out of darkness, spiritually as well as artistically!



It can take a long time to build up the highlights using transparent light colors on top of a dark ground.  Patience is required, but sooner or later, patience is rewarded with a soft, glowing highlight.



I make many mistakes along the way, but with a long slow process such as this, they can easily be painted over.  Whether it is wrong color in the background (yes, that is happening here for sure),  an uneven texture (that, too), or a minor drawing correction (probably), it is fairly easy to correct.   Many careful and wise iconographers make color and highlight studies beforehand, but impatient ones like me prefer to work out the problems right on the board, and to experiment freely all the while.

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St. Tabitha: an icon in acrylic paints

The next thing to do is to “open” the icon, using a transparent wash of yellow ochre paint as the underlying layer.  I find that having this color underlying all areas of the image gives it a unity, and a warmth throughout.  The yellow used for St.Tabitha is Yellow Iron Oxide.

I am using acrylic paints for this icon, and I use a very limited palette.  It is not necessary to buy and use dozens of colors and pigments.  Most of the time I use only 8 to 10 pigments, mixing every different color that I need. There are just a few “workhorse” colors that are needed, and the limited palette lends further harmony and unity to the image.  Yellow ochre is an important color in iconography, so I have 3 different shades of ochre, and everything else can be mixed to order using these simple basic colors!

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Icon of St.Tabitha: beginning

Once I have the drawing made, and transferred to the board, it is time to mix up some paint and brush on the lines.  Iconographers do the “lining” in various colors:  reds, blacks, or the local color for each area.  I never use black in my icons, except on rare occasions.  I’ve always felt that straight black deadens the color.  I mix up several reds/greens/blues/etc  together to make a dark neutral color to use instead.  In this case it is a dark greenish color, as the image will have lots of green and tan in the garments.

I used graphite pencil for the lettering (because I can erase it if I mess up.)  Calligraphy is not my strong point.  In the final painting, the letters will be in red.  I have been told that the lettering is in red on icons because it is representative of the Blood of Christ.  What is for sure is that every icon has the name of the person depicted inscribed on it.  It is important for the viewer to know the name and identity, for prayer is a relationship, whether praying to our Lord or with a holy saint.

When I designed this icon, I made the halo overlap into the border.  The image area of an icon has been called “a window into heaven”, and the border represents the world.  The life of a saint allows heaven to break into the world for all to see.  St.Tabitha gazes at the viewer, witnessing to the reality of Christ.  She holds a cross in her right hand.  She also has a basket of clothing, for her particular ministry was to sew and distribute clothing and alms to widows, orphans, and the poor.  She is a shining example of carrying forth her faith into good works and love of neighbor.

I don’t need to worry much about what she might have really looked like.  Sometimes there is specific knowledge of a person’s appearance and physical characteristics, but that is not the case with St.Tabitha.  That really doesn’t matter:  even if the appearance is somewhat generic, the letters naming the saint make it definite who it is, and the important truth is that we are looking at a person glorified by the love and grace of God.  It is a spiritual portrait of a glorified individual living in the Presence of God in heaven, and not a physical likeness.  All of us are an icon in the making, and with God’s grace will live in His Presence for all eternity.

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Icon Process: St. Tabitha

I am beginning to work on a new icon, for a faith sharing group.  I am using acrylic paints, on a small piece of Claybord.  Acrylic paints dry very quickly, and require little care once they are dry.  This particular little icon needs to be light, portable and very durable, and I think this material will meet those criteria.  I begin with prayer for the group, and ask St.Tabitha to be with me and pray for me as I work on her image.

The  next step is researching her story, beginning with Scripture:  The story of Tabitha, also called Dorcas,  is found in only one place– Acts 9:36-42.  The name Tabitha is Aramaic, and means “gazelle”.  Dorcas is the Greek word for “gazelle”.  Episcopalians, Lutherans, and other Protestant traditions use the name Dorcas.  Catholics and Orthodox refer to her as Tabitha.  She is the only woman in Scripture specifically called “disciple”.  Her feastday is October 25.

“Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which translated means Dorcas). She was completely occupied with good deeds and almsgiving. Now during those days she fell sick and died, so after washing her, they laid her out in a room upstairs.  Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, send two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them.  When he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs where all the widows came to him weeping and showing him the tunics and cloaks that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  Peter send them all out and knelt down and prayed.  Then he turned to her body and said “Tabitha, rise up.”  She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. He gave her his handand raised her up, and when he had called the holy ones and the widows, he presented her alive.  This became known all over Joppa, and many came to believe in the Lord.”

After reflecting on these words, I did additional research in books and online, reading as much about her as I can find.  I also looked for existing icons and paintings of the saint.  These I use for planning colors, position, and other details.

Icon research

Icon research

I carefully determine the geometry for the image.  The geometry is figured out by relationships between areas rather than simply measuring.  One important part of the geometry is to figure out the measurement of 1/12th of the image area.  This is important because the 1/12 size will be the length of the figure’s nose, and the nose module is the radius of the circle that forms the face (eyes/nose/forehead) as well as roughly the size of the hands.  A double “nose radius” is the size of the head.  Thus all the size relationships of the image begin with the length of the nose. The size of the halo is most often 3 to 4 times the radius of the nose nodule . . . Careful attention to the geometry results in a harmonious, balanced design.

Finally, I begin to make sketches to size, and refine the drawing in preparation to putting it on the board.

More to follow as the icon progresses.

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Bl. Pope Paul VI’s Message to Women


Very interesting and very pertinent, too.

Originally posted on 8 Kids And A Business:

Below is the full text of Bl. Pope Paul VI’s message to women as part of the  speeches and messages at the close of the Second Vatican Council,  December 8, 1965. You can read the entire text of the closing speeches and messages here.

pope paul viTO WOMEN

And now it is to you that we address ourselves, women of all states—girls, wives, mothers and widows, to you also, consecrated virgins and women living alone—you constitute half of the immense human family. As you know, the Church is proud to have glorified and liberated woman, and in the course of the centuries, in diversity of characters, to have brought into relief her basic equality with man. But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power…

View original 406 more words

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More on Our Lady of Vladimir Icon

The question was asked, after my last post, why do I think this particular icon is the most famous and the most venerated, why does it stand out? It is not just a subjective call by myself.  This is a true masterpiece, beloved historically and spiritually as well as artistically.

Many many icons are loved and venerated.  Venerating icons is a major part of Eastern Christian worship, both in the Orthodox Church and the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches.

The best-loved ones are translated over and over again, so that every church and every chapel will have the image to lead them to prayer.  Some of the other much-loved icons, besides Our Lady of Vladimir, are of The Savior, others of the Mother of God, and saints, especially St.Nicholas and St.George. The image of the Vladimir Theotokos (Theotokos means The God-Bearer) is a very popular subject in both workshops and churches. (My own Catholic parish church has a version of the icon, painted by a nun in New York state.)

The image of the Mother of God of Vladimir has been painted millions of times over the past thousand years right up to the present time.  Some of the translated images, painted by master iconographers, are beautiful in their own right–but none are as highly regarded as a masterpiece of art as the original Byzantine icon.

One way to determine fame is by numbers.  There are about 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world.  80 to 100 million of them live in Russia.  Another 11 million live in Greece (as much as 98% of the Greek population).  The rest are scattered throughout the world:  in the Middle East countries, in the United States, in Serbia, in Romania, etc. All of them venerate icons, and this one is especially precious, particularly to the Russian people.  In the St. Nicholas chapel wing of the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow–which I believe was built just to house her– a constant stream of visitors comes to see and honor her.  Each person has a brief minute or two to come forward individually and stand and bow before the icon,  giving thanks, and venerating Our Lord and His Holy Mother.

The Mother of God of Vladimir is the National Treasure of Russia, and was even recognized as such during the atheist Soviet years, as both an art masterpiece and a precious historical artifact.

It is more than just the sheer numbers of admirers that make this icon famous.  It is also a Miracle-Working Icon.  People who come before the image to pray have been granted healing of all kinds.  Towns who have venerated and prayed before her have been spared tragedy–in fact the entire nation of Russia has credited the icon with historical victories.  I think it is also pretty miraculous that this icon, 1000 years old, has survived turmoil, war, harsh weather,  has been carried directly into battle and attacked by enemy troops–and that the faces of Mary and Jesus remain intact and undamaged throughout.

The icon is widely recognized.  Photographs of Our Lady of Vladimir can be found in  nearly every icon book, and serves as the example of the highest artistic achievement in the Byzantine icon in secular art books as well.  It is technically and compositionally, theologically and expressively, beautiful and perfect.  Paper prints are sold at church gift shops for use in home altars and “red corners”.

It can even be seen on the “silver screen”.  Mel Gibson has named his own production studio “Icon Productions” and has made the eyes and face of the Theotokos his logo.

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Our Lady of Vladimir

The Icon of the Mother of God of Vladimir.

It is arguably the most famous, the most venerated, and the most beloved icon of all time.  Like many icons, it was said to simply appear to the people, miraculously.  There is a legend that says this very icon was painted by St.Luke, on a board taken from the table used for the Last Supper.

Careful examination by experts show that it was likely painted by an anonymous Greek Byzantine master in the early 12th century.  It has inspired other iconographers through the centuries, but no one has succeeded in capturing the mystery and beauty of this image.

It quickly became known as a miracle-working icon, inspiring widespread devotion. It was moved from place to place, and became important to all of Russia.

It was given to the Russians by the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1155, and placed in a convent near Kiev.  Prince Andrew Bugoliebsky (Andrew the God-Lover) carried the icon into battle with him, achieving many victories.   In 1160, he built the Cathedral of the Assumption in Vladimir to house the image, giving it its name.  Twenty five years later, the entire cathedral burnt down, but the icon survived intact.  Invading Tatar hordes stole jewels and coverings from churches, but left this icon untouched.  Two hundred years later the armies of Genghis Khan moved towards Moscow, where the image had been taken for safekeeping.  The people gathered around the icon, praying to the Mother of God, venerating the icon.  The army inexplicably halted its advance. Similar events occurred three separate times in the 15th century.

In fact, there is no single great event in the history of Russia from the 12th to 17th century in which the icon of The Mother of God of Vladimir did not play its vital part.” (

In 1917, the Bolsheviks stole the pure gold covering and jewels, but did not harm the icon itself, and placed it in the Tretyakov Museum.  Today it is in a small wing by itself, set up to resemble a chapel, and the Russian people again come to venerate the image and give honor to the Mother of God and her Son.  In 1919, it was restored, but there was no need to repaint the faces.  They are the only parts of the icon that are the original Byzantine master’s work, as beautiful and grace-filled today as they were then.

The Vladimir Mother of God

The Vladimir Mother of God

           Pray for us,  O Holy Mother of God,  that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

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Teachings from the Tiny

We were hiking one day in the forest, and came across a huge tree that had fallen across the trail.  No problem:  the Forest Service kept the trail well maintained, and the log was cut through, the section blocking the pathway removed, leaving the trail flanked by 2 huge logs nearly 4 feet in diameter.

We often stop at such logs to estimate the number of rings and guess the age of the fallen tree.  So we paused here, to rest and count.

Something moved on the smooth face of the cut log.  There was a hole near the top, with a tiny black ant poised at the opening.  We watched him.  He appeared to drop something and retreat back.  As the first ant retreated, a second ant appeared and did the same:  drop something.  We inspected more closely. The hole was tiny:  about 2 ants wide. There was a seemingly endless stream of ants coming forward single file in the hole, each holding a speck of sawdust, carrying it to the edge of the “precipice” and hurling it over the side.  Then each little guy turned and went back inside, making room for his coworker to dispose of the bit that he had chewed out of the solid wood.  One ant after another, intent on the task.

A small mound, perhaps 4 inches high, of soft sawdust particles was forming directly below.  Those ants were aiming to hollow out the tree, bit by bit.

Grain by grain, they each did what they were needed to do, undaunted by the scale of it all, steadily, with patience and diligence.  Presumably without complaining.  Given the size of the log, this was going to take thousands, if not a million, of ant generations.  The ants we were watching were certainly not going to see this project through. They didn’t know the master plan, or the goal, they just did what needed to be done, what they were called to do.

Last month, we were again hiking, in another forest, and we saw this log:




Not as big as the first log, but this one was “finished” (from an ant perspective.) It was completely hollowed out.  All full-size tree-length of it, right through to the other side. Other ant teams, long gone from this world, had spent hundreds, or maybe thousands, of years on this project, and they had done it effectively and well.  Bit by bit.

I think we Christians can learn something from those diligent ants. I know that I certainly can, and did.  We have no idea of God’s plan, of how He will build His Kingdom and return in glory.  We don’t know the when or the how or the where–only the Who.  We don’t need to know the rest.  We only know that we need to do our part, our own small bit that only we can do and to do it faithfully and well,  to persevere with love and faith to the best of our ability and capacity.

“We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.”
Mother Teresa

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St. Therese, Pray for us



Happy Feastday of St. Therese of the Child Jesus!




Pray for us, St. Therese, especially those who have drifted away from the Lord and His church.

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Icon Workshop: Holy Theophany Monastery

This past summer I was blessed to be able to attend an icon workshop.  It was quite a surprise for me: disappointing in some ways, opening new vistas in others.  I learned some new techniques, different ways of painting icons, some of which I will keep, others discard. I even heard my first iconographer riddle there:  What do you call an iconographer without a brush?  (Answer below.) The most amazing part of this adventure was not the painting, though, it was the immersion in Eastern Christian spirituality.  My short week there was such a blend of impressions for me that I am not able to form a coherent narrative, but still want to share bits of quotes and moments.

The monastery, a Romanian Eastern Rite Catholic community with a Greek Melkite chaplain, is located in Washington state,  near a military base.  As we painted, silent and intent, praying with every stroke, there was the sound of automatic weapons fire in the background.  So incongruous.  It would go on for hours, the harsh rat-a-tat-tat  of the guns contrasted with the stillness of the icon studio.  It was kind of surreal.

Holy Theophany is a small monastery, with four nuns living there.  The chapel was beautiful, and tiny.  Attending services meant sitting and standing right alongside of the nuns as they chanted and sang orthros, vespers, the Divine Liturgy. No separation.  I felt totally immersed in and part of the prayers.  Services were very long, hours long, and the nuns chanted without ceasing, a beautiful vocal, polyphonic harmony.  The priest chanted as well.  Bells rang.  The fragrance of incense rose to the heavens.  Icons lined the walls and the iconostas in front.  The chapel was filled with color.  Although at first I was mostly conscious of the length of time, I quickly learned to see the great beauty of the Eastern tradition.  It filled mind and senses, lifting one’s heart and soul to God.

The liturgy itself is very ancient, dating back to our early Christian roots.  The Liturgy of St. John Crysostom, composed just before the turn of the 4th Century in Antioch in western Syria, is used on “ordinary days”.  For special feastdays, the Liturgy of St. Basil is used.  It is heard only 10 times per year, and I was lucky enough to be there for the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God and to be able to experience this beautiful liturgy.  The composer, St. Basil, was bishop of Ceasarea from 370 to 379 A.D.

Eastern spirituality is marked by profound bows and prostration as well as chant.  It is the heart that is considered the seat of wisdom, and not the head or intellect.  Bowing, the priest told us, puts the heart above the head, in a very physical gesture.  He also explained some of the differences between Eastern and Western Christianity as coming about in response to cultural pressure and influences.  The West was challenged by the “Enlightenment” and thus many devotions and canons arose concerning the Eucharist and the form of the Mass.  In the East, these things were not questioned, the controversies  instead were often surrounding art, and thus there are many devotions emphasizing images and miracle-working icons.  Taking both traditions together, they seem to make a whole, to my mind.

Were the nuns Catholics with a different, Eastern tradition in the expression of their faith?  Or were they Orthodox who had accepted the primacy of the Pope?   The Mother Abbess thumped her cane emphatically on the ground to reiterate her point:  We are Orthodox! We are Orthodox!  Certainly there were no differences in teaching that I could recognize.

I don’t know, and I don’t know that it matters in the end.  We were one in loving God and worshipping His Son.  I am not certain there are too many doctrinal differences between East and West, and would welcome any education that readers might offer me on this subject.

Whatever differences there might be, our love of Jesus is what will bring us together.  The icon is a bridge between us, the ancient art of the unified church, leading us all to prayer.

My icon is blessed and anointed.

My icon is blessed and anointed.

The answer to the iconographer riddle above: A cantor.


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