Every icon provides me with 2 moments of surprised delight, on top of the steady sense of peace and comfort that comes through the combination of work and prayer.
The initial stages of painting involve putting a fairly dark, dull undercoat down on the board. For the face and hands, this is often a greenish brown color. It is called sankir. This layer provides the shadows and dark areas. The icon is built up from dark to light. No shadows are added later. When it is time to begin the modeling and highlighting of the face, layers of yellow ochre paint are layed down for the features and lit areas, one after the other . Each layer is transparent and thin. Each seems to be absorbed into the undercoat, sinking invisibly into the dark paint. It is a act of faith at this point, to work blindly, trusting that the thin layers are building up on each other, one after the other, grain upon grain. All one can do is persevere and pray and keep going on, laying the golden hues on top of the darkness.
And suddenly, there it is: a face appears out of the darkness–the face of Christ, of His Mother, or of a Holy Saint. It is a marvelous moment! Nothing ever seems as difficult to me in the icon once that face appears.
But there is a second surprise in store: long after face, hands, background, folds in the garment, border color are established, the iconographer struggles for complete harmony throughout, for proper degree of highlighting, for brilliance of color. There are so many small details to be attentive to, so many distractions from one area to another. And again, a surprise: one last brushstroke or application of color, and the icon suddenly pulls together–and with wonder the iconographer realizes that the icon is complete, that the task is done, that all is harmonious. It seems a miracle each time, that one small step is suddenly enough, that all the struggling through darkness and confusion has come to fruition in a work of beauty and grace.