Iconographic Terror

The crucial moment has come.  I am putting the finish coat on Jesus Blesses the Children.  This final coat consists of the traditional olifa, a mix of warm oil poured onto the painted board.  The oil seeps into the pigments, making the colors rich and deep and glowing.  Picture a small dull-colored stone, which upon being tossed into water, reveals nuances and brilliant color that were not evident before.  The oil will reveal the many layers of the paint, making them permanently brilliant, in much the same way the pebble becomes more beautiful to the eye.  The terror part is this:  sometimes the paint has not yet cured (hardened off) or was improperly mixed, and it lifts with the application of oil.  There is no warning if this might happen.  And this is the final step, after months of painting and work.  It can all be ruined at the last moment. 

I took a deep breath, whispered a fervent prayer–and poured on the oil.  Everything looks stable.  So far, so good.  The oil is thick, almost 1/4 inch of it.  I rub it in with my fingers. It soaked for about 6 hours, under a sheet of saran wrap to keep dust and dirt out.  I begin to carefully wipe off the excess olifa with my hand.  Extra oil is rubbed in to any dry spots.  Ahh.  All of the pigments are holding.  The colors shine like jewels, and all details are preserved.  Praise God for this small blessing! Once all areas have been smoothly oiled, excess olifa is again wiped off, until only a thin sheen remains.  Then the board is put into a lidded box to dry, again protected from dust. It will dry in 4 to 6 weeks, and the protection afforded by the olifa is permanent. The icon will be waterproof, and safe to touch and venerate.


About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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10 Responses to Iconographic Terror

  1. Yes, you are right. It is a terror-filled sequence; something out of an old Vincent Price movie from the 1950’s. Regardless of whether I am working in egg tempera or acrylic – the final finish can make or break all of my efforts. Some of my most heartfelt prayers are said during this final sequence!
    Best wishes

    • reinkat says:

      Thank you for your comment. I was praying pretty hard as I poured the oil . . . but it seems that this time, all is well. whew! but wait–you have had trouble with acrylic as well? I am experimenting with some acrylics on a new icon now, finding it quite a challenge. The paint is difficult enough to mix and handle–but are you telling me that putting the finish coat on can lead to disaster? One of the reasons I am using acrylics is to avoid that scenario. This is unsettling news. Suggestions would be appreciated.

      • Problems can arise with the type of varnish you use. If you use a Golden gloss medium/varnish as the final varnish and you put a few drops of water in it (just two or three drops to make it flow better and mix it in well to the entire cup of varnish that you will need to cover the icon) and use a soft, size 8 or above brush, you should be OK.
        I do not have any luck with foam brushes applying Gloss medium/varnish or regular satin household exterior varnish (which one of my teacher’s uses as the final coat). The reason I will never use a foam brush is because I have found that the foam has a tendency to rip at the acrylic and remove some of the finish. Also, it has a tendency to rough up the patent gold leaf. So, stay away from foam brushes (maybe I just have too heavy of a hand, because other people use them without difficulty). I found that working quickly with a faux squirrel brush – size 8 – on a 9 inch by 12 inch board – I can quickly cover the board with the final varnish coat. But be careful with any acrylic varnish such as Golden’s. It is a fine product but it dries very quickly, so, for example, when I do the hair I always apply the acrylic varnish following the hair lines, or the same thing with the garments, etc. Using regular exterior household satin varnish – I would use a very soft two inch bristle brush – probably a brush obtained at an art store versus Home Depot – and apply it. Warning – when you apply the exterior satin household varnish do not go over a spot you have already varnished with your brush. Allow it to dry and then re-varnish having your brush strokes go horizontally if your first coat was applied on the vertical. If you do go over a spot that hasn’t dried yet, it will affect the surface and you will get brush marks showing. Always apply thin coats of varnish. Allow to dry completely between coats. It is better to have two or three thin coats then one thick coat. Best wishes, Deacon Paul Iacono fraangelicoinstitute.com

      • reinkat says:

        Wow, Deacon Paul, thank you so much for this information. I will print it out and keep it in my notebooks if that is okay. I really appreciate your help. I have the Golden Varnish and had plans to use that. So far (with the paint) my biggest problem has been with bubbles from mixing and blending and getting the proper consistency. Not unmanageable. Have you noticed that with icons, nothing is easy!

  2. SR says:

    Cannot wait to see the finishing product. I was thinking today that I wanted to see a new icon from you. God has answered this prayer. I will be emailing in next day or two. This actually placed a smile on my face:)))) God Bless, SR

    • reinkat says:

      SR-I am so happy to see you back. You are always in my prayers. Thank you for all of your encouragement and good comments. God bless you always.

  3. SR says:

    I know I am always in your prayers Reinkat. That is what has kept me going. It is I who thank you for all of your encouragement. God Bless, SR

  4. Second-in-command says:

    It also makes the house smell so fragrant from the oil you use. Such a lovely icon.

  5. Biltrix says:

    You had me in deep suspense for a moment! I was expecting the worst to happen.

    I am really learning a lot from these posts and I was just thinking, you know, you should make a video to document the making of one of your icons. Just a thought. I’m sure it would be a hit!

    • reinkat says:

      Thanks for the comment–and the interesting idea. I know there are several sites that have done that. I have kind of demonstrated a lot of the stages with the Jesus Blesses the Children icon, and in more depth with the St. George quilt icon. It’s not the same as a video, of course, but maybe the first stage for me.

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