An important part of composing an icon is determining the underlying geometry. Ancient iconographers spent much time working out the angles and proportions. Knowledge of geometry was essential. Using simple tools: a powdered piece of string, a nail or pin to attach it to, and a piece of chalk or coal to put at the end to make circles. (Tools that are sometimes still used in today’s construction industry.) Placement, relative scale, and body proportions were figured out with these tools for both icons and frescos.
It is a lot easier to demonstrate than to describe in words, but here goes:
A kind of grid made up of triangles, circles, and rectangles is created by the artist, to not only bring inner balance to the image but also allow for proportionate enlargement of a sketch, and a sense of harmony and unity within groups of icons. The triangle, with its symmetry and firm foundation, is basic to the composition of the icon. It provides a natural rest and pleasing sense of balance for the mind as well as the eye. In a “portrait” type of icon, the main figure falls within it.
The head often turns slightly off center to avoid a static appearance, and this position is also determined geometrically.
In the beginning stages of the drawing, the center of the image area is determined by drawing straight diagonal lines from corner to corner of a rectangle. From there a gridwork of halves, quarters, thirds, sixths, and twelfths were easily determined. The triangle is placed. There is no need for a standardized ruler–a simple straight edge or the ancient method using a piece of string can be used to divide these fractions perfectly on the icon board or sketch paper, without measuring out.
The length of the nose is the starting place for the face. Most often it is 1/12 of the width of the board, in this example of the face of Christ, it is 1/6th of the board. This measurement serves as the radius for the circle of the face. Double this length to figure out the size of the head. Tripling it very often gives the halo size.
The evenness lends an internal integrity and balanced proportion to the image.
In a grouping, it lends harmony, consistency and unity to the whole.
Of course, the more figures there are in an icon, the more complex the geometry.
It’s fun (OK, fun for an iconographer anyway) to analyze and discover the geometric relationships within an ancient prototype (or model icon). These relationships contribute greatly to that sense of peace and timelessness in the icon.