Icons and Light

Christ Emmanuel attributed to Dionysius 16th century Russia

Christ Emmanuel
attributed to Dionysius
16th century Russia

An icon is not meant to be a likeness, not meant to be a physical portrait.  It is, rather, a spiritual portrait. It shows a glorified soul, transfigured by grace,  filled with the light and radiance of God’s love.  This light is interior, glowing from within, where the Spirit dwells.

There is no external light source: no sunshine, no candle, no flame nor lightbulb–not even a heavenly beam directed onto the figure in the icon.  No shadow is cast by any object or person in the icon.

One who has lived a holy life has a soul filled with light and overflowing with grace, and it is this radiance that illuminates an icon.

The Lamentation Monk Gregory Krug 20th Century

The Lamentation
Monk Gregory Krug
20th Century

In many classical styles of iconography, particularly the Russian techniques which I have studied,  shadows of any kind are rarely painted in at all.

To achieve this, the process of painting an icon more or less develops in this way.

One begins with flat, dark shapes or areas of color.  A few lines are put in to clarify detail, serve as a guide to placement of the highlights, and to provide a bit of contrast.

Then layers of light are built up, little by little, with yellow ochre pigments at first, gradually adding white.

The  figure is modeled and defined entirely through the painting of the light.


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.
This entry was posted in art, Catholic icons, Icon, Iconography, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Icons and Light

  1. sistermarygrace says:

    There is no catch light in the eyes of an icon either. This again shows that there is no outward source of light shining on the holy figure represented. The painting process brings light out of darkness in every respect!

  2. lilyboat says:

    I love how the icon gets brighter and brighter as it progresses. Lovely!

  3. SR says:

    Thanks for the explanation of the “shadows.” As I draw, I “shadow” in a lot of course with pencil and charcoal. This also reminded me of how God does with us. He “layers” us with His light until we are “modeled and defined,” by it. As I look at these icons it reminds me of how it happens. Great job and God Bless, SR

    • reinkat says:

      Thanks, SR.
      I, too, use a lot of shadowing when using pencil, watercolor, oils, etc. They add depth and definition–but the use of light only in the icon is another way to emphasis the inverse perspective. Darks fall back, light comes forward : and this technique helps the icon look as if it comes towards you.

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