Skin Tones in Acrylic: A Process

I have been experimenting with painting icons using acrylic paints, after years of using egg tempera exclusively.  I kind of like acrylics, with their ease of use and quick drying.  Over time, I have studied with several different teachers, each with their own methods, and it has been interesting trying to find my own preferences and methods in my iconography.

acrylic sankir drawing2 inked acrylic sankir Jesus1

acrylic sankir Jesus2

I recently found myself fairly well pleased with a way to paint skin tones (sankir) with my very limited acrylic palette.

01 acrylic sankir GearI use the paint directly from the tube, thinning it with equal parts water and Golden Fluid Matte Medium.  Using only water gives you lovely transparency, but often there is a problem with lifting:  the acrylic medium binds the paint to the surface, making it permanent.  I mix the medium, water, and paint, using an old jar lid as a container, until it has the general consistency of heavy cream.  Letting it sit for a couple of hours allows any bubbles to disperse.  My palette is very limited: the colors in the photo are 95% of what I used to paint these faces.  One can also use the same powdered pigments as in egg tempera:  just use the acrylic medium instead of egg yolk for the binding agent to make the liquid paint.

I’ll go through my modest, cautious method (and there are many ways to make this work, this is just what I have stumbled upon) step by step, with this painting of St.Monica:

acrylic sankir St.Monica0 w thereseFirst, of course, I transfer the drawing to the board, line it with a mixture of red, ultramarine blue, and green to make a dark, dense color.  I don’t often use black for anything.  I then cover the entire board with a layer of yellow ochre to open the icon and provide a unifying harmonious color below the other layers of paint.


acrylic sankir St.Monica1The first layer of the skin tone/sankir is Chromium Oxide Green with a bit of Yellow Ochre.  It is pretty green and alarming–but don’t worry, it will work.  Paint it on all skin and hair areas.  If necessary, redraw most of the lines:  upper eyelid, pupil, eyebrows, nose, mouth, chin.

Next I paint on, in the areas that will be highlighted with Cadmium Red Light.  I am careful to blend in the edges at this early step as best as I can, using water to thin out and avoid sharp boundary lines.

acrylic sankir St.Monica2Mix some Yellow Ochre, about half and half, with the red.  Thin with water and acrylic medium to make it transparent.  (Anytime you thin acrylics with water, remember to add in some medium.  Otherwise the pigments might not bind properly and will lift off when you paint the next layer.)  Apply this color as a base coat for the bright highlights.  After this somewhat orangey layer, I use pure Yellow Ochre in transparent layers, until the features become distinct, moving gradually back away from the edges.

The brighter highlights are made by adding Titanium White to the Yellow Ochre.  Float on transparent layers for a small icon, brush them on a larger one, using water and medium to dilute, soften and fade the edges so that there are no sharp boundaries.

acrylic sankir St.Monica3As you paint, it can happen that the whitish paint layers come up too brightly, or the tones are too chalky.  Fix this by putting a thin layer of transparent Red or Yellow Ochre –or both–over the entire skin and hair area, including the green shadow areas.  These faint layers of red, then ochre, will soften the harsh green and red areas that are showing.  They become more brown or olive in shade, depending on whether you push back the chalky areas with reds or ochres.


acrylic sankir St.Monica4The transparent layers of reds or ochres will blend the entire skin tones beautifully, eliminating “islands” overly bright color.  Use as many layers as you feel is necessary, going back and forth between painting on highlights and pushing them back.  With each layer, the face emerges a bit more.

One nice thing about using this method is that it is never hopeless.  You can always fix and correct anything.  Paint it on, push it back.  Just keep on tinkering with it, using the paint more like transparent water colors.  Reline if necessary. Use a transparent layer of burnt sienna and green if you need to darken shadows.

acrylic sankir St.Monica5         acrylic sankir St.Monica8 w Therese

Finally, once the skin tones are softly blended and look correct to your eye, use a 60-40 mixture of Titanium White to Yellow Ochre to do the brightest highlights.  Pure white is too harsh.  Paint in the dark lines (eyebrows, eyes, etc).  And again, if they are too stark, push them back with a layer of Yellow Ochre over all again.  Repaint if necessary.  Put in pure red (transparent) lines along the nose, mouth, chin, around forehead, red spots in the corner of the eye and by the ear, and anywhere else that a warm emphatic line is useful.


I am sure that there are as many ways to do this as their are iconographers, but this method has worked for me.  I hope this has been helpful to you. And as you might guess, some of the color differences in the illustrations are due to different lighting when I took the photo.  All of them are different stages of one painted face, from start to finish.


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Dog Portrait

Walter bJust for a change of pace, I recently painted a portrait of a friend’s beloved dog.  It will be a gift. I used to be an illustrator, and loved to draw and paint animals, so this was a return to this activity. With the exception of my deplorable calligraphy, it was fun and easy.

In fact, it felt good to have something go so easily! Icons can be such a struggle at times, technically and spirituality.  It was relaxing and fun to make this portrait of Walter the rescue dog.

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What I learned from our Muslim students

For many years, my husband and I have hosted students from around the world. These students were studying English at our local university, before going on to earn degrees in their areas of career interest.  For the most part, they came with near-zero English skills, and chose to stay with a host family for their first term to enhance their acquisition of language skills and to ease into American culture with some family-based insights and assistance.  The students came from all over the world, and we learned as much from them as they learned from us.

Some of our students were from the Middle East, including United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. All of them were male.  Their time with us was very enlightening for us all.  For me, it served to balance the atmosphere of distrust that has entered our society since 9/11, and the more recent acts of terrorism.

The great love and caring that each young man had for their family, and for the institution of family in general, was amazing.  Both fathers and mothers were spoken of with utmost respect.  Family was thought of often, contacted frequently. (Skype is a wonderful thing!) Packages arrived from “home” regularly for our students, with gifts of familiar food and special things that they liked.  Each little sister and brother was doted on, talked about often, as were older siblings, parents, and the extended families.  Gifts were carefully chosen for each.

I had seen videos of Muslim mothers rejoicing when their suicide bomber sons blew themselves up.  I know now what a total aberration that is, what a corruption that is of a people whose lives are very closely bonded and loving, for whom family is extremely important.

Friendships, too, were close, tolerant, and affectionate.  It is clear that relationships are valued more than profit in that culture.  The importance of family has influenced the formation of language as well.  In English, where properties are handed down through generations according to strict conventions, we have many specific names for specific relationships:  brother, sister, half-sister, step-sister, sister-in-law, cousin, niece, nephew, and so on.  In Arabic, if I understood them correctly, there is no word for cousin, nephew, niece, etc.  There is only brother and sister, mother and father.  A cousin might be explained, if the issue of relationship was pressed, as the brother who is son of his father’s brother.  But anyone who was related to the family was called brother, was called sister–all are simply family without qualification.  The Arabic students were mystified at the complexity of our family/relationship words.

The respect for family that the young men brought with them was extended to us, their American host family, and they were thoughtful and courteous.  As their English improved, we had many open and honest conversations, which was a wonderful gift.

All of the Muslim students were very proud of their countries and culture, and wanted to study hard and learn so as to improve not only their own lives but also for the greater good of their country.  They wanted to contribute to the world, to their world.

They were very well-versed in their religious beliefs, and were well able to explain and share.  In fact, they could be downright evangelical in their faith at times,  and always unafraid to voice their point of view.  They were totally willing to be countercultural in our society, and to resist those things that they regarded as wrong:  drinking, cursing, immodest dress, eating the “wrong” foods, etc. (Naturally, this isn’t across the board, many individuals gave into a double-standard and behaved differently than they would have at home in Saudi Arabia, but all of our particular students were very faithful to their upbringing and family expectations.)

Their witness to Islam was most impressive.  They faithfully attended prayer services at the local mosque every week.  Prayer, and God, was always a priority.  No matter what they were doing, at the proper time for prayers they stopped, and retreated to their room to pray.  They performed their ritual preparations, and praised and worshipped.  The prayer times occurred 5 times a day, as I recall, and took about 15 to 20 minutes to complete.  They even set their alarms to rise before dawn, pray, and return to sleep. Praying was the last thing they did at night.  It reminded me of the old Christian practice of the Liturgy of the Hours, which is probably only done regularly in monasteries any more.  Yet these young men, with no one watching and no one holding them accountable, willingly and cheerfully held fast to this tradition.  We should be so faithful to our own practices!

I am glad I had the opportunity to get to know these Muslim students.  When I see news reports and hear of acts of prejudice, I am able to balance it out with my own experiences.  I wish that everyone had the opportunity to either travel or to host people from overseas.  It is a wonderful way to open up our own perceptions to other people and other ways of living.

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The Icon of the Trinity

This icon, written by Andrei Rublev in the xxx century, is considered to be the most theologically perfect icon ever made.  It is the highest achievement of Russian art–and a masterpiece by any standards. It is based on the Old Testament story of Abraham unwittingly entertaining angels with perfect hospitality.  Christians believe that this event is the first revelation of God in Three Divine Persons.

Rublev’s Trinity most fully expresses the dogma of the Trinity in artwork.

The three angels are used in the icon as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. Indeed, in iconography it is heresy to depict God the Father, whose face no one has ever seen.  This symbolic rendition of the Trinity, as told in the Bible, is the only permissible way to show the figure of God the Father.

Andrei Rublev Trinity

The figure on the left represents God the Father.  Both of the others bow their heads towards Him.  The One in the center represents Jesus Christ, the one on the right is the Holy Spirit.  They are all in relationship with each other, looking at each other, each  inclining their heads in attentiveness and love, sitting together around a small table as if at an intimate meal.  Compositionally, the figures form a circle, a shape that is without beginning or end, complete in itself without any one part coming before the other.  The three persons all look basically alike–because they are One.

Note also that the figure of Christ is blessing a cup/chalice at this heavenly banquet, and also, that within the “negative space” of the trio, His entire figure is enclosed in a chalicelike shape formed by the Father and Holy Spirit.  Jesus wears the gold “band of authority” over His shoulder, representing His authority to reveal the Father to all of us.

There is a little rectangle in the table near the bottom center:  it represents the entrance to heaven, to the heavenly banquet, for all of us.  It is through the Eucharistic meal, and the cup of suffering and love, that we enter the kingdom of God. Imagine peeking through that entranceway, into the color, light, and glory of what is depicted in the icon!

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Praying with St. Monica for the lost sheep

St. Monica. My hero.  She was the first saint that I thought of to include in my icon for the strayed-away lambs of the church.

We don’t know too much about her, most of what we do know comes from the writings of her son, Augustine.  From her name, it has been theorized that she was a Berber.  She was born in 331 in what is now Algeria in North Africa.  She was raised a Christian, but given into marriage to a pagan man.   3 of their children survived infancy, including their youngest son, Augustine.  St. Monica died in 387, and was buried in Ostia, the harbor city of ancient Rome.  Later, her remains were transferred to the Cathedral of S’ant Agostino in Rome.

St. Augustine wasn’t always an holy and eloquent defender and explainer of the faith.  He was a rebellious and wayward young man, much given to partying and loose living.

St. Monica prayed and prayed for her family.  Her husband and mother-in-law converted in 371.  The 2 elder children were baptized as well, and both of them joined the religious life.  Augustine took a bit more effort:  about 30 years of persistent prayer.  His mother followed him from Africa to Italy, always praying that he might turn to the Lord.

He was baptized in 387, and went on to be canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church.

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Icon for the Lost Sheep

A prayer from Isaiah 45:8, and 2 Timothy 2:10.

Lord, let your mercy

descend like the dew from

above on your children.

Let the hearts of our loved

ones be opened and your

salvation bud forth, that

they might obtain the

salvation that is in Christ

Jesus, with eternal glory.

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Praying with the Mother of God for the lost sheep

Mary, the Mother of God, also prays with us for our beloved ones who have left the faith.  It was she who carried Jesus to the world, who gave birth to Him, loved Him, raised Him, brought Him to us in such a concrete way.   She will help us to do the same:  to carry Jesus in our hearts and lives, to bring Him to the world around us, to love Him, and show us how to bring our strayed loved ones back to His loving merciful grace.

I ponder her life, her carrying out of God’s will for her.  I read Scripture and study the meaning of what is said about her there.  As I paint, I ask her to join me in prayer, lifting up my sons and friends, to the Lord, asking for their conversion of heart. I think about the meaning of some of her various titles:  Blessed among women, Theotokos/The God Bearer, Mary, the handmaid of the Lord, the Mother of God.  Mother.

Woman behold your son. Son, behold your mother.  So much more is being said here than Jesus pausing to have a sentimental, or practical moment, while dying on the cross.  So much more is being told to us about this woman, who is watching her boy die.

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

Pray for us, that the Lord may lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of His mercy.  

Pray for our children, that their hearts might turn again to Jesus. Guide us, that we might say the words that will open their hearts to the love and mercy of our God.


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Praying with St. John Bosco

As I finish the image of St. John Bosco, and begin work on the next figure on my icon for those who have lost their faith, I prayed for all those who have asked for prayers for their own loved ones.   With every stroke of the brush, a prayer:  Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.  Remember, Lord, those who have strayed from You.

I ask St. John Bosco to pray with me for their return to the love and mercy of Jesus.  For Christopher, for Gregory, for Tori, for Steven, for Cecelia, for Jennifer, for Alan, for Gary, for Heather, for Ian,  for Mary, for Bob, for Stephanie, for Robyn, for Oscar Leonardo Rodriguez Canon, for John, for Alfredo, for all.

Some people wonder why we pray “to” saints.  Praying “to” is not exactly the right way to phrase it, rather it is praying “with”.  As Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, we believe that our love and caring for each other do not die with the body. The soul is eternal.  Those who have passed away from this earth remain as part of our lives, part of our spiritual community.

Saints include those whose holiness and closeness to God has been recognized officially and publicly (a canonized saint), and those whose holiness are known only to the Lord.  Your grandparent, a child , the lonely stranger on the sidewalk, any and all who have left this life are included in the community of saints.  They are close to God now, but still part of our lives, still loving us.  We can ask them to join us in prayer, as readily and effectively as asking the person sitting next to you to say a prayer for you.


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I read the Gospels sometimes and wonder at the people who saw with their own eyes the miracles that Jesus worked, heard with their own ears the things He said.  And still they turned away.  How could they NOT believe?  I know that I sure would have followed Him–or would I?

If I think deeply and honestly about it, knowing my conservative cautious self as I do, I wonder if I would have the courage to step away from everything I had been raised to believe, and follow a new way.  I was blessed to be raised Catholic, and never had to grapple with this sort of issue. But it is hard to turn away from your family traditions–and probably your family, too– and from the things you had always been taught were true.

I hope that I would have had the clarity of vision and the insight to follow Jesus, had I lived in those times.  I hope that I would have had to courage to leave everything behind for His sake.  Even my own physical life had that been required of me.

I so much admire the principles and courage of those who do so today, who experience a conversion of heart and turn to follow Christ.

I am in awe of those who die for their faith, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia, and everywhere that His followers are persecuted.

I hope that my own faith is deep and true, even as I would fear to have it so tested.


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St. John Bosco Icon

One of the saddest things that I witness in our society is the large number of runaway children.  Rebellious.  Rejected. Abused. Unloved.   Emotionally or physically abandoned children with no place to go.  All too often, they are victimized and become victimizers, too. It is nothing new, it happens in most cultures and  most eras.  Charles Dickens noticed it. Mark Twain noticed it.  An old Cherokee folk tale called The Orphan Boy and the Elk Dog took note of it.  Eugene Delacroix and Francisco Goya noticed it. They each responded according to their own gifts.

An Italian priest named John Bosco noticed it, too–and he, too, did something about it.

John Bosco was born in 1815, died at the age of 72 in 1888, and was canonized in 1934.  He devoted his life to trying to help lost children in his own city of Turin, Italy.  He worked to better their lives by caring for them, teaching them trades, and giving them hope and knowledge of Jesus Christ’s saving love.  Fr. Bosco’s philosophy was to use love and kindness rather than punishment as a way to reach these children.  He founded the Salesian order to help boys, and co-founded the Daughters of Mary Help for Christians to reach disadvantaged girls.  He aided thousands of children, and cared deeply for the fate of all who grow up without hope, without love in their lives. His work continues today.

The story of his caring and persistent effort is why I chose to use his image in my icon to pray for those lost and strayed loved ones that are part of my life.  My sons didn’t run away from me, but they did run away from God.

I have begun painting St. John Bosco first–because I right-handed and he is located all the way to the left on the board.

As I paint, and pray for my boys, I read articles and quotes of St. John Bosco.   I ask St. John Bosco to pray with me for them. I study his life and his spirituality.

His work and his life emerge from the stories to become more and more clear to me–even as his image emerges from the murky underpainting and begins to take shape.  It is not yet a finished painting, but slowly it is getting there.

bosco bs1 bosco bs2 bosco bs3





An icon doesn’t seek to make a physical likeness, but a portrait of the saint’s spiritual self. I will strive to make him look as loving and caring as I possibly can, because that is who he was, and is, with a special care for those who have lost their sense of God.

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