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When I shared an image on Instagram of the icon my eight-year-old made at our homeschooling co-op, I got TONS of requests for a tutorial. So my friend Renée Clayton who taught my son’s class graciously offered to share all her wisdom on the blog for you. Enjoy! -Haley
When my eldest was four years old, I decided that for preschool his chief education would be in the faith. We spent the year making large, painted, festal icons. It was such a warm, special time in our lives. If you taught your child nothing else, they would learn many life tools through looking at these holy images. To my surprise, he learned many other things; but my main goal was to teach him to pray and love God. I believe viewing icons, praying with icons and making one’s own icons to be a very good practice for the formation of the young.
Before You Begin: What is an icon?
Simply, it is an image that embodies the thing it depicts. Therefore, if the image is a holy one, we venerate it as though it was, in reality, the Holy One. This makes Christian icons and iconography a sacred art, a devotional.
Iconography is a very ancient practice. The first Christian icon is said to have been made “not with human hands.” It was Christ’s face transferred to a cloth as a holy gift to heal the King Avargrus of leprosy. Likewise, St. Luke, the Apostle, is said to have painted three icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Therefore, the images are given to us from a primary source.
Icons are used in prayer. The image brings the viewer’s mind to God and all things holy. These images are meant to aid in the perfection and salvation of one’s soul. When gazing upon the holy image, one may meditate and slowly repeat one prayer, The Jesus Prayer:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
The Jesus Prayer is also meditatively recited as the image is painted. Each stroke is made with prayer.
Icons have been called, “Sacred Doorways” or “Windows to Heaven.” Icons usually have a painted frame like a window or doorway. But the image sometimes spills out of the space as though it cannot be contained.
The perspective of an icon is odd to a novice viewer. The angles are all strange, the faces and bodies are disproportionate. However, when one learns that the perspective is the vanishing point in the viewer, not that of the viewer looking at heaven, but rather God looking through the image at the viewer, then everything seems less strange and more mystical.
I am no theologian, nor monk, nor professionally trained and blessed iconographer. However, I know that spending time with icons lifts the soul to God. So without further ado, now to the tutorial for creating a beautiful icon suitable for veneration with your children.
-A small wooden hobby plaque (any size or shape will do, but I suggest small plaques for small hands). If you are handy with a saw, you can cut your own out of smooth plank (1”X6” is a good size plank, then cut the icon into 4”X6” or 6”X9”).
– Small bottles are fine for small crowds. Less paint is needed than you think. You can also buy larger sizes, which is an investment.
– Another option for paint is to use acrylics. I highly recommend using acrylics. However, I did not for two reasons. We had a large group and it’s not cost effective. Secondly, I did not want to send anyone home with painted clothing that would not wash away.
Gesso (a lot)
– Gesso is used to prep the plaque. It can be found wherever canvas and paints are sold. Do not skip this step. It is very important to prep the plaque for the final look.
Sandpaper (100 grit, 400 grit)
-I picked up sets with 10 brushes for $4.95 at a big box bargain chain that has a craft section, wink, wink, not a hobby store.
-Fine brush sizes: 3/000,2/00, 0, 1 (any of these sizes will work)
-Flat square brush sizes: 3, 2, 1
Photocopied icon cartoon (like below)
Step One: Choose the Image
It is tradition that the first icon one paints is a simple image of Christ. The first and most simple image is called, “The Holy Napkin,” or “Not with Human Hands.”
Here is the one I used with our homeschool group and it’s free for your use as well.
Another option for first timers is an image of the Blessed Virgin holding the infant Christ, or a guardian angel.
Print the images in the right size for your plaque.
Step Two: Prepare the Plaque
All icons need to be prepared in a special way. In fact, this may be the most important step. The wood needs to be painted with gesso for two reasons.
The first reason is spiritual. The gesso provides a separation between our fallen, imperfect world and the heavenly world of the icon. It a veil from us and the mystery that is heaven, and ultimately God.
Multiple layers of gesso are needed. It is tradition to paint the layers a holy number. For instance, one may choose to paint the gesso in 3 layers for the Holy Trinity, 7 layers for the days of Creation, 12 layers for the Apostles, and so on. Keep track of your layers with tally marks on the back side, and make it a holy number. Seven seems to be the magic number for me.
The second reason to prepare the board in this way is practical. The wood surface will be full of imperfections, but the gesso will smooth those imperfections. If imperfections are left in the surface of the plaque they will show through in the icon. This is not suitable for a holy image.
Try to choose plaques that are already smooth. If they are not smooth, which mine were not, you can fill it with wood putty and then gesso. You can also, somewhat, fill the imperfections with gesso alone. But it takes a lot of gesso.
When your layers are completed, you will need to sand brushstroke ridges out of the boards so they are smooth like glass. I spray the dry plaque with a little water and then sand them with 400 grit sandpaper. This makes them more glassy.
Yes, I prepared all these plaques (baby in tow) for our homeschool co-op. I left it set up in my garage and did a coat here and there. The students could be involved in the preparations, but our class only meets for an hour every other week. If we had met for several hours, coats of gesso could be done while they worked on other art projects. Children can also be involved in the sanding.
Step Three: Transfer the Image
One of the most wonderful parts is called tracing the cartoon. It’s when you trace the line drawing onto the board. (Why trace? Because icons have a theology. Theologians decide what symbols and images appropriately portray the holy messages. We would never write our own scripture or our own Catechism. Likewise, it is not permissible to create our own holy images without training and authority. So we trace what the masters have done before us.)
I have a simple, cost effective technique for the tracing step. Use a pencil and completely color in the back side of the photocopy. Then use masking tape and tape the image onto the plaque. Then trace every line on the photocopy. Peel up half the image and make sure every line is transferred to the board. Then remove the photocopy and discard (or burn if this is tasteful to you).
Then each line is painted with black paint (or brown).
Some of the children had trouble with the painting of the lines. Their image was too shaky, or the lines were too thick and heavy—the image was lost. If your students are very young, or seem to struggle, it is acceptable to simply glue the photocopy to the plaque with a mixture of water and school glue. However, I still emphatically recommend preparing the plaque with gesso even if you plan to simply glue on photocopies, because if you do not prepare the board, the image will not last, the paint will fade and the imperfections will begin to show through as you paint.
Step Four: Paint in Layers
Icons are always painted in layers. This is by design. On the one hand, painting slowly in layers aids the meditative prayer. On the other hand, it creates an inverse image that gives a sense of another world.
Paint everything a golden hue to start so that everything glows from within. Then paint the skin and hair in green/olive color.
This will later become shadow in the finished icon. Then paint in highlights with white paint. Now you will begin to see the image sculpt out of the flat surface.
Next paint skin colors (I mixed brown, orange and white tempera). This should be done with a flat brush very lightly so as not to completely lose the green shadow underneath.
I always emphasize with the children to use just a little paint and touch very lightly, and gently. Kids have a tendency to use a lot of paint and a heavy hand. They will immediately lose the image this way. The paint will smudge and run together. Further the paint will dry slowly.
After skin, paint brown hair, and golden highlights in hair. Touch up eyes, nose, mouth with browns and blacks. A white dot of paint on either side of the eye will give the eye it’s definition. In the center make a brown iris and large black pupil. A little pink may be added to the face as well. Then paint the white cloth (or whatever clothing is in the image).
Lastly, gold leaf is added to the halo and the background. Gold communicates that this image is precious, holy and sacred. We used gold acrylic paint for our icon at the homeschool co-op.
Red around the halo, cross and words symbolizes the great salvific sacrifice that was made for all humankind.
Icons are never signed on the front. However, a simple phrase is added to the back, “Through the hand of…” This image has come to us from heaven through the iconographer. God makes all things possible.
Step Five: Seal it
This is an image that communicates something about the Creator. Seal it with an agent that will help it last until Kingdom come. I used a Krylon sealing spray. I often used polyurethane. Yes, these images may be made by the inferior skill of a child, but the image still communicates our God. Give it the honor to last. Keep it always. Venerate it.
Step Six: Bless it
Traditionally, to bless an icon it is placed on the altar during liturgy where the Eucharist is consecrated. Then prayers of blessing are said after the liturgy. Most Roman Catholic priests are not familiar with the blessing of icons. However, you can ask your priest to bless the image for use in your prayer.
Step Seven: Venerate it
Have your child make a personal altar to place the icon. My son has his prayer book, his icon and a crucifix on his prayer table. Some families may wish to add candles. This is where your child can pray and venerate the icon with prayer and a daily kiss.
I wish you success in this endeavor. It seems like a lot. There is indeed a lot to it. With patience and prayer, this is achievable. It’s just a lot of little acts done with great love. Break it down into the components and do it little by little. You will be all the better for having done it.
May God grant you many years in peace, health and happiness.
Renée Clayton is a Ruthenian Catholic (What’s a Ruthenian Catholic?), Byzantine Rite, homeschooling mom of five spirited children. Renée writes icons in her spare time. She learned the practice of writing icons from Peter Pearson, A Brush with God: An Icon Workbook, Praying with Icons by Jim Forest, and various other books, and websites. Renée has a B.A. in Philosophy and Art, with Catholic Studies from Gonzaga University.
If you want to learn more about making icons with children, head over to Renee’s blog where she’s set up a page just for making icons with kids.