The meeting with Father Luke from the Monastery of Xenophon, the Holy Mount Athos, took place in the School of the Saint Elisabeth Convent. Icon painters from the Convent workshop and those interested in icon painting attended the meeting. Everyone had their own interest: they wanted to learn more about both the techniques of icon painting and the right way of life.
After the greeting, Father Luke asked everyone to sit closer:
It’s a great joy for me to be here with you. (embarrassed) You are probably going to be disappointed… I am embarrassed to tell you this, but since this is my obedience, I will show you how I usually paint. You may come closer to see… What are we going to paint? The face? Okay, um…
Everybody quickly gathers in one close circle, in the center of which there is a small table with paints and a gessoed board. Father Luke takes a pencil and makes the first strokes.
I stick to the following technique in drawing the face: I divide the face into four parts: the end of the nose, the halo, and the hair. I start with the main features: I indicate the nose, the eye the size of half of the nose, the second eye at the same distance. When we draw, we do not need to draw perfectly symmetrically: the left part of the image can be slightly smaller than the right. It means that the right eye can be slightly bigger than the left one. It looks like a turn of the face.
Do you always start by drawing with a pencil?
Yes, I do.
His hand moves confidently, gently, slowly.
Soon the sketch is over, and Father Luke puts the pencil aside.
Before I start painting, I cover the surface with egg. That’s because the surface is highly absorptive, you have to do away with it. Otherwise, when I apply the paint, the board will absorb it too much and distort the color.
Egg with white wine? Someone from the icon painting studio asked…
I add vinegar instead of white wine. It’s the same thing, in fact. Our paints are usually in powder form. When I paint an icon, I mix the egg and the powder. The paints are slightly thicker than they are now. When I work, I put the image on the easel vertically, it makes the work more efficient.
Father Luke answers questions while mixing paint on the palette.
I always apply layers very carefully, so as not to damage the color of the previous layer, making sure that there is no extra stroke… Nowadays Greek icon painters often work the other way round: first they apply light shades, and then dark shades. However, the technique that I am showing now has long been used on the Holy Mountain: first they do the dark color and then they brighten it up. It’s more convenient for me.
The ocher goes down thick enough, so the pencil barely shows up in the image.
Once you paint over the pencil sketch, you won’t be able to see anything!
I’ve done with it already; I won’t do it again, otherwise the glow of color will be lost. Now let’s paint the facial features… The light is supposed to fall from the left, so the shadow will be on the right… Let’s paint the nose shadow, the shadow on the lips. I don’t usually paint the lower lip, just the upper lip.
Father Luke paints with his hands crossed so that his right hand rests on his left hand – probably for more balance.
Do you hold your hand like that on purpose?
Only to trace details or to paint a small icon.
He paints quickly and accurately.
Do you paint more slowly on Athos?
Usually faster. But now the face is horizontal, and I’m not used to it.
What about matching the colors and the exact pattern? Do you make color sketches? When you work, do you put a sample next to your desk, or do you write at your own discretion?
There are many questions. Father Luke answers all of them one by one:
Usually no. When there’s only one saint, I already know what he is going to look like. If the icon is multi-figure, complex, then yes, we need to check out the colors. Initially I had hundreds of examples and samples… Then you get tired of it, you already know what you are going to do.
Father Luke adds white paint to the palette and mixes it with the main tone. He probes the color on the icon and shakes his head: it’s too bright.
Do you sample the color right on the icon?
Yes, straight on the icon so that I can put the color in context, among other colors.
Do you paint in daylight or in artificial light?
What about winter?
There is no winter on Athos (everyone laughs). Our icon painting studio has very large windows, 2 meters high. So there’s enough light in the workshop in winter. The building was built in 1850, it’s a bell tower, and we placed the icon painting studio downstairs – just because of the big windows.
You don’t work at night, do you?
Father Luke is surprised at the question.
No, I don’t.
Do you make your own paints?
No, we buy them.
He is painting and at the same time begins to lighten the face with neat strokes, sometimes barely touching the image.
Icon painters are interested in everything: paints, brushes, gilding, other techniques… The interpreter has to ask them to repeat their questions several times to translate the answer more accurately:
How do you make the assist (gold pattern on the icon)?
Mix the paint and glue, draw, glue the gold, remove the excess.
Ah, gold leaf… The listeners guess. But why do you mix paint and glue?
The glue is transparent, so we know where it is and where it isn’t.
Which wood do you make icon boards from?
Icon boards are made of lime, oak, wild cherry. The main thing is that the board has to be well dried.
Do you make your own gesso?
Other monks do it, young ones. When they don’t have time, we order it elsewhere.
Do you use glazing?
I mean a gradual, semitransparent color transition on the icon.
I try to make the strokes of the brush visible, and then at the end I put one shade to connect all the colors on the face. I don’t care so much about connecting colors, I want to be able to see the brush strokes.
Thanks to the strokes the colors keep moving. You can see these strokes on old painted icons. You can see the brush and how it works. When you start to join them with some mean color… Sometimes you do it, you have to. The strokes add movement to the icon.
What if the icon is small? Do you also paint with strokes?
When an icon is small – no, I don’t. That’s not how it is painted. You can see this color transition on large icons, and you want to show it further.
How long have you been painting icons?
Father Luke pauses, sighs and fixes his glasses. He smiles and answers simply:
Forty years… I’ve been painting since I was 15.
How did it start?
It started with oil painting. However, the Geronda (i.e. the elder, the hegumen of the monastery) had known me since I was young and encouraged me to do icon painting. At first, I tried it myself, and then, when I came to the Holy Mountain, I found old icon painters there who taught me their methods.
What secrets did those icon painters tell you?
That is not some specific advice that you learn and the whole world would change. They taught me how to work: what kind of room to work in, what paints to use, what gold… Those are the secrets.
Did you come to faith when you were a child?
I decided that I wanted to become a monk when I was 10. Geronda said I had to wait. I became a monk at 21.
How often do you paint? Every day?
Yes, every day for six hours, that’s the time allocated for service. The rest of the time is worship.
What about time off?
I do not paint on weekends and holidays, but I still come to the workshop, do woodcarving, painting, and enjoy doing pastels.
Do you travel often?
Most often, if I travel, it’s only on business or study: I studied in Finland and France. Well, and if there’s any painting to be done… Now we paint a church in the US, in New York, in the place where the skyscrapers collapsed, you know…?
You’ve seen the technique of our icon painting workshop, what do you think about it? What’s different about it?
You write closer to the prototype, to the original, you write in the 14th-century technique. I aspire to it too but I am moving away from it because I have worked in this style a lot and I want something else. I move on, you’re closer to the original, but we’re very close in terms of technique.
What are the differences?
I’m trying to portray more of what’s in my head, not sticking to the exact pattern, and trying to convey more volume.
Do you paint icons to order? Who usually buys them?
-Most orders come from Greece: monasteries, churches, ordinary people. We have recently stopped painting custom-made icons and make more frescoes on the Holy Mountain without leaving Athos. We have painted refectories in the Iveron and Pantocrator monasteries, the cathedral in Simonopetra, the Protaton in Karyes. There’s a tower museum. We painted a fresco of the history of the Holy Mountain. There were no samples, and it was a very fascinating and interesting work.
Do you restore the frescoes or do you make new ones?
No, there were no murals before.
How many people work in your icon painting studio?
Four, including myself.
Who is your role model among icon painters?
There are several icons, two or three icons, they are in different places, in the Vatopedi and Metidini, but it is clear that they were painted by the same author. They are from the late 14th century. They capture what I have learned in iconography: strength, power, and momentum. Each brush stroke is very intense; you can compare it to Rembrandt way of painting. You know Vatopedi icons, you can find them. The most impressive of them is the Deposition from the Cross and St. John the Theologian. Check them out. You can find them.
What is an icon for you? What is the most important thing in an icon for you?
The face. The strokes I make that give it movement. I would like everybody to look at these circular strokes; they make the icon look lively. Personally, it matters a lot to me in an icon. It is important not only in painting the face, but also in other elements of the icon. The interaction of all the elements sets the rhythm and harmony for the icon. Interestingly, these strokes may be imperfect individually, but together they create a special state in which the imperfection disappears and the icon becomes a single whole.
What if you are painting an icon and you get distracted?
I just keep painting the icon. I believe that the best way to focus your thoughts is by painting an icon. You just get away from everything and focus on painting. I occasionally turn on a recording of spiritual conversations and it can be difficult to listen to them when you focus on the icon.
What’s most important for an icon painter?
Everyone understood the word and translated it before the interpreter did.
Love of icon painting. Love of our past. We are not standing still; we are looking forward to the future. Remembering the past, the people who lived before, is essential, though. People in the past lived in conditions in which they learned great wisdom. We can turn to them for that wisdom through icon painting.
What do you think of experiments in iconography?
They may seem imaginative at first glance, but I am not impressed by them; compared to classical examples in icon painting, they lose their value. I don’t like them.
Then what makes the real icon special?
An icon has depth and earnest appeal. There are no tears, no sensuality; the icon is characterized by sobriety and calmness, truth and steadfastness inherent in the Kingdom of God. This is what an icon must reflect.
What do you feel when an icon is ready? Are you satisfied with an icon that is ready?
I am happy and grateful to God for the opportunity to create this joy. It’s not a routine, it’s an inspiration for new paintings.
Have there been icons that you felt sorry to part with?
It is often hard to part with icons that were painted for myself, for my monastery, but I do not part with them: they remain in the monastery.
Are there temptations, things that get in the way of your work?
Nothing gets in my way more than lack of time. There is not enough time for what I want to create. There are many ideas that I just don’t have time to implement due to lack of time.
Does time run so fast on Athos that you can’t keep up with it?
Yes. It’s just that when we live on the Holy Mount, we know we’re temporary, transient. We don’t think we’re making something great, which no one else can do if we’re gone. We understand that we are nothing, that we are going to leave this world, so it is easier for us to put up with the flow of time.
That’s what I’ve noticed: if you go to the Liturgy, you can do a lot. Strange as it may seem, you spend time on worship, but it seems that you get more time in return. Is it just me, or is there really a pattern in this, and God allows you to do everything?
That’s indeed true. God blesses our days and extends the time and space around us. Sometimes a person says, “I’m not going to church today; I’d rather rest, because I need strength for some important thing.” That important thing doesn’t work out for him later. It is more useful for him or her to go to church and receive God’s blessing, and then his or her job will go really well.
There is a finished face on the table. Everyone comes closer, looks at the painted image, and thanks for the exciting conversation. Father Luke himself thanks the guests:
Thank you very much, too. I am honored that I came to your convent and that you welcomed me with so much love. I wish I could invite you to the Holy Mountain, but unfortunately, women are not allowed to go there. Yet we become one at every Liturgy. We need to feel it: every time we come to the Liturgy, we are all one. All the Orthodox and the whole world is one.
Wonderful article, thank you!