Father Sergius Nezhbort, who is a priest of our Convent and the head of our Icon Painting Studio, is our guest today. We are going to talk with him how he became an icon painter; how the studio grew and developed; where its current painters learned and how an icon is created.
How did you become an icon painter?
It’s hard to say how I became an icon painter; I’m not sure I ever became one. First of all, I had a dream. It just happened that when I came to the Church, the Lord revealed himself to me through the icon. This event changed everything: I started going to church and got baptised. The icon became my window into the Kingdom of Heaven. I simply wanted to believe that there would be a day when I would paint icons. At that time, I went to an art school and learned to paint. I entertained that dream for a long time but after a while, I realised that it was not going to happen: I didn’t have anyone who could teach me to paint icons and any chance to acquire this skill. I had to forget about my dream for some time. Five years later, that dream came true. I got involved in painting icons. I’ve been doing my best to keep up with it since that time. However, I don’t dare call myself an icon painter.
Can you tell us about the history of the Icon Painting Studio?
It was in the spring of 1999 that Larissa Nezhbort, Nun Lyudmila Leiko, and I founded the Icon Painting Studio with the blessing of Father Andrew Lemeshonok. Each of us had his or her own route to the icon painting. It was an audacious move because, in spite of our motivation, we lacked icon-painting skills and everything else, too. We started from scratch. Little by little, new people were joining, and the Studio began to grow. A lot has changed since then. We didn’t know even the most basic things, such as how to cover an icon with gold leaf or how to grind the paints. The surface of our first icons was like sandpaper because we didn’t grind the paints properly. Today everything has changed, of course. We didn’t have study guides and did not have the opportunity to look at good samples that we have now. We only had several books, albums from home bookshelves, and it wasn’t enough, to be honest. I took a look at our old photos not long ago, and I was somewhat ashamed. Perhaps, it was merely a stage in our development, and we had to go through that stage. Now we are on a different level. When new people join, eager to learn how to paint icons, they can get the answers to their questions, which we have tested on ourselves. They can learn how to draw a sketch, how to cover the surface with gold leaf, and how to use a sample. It will take our students only one month to start using the methods that we had to experiment with for years.
Who did you learn from?
Archpriest Igor Latushko gave us the first props. We all knew him and asked him about the substantial, the inner workings of an icon, rather than just professional advice. For example, he could clearly explain why this or that saint was portrayed in a certain way and what the meaning and symbolism of an icon of a certain feast was. It was necessary for us at that point because we were professional artists but not icon painters. For me, it was crucial to be helping Andrey Kozikov, a famous icon painter. As an apprentice in his studio, I saw the work of an icon painter from within and saw how hard it was. I couldn’t do a whole lot of things, but I could gesso icon boards, wash the floor or the palette… I was very happy to contribute to this process. Now, when I paint icons on my own, I realise that it would be much harder without that experience. These were the two people who really helped me in the beginning. We didn’t have specific teachers. Most likely, we learned from one another by reading books, exploring iconographic samples, and praying. We visited Archimandrite Zinon (Teodor) several times but I cannot claim that he was our teacher. He was always welcoming, which was important for us at that time. Well, you can learn a lot even if you simply look at his icons and see him working.
How do you paint an icon?
Figuratively speaking, an icon has the body, the soul, and the spirit, just like a human being. It is always difficult to speak about the spiritual aspect and it is much easier to speak about icon painting as a craft. An icon is painted traditionally. We resolved from the outset that we would paint icons using only traditional methods, as opposed to new technologies, modern paints and primers. We use the methods known since ancient times. We paint on a dried lime or pine board with the carved-out centre. The board is gessoed, i.e. coated with several layers of primer, which consists of chalk and glue, until it has a smooth and polished surface. Our paints are made of minerals and even semi-precious stones, e.g., lazurite, malachite, etc. We paint icons based on earlier samples. An icon painter looks at the sample and outlines the contours. The background or the halo are then covered with gold leaf, and the icon painter proceeds to paint the vestments and buildings, followed by hands and faces. Lastly, the icon is finished with linseed oil. These are the main stages but everyone follows them in a different way. As a rule, one’s soul and inner life inadvertently reverberate in his or her painting. An icon is some kind of a spiritual barometer that shows the inner state of the icon painter. If an artist expresses himself in his work and enjoys seeing his skill reflected in his picture, you will look at the icon like in a mirror and see your untruth. It exposes you and makes you really sad. The difficulty of an icon painter’s ministry is that, although you can clearly see that you’re unprepared, you’ve got to keep on painting. The Lord helps through the icon. When the person faces his own untruth, he is inclined to seek God in order to be transformed and live according to God’s truth.
What are the traditions that have influenced your painting style?
It’s hard to say. At first, we were inspired by Ancient Russian icons, such as the paintings of Andrei Rublev and Dionysius. Currently, there are plenty of resources for icon painters: books and papers on Byzantine icons and samples of 6th-century iconography are available and easily accessible. It is this diversity that shapes one’s iconographic style. That is why we don’t have any mainstream trend. Nevertheless, there are icon painters whose works set the standard, so to say, and other icon painters in our Studio try to follow it. We are grounded in contemporary iconography, too: for instance, the works by the icon painters of Holy Trinity St Sergius Lavra. We follow the general directions of contemporary iconographic art.
Is icon painting a collaborative art?
Sure. Even if you look at it from the technical viewpoint: one person makes the wooden board, another person covers it with gesso, yet another person plates it with gold, and finally, yet another person paints the icon. Only if they work together and in unity can the icon see the light of day? Every icon painter must remember that everything he does is a reflection of the prayer of the whole Church. The more eagerly people seek for God, the easier it is for us to paint icons. If we turn to history, the 15th century is the golden age of icon painting. It was the time of a spiritual revival but later, in the time of a spiritual crisis, it was more difficult for icon painters to work on the same level. Judging by the number of new icon-painting studios established in the late 20th and the early 21st century now is the time of a new spiritual revival.
Icon painters indicate the current state of humankind. It is important for people who come to church and look at the icons to understand that the icons were not created by a single individual. Icons are the result of many people’s prayer.