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Thursday, November 11, 2010

For Remembrance Day 2010

Red Lips are Not So Red

Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure
When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!

Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed ,
Rolling and rolling there
Where God seems not to care;
Till the fierce Love they bear
Cramps them in death's extreme decrepitude.

Your voice sings not so soft, —
Though even as wind murmuring through raftered loft, —
Your dear voice is not dear,
Gentle, and evening clear,
As theirs whom none now hear
Now earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed.

Heart, you were never hot,
Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;
And though your hand be pale,
Paler are all which trail
Your cross through flame and hail:
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.

Wilfred Owen, 1916

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Back in the Studio!

Interestingly (at least to me), I worked in my icon studio for the first time since the summer yesterday and today, and tonight I'm writing on my blog for the first time in forever also! Hmmm.

Well, the pretty good reason for the hiatus was that I was working day and night trying to get our Orthodox home exchange website up and running, which it now is! The link is in the righthand margin if you're interested - it's called Egeria Home and Hospitality Exchange. I won't go into the details here; all the information is on the site itself at

The picture on this post is a bit of drawing I did for the website - I recently started doing calligraphy with a quill (ie a goose feather cut at the end into an edged nib) and boy, now I know what all the fuss is about. There is nothing like drawing or writing with a quill. I don't know if I can go back to metal nibs. The quill nib is flexible and sensitive to tiny changes in your hand's movement, and enables so much more expression. If you write with a modern metal nib it is nearly impossible to understand how the writing and drawing in the famous manuscripts (eg The Book of Kells) could be so beautiful. With a quill, even if you are not a great calligrapher, it makes a lot more sense.

Anyway, the doodads above were early experiments with the quill. I was replicating some decorations pictured in a book of medieval Russian (although they lump a lot of Armenian stuff in there) manuscript decoration. I love it - it's so fresh and inventive, like so much art from the period. I copied a bunch of these little illustrations and we included them in the Egeria website to add warmth and charm to the look and feel. The idea was one of homeyness and antiquity at the same time, which I liked as being very appropriate for an Orthodox home exchange site!

That done for the time being, I'm continuing work on a largish icon too - a family icon commissioned by a friend as a surprise for her husband. It is quite complicated; a portrait-format board about 14"x 20"with a routed center which is rounded at the top (yes, I will try to post photos at some point) and with generous raised margins. In the routed area are the three standing figures of Sts Peter, Herman and Mary (sister of Lazarus). These are the dad, the family, and the mom's saints, respectively. On the lower margin below are three medallions depicting Sts Finnian, Victoria and Simeon (now some of you will know who this family is. . .shhhh!!!), the three children in the family. These medallion shapes are wreathed with entwined olive branches, a reference to the wedding psalm which says "your children will be like olive shoots around your table." Above the whole group, on the top margin, is the Theotokos holding a protecting veil over the whole composition.

It has taken me a long time to get to where I am now. Namely I 'established' the drawing today and yesterday. This means that I went over the preliminary drawing, which had been put on the gesso with water-soluble pencil crayon, with more 'permanent' egg tempera. I put that in quotation marks because when it is fresh egg tempera is not very permanent, but it's much more so than the pencil, which disappears easily with a little water.

The use of water soluble pencil crayons, especially in a nice sepia colour, is a great trick from my teacher Heather. They allow you to draw fluidly and directly onto the board, which makes the drawing much more alive. Those of you who draw will know that as soon as you attempt to transfer a drawing in some way, something in it dies, no matter how careful your copying or transferring. You do have to be slightly crazy or confident to work a drawing directly onto a gessoed board; I'm a little of both but I always have a lot of studies and preliminary drawings informing the seemingly 'freehand' drawing onto the board. Plus there is always the reassurance that if you mess up at this stage there are fixes in the form of water and sandpaper! Of course for more formal elements, like the olive branches, I have the design carefully worked out in advance. But faces and hands, etc, I prefer to draw in a more immediate way so as not to lose the aliveness.

Anyway, today saw the breaking of an egg, always auspicious in the studio of an iconographer! It means something is getting done. This is the most exciting phase, because you are now able to 'open' the painting, that is, to begin to lay down fields of pale colour and watch the icon begin to take shape and come alive. This process will be especially rewarding in the case of this icon because it was such a complicated icon to compose, and the drawing is, naturally, very detailed.

One other thing I have observed while working today; that is that I am applying knowledge of the end of the process to how I proceed here at the beginning. That is to say, now that I have a bit more experience both in painting icons and in egg tempera itself, I know what things to avoid at the outset, because they will just make life harder down the road.

A good example is drapery lines. When I was more of a rookie, I would establish too many of these lines - that is, lines describing drapery inside the figure, as opposed to the outlines. What I learned later is that as the icon is being painted (as opposed to drawn -- I don't use the term 'written' very much, because it's not very useful in this type of discussion, but that's another post) -- as the icon is being painted it shifts and changes, and decisions you may have made at the drawing stage seem crazy to you now. It is hard to describe. It's like choosing a route by looking at a map, but when you hit the open road you can see a much more beautiful way to go, and you start to take a new route.

The problem is, if you have lain down your lines in egg tempera which has been allowed to cure a bit (ie it's more than a few days old), you are now fighting with these lines even as you are deciding on new lines, because as egg tempera ages it becomes more and more difficult to remove.

This characteristic is wonderful, of course, -- it's what allows egg tempera paintings and icons to last ages and ages, and it's inherent in the very technique of painting with it -- it's what allows for that tremendous subtlety --but it's a problem if you want to change something! You always have the option of sanding lines off, and goodness knows I've done plenty of that, but it's a nuisance to be avoided as it creates dust. Not to mention that any washes or layers of colour you have done over those lines will now be ruined when you have to go beneath to get rid of the lines. If your wash was nicely applied and you like it, having to ruin and redo it can be sad, since it can be difficult to replicate exactly what you did the first time that was so successful!

So all of that laborious discussion was just to say that now as I draw I have all the memory of that stuff in my mind, so I don't bother to establish interior drapery lines until some painting has been done already. It makes life easier all around - flexibility further into the process, and a simpler, faster drawing now!

However: I DO include all those interior lines in the studies and preliminary drawings for the icon, because without them you won't end up with a believable outline. You don't want St Peter to look like he was made with a cookie cutter. Don't ask me what the logic is of coming up with lines at the beginning and then losing them and then finding them again is - maybe it's something you have to do to understand.

Happy St Spyridon's and St Herman's days to those on the new calendar! Glory to God for all things.
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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Prayers by the Lake

I first encountered St Nikolai Velimirovich in excerpts read on Ancient Faith Radio, and every time one comes on I drop everything and stare into space listening. He is as fresh as a slap with a fresh thing on a fresh morning.

Recently I was at a Byzantine chant workshop in Dunlap California, where there is a beautiful women's monastery called Life Giving (/Receiving) Fountain. It's a monastery only for beautiful women. They are very strict about that.

Why can't I be serious? Really, what is wrong with me? Okay, but this is about St NV, whose book I found to my total JOY in the monastery bookstore. So now I get to post things of great beauty and profundity on this blog just by opening this book pretty much at random. Here's the first one.

What is clothing worth, if there is no body to clothe? What is the body worth, if the soul is not covered with it? What is the soul worth, if You do not keep vigil in it, like fire in ashes?

My clothing is smoke and ashes, if my body does not give it value.

My beautiful lake is blind mud, if its wide-eyed water is drained from it.

My soul is smoke and ashes, if You, my morning dew, are drained from her.

You write Your name over the ashes of all things, and the flame of Your radiance dazzles the smoke of all things.

Your flame is a dew for the thirsty, who find refuge in your embrace. But your flame is a consuming fire for those who flee from it. Truly, you are paradise for the pure and hell for the impure. . .

Your prophets, O heavenly Mother, were the discoverers of the fire beneath the ashes, who dove into the mouths of volcanoes. Through your boundless mercy you allowed each prophet to discover the spark for which he dove, until all the sparks merged into the blazing conflagration of your Son, O heavenly Mother.

O Lord, you raised up shepherds for every flock, and the shepherds kindled fires for their flocks, lest they freeze on the rugged road of history, leading to a time when the Ultimate Man, the Only Begotten Son, would burst into a great fire and summon all flocks to warm themselves.

Indeed how deeply hidden are all the precious metals -- the eyes of the depths of the earth! Just as you are concealed beneath the ashes of the world, O most precious Stone!

The poor man plows his field and shakes his head when I say to him: "Rich man, deep beneath your barren field lies a lake of molten gold."

Do not shake your heads, impoverished sons of the King, when I tell you that the body is more precious than clothing, the soul is more precious than the body, and the Blazing King is more precious than the soul.

St Nikolai Velimirovich
Prayers by the Lake

Monday, May 04, 2009

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Angels Stages 2

So here is a detail of one of the Archangels in a beginning stage. After the greenish brown sankir was applied, the drawing lines were reestablished and the facial highlights begun. The lighter skin colour looks patchy, but that was corrected later. Egg tempera can be a little unpredictable -- sometimes that's wonderful, at other times not so much. That is, for a beginner with only eight years under my belt it's unpredictable! But I'm getting a little more comfortable with it every year.

The red you see on the halo and the collar of the angel's robe is underpainting for the gold leaf. Gold leaf is so thin that it's transparent. You can affect the overall look of it by your choice of colour underneath. A good bright red results in a warmer gold once the leaf is applied.

I generally prefer to gild over bole (more on what that is later) -- if you know gilding at all you know why. But because I had not used bole for the Christ and Theotokos icons, I didn't use it for the saints or archangels. I can't remember why I didn't use bole to begin with; it must have been expedience, since gilding with oil size is much faster and easier.

Bole is a clay mixture which goes on wet, dries into a hard surface and provides a slightly raised effect to the gold -- very pleasing to the eye. It also makes a 'cushion' so that the gold can be burnished. Burnishing is basically polishing to a high shine. Up close I think it could be described as sort of 'mashing' the gold flatter so it is more reflective. There's my high tech description. Later I'll describe the whole bole-gilding process, at least as I know it (imperfectly). It's quite an involved thing in itself.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Angels -- Stages

Christ is Risen!

I'm trying to recover a sense of this blog as my art/ studio/ iconography blog, so I thought I'd put some "stages" photos up of recent projects. The archangel you see here is now completed, along with its companion. To the right you can see the (underpainted) edge of the Christ Enthroned (also completed, a long time ago). The dark yellow is the underpainting for the blue robe. Ultramarine blue cannot be trusted to go onto white gesso on its own. It's hard to explain.

If you are new to icons, the greeny colour of the face and hands is called sankir (gotta look up what that means literally -- never thought about it!) In iconography you work from dark to light, so the faces seem very dark and depressing at first. As you put on the highlights the face comes to life and seems to glow from within. It is a wonderful and humbling process to participate in!

As I look at this drawing it's interesting for me, because I've not seen it without colour for a long, long time. The drawing seems weird and top-heavy, and I'm not sure whether that's the photo, or whether I changed the drawing, or what. I think it's the angle of the photo. Ha ha, no pun intended -- angle. Ouch.

So, in the next while I will put up the photos of the angels completed (and any mid-process photos I find -- there are a few) as well as some more 'stages' photos of my next projects. These are 'secret' commissions by clients for their loved ones, so I have to be a bit cagey about what they are in case said loved ones check out this blog! I also have a Sign icon (more on what that is later) for a dear friend in Fife, Scotland, whom I've not seen in far too long. Could have something to do with her living in Scotland. I will put up some photos of that too, very shortly. The icon, not Scotland. Scotland you need to see in the flesh.

Oh: Dream projects for when I get time, or someone sponsors me to do them, HINT HINT:

St Euphrosynos the Cook for Jamie Oliver (a hero of mine, although I hate cooking. I actually think he is a saint of sorts.)

St Maria Skobtsova (the former atheist) for Ricky Gervais (who said in a podcast that he thought icons were incredibly beautiful -- made my hair stand on end!)

Sts Boris and Gleb AND St George for Mikhail Ryabko (greatest living teacher of Systema -- Russian martial arts -- from what I saw of his home chapel in a documentary that cat needs a few original icons!)

St Vladimir for Vladimir Vasiliev, greatest student of Mikhail, teacher of my teacher!

St Thomas for Fr Thomas Hopko, dear to my heart.

St John Chrysostom for Dr Jeannie Constantinou, my scholar-priest's-wife-kick-ass-take-no-names Scripture heroine!

Whoa, this is way too fun. To be continued!

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Gift of Atheism

As promised above/below, Fr Alexander Men again. Amazing.

As a result of difficult trials, the Church received a great gift from heaven -- and don't grin, now -- this gift is atheism, wretched atheism and the whole anti-Christian movement.

Only worse things would have befallen the Church if these movements had not occurred, if there had been no atheism. I fear then that the Christian world would indeed have been suffocated, by atheists in the guise of Christians. . .[atheism] is not at all a defeat for Christians. It is a great healing and strengthening force. . .

Of course, it is bad that the churches are closed. Who would say this is good? It is bad from the standpoint of the faithful as well as from the standpoint of the law. But I am convinced that not a single temple was closed without the will of God. Good things were always taken from the unworthy. The history of the Church is that of the Bible, where the covenant prevailed. "I give you life or death" says the book of Deuteronomy, "choose your path." "And don't say 'We have the temple', reminds Jeremiah, " I will destroy the temple, and its ark will not be remembered." It would seem that the temple is the very place of God's dwelling. He chooses it for his own mystical presence, and yet He makes it a place where jackals roam.

Does this apply only to the Temple of Solomon, or to the Temple of Herod II, as well? No, this applies to any place of worship of the God of revelation. It applies to all temples. Of course, without argument, we feel sorrow over the destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. On the other hand, we must admit there was some deficiency in our Christian life which allowed this to happen. . .

Many have fought against atheism. . .what we need more is to do battle with the false Christianity inside each of us, it is much more important because atheism appears as a result of our own unworthiness. Today the Church must hear the call addressed to itself "Physician, heal thyself." I am aware that it's easier to say "We are good, we are the bearers of truth, while they are the bearers of lies; they are the oppressors, while we are the oppressed," and so on -- much easier. In addition, it's enjoyable. Do you understand? Enjoyable! The narcissistic complex is common to all, particularly to the immature. And it's enjoyable to talk about oneself, about one's group, one's community, one's church, one's people, it's enjoyable to talk about what pleases us. But all this applies to the level of immature thought, of immature spirituality. This is easily verified.

Notice what pleasure we derive in criticizing our opponent, even an ideological one.: "How we bashed him!" we say to ourselves. My wish, my sense, is that we need to solve our own internal problems first in order to be able to witness to the world. . .

I think that the Lord God in His pity for us simply doesn't allow us to surface, because we are like nobles who do not know how to use their own wealth, we resemble that miserly ruler who was dying from poverty and hunger, while he had everything.

Fr Alexander Men
About Christ and the Church

Death by Death

I'm reading the amazing Fr Alexander Men right now -- a small book generically titled "About Christ and the Church", translated by Mark Weiner.

I gather that this book is actually a sort of transcript of secret and highly illegal meetings of Fr Alexander with Orthodox Christians in Soviet Russia. So, filled with the spontenaiety of a modern, brilliant, and utterly courageous mind, the book is in fact anything but generic. Here is an excerpt, and I'll post another one soon (in which Fr Alexander argues that atheism is a gift of God to the Church! Cliffhanger. . .)

No matter where pagan concepts originated, they always had elements adaptable to Christianity, not in a spirit of compromise or expediency, but because of their innate worthiness. If some of our hymns contain echoes of the hymns to Osiris, that only makes me happy, knowing that we have received that eternal intuition of the resurrection which the ancient Egyptian experienced on the shores of his native river. Within the surrounding lifeless desert, he suddenly saw from this clay, this earth, this silt, the rising of first shoots. He saw the sun pulling them upwards and he sang, "Osiris has conquered death by death." And we repeat those marvelous words, the Church adopts them. In the Church there were poets enough to invent something original. But this early Christian sensitivity was an act of reverence, if you will, of love and affection toward the whole non-Biblical world, which we inaccurately call "pagan."

But this is not enough. There is a neutral symbolism -- for example, our painted Easter eggs, our festal foods, all sorts of customs. . .rooted in paganism. They are neutral, yet they are wonderful. Why are they wonderful? Because they are connected with matter, with the world, with nature. Christmas trees, coloured eggs lying in baskets of growing grass -- these things which enter one's soul from childhood are a kind of hymn of nature, related to our understanding of God's presence in the world.

Father Alexander Men

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Wendell Berry

Oh, how I love Wendell Berry. For your enjoyment:

The cult of progress and the new, along with the pressure to originate, innovate, publish, and attract students, has made the English department as nervously susceptible to fashion as a flock of teenagers. The academic "profession" of literature seems now to be merely tumbling from one critical or ideological fad to another, constantly "revolutionizing" itself in pathetic imitation of the "revolutionary" sciences, issuing all the while a series of passionless, jargonizing, "publishable" but hardly readable articles and books, in which a pretentious obscurity and dullness masquerade as profundity.

Lava Lady does Linguistics

Tonight we were eating spaghetti. We got out the parmesan cheese and a debate began between Heulwen and Ella. Yes, they can get into it about literally anything.

Ella, who can read, said it was "parmesan cheese". Heulwen, who is not quite literate yet, declared that it was "Farmers an' Cheese". (Ew.)

"Heulwen," I said, "that's folk etymology."-- not thinking she was listening at all. Why would she?

A triumphant cry burst from her corner: YAAAY!!! FOLK ETYMOLOGY!!!"

I guess, for her, that inkhorn term settled it. Heulwen one, Ella nil.