All paint is essentially made up of coloured powder and a base. In the case of oil paint, for instance, the base is a type of oil, which acts as a carrier that holds the pigment to the surface it is applied to. The paint used for icons is known as 'egg tempera' - the base therefore being the yolk of an egg (mixed and thinned with water and vinegar, for preservation). Icons are painted or 'written' (as they are considered to be 'a visual gospel') on wooden boards that are covered with a thin material canvas. Onto this is painted a chalk (or 'gesso') surface. This chalk gesso immitates the limestone (chalk) walls on which Ancient Egyptians painted - a surface ideal for preserving this kind of paint.


The painting itself is made by the darkest colours being laid first, and successive layers becoming lighter and brighter each time. This process gives an extremely rich gradation of colours and a beautiful shine to the faces in the icon.


As a guide, it may take around 20 hours to complete an icon as small as an A4 sheet of paper - from start to finish. For an icon with dimensions as large as 4ft x 8ft it may take around 250-300 hours to complete. This equates to around 100 hours per square metre, depending on the complexity of the design.



The suggestion of hours that is given in the diagram below is approximate, and depends on the complexity of the design. For example, an icon of just one figure (e.g. an icon of Christ) would take less time than an icon of the same size with many figures (e.g. an icon of The Last Supper). The times (in hours) given below include the time taken to cut and prepare the wooden boards for painting e.g. priming the boards with gesso, as well as the painting itself.


How is an icon made? How long does it take? A step-by-step guide





20 x 30cms


30 x 42cms

60 x 120cms

120 x 240cms

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