Designing Icons (pt.1)

By Aidan Hart on November 5, 2012
  1. Designing Icons (pt.1)
  2. Designing Icons (pt.2): Icon Prototypes
  3. Designing Icons (pt.3): New Icons
  4. Designing Icons (pt.4): Researching Festal Icons
  5. Designing Icons (pt.5): Conventions of Traditional Icon Design
  6. Designing Icons (pt.6): Faces in Icons
  7. Designing Icons (pt.7): Architectural and Natural Settings in Icons
  8. Designing Icons (pt.8): The Theology Behind Iconographic Perspective
  9. Designing Icons (pt.9): Perspective Systems in Icons


 Editorial note:  We have convinced Aidan Hart to post a chapter from his new book. “Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting” which is being hailed as the most comprehensive book to date on practicing the art of Iconography.  At 450 pages, with 460 paintings, 150 drawings and covering everything from theology and design to gilding and varnishing, it is a prized possession for anyone interested in the traditional arts.  The chapter being serialized over the next weeks is called “Designing Icons”.  You will see why Archimandrite Vasileos of Iviron called this book the “Confession of a man who epitomizes the liturgical beauty of the Orthodox Church”.  More details about the book on Aidan’s website.



Tradition and originality

The icon is above all a liturgical object, made to   be used actively in the life of the Church. This in turn requires that serious icon painters themselves live that liturgical and sacramental life. By it they can come to know the saints whom they depict and personally experience the work of the Holy Spirit. The research and design stage for each icon should therefore be an intensification of a communion already known.

Without this lived experience the icon tradition inevitably relapses into copying. While it is perhaps better than decadence and uninformed experimentation, the accurate reproduction of past works, even of master icons, is not to be taken as the apogee of tradition. Faithful copying is like a ship sheltering in port during storms: necessary under the circumstances, but not the norm. Just as a congregation does not expect sermons to be recitations of patristic texts, so we ought not expect icons to be mere replicas. It is a common misconception that the icon tradition is authoritarian, a collection of rules that must be obeyed. Of course the iconographer needs to remain true to the received features of a saint (Saint Peter, for example, has been shown since time immemorial with grey curly hair and beard). And their painting must reflect a transfigured world and not a disfigured one. But as we have seen, the great diversity that exists within the tradition is testified to by the fact that scholars can date and give the provenance of most icons by their style alone.

When it is most healthy, the icon tradition understands and remains true to timeless principles. This allows it to respond maturely, creatively and boldly to diverse factors. These include such things as the pastoral needs and emphases of the community and epoch that it is painted for, and elements of the surrounding culture that are capable of expressing the Church’s spirituality.

The style of early panel icons for example is derived largely from the pagan funerary portraits of Roman Egypt, the so-called Fayum portraits. Scholars of architectural history have also identified a wide range of influences behind the ground-breaking churches of Hagia Sophia and Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople: vaulting techniques were drawn from Mesopotamia; groin vaults from Imperial Rome; the centralised plan from Armenia or Rome; and the pierced basket-type capitals and carved decoration were influenced by Parthian and Sassanian architecture. Before design comes research, and each person will develop their own method of doing this. What I describe below is therefore purely my own approach, developed over the years. It is described in the hope that you find something of use as you discover your own way.

A. Research: icons of saints

Research is a crucial stage at which the painter can come to know the subject more deeply. Even if you have painted a festal icon a hundred times over, there will still be some new insight to be gained through research. If the icon is of a saint then it is important that the iconographer strives to know him or her more deeply. In this way the painter will make an image of someone whom they know and love, rather than a mere copy of a copy of another’s image. The equivalent in the secular world would be the difference between a portrait painted from life and one made from photos. If the subject is a feast, then the painter should ensure that they understand and enter more profoundly into the inner meaning of the sacred event. In general, the more one paints from experience of the subject, the more the work will itself radiate the life of that subject. I shall first describe approaches to research in preparation for painting an icon of a saint, and then of a feast.

The Patron
The first thing is to speak with the person who has commissioned the icon. They will have chosen this saint for a reason, and therefore will frequently have a lot of information already. Most importantly, particular aspects of the saint’s life will have attracted them. You want as much as possible to include these in the icon design. Sometimes there is too much that they would like put in! Your job is then to help them distil the important features. You will also need to understand your theology well enough to know when a client’s suggestion is not adoptable. When this happens I have found that more often than not an alternative can be found which does express the essential thing that the commissioner is seeking. Diplomacy helps here. Unless you are fortunate enough to paint icons without concern for the price you will be paid for it, you need to be realistic with yourself and the commissioner as to what can be done within the budget. This will affect the size and the amount of detail included – whether or not for example it can have scenes around the edge. Don’t get them all excited with ideas of twenty scenes of the saint if all they can afford is an icon 20 by 15 centimetres. Discuss where the icon will be placed, as this might also influence the design. An image to be placed high up, on a tall icon screen for example, will benefit from a simpler, bolder and more graphic design. A design with lots of small detail would be superfluous for such a placement, but perhaps appropriate for a family icon that will be seen at close range.

Having gathered all these details from the client, the next step is to read the saint’s life. Even if you know it already, fresh insights can be gained even by a quick re-reading.

There are various hagiographic resources. The first and easiest port of call is the internet, if you have access to it. Then there are books. Ask the client what they know and what books they might have.

Apart from these outside sources, it pays to gather your own collection of reference books. Some of the best known books are listed below, beginning with the smaller and progressing to the larger works:

  • The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, by David Hugh Farmer, (OUP, 1992). 530 pages; 1,250 saints.
  • The Penguin Dictionary of Saints by Donald Attwater, Catherine Rachel John. (Penguin, 1985). 352 pages; 750 saints.
  • Butlers Lives of the Saints, by Bernard Bangley. A much abridgedversion of the original 19th century multi-volume set. There are various abridgements, this being the latest.
  • The Synaxarion: Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonas Petra (Ormylia, Greece, 1998 and after). 6 volumes. This and The Prologue mentioned below gives lives for the chief saints commemorated each day in the Orthodox Church’s calendar. It includes lives of many western Orthodox saints.
  • The Prologue from Ochrid, by Bishop Nicholai Velimirovic, translated by
  • Mother Maria (Lazarica Press, Birmingham, U.K., 1985-1986.) 4 volumes.

Similar to the above, but with about half of the book taken up with homilies
and meditations, and without many western saints. Butler’s Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler (Continuum, 2000). 12 volumes. Reprint of the 19th century classic. A compendium of saints commemorated by the Roman Catholic Church. Lives of the British Saints by S. Baring-Gould and John Fisher (Kessinger Publ. 2005). 4 Volumes. Reprint of the original 1907 edition. The most comprehensive source on British saints.

If you are very keen you can search for second-hand volumes of the following (a good search engine for second hand books is

Lives of the Saints by the Rev. S. Baring-Gould (1872). 14 volumes. Butler’s Lives of the Saints, by H Thurston and Donald Attwater (Burns and Oates, 1956). 4 volumes. Abridged from the original.

As I read the saint’s biography I note down the dominant characteristics of his or her life. Are they for example particularly known for their learning and teaching, or for their asceticism, or their missionary labours? Also, importantly for what garments they will wear, are they bishop, priest, monastic, lay, or martyr?

Having written down all the features that strike me as important about the saint, I then peruse the list and distil out of this just two or three dominant characteristics. Unless you are painting a work with scenes of the saint’s life, you are only going to be able to suggest their main characteristics and not a multitude of details.

Beside these salient features I jot down ways in which these might be expressed in the icon. For this you can draw on various sources: existing icons within the tradition, both for the saint in question and for others in a similar category; historical fact (dress, tonsure etc.); imagination, as long as the ideas harmonize with the tradition. The following sections describe possible resources you can draw on at this stage.

(next week, part 2)

Posted in ,


  1. Orthodox Collective on November 5, 2012 at 9:13 am

    […] Icons (pt.1), Nov 5th 8:00 amclick to expand…Which Side are You On? […]

  2. Orthodox Arts Journal on November 19, 2012 at 8:35 am

    […] is part 2 of a series.  Part 1  (In this section, Aidan give us resources on finding icon prototypes while doing the research in […]

  3. Orthodox Arts Journal on November 26, 2012 at 8:31 am

    […] is part 3 of a series.  Part 1, Part2  (In this section, Aidan give us gives us advice on designing icons that do not exist in […]

  4. Orthodox Arts Journal on December 4, 2012 at 9:04 am

    […] is part 4 of a series.  Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3 (In this section, Aidan give us gives us advice on researching and […]

  5. Orthodox Arts Journal on January 17, 2013 at 9:32 am

    […] is part 6 of a series.  Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4, Part 5  (In this section, Aidan explains the typology of faces and […]

Our Sponsors