1. Thank you for the article.

    I was wondering if you could tell us something about Fr Gregory’s painting materials and technique. His icons seem to be older than they are in reality. I heard somewhere that he used very poor materials to paint with (including coffee!) and this has caused his works to wear prematurely.

    – Fr Justin

    1. Hi Fr Justin,

      Yes, there are some oddities. As I understand it, he had access to good pigments, and his egg tempera technique was probably good. However, he would often make his own boards from whatever he could obtain, and use casein (which he called “cheese”) in place of gesso. Both Kroug and Ouspensky preferred their painting surfaces rougher than is common in current practices. Sometimes the effect of uneven ground is quite striking.

      Kroug would let his olifa oil thicken until it was nearly solid before applying it, and he would continue to rework or touch up his icons after they were varnished, using oil paint or varnish as a medium. Most likely, he would touch things up at times with whatever he had at hand. This is one of the main reasons for the deterioration.

      I don’t think anyone is sure what technique or materials he used for wall paintings; in some places he attempted fresco, but he must have continued most of these in some form of secco. One big problem with his murals is the buildings themselves, which were often built by people with limited resources and/or knowledge. There has been a lot of damage due to moisture, and fungus, and the paintings darken quickly with lots of incense, candles, and people, and not so much ventilation.

      I have heard of him grabbing whatever was around if it worked for his vision; shoe polish, coffee, etc. Fr Barsanuphe reports that he used garlic, polish, rotten egg whites, and vinegar… “[Fr Gregory] used to say he used everything in Creation.” Many of these things have proper uses in iconography, and it is hard to say how Fr Gregory might have used them.

      It is said that some of his health problems came from licking his brushes with poisonous pigments on them. I learned that this was not just absent-mindedness. Both he and Ouspensky used their hand as a palette, for one thing, with the understanding that the warmth and the contact with skin was beneficial for technique. And, especially in order to accomplish gradations of color, would dilute their paint with their saliva by putting the brush in their mouth, again with the understanding that this was particularly good for the paint. Many of their followers continue these practices.

      1. Ah, thanks for the detailed reply. I’m sure all these factors contribute to the distinct look of his icons. But it seems a real shame that in 200 years there may be nothing left of them.

  2. Gail

    Thank you for this incredibly interesting and enlightening article !

  3. This is wonderful, Seraphim. It is great to have such a complete article in English for the world to appreciate his genius.

  4. Maria Manley

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article about Fr. Gregory Kroug.

  5. John Curran

    Thank you for bringing the work of Fr. Kroug to our attention. Do you have an image of his icon of St. Mary Magdalene? If so, I would be grateful for an image to my email, thank you.

    1. Seraphim O'Keefe

      I’d be glad to.

  6. Fr. Silouan Justiniano

    Thank you very much Seraphim for perhaps the most informative article on Fr. Gregory available in English. The comments on Fr. Gregory’s approach to materials reminds me of Photios Kontoglou’s approach to color. It is said that he used to put a bit of burnt umber in his colors in order to dirty them and make them more “ascetical”. I wonder if Fr. Gregory had a similar attitude about color and use of materials in general. His pallette tends to be somber, if not drab, mainly grays. There are moments of bright color, but it’s not his primary focus …He uses other means to speak his mind. My feeling is that his use of color creates a melancholy atmosphere. His faces also seem to communicate sadness. I wonder if this is not only a reflection of his spiritual struggle but also a clue to a general aesthetic attitude that is anti-aesthetic in the modern art sense of a rejection of classical standards of beauty. Given his previous involvment with modern art trends it doesn’t seem far fetched. What do you think Seraphim?

    1. Seraphim O'Keefe

      Hi Fr Silouan,

      I think there is probably something in what you suggest, though I lack a knowledge of the particular modern art theories. Perhaps someone reading this can give more insight, or you yourself, Fr Silouan. But your comment brings a few things to ming for me:

      There is a sadness about the faces in some cases, I would call it a bright sadness for sure, but it is poignant. He suffered a great deal, and he made icons for suffering people. But also, I know from students of Ouspensky that he and Kroug were very sensitive to the kind of beauty that appeals to the “taste”, and sought for something deeper. Purging that sense of taste was definitely an asceticism for them and for Ouspensky’s students, and a painful one from what I hear. Fr Gregory speaks a great deal about another kind of beauty, “saving beauty” in his notes. I tried to give my best depiction of this beauty in my description of “transparency of spirit”.

      In his notes, the few I have seen translated, Fr Gregory writes more than anything about the quality of light that icons must possess to express the spiritual reality of the subject. The way things shine with the light of divinity – he writes as though he were overwhelmed by his sense of this light and its importance for the meaning of the icons. Many of his icons are composed entirely with muted colors, but oddly my main impression of them is that they each explode the palette of iconographic color, the icons vibrate with such light, such a play of warm and cool in particular, that they seem to me the most colorful icons in history. In many cases, he uses surprisingly bright strong colors, but I think even in these cases, it is the greys and muddy colors that sing the most. I have a quote here from Robert Henri that says it well:

      “It is the grave colors, which were so dull on the palette that become the living colors in the picture. The brilliant colors are their foil. The brilliant colors remain more in their actual character of bright paint, are rather static, and it is the grave colors, affected by juxtaposition, which undergo the transformation that warrants my use of the word “living.” They seem to move—rise and fall in their intensity, are in perpetual motion—at least, so affect the eye. They are not fixed. They are indefinable and mysterious.” (from The Art Spirit p. 62)

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