Thursday, October 01, 2015


I'm an occasional student of a Russian Orthodox icon painting class in NYC. It's in a perfectly organized, quiet little basement studio in Soho, and it is as old school as painting gets. The method is egg tempera on carved gessoed wood. Not thin board, but big, glorious chunks of wood, covered in linen and 30 coats of gesso to make the silkiest, glowing white surface. A saint or archangel is traced onto the gesso and etched into it. Pigments are ground with a pestle and mixed into egg yolk. Real gold leaf is applied with breath onto red clay. It is a pure kind of heaven for a painter who truly loves paint.

Every step is carefully instructed by dedicated teachers Tatiana and Dmitri. And no small step comes without spiritual meaning which is explained with likewise care. It is as much a ministry as an art class. Painting is meditation. The students work quietly to monastic chanting. I get to indulge my teenage fantasy of being an medieval monk-artist. ("I and Pangur Ban my cat, 'tis a like task we are at....!)

Where much of my art-life is art-work: complete with the usual deadlines, decisions that may or may not be liked by a client, doubt, pressure and all that regular life stuff; to paint like this, with time, no decisions, no client, just yourself and these basic materials from the earth. What relief! What joy! A 6 hour class, with mid-way tea break, flies by. 

And I love icons and early Christian art. My picture book art was always leaning toward this elegant, posed formality, but modern publishers wanted action any dynamic expressions. So my work sort of drifted between the two. The closest I got away with was some of the formal montage pages of Chiru, when it made sense to depict Tibet with thangka-inspired scenes. 

It's going to take me a year to finish my first icon of Michael, since 12 hours to travel to NYC and back for a 6 hour class isn't a reasonable weekly activity for a puppeteer. But with this, there is truly no hurried destination, it's all about the glorious slow process.