Painting Icons using egg tempera paints requires that we use a solid, stable support that is also absorbent for the many layers we need to result in the jewel like appearance of icons.
Traditionally, poplar boards have been used that are coated in rabbit skin glue (as a sealer) and then between 8 – 14 layers of natural gesso, sanded in between layers. The result should be a polished, smooth surface that is also highly absorbent. Natural gesso is not the same as the acrylic gesso most people are familiar with. Natural gesso is made using rabbit skin glue and chalk or marble dust.
Today there are many more modern materials that iconographers are experimenting with in part because the process of preparing an icon board is lengthy and requires a lot of physical effort and time. Natural Pigments makes a product, “easy Gesso”, that seems much easier to use and works well, especially for beginning students. https://www.naturalpigments.com/mediums-grounds/gesso-primers/gessoes/easy-gesso.html
Also, I tend to use Baltic Birch Wood panels because I feel they are less prone to warping than more traditional woods.
Below I will provide an explanation of how to prepare and gesso an icon board that I trust will be helpful. If you should choose to experiment with other materials and find success, do write to me and I will add that to this list.
Icon Board Materials
Baltic birch panels of various sizes, a sauce pan and another container for mixing the gesso. I use recycled plastic or glass containers about the size of a large yogurt container. Distilled water, measuring spoons, measuring cup, wood spoon to stir, oxgall liquid, glycerin, marble dust or chalk, rabbit skin glue, 2″ bristle paint brush from the hardware store, 3 grades of sand paper- 300, 600, 1200 grit. Muslin or linen large enough to overlap the icon boards’ dimensions by 1 inch all around.
Set up your workspace with a long table covered with a painter’s drop cloth. I like to use one that I can dispose of when the whole process is finished because it will get quite messy.
Steps to Gesso Icon Boards
Linen drying on the boards, having been soaked in rabbit skin glue.
- Measure 2 Tablespoons of Rabbit Skin glue into 2 cups of distilled water, stir well. Let sit until glue is completely absorbed and expanded- 2-4 hours.
- Place glue mixture in a container that rests in a saucepan , double boiler is good), containing 3 inches of boiling water and let the glue melt. Be careful it doesn’t get too hot- do not boil the glue mixture! 135 degrees Farenheit is too hot!!
- Next, using the 2″ Bristle brush, coat both sides and edges of each board with the glue. Let each side dry about 2-4 hours. This will prevent the board from warping and will keep out atmospheric moisture in the future.
- When the boards have dried, the next day, you can mix up some more glue This you will use to, first, coat the dry icon boards with it. Second, dip the pre cut linen into this glue mixture and spread evenly on the board. Smooth out wrinkles- I use plastic gloves.
- Next day, use a mat knife to trim edges of over lapping linen.
Time to trim the edges of the linen- when they are completely dry.
Making the Gesso
- Now it’s time to make the gesso itself! Make the glue- 2Tbs rabbit skin glue added to 2 cups of water – as before. Let soak, then warm until completely dissolved, as above.
- When the glue is ready, using a sieve, gradually add approx 3 cups of whiting – chalk or marble dust. I also add 1 teaspoon of oxgall liquid and 1 tsp of glycerin. These are dispersion agents and they are optional. I use Kremer Chalk from Champagne K 58000, and/or marble dust K 58500. I often make a mixture of chalk and marble dust but you can use just the chalk as well.
- When this is ready, start putting layers of gesso on the boards, letting them dry in between layers. It doesn’t take too long for each layer to dry- in the summer it might take 1/2 hour.
Sanding the Boards
- After 3 or 4 layers, I usually give the boards a rough sand to take off any bumps or rough spots. This can be done with a wet sanding method described in the video below, or with regular sandpaper. The wet sand method is my choice, usually. Don’t forget to coat the edges of the board. After 6 layers I sand again. Then, a final sand after the last 2 layers. You can make anywhere from 4-8 layers. Use the finest sand paper for the final sand and you will get a beautiful smooth surface ready to paint on!
There are several videos on you tube showing different approaches to gessoing an icon board. You might want to watch this, or one like it, all the way through before starting. Icon boards video by Paul Stetsenko. Or, if this is too much bother, you can always order an icon board!! I have included some new sources on my website on the student resources page.
Happy Icon Painting!
May God bless you and guide you in all of your endeavors in this Holy ministry.