Drawing is the cornerstone of Iconography. It is not possible to create a successful icon without a correct accurate drawing. If, as a student you simply trace other people’s icons and then, ‘Paint by Numbers’, you will not learn very much. Similarly, free drawing from reproductions of icons, without first establishing an understanding of the principles of geometry and proportion that underpin even the simplest of icons, will simply lead to confusion.
All students of iconography should undertake a study of the geometry behind classical icons of the Byzantine tradition. Appreciating the role that the simple square, rectangle, circle and triangle play in their composition is essential. How and where, buildings, landscape and figures fit into the composition of an icon is not a matter of chance or fancy. Geometry, or more precisely, ‘Divine Geometry’, can perhaps be considered the key to an understanding of the very fabric of the Universe.
An appreciation of the proportions of the anatomy of the human body is also very important for iconographers. Certainly Icon painting of the Byzantine Tradition is firmly grounded in the sense of proportion and anatomical rigour of late Classical Greek and Roman Art. Painting an icon is not an excuse for bad figure drawing, justified with dubious theological excuses. An icon seeks to represent the body perfected, deified and transfigured, not imperfect, mutated and immaterial.
Students should endeavour to draw from the finest and best preserved examples of good quality Byzantine icons, or failing that, the best modern copies of good quality icons in the Byzantine tradition that they can find. It is important that the figure, its features, anatomy and clothing are clear and easy to follow. Trying to draw from an icon that is obscured by damage or age darkened varnish, or is simply a poor quality reproduction, can be an unnecessary and pointless struggle, which often results in passages of drawing that simply have to be made up.
Drawing should be an enjoyable pastime, an end in its own right, not a chore. Start tight, making sure the geometry is correct and the composition of the icon is harmonious and congruous. Then begin to loosen up, with gentle lines, hardly touching the paper at first, finding the flowing lines of energy and dynamism within the composition, through the figures, buildings and landscape. Then tighten up again once you are happy with the location of all the elements of the drawing. Make sure that everything is logical and that the folds in the garments of the figures in particular, ‘make sense’ and sympathetically reflect the stance or movement of the body beneath the cloth.
Draw to the scale of the panel you are going to paint on, exact size if possible, and then it can be traced and transferred directly onto the panel you are working on, if not, make certain that the drawing is in a proportionate rectangle that can be gridded and scaled up or down. If you draw on paper that is a different proportion to your panel, it will not fit, even if you grid it, as the rectangles of the grid will be different sizes!
Students should not be afraid to compose their own icons, carefully selecting their favourite parts of different icons and bringing them together into their own interpretation. This must be done with care however; examples of widely different schools and styles thrown together often results in an alarming and unsightly aesthetic melange.