Two Icons by Kathy Sievers

by David Clayton on February 27, 2012

Kathy Sievers teaches at an icon painting teaching program that takes place regularly at Mt Angel Abbey in Oregon (close to where she lives). She also teaches in Illinois and Florida. You can see more of her work at her website, here and more about the Mt. Angel program here

A few things caught my eye about these two icons is the lovely rhythm and grace of the lines. As well as have that calligraphic flow in the abstract, they do describe form well (without deviating from the iconographic style); so that, for example, we can read the folding of the cloth and how it relates the form underneath very easily. This is the mark of a good draughtsman. Also, look at how she has modelled the form. She appears to do a base layer in quite mottled paint – probable quite a thin single layer of paint (I’m guessing) as a wet puddle of quite dilute paint. This evapourates unevenly an so creates that mottled effect as the white gesso underneath shows through more in some parts than others. Then she paints the mid-tones and highlights on top of that. These are much denser, opaque layers of paint. The overall effect is very attractive, I think. I am painting a large Christ in Majesty at the moment and want to paint a blue robe. I have been looking at different ways of doing this, and Kathy is giving me some pointers through her work.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Loretta March 1, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Hello, If I remember correctly the mottling is produced as a step in creating the clothing from the Prospon School of Iconography. Each step has a meditative significance and the mottle efffect is produced to signify the chaos on earth.

I’m probably wrong, but I don’t remember seeing this effect done on Our Lord’s clothing – only Our Lady, saints and angels.

Interesting, don’t you think.

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David Clayton March 2, 2012 at 10:04 am

I am highly doubtful (although open to persuasion) of the validity of these theological justifications for technique. What makes an icon good is what it looks like at the end of the process. What makes a technique good is the degree that it contributes the creation of a good icon. If these meditations aid the artist in his technique, then all well and good. It is his personal approach. But to suggest that this what all ought to be thinking in order to paint well is not convincing.
This is not to deny the need for inspiration from God when painting icons, but in that respect it is no different from anything we do.
If this is how it is being presented (and of course I may be misinterpreting what you say) ask your teacher what his source is within the tradition for saying such a thing.

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Loretta March 4, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Thank you for your response.
I think there is some misunderstanding in my post. Rather than paste and post passages from various on-line sites, I’ll list some informational sites, some a few pages long, that may speak to the questions you have noted. I am sure there are many other iconography sites, but these are a simple few that may help anyone interested in iconography. You may have to copy-paste to see them.

http://www.adoremus.org/0901IconsCatholic.html is a posting from the Adoremus Bulletin.

http://www.traditionaliconography.com/ a Traditional Byzantine Iconographer Paul Azkoul, who gives a good introduction to Orthodox Iconography. His understanding is summed up as written “The icon is one of the many mysteries of the Orthodox Church. It is not merely paint set upon a canvas, or a piece of wood as if it were a lifeless artifice of the human imagination. Christ, the Theotokos, the Saints, and angels, are mysteriously present in their icons; mystically, spiritually, by the Uncreated Energies of God. The forms and their surroundings are not arbitrary. The icon is not just another form of art. It is the standard for all art. It is art par exellence. Iconography is historically and theologically factual. Imagination, personal ideas, human emotion, and the self, has no place in iconography.”

http://www.traditionaliconography.com/webgalleryart.html is an interesting pictoral comparison of Roman Catholic vs Orthodox site.

Byzantine Catholic Churches are decorated with Orthodox Icons rather than statues and holy pictures.

Traditional Iconography has many rules that signify what colors to use, what poses are acceptable, etc. etc. Different schools emphasize different aspects (as you have probably noticed in the Greek, Russian, St. Sinai, etc), however, the theology is always the same. May I also say that in my humble opinion, if you are copying an icon, which is created through the Almighty’s inspiration, you would want to know all you can about the processes and the meaning of all the aspects of the form, color, depiction, processes, etc . involved.

Someone once told me that it would take a few hundred paintings to be able to produce a suitable Orthodox icon. The idea of a Roman Catholic icon may now be something different. There are some Orthodox Iconographers who will produce icons of Roman Catholic saints for example, but I don’t know if they hold true to the Orthodox Traditions as they do when producing the Orthodox Icons.

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David Clayton March 7, 2012 at 7:50 am

I think you are too believing of these sources. The question is, where do these rules come from? The iconographic tradition, even in the East is a modern construct, largely established in the 20th century. The main figures are those such as Ouspensky, Kroug, Lossky from the ex-pat Russian church and Fotius Kontoglou from the Greek. They re-established the tradition by analysing icons. They did a good job and I happily accept most of what they have done in order to work within the tradition, but their interpretations were slanted to mitigate against modern Western art as a genuine form, and even against traditional Western, and especially non Russian and non Greek forms, and we should be aware of this. Most of what they say in this regard cannot be backed up with any traditional sources. I have pushed my Orthodox friends and they have given me any writing in the Church Fathers, East or West ,that even says that an image must be what we call an icon today to be appropriate for the liturgy, to be considered holy and worthy of veneration. There is none that they were able to produce. The only conditions are that it captures the characteristics of the person and it has the name). In fact all Western art conformed to these conditions up to the Englightenment – which is about the time that iconography in the East started to go astray as well, only to be recovered by the figures mentioned above in the mid-20th century.
There are Catholic traditions that are consistent with iconography – Celtic art, Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque. I refer you to Aidan Hart’ essay at the beginning of his recently released icon painting book.

As regard the methods and ‘rules’ the theology behind them – this is speculation from these latter day figures. When I first started to learn icons I was told by my teacher to start with a dark layer and then gradually to build the highlights on top of that. I wanted to use the method that I had seen in from Cenino Cennini, the 14th century Italian painter who painted in monochrome and then did washed of light and dark over. I was told that this was a degenerate Western form and not appropriate. This was puzzling, given that the end result was just as good, what did it matter, but I accepted it. Then within the last 10 a book came out revealing modern Russian analysis of icons, and this revealed that the supposed degenerate Western form is in fact the oldest method and the ‘theological’ version is post schism. My teacher, phoned me up and told me this and said that he had now realised that what is important is what it looks like at the end, and that he was adopting this method as it is quicker and produces better results.
There are similar developments like this with colour schemes. Just as you are told that the rules say one thing, then you discover traditional forms that deviate.

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