I am holding an icon in my hands, breathlessly admiring the gleaming stones. The work is so fine that I can hardly believe it is entirely made of stone. Out of fine gemstone powder to be exact. A photograph cannot fully depict depth and diversity of colours, as well as delicacy of the image. You have to see the icon with your own eyes to appreciate it.
─ But how? ─ I let slip.
─ We pray. We read the akathist to St Nicholas the Wonderworker before work in the mornings, and the Gospel at noon. It is necessary, one can’t do without it, ─ confidently answers Irina, an icon-painter.
Crushed semi-precious stone workshop was among the first three workshops that were established in the Convent about 20 years ago soon after it was founded.
The other two ─ ceramics and icon-painting workshops ─ still produce unique items which are a delight to the eye.
The technique of creating icons with the gemstone powder was brought by our workshop painters from the Ural region. The process of a stone icon creation is very time-consuming but inspiring.
The fine stone powder is produced in the workshop from bigger pieces of different mineral stones: lazuli, agate, turquoise, malachite, pyrites, cinnabar and others. Most of them are bought from geologists at special exhibitions in Russia.
The stones are crushed down in a heavy copper pounder. Bigger pieces of rock should be taken out in order to make the colour more pure.
The grinded mineral is bolted through the sieve. As a result the artists get six size fractions of grinded stones. They work with all sizes, from the bigger ones to the finest dust. The finer the grind, the lighter the “paint”, or pigment, to be exact.
The painters proudly say they do not use traditional paint in their work.
Minerals of different colors and structures are used: mat, transparent, shiny.
Lots of gemstones are donated to the workshop as pieces of mineral in rock, statuettes, beads, earrings and pendants. Pearls and amber are often presented to the workshop too. The latter is sorted by colour shade, grinded and used for “painting” the icon, while pearl serves as a decoration material.
Stone icon creation process
A marble or serpentine tablet makes the base of a stone icon. The artist draws an outline of the desired image.
Afterwards the tablet is plated with gold. Depending on the icon, only the halo or the whole background can be of golden colour.
Then begins strewing which is the most difficult part. The image is divided into separate sections on which glue is applied, and grinded minerals are poured onto them with the help of a miniature spoon.
Some glue, some gemstone powder, blow away whatever doesn’t stick, more powder – that’s how the icon is born, layer by layer, bit by bit. It may sound simple, but this work is so scrupulous that newcomers might not stay in the workshop for long due to the lack of patience.
Presently there are seven people in the workshop, who have been creating stone icons in the Convent for many years. The “fineness of lines” comes with experience. Year by year the icons of an artist become more and more perfect.
After the application of the first layer of gemstone powder the outline of the image becomes invisible, so the artists work blindly relying on their skill and knowledge. All of the lines are drawn by the icon painter with a mixture of glue and mineral powder of the finest grinding. Unlike in tempera painting, stone icon outlines aren’t smooth; each line has its relief.
First the background is created with the gemstone pieces of bigger fractions. Then the artist works on the lights, shadows, smaller details and relief of the image. The faces are “painted” with the powder of the finest grinding and in the very end in order to keep them clean.
Working with colour
The minerals used for creating an icon are always mixed with each other: artists don’t work with “pure” colors. But the principles of color blending are different here.
Mixing a blue pigment with a yellow one might not result in achieving green. The artists have to consider classical rules as well as the peculiarities of the material they have learned to feel and understand.
Icons look different in different light. Grinded mineral have a shape of tiny crystals that reflect and deflect light. This adds depth and brilliance to the works.
Stone icons never fade in colour or lose brightness. They are created with prayer according to ancient Russian icon-painting traditions and blessed in the Convent. Such icons are of high value and may become your heirloom, passed on from generation to generation.