Work in Progress: Painting the Prophets and Forefathers for the Dome of St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church

This new post is meant to focus on the actual painting process of the prophets…step by step.


Rolling out the canvas. I realized that I could paint the Pantocrator in my studio, without having to move to a new location. Very thankful for this. So, I decided to do the prophets first, so that the Pantocrator would benefit from all of the knowledge I would gain from painting them. Hard to manouver the canvas and get it measured and cut…but I managed somehow.


My day was marked by going back and forth to my house. Here, I dug out my knee pads. The aren’t just for prostrations anymore!


Measure 7 times, cut once, as the Russian saying goes. So, I have measured and measured and cut. The excess will be added to the canvas for the Pantocrator.  And possibly I will paint seraphim to go above the windows. It is an idea, as there will be some space.  However, after the measuring the cutting the walking around the canvas, and occasionally walking on it, I realized that the slippers I had so carefully cleaned and enlisted for this duty were leaving marks on the white of the canvas, and no matter how well I had cleaned the floor, there was still stuff on the floor…and that it is difficult to do everything on my own. So, I have now enlisted a friend to help. Tomorrow, we will cut the rest of canvas to size for the walls. The dome is deceptively NOT square. It is 13 feet one inch East wall and West wall, 13.5 inches North wall and South wall. I am also leaving a bit more than two inches excess width-wise and more than a foot length wise on the canvas, as I have been told that even though it is polyester, there is some expansion and shrinkage.  Not the most exciting post, but the day was broken up by many interruptions. Oh well, tomorrow is another day. (August 19, 2014)

So I enlisted my friend Anna Marie to help me out, but unfortunately she was a little bit camera shy. We had a lovely time measuring and cutting, and she had lots of practical ideas. I would love to have written down some more of her ideas, so that the next time I have to do this, I wouldn’t have so many struggles. Anyway: everything got cut for the dome, with extra length width wise and length wise, so it will be cut to exact size.


This is the left over canvas of the roll. In the corner, waiting to be used…


Here I am measuring where the windows go: each wall is different so my measurements need to be precise.


The prophets laid out on tables in my spray room. Rather morgue-ish, but I am spraying fixative on the fronts and backs of each of the drawings. The front, to keep the drawing from getting smudged while I am transferring the image to the canvas; the back, to allow the pigment to stick to the drawing (the back of the paper I am using is slightly plasticized). I am very thankful to have this room, as the door is sealed and there is an air exchange specific for that room. I can work without worry.


Getting the canvas ready to tape down to the floor.


I have multiple rolls of this. I will give endorsements if the company would like! I hope it will work the way I expect it to…


The one edge is taped…the other will be done as well. I stretched the canvas as much as I could to make sure it was taut.


The prophet Moses, from the back. I use some pigment, in this case conté crayon, to make home made transfer paper.


Moses from the front, ready to be transferred to the canvas.


A fast paced action shot of me marking the canvas where the prophets should be, according to the windows that they will be under.


The first three prophets, laid out on the canvas. Laying them out caused a bit of a dilemma, as I realized that there will be a huge amount of negative space. What to do? Do I add foliage? Pillars? Events in the background?  After much prayer and much deliberation, I spoke with Fr. Vincent Lehr, and we decided that it would be best to add another prophet or ancestor to each wall.


This is a redrawn Adam; he will be without anything to say, so I decided instead to put both hands up in a praying/praising position. Beside him will go Abraham–they will look almost identical, unfortunately, except that Abraham’s beard will be long, like that of Aaron. So the order for the East wall is Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Aaron.


This is the Prophet Samuel. Very much like Aaron, except with a censer and the horn of oil to anoint King David. He will be on the North Wall of the Dome: Samuel, David, Solomon, and Daniel. I will change the direction Daniel is looking, just so that there is a little more variation. (August 30, 2014)


The Prophet Habakkuk. I don’t know why I have been so excited to draw a prophet: perhaps it is because he is pointing so distinctly to his ear, showing us that he heard the Lord and that he was afraid.  The models shown are both from Theophan the Cretan and from work done on the dome of St. Seraphim of Sarov Church in Santa Rosa, CA, by Fr. Patrick Doolan of St. Gregory of Sinai Monastery.


The Holy Prophet Jonah. I took the stance of the model from Fr. Patrick Doolan’s work on the dome of St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church in Santa Rosa, CA; I used one of my own icons and the work of Theophan the Cretan for the face. I am so excited to have all the prophets done!

So, the line up for the South Wall changed. It will now be Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and Micah. I decided that since the direction of West is representative of the realm of death, I wanted echoes of the Resurrection to be present in all of the prophets. So, the new line up is Jeremiah, Jonah, Ezekiel, and Habakkuk, the first three prophecies are read at Great and Holy Saturday Matins and at the Vesperal liturgy; the prophet Habakkuk is sung of in the canons of Easter. Micah just wasn’t in the readings to be on the West wall. (August 19? 2014)

One minor setback happened, and thankfully I wasn’t too far in the process: I had taped down the canvas, primed side down. I had transferred the drawings to the back instead of the front. (Facepalm). Thankfully I realized it before I started painting. So, flip the canvas and do it again. Lesson Learned.


Years ago, I was featured in an article in a Norwegian magazine. The reporters came to my studio, and they saw my collection of empty Coke bottles in my studio. I asked them not to notice, try to ignore them. A few weeks later, the article came out. I don’t read Norwegian, but I do read English. When the article got to me, the caption started with “Coca Cola Monk” and went from there. Not much has changed, but I did find my name on a can! I have been powering myself with a lot of caffeine recently!


Here is a photograph of all the drawings of the prophets taped down onto the canvas. I measured out where they all should go: essentially, the space in the dome, on the East and West walls, is 400 cm. So, every metre, I marked a border; every 50 cm, I marked a line for the figure.


When I bought the building that became my studio, I inherited a few pieces of furniture, one of which is a hand made couch. I have slept on it, I have moved it around, I have had guests sit on it, and I use one of the cushions for padding when I am painting.


You can see here how I transfer the drawing: I trace over the lines with a ball point pen. In fact, I did it twice: on those occasions when I use the same drawing again, I try to use a different colour of pen so I can see what lines I have gone over and which ones I have missed. Working on Adam here…


Literally, here is a chalk outline of Aaron. Once all the drawings were on the canvas, I went over each of them with an India ink /water proof pen. Because of the drawing will now not come off, I can paint over everything.


Moses and Aaron, the drawings reinforced with ink.


All of the prophets on the canvas. The blue and gray thing is a dust collector. Man, is there ever dust, and hair. I shed like crazy!


Adam, covered in yellow ochre. It was about this moment when I realized I had horribly underestimated the amount of paint I would need for the project. I called an art supply store in Saskatoon, and hopefully tomorrow evening I will have somewhere nearly quadruple the paint I bought. Another facepalm.  But at Art Placement, for the whole month of September, everything is 25% off in the entire store. One more thing to be grateful for!


All of the prophets on the “opened” canvas. I tried to make all of the brushstrokes living strokes, flowing strokes. I sort of felt like Jackson Pollack, but I wasn’t throwing paint at the canvas. I took a break for supper, to make sure the paint was completely dry, before starting again. (September 11)


After supper, I returned to mask out the lines where the background will go. I decided to stick with the colours that Theophan the Cretan used, which was green and brown. Here I have masked out for the green, a mix of chromium oxide green, green gold, burnt umber and burnt sienna.


This is the first layer of the green colour. I will add one more layer to even it out, and then paint the ground. I think it is very appropriate, all of the colours: typically there is a green “carpet”, with interesting patterns in it in most Russian panel icons, upon which the saints stand. But in researching the representations in domes, there is a lot of variation. What I like with the brown base, especially for here on the East Wall, is that Adam, the first man, formed from the earth, stands upon the earth colours. And for the West Wall, especially with Ezekiel, he stands upon the earth in the Valley of the Dry bones. Earth from which life came through the breath of God into Adam, and will come again into the dead in the Valley of the Dry bones.  (Sept. 11)


I applied another layer of the green mixture, and had to have my car serviced. The colours dried nicely, and so I removed the masking tape. I love how crisp the lines are.


This is the first brown layer on the canvas, a mixture of burnt sienna, burnt umber and a bit of red oxide.  I put on two more layers, the third layer a little more random than the vertical lines that I seem to have here. I don’t want the sections to be solid colours, yet we are so used to solid colours in all of the print media that we see every day, and the backgrounds on our computer screens. But the colours on icons aren’t flat, they are imbued with life, and that is what am trying to establish here.


Aside from a big box of paint that arrived this evening, this was the other major piece of equipment I purchased for this project: a low rise creeper, that is used for car repair. I creep along on the seat while I am painting…it supports 350 pounds, so it should be enough for me! (September 12)


Here are all the the forefathers and prophets without the masking tape. I am always amazed as the forms emerge, how they come forward to be seen.


One would think that painting the first layers of colour would be a fast process…It took a few hours.  Partly it is the mixing the colours, then the getting up and down, and the cleaning the brushes between colours….what is the solution? More brushes? Apprentices? Oh well….

The blue is my signature blue, cobalt blue, chromium oxide green, and black. It is the first layer of the colour. I will even it out a bit, and then start making the highlights. What was very interesting is that I could almost hear the voice of my first teacher, the belated Heiko Schleiper, telling me, if your brushstrokes are going to show, make them count. So I used many of them to define the forms. The sankir looks a little light, and it is: just raw sienna and terra verte hue. I can always darken a light sankir, but you can’t lighten a dark one.


While I was creeping along the floor on my creeper, I saw something out of the corner of my eye on the canvas. I thought, where did green lint come from. I was greeted by this little caterpillar. I put him outside to live another day…or feed a bird.


The last figure I was able to do any substantial work on today was Aaron. I don’t know where the time went, but it sure sped by. I had to remix the red for his robes: the transparent iron oxide that I decided to use was, well, transparent. So I opened the box of paints that arrived yesterday, pulled out the opaque and mixed. The other colour is a mix of raw sienna and a bit of burnt, sienna, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that. Another light layer to darken. But the feast of the Cross beckons. (Sept 13)

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Although I don’t like working on Sundays, I waited until the evening when at leas the day liturgically changes. I began painting at 9 PM. and worked until 1;30 AM. things went easier today…all the first layers are down, essentially. What is seen as yellow on the figures will be an off white; the yellow ochre in the background will be covered with gold leaf once it is mounted on the wall. I made a mistake the the colour of Moses’s cape: it should be a richer colour like that of Abraham. I am going to work out the text in their scrolls on a separate paper. Things certainly are coming along. I am doing my best to meet my deadline of Friday…I might have to push it back a couple of days. Praying that an angel appear and help me paint like the one did for St. Alipy. In the meantime,  I keep painting.  (Sept 14)

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Today’s work: interruptions and all. I was able to get a lot of work done…I started doing the whites, some washes on the robes of Aaron, some on the robes of Moses, and the scrolls of the two…I worked out the spacing of what they are saying, it is all good to go. Then, my friend Moira Stoll came by and filmed me painting–photographs and video. I reinforced the lines on Adam, and once it was all dry, I put another layer of his  outer robe color on him. After Moira left, I worked on the blues of all the figures, giving them all a second layer and making them more solid. The final thing I worked on was the folds of the Adam and Abraham’s blue robes.–their chitons.  I do think the contrast of the highlights might need to be a bit more dramatic to be read properly from the distance of the floor.  Step by step…working hard. Holy St. Alipy, intercede for me!(September 15, 2014)

Things have slowed some, as I have realized that have grossly underestimated the time I need to paint these figures, and Fr. Vincent Lehr at St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church, along with the parish council, have said, take your time, we aren’t in a rush. I am slowing down, but not stopping. I worked some yesterday while making these decisions and having these discussions, but I felt just physically ill for the whole day. So, what little I did wasn’t worth documenting. Instead, I went to bed at a decent time and slept for nearly 9 hours, rising in the morning feeling amazing. The problem was burning the candle at both ends for too long.


This lint roller has become a life saver: instead of vacuuming the whole canvas, while I am down on my belly on my creeper, I vigorously remove all the dust and grime that has accumulated on the canvas before I paint the particular figure. It works wonders!


This was the work I managed to accomplish today. I put a wash on Adam, Abraham, and Moses’ hair, and then I worked on the highlights of the clothing. I boosted the contrast as much as I felt I could, as I am constantly aware that they will be seen from many feet below. I am very satisfied with how Adam’s highlights turned out, especially on the green chimation. Abraham is proving a bit of a challenge with the reds, and Moses, well, I over-painted everything I put down on his crimson cape.


I think I finally found the right colour for Moses’ cape…Alizarin crimson and some iron oxide made it look much more noble! I also did the folds of Moses’ green robe, but the green needs to be a bit darker. Tomorrow: one must let the paint dry! I am learning that in spades! Tomorrow, I hope and pray that this first section of the dome will be finished. (September 17, 2014)


I borrowed a set of binoculars so I can check how the figures read from a distance…it is hard to see how they will be up in a dome when the furthest you can get away from them is 6 feet 4 inches…or if I stand on a ladder, a bit further. So, by looking through the opposite end of the binoculars, I can get a pretty good idea of what they will look like from the ground.


I worked on Abraham’s  garments, both the chiton, the inner robe, and the chimation, the outer robe, today. Even as I look at this photo, I can see one passage that might need to be corrected. As I had discovered with mixing the colours for Moses’ outer cape, the Alizarin Crimson hue worked very nicely, so I added that to the mix of Abraham’s robes. I reached an impasse with his chimation, because I couldn’t clearly read the one model I was using, so out came another book and a very clear image of a flowing outer robe, beautifully lit.


Moses. the changes to the green robes are subtle, as I decided to judiciously darken areas of the green robes, rather than wash the whole robe in a new colour and then build up the lights, the light is already there. I can just increase the contrast. So to the green that already existed, I simply added a bit of the dark blue colour that I have been using to enhance the folds on the blues.

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One of the purchases I made today: clothes pins! It is a good idea to hang your brushes after washing them, so that the water does not dry in the ferrule–the metal part between the hairs of the brush and the handle–and damage the bond of the glue keeping the hairs in place. So, an old shoelace, some thumb tacks and clothes pins and I have a little brush line for drying brushes. (September 18, 2014)


The very first thing I did when I got to the studio is reassess the folds of Abraham’s robes. I need to make one fold more fold like and three dimensional–the first fold on our right side needed a bit of shadow…trying to make it look a little less mechanical. Then I outlines the folds on the left and that was what was needed there.

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The first photo you see on the left was the work I did before lunch on Moses. I put in the folds and the highlights on his outer robe–a cape really, and also enforced some of the folds on the green. After lunch and pretty much for the rest of my painting day, I worked on Moses. I put another layer of colour on the raw sienna part of his robes, and I made the contrasting folds quite dramatically, as according to my model. For that colour, I mixed the original colour mixture of green with a bit of cadmium yellow and white. The white parts you see on the raw sienna is where the paint was still wet. I also worked on Aaron, however, the paint I applied I did not like, so with some water and some scrubbing it all came off. tomorrow is another day! (September 19, 2014)


Moses as he stands at the end of my work session. The work I did for the day wasn’t all that exciting…I reinforced the folds of the green garment, and added more white to the cape. I also increased the contrast on the raw sienna. I also decided to do the highlights, the assiste on the cuffs and the shield. I painted them in yellow ochre and white. I also added the jewels to the the cape and shield, using pure cadmium red medium and cobalt blue. The folds of the robes on Moses were done with cadmium yellow light,  mixed with the original green colour of chromium oxide green, green gold and a touch of the green background colour, and some of the lightest green and white colours from Adam.


While Moses was drying, I worked as well on Aaron. I decided first off to darken the raw sienna parts…which I did with a mixture of raw sienna and some burnt sienna. Once I finished off all of that and it had dried, I decided to work on the reds of his robe. I used a mixture of red oxide, cadmium red light, and some cadmium red medium. I am not sure why the dark red colours of the folds in the photo have a bluish sheen, but it is dark brownish red. I painted the shoes in cadmium red light and red oxide, and then I did Aaron’s hat. Finally, the last thing I painted tonight was the white of his robe, to increase the intensity.  Tomorrow my hope is to finish all the details of Moses’ clothing and Aaron as well…

One unfortunate thing I discovered is that my low rise creeper doesn’t support my weight properly…two of the wheels are already bent. A little depressing…and no, I am no where near 350 pounds! Well, 65 pounds off…but still, not 350 lbs. I think I should find my receipt.

I have been in contact with a contractor to build a new wall in my studio. The wall would be about 22 feet in length and flat. Currently, it is broken up by some lights and some paneling. I don’t ever use the lights, and it would be wonderful to have that space on which to paint…hopefully I can get off the floor. I hope it can be done in the next few weeks while I am away for the Archdiocesan Assembly in Ottawa and then in Edmonton for a visit.(September 20, 2014)


This was tonight’s work. I got to work at 8 PM and the goal was to finish the clothing. I tried. The thing that takes the most time is waiting for paint to dry. Four things happened on this icon: first, I put a light wash on the top cloak, on the Moses’ right shoulder. It is subtle…the highlighting had made it look a little too pastel like. I wanted to make it look a little more bold. For me, it reads better. Second: I put patterns in the white of the cloak. I do not know if there is special meaning or not, but it is a pastiche of all the symbols that Theophan the Creatan used in his robe decoration. There is a middle band where in his model, there was strange scribbling; I put some runic lettering, and added some Slavic letters, and made some stuff up–it doesn’t actually say anything, trust me! I have put in my icons writing in Celtic Runes on the carpeting, and usually it is from the Psalms. I might do something similar as there are other robes that will have writing on them. Third: I outlined the ribbons with the ground colour to increase the contrast and bring out more definition. And finally, I put some highlighting, or assiste on the ribbons. It is all coming together. Unfortunately, I didn’t plan properly, so while I had to wait for part of it to dry, I went to work on Aaron.


I had gotten all ready to paint the gray folds on Aaron and to put the patterns–that is all in the big palate. Instead, I thought since I was on a roll in painting with the brown ground colour, I would paint that instead…So, that was what I did, outlining all the ribbons and the shields and decoration. And I tried to do something with the vase or amphora that Aaron is holding. Flat on the ground, I thought it looked fine.


As another iconographer friend would say: at least you can tell it isn’t made by a machine! No kidding. I will try to figure out how to correct it.

As I continue to paint these icons, I keep thinking about what another iconographer friend asked: have you been converted to acrylic as a medium? No, not at all. I am doing this in acrylic as the church was constructed in modern building materials without regard to future iconography. If I had my druthers, I would be doing it all in egg tempera. I understand egg tempera. Egg tempera is easily corrected: I can either take a paper towel and a little water and remove the problem area…or some cotton swabs, or even a scalpel. It is just that egg tempera cannot be painted on canvas: it needs a hard support. So, using canvas necessitates something that works with the flexibility of the canvas: ergo, acrylic paint. I am not sure how I am going to fix this. Again, my learning curve is huge! One thing I will say, however: if the under-painting is completely dry, if I make a mistake, if I am quick enough, a wet cloth or a piece of tissue or a wet cotton swab and it comes off easily. God willing, I hope to have the first 4 prophets done tomorrow. May it be so! (September 21, 2014)


This was the work I first did today. I set to work almost immediately to finish the assiste–the fine gold lines– on Moses, trying to reach my goal of getting all the remaining clothing done today. I got them done, and moved over to Aaron. Then, while those lines were drying, I went back to Moses and painted the jewels with the pearls. Aside from painting his flesh, the next thing I need to do is do the writing in the scroll. I will do the scroll first.


I had a complaint that it seemed that the heads of the prophets were too small. So I went to the other side of the canvas and took my photograph. I for some reason I also had to use the flash, so the colours seem to be shiny–the actual reason I was on the other side was to see if the glare was there and the shadows wouldn’t read as blue.  I did the fine gold lines, the assiste, and then I worked my way down, doing the grey outline and the folds of Aaron’s clothing. I added the jewels and the pearls, and I also painted the pattern on the bottom of his red robes. As well, if you look closely, I have tried to correct the urn, or stamnos…I am not sure how successful I am going to be, but I keep working on it. There is a pattern that needs to go on Aaron’s robes, and that will be done tomorrow. I worked out what I wanted to say in runes, and so I will write it out tomorrow.


For the sake of amusement, I thought I would present Moses from a different perspective as well.  A perspective very few people will actually ever have, as most everyone will see the prophets from the ground, looking up at them, not down on them from above. (September 22, 2014)


I thought another step by step group of photos was in order. I wanted to show some of the process that I went through for Aaron. First, what I did was enhance the outline of the white robes of Aaron, and indicate more of his form underneath the robes by painting in shades of gray.


This is the first verse of the description of how Aaron should be dressed from the Bible. Exodus 39:1:  “And of the blue and purple and scarlet stuff they made finely wrought garments, for ministering in the holy place.” I used a stylized Runic alphabet for this.


You can see the strips that I painted in red oxide, following some of the contours of the robe.


Once that had all dried, I started work on the rest of the jewels, the hat, rod that budded, and the amphora. The staff needed a couple of layers of colour to make it look solid enough. I am not certain that it needed to be this long, and that can be corrected once it is up in the dome, I can gild over it. I also decided to put the folds of the blueish robes in shades of yellow ochre and white, so it would have a bit more of a greenish look.


The amphora is finished, the shape of it corrected and straightened. I am not too convinced of the colour. I might fix the colour to make it look a little more like terracotta. The other thing that I did was wash the beard and hair of Aaron with the same wash the two other “grey beards” received, and outline the eyes and nose. The staff is also gone over once more to make it much more solid.

It is here that I push pause on the project: I must take some time off to travel to Ottawa: for an iconography course where I am again a student. I am so eager to learn from this particular teacher, Giorgos Kordis, and he just happens to be giving a course just before the Canadian Orthodox Archdiocesan Assembly that I am also having to attend. One balances out the other. And then, I will have a student with me for 3 weeks. Somehow, this will be done–all of it will be done–in God’s perfect timing and to His Glory. (September 23, 2014)


One final photo: a quick shot this evening, as I didn’t have my best camera with me. My contractor and a friend came by and we got the prophets off the floor. The wall is a little worse for wear, but the faces will be able to be painted where they are. This is the first time I have been able to see them all as they are to be seen…and this is a view that no one will have once they are actually on the wall of the dome.  (September 24, 2014)




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