Work in Progress: the Dome of St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church in Edmonton, AB

In December, 2013, I was commissioned to paint the dome of my former home parish of St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Sobor in Edmonton, Alberta. My mission, that I decided to accept, is to paint the interior of the dome in 6 months, so that it would be finished by September 1, 2014. This post represents the progress of that dome.

There is some new lighting since this photograph, but this is the dome that I am to paint. Yes: it is square. It makes it much easier to paint that way–but domes are for acoustics, mainly. And they can be round, square, octagonal.(May 2, 2014) Due to the construction of the church, which was not originally constructed to have floor to ceiling iconography, it was decided to do the iconography on canvas rather than paint directly on the walls. The walls are made of drywall, and they are painted in latex. So, for the longevity of the iconography, painting on canvas and gluing it up was the safer bet. I am also painting the icons in acrylic, not in egg tempera, as egg tempera needs a hard foundation on which to be painted. So, my learning curve is a very large one. The space is approximately 13 feet squared; the walls under the windows are 5′ 4″. Trying to get the canvas, the paint, and the gold took a much longer time than anticipated. Finally, however, at the beginning of May, everything came together.

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The canvas roll is 8.5 feet wide and 44 yards long…it should take care of all of my wall painting needs for a long time. And apparently it is 300 pounds, but I moved it into my studio myself. Getting it up on the couch took some extra help. So what I have done most recently is simply paint an icon–trying to get used to the flow of the paints, and how they are different from egg tempera. I stapled a piece of canvas to the wall, and began painting. First, however, I put a plastic backed paper on the wall to protect it from the moisture of the acrylics. This is what you see below.

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I was trying to determine which colours would make the best sankir or proplasmos, and to build the flesh tones on top of it.

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The underpainting I usually use for all of my icons is yellow ochre, applied rather freely.

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The first layer of colour: I tried out raw sienna as sankir.

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The first layers of colour: my signature blue blend

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Transparent red oxide

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Raw Sienna frame, yellow ochre and white for the halo

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I was undecided on the chiton colour so I added a bit of quinacridone crimson

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Burnt sienna and a little burnt umber for the hair, a little cadmium orange for the clavus

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Reinforced the drawing a little, building up highlights on the chimation

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I used another Iron Oxide, this time not transparent, for the chiton. A much better choice. I also added cadmium red light to the background

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I painted over the face with a new mix of raw sienna and terra verte hue–instinctively, I knew it was the colour combination I wanted for the sankir, it just took a little while to get there. All of these colours and attempts are for the figures on the ceiling. (July 3)

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I am building up the colours on the face…it is subtle, I know. This is yellow ochre and a bit of red oxide

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I added more layers of yellow ochre and iron oxide, and I added pure transparent iron oxide to the shadows, to build them up. It is easier to darken a light sankir than to lighten a dark one.

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Building up the layers…

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I outlined the nose with some opaque iron oxide, and mixed hair and beard colours…I somehow thought the tones were built up enough to add highlighting to the face.

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Following the coloration from my model, I continued with the highlighting, and added the whites of the eyes. I am also having to determine how much highlighting is to be done–too much subtlety in the painting, and one can achieve what is called “brown out”, where everything tends to brown from a distance. Because the images will be seen from several feet away and from a height, the brushstrokes need to be bold.

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Here, I “washed” the hair with a burnt umber wash and I will bring up the strands. I also have decided to put a slight wash of blue on the red of Jesus’ chiton, and will paint it to look like shot silk. I keep reminding myself that this is a study, and will probably not be used as an icon…yet, I always want even my studies to reach the fullness of an icon. (July 4, 2014)

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Re-defining the highlights in the hair. It is a fine balance to get the right amount of highlights verses making Jesus look like a Bee-Gee, as my monastic brother Serafim once called one of my icons.

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I thought to take a photograph from the other end of the studio, to see if I could still see Jesus’ face. Is there brown out? Can I see that it is the Lord? I also put in the frame and re-enforced the halo.

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A close up of the previous photograph. The halo is re-enforced with iron oxide, and the white lines are done with white and a bit of yellow ochre. I also increased the contrast of the shot silk on Jesus’ chiton.

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The final state of the study. I finished painting the writing in the halo in iron oxide, and the IC XC in the same white mixture I used for the frame. I also took some white, cadmium yellow light, and some yellow ochre, and put some assiste  in the clavus. In hindsight, I would have done the drawing a bit better, and lowered Jesus’ eyes a little. I think they are too high in the forehead. Now, what to do with the image? Do I stretch it and frame it? Do I save it for experience?  Finishing it, I would paint a red line at the edges, to bring it all together.  I somehow think this will be the general size of the heads of the prophets in the dome…starting the drawings tonight.  Christ of the Fiery Eye, 16 inches by 20 inches.(July 5, 2014)

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This was today’s work. I wanted to get more done but it is a good start. It is the traditional “cartoon” for a work, a cartoon being a drawing or sketch the same size as the finished work, from which the finished work is produced. This is the the Holy Prophet Moses, and he will go on the East Wall of the dome, under the north-east window.  This is the most preferred way of portraying the prophets in the dome., standing full figured.  Another possibility is to make busts of them, perhaps in circles…I have also drawn Moses a little short–7 heads tall. Due to the technique of foreshortening, he seems a little top heavy, and that is to help him look in proportion when looking at him from down on the floor.

Moses and Isaiah

These are the main models for the Prophets Moses and Isaiah that I plan to use…I frequently compare a few models to make sure that they are well within the fullness of the Orthodox tradition.  These are from Theophan the Cretan, and represent post-Byzantine iconography. (July 9, 2014)

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This drawing represents the work I was able to do on Saturday, July 12. The delay was due to a slight diversion, cleaning the house and studio and preparing a meal for some friends, who just also happen to be parishioners from St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church! So, two days later, I was able to get back into the studio for a couple of hours.  This figure represents Adam. What I have done is place a piece of paper over Moses and gotten the same size figure–everyone will be the same size on the walls of the dome. Unfortunately, if you look at all the lines, poor Adam started out being a little wide:  I am trying to thin him down.  Normally, Adam isn’t represented with a halo, but I have a few precedents for representing him with a halo in domes of churches. He will be the center figure on the north wall of the dome, for the fellow who passed away, leaving the money for the iconography of the dome, was Adam. A fitting  remembrance for a generous man who gave of his time, talents and treasures to the parish. Adam looks a little like Jesus–and well he should, since he is made in the image and likeness of God. He is frequently shown holding a scroll, which seems a little anachronistic, however, it is part of the iconographic tradition. And, Adam is clothed in the typical two layers of chiton, the inner garment, and the chimation, the outer garment. No leaves or garments of skin for him. but I might put an apple core near his feet. (July 12, 2014)

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This is the final figure for the east wall of the dome: the Prophet Aaron. I had somehow hoped to get a lot of prophets done today–I dreamed all of them!–but it did not happen. He is shown as the great high priest, holding the rod that budded and the vase. These prefigure the coming of Christ through the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos. (July 16, 2014)

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The figure on the left is the model I used for the Prophet Aaron.

Daniel

I moved onto the North wall, the North East window. The North wall will probably be “all hats”, with David, Solomon, and Daniel present. All of them have head gear of some sort.

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This is the drawing of Daniel. He looks a little top heavy, just like the others….I had to thin him down as well. The head gear comes from him being in Babylon. I am still researching what should be in his scroll; same as Moses. Looking forward to getting the rest of the prophets done.  There is now opportunity to bring movement into the figures, and how they will interact with not only their prophecies, but with Christ, the Almighty Lord, who is above them. (July 22, 2014)

David Solomon

The next two prophets in the dome, on the North Wall of the dome, are David and Solomon. As I said, all hats. And the clothing they do wear is somehow a representation of Byzantine sensibilities at the time.

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This is King David, based on the model above. I have counted the heads–he is almost 6 heads tall. I don’t know how my prophets have gotten shorter….he will have much writing in his scroll, still to be determined. But the height problem is only because of looking at the drawings straight on, as you will see.

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This is the drawing of Solomon. I compared two different models by the same iconographer; what is very distinct is the fact that Solomon’s left ear is large and exposed, to hear the word and wisdom of God clearly. I still look at the height of my prophets, but once I saw them from the proper perspective, everything changed.

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I took my camera and lay down on the floor, using the widest angle I could to get this photograph. It gives me an approximation of how they will look from the ground–and in proportion!  Six more prophets to go! (July 23, 2014)

Elijah Elisha

The above are the two models from the dome of the Katholicon of Dionysiou painted by Theophan the Cretan. But I also like very much the dynamism that is found in another dome…

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These figures come from the dome of St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church in Espoo, Finland, painted by Alexander Wikström. He was one of my teachers at one time, and I still remember first seeing the dome. It was incredibly exciting and dynamic, and painted in a style all of its own…perhaps a representation of the Modern Finnish Iconography School.  Here Wikström combined the events of the transfer of prophetic power from Elijah to Elisha during Elijah’s glorious ascent in the chariot of fire(2 Kings 2:1-14) and their glorified presence in the dome. Somehow, I hope my representation of the two prophets will be a combination of the two models, with the dynamism of Theophan and the narrative motion of Wikström.

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I thought it would be interesting to show some of my process: I have Moses underneath the paper on which I am drawing Elijah, That is so that every prophet I draw is the same height. I then quickly do a gestural sketch to get the form in, where the arms will be, and the angle of the head. Here, I finished the right arm, comparing it to several models, I thought having Elijah direct our attention to whom his inspiration comes, the Lord Almighty, was most important.

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I continued to finish the head of Elijah…He looks a lot like St. John the Baptist with his wild hair and the hair shirt/ mantle that he wears and eventually bestows on Elisha.

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The drawing as it stood at 1 AM on the morning of July 26. The mantle is stretching across the space between the prophets to the hand of Elisha. If you squint, you can make out the scroll hanging down beyond the left leg of Elijah–I even wrote out what the scroll said in Greek!–but I am not decided on the orientation of the scroll. It may need to dwell in the anti-gravity world of heaven, and float somehow between the space between the two of them.  The dark vertical lines represent the spaces between the windows. (July 26, 2014)

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I didn’t do a lot of work on the icons for a while, and then the flood gates opened. I had a pause for a few days, and then on July 31, one of the problems that I foresaw with Elijah got solved. What to do with the extra space between him and Elisha? How do I use it wisely? Put the scroll there, of course! Once I released myself from the strictures of my model, I was able to solve the problem. Move the arm, change the orientation of the scroll, and voila. Then, it was a matter of getting the grasp of the robe right for Elisha. Again, I am indebted to Alexander Wikström for the motion of the prophets in this instance.

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This is the prophet Isaiah, his model is above beside Moses…a bit more typical of how the prophets are portrayed. I finished Elisha and Isaiah August 5.

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I was asked on August 4 about the scale of the drawings. My friend thought the drawings were only a few inches tall–the size I can’t remember exactly. Maybe 2 feet or so. I assured him that no, they were much larger than that. So I decided to show how large they really are. The space underneath the windows is 5 feet 3 3/4 inches on the East and West walls(162 cm), and 5 feet 2 3/4 inches on the North and South Walls(159 cm). I decided to make everyone 4 foot 10 inches tall…ish.(147 cm) There is some variation. I am 6 foot 3 3/4 inches, or 192 cm.

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This final drawing is of the prophet Jeremiah. The two remaining prophets will be Ezekiel and Micah. Much of today was spent researching them, making sure I had the right Bible verses and their representations accurate. Ezekiel will be a little more creative, like Elijah and Elisha…the design still working itself out. (August 6, 2014)

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This is the prophet Micah, whom I finished on August 7. I didn’t have a chance to get him up on the site as this past weekend was extremely busy. You can see some of my reference materials, since I had changed how the figures of Elijah and Elisha presented themselves, I thought I could use the way Elisha was posed for the figure of Micah. I also used a drawing from the Stroganov pattern book to help out on how best to draw the prophet.

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This is today’s, August 14, 2014, work. You can see a couple of things: I have taken the figure of Ezekiel and made him very interactive with the figure of Christ in the dome. I have also included a skeleton, as I am using an excerpt from Ezekiel 37:1-14 as the quotation in the scroll. He is on the west wall, and west is the direction of death. East is the direction of life, and so I wanted to have a message of the Resurrection included in the dome. God willing, and if there is funds available, one of the other feasts that I hope to be able to paint on the walls of the church is the Dormition of the Mother of God–usually on the West wall and a reminder of the Resurrection. The other thing you can see here is that I dislike drawing feet! They are always the last thing I draw. Even as I write this, I see that I need to change the positions of the feet of Ezekiel and Micah. Step by step.

 

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