Painting with Earth Pigments

Hexaemeron, means the period of six days in which God created the world. Icon workshops are usually five days long, painting mornings for 3 hours and the same in the afternoon; the 6th day is rest and refection, everyone takes home an image painted with earth pigments.

Students say, “I’m surprised to be here, or I have no painting experience or this is amazing”. It is a wonderful time out, there is no place to get to, only a chance to gaze into your life with silent satisfaction. Keeping the mind still and focused while we see and listen “is” prayer. It could be someones first icon and could be their last but one thing I am certain of, the experience is unforgettable. I am a rebel icon painter, self taught and un-orthodox but not without tremendous love of icons and an honest desire to share what creating them has taught me.


Twenty Five years ago, I was given a large coffee table book on iconography by my spiritual director Father Ray Ormond. He said he had no use for it and as an artist I might like the images. It was simply called ICONS. I remembered books like this from the Boston Museum library, examining those weird buildings and stylized mountains. I had no interest in college for religious imagery or any traditions in the Orthodox Church. Shortly after I received the book, I was invited to an icon painting workshop, using acrylics. I cannot say I liked the painting but the images captivated to me. After the one workshop, I was driven in some strange way to continue icon painting on my own with those crappy plastic acrylics. Six icons later, for Christmas, my friend JJ Jesse gave me my first set of earth pigments. He said, “Here, teach yourself to work in egg tempera.” I laughed and said “you’re not serious, why egg tempera?” he said, “because it’s your turn.” Where to buy.

Image becomes a language.

One icon after another hypnotizes the mind into seeing God in everything around you. I would encourage all the students to learn the step by step process and its symbolic significance because that is the way the icon becomes language for the painter. The curl in the angels hair is eternity, just like spirals form when adding milk to morning coffee. The straight brilliant white highlight in the garment is the bright afternoon sun as it streaks across a a hillside. The small crescent of light in the eye is the same curve of light in your dogs eye or the moon above. Every form and thought I have with an icon repeats in my everyday life like a symphony of Gods involvement, ongoing and everywhere. What is disjointed around us is continually being organized into order, much like in the first ground of the icon called chaos. Iconography is a life style, you paint enough of them and the world along with everyone in it become a beautiful icon.

Icons connect us to a spiritual reality

Iconography is bold and holds back nothing, the process opens and invites us to come and see. See the God who lives in you as you paint and there you begin to see the God who lived in those early iconographers. They gave us the signs and symbols for real presence; their images descend into our hearts and make us yearn for more contact with the divine.

Fledgling iconographers study the “canons” or rubrics of iconography. There are some manuals, guidelines, church council teachings, books on patterns and technique, but I found the most intimate way to approach this practice is to copy an old one. We all begin with one, the first attempt. Ancient images contain enduring mystical teachings, if you copy enough icons, the earth pigments reveal the signature the early iconographers all shared, seen and heard in repeating the shapes, forms, patterns, and colors.

No one can control the history or future of iconography. Generations of icongraphers and saints have anonymously supported the tradition. Their ancient icons transcend time and are honored by those painting new icons today. There are many websites of teachers, classes, galleries and schools popping up around the world to expose more and more people to this fine and magnificent craft. Hopefully, students notice that learning to skillfully paint a beautiful icon is one thing but the message they allow us to experience is quite another.

A student once asked me, “What is the most difficult part of painting an icon”; quickly I replied, “forgiving myself ”.

What took me twenty years to learn; I try and teach in a week. I know well the fragility of our relationship with God, how it shifts and changes. I am always quite humbled imagining I have a responsibility to something grater than myself – to God, the students and other iconographers, past and present.



Iconography is a tradition without a ceiling. Like all spiritual work, we are silly to imagine its depth can be realized in one lifetime. One workshop is not enough but like all things done in love, it is a beginning.

About Mary Jane Miller
Mary Jane Miller

Iconography, byzantine style contemporary art, catholic art in San Miguel Allende, Mexico. fine art and religion, spirituality and god
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