About the artist, icons & egg tempera painting
About Alina Smolyansky: Icon painter, egg tempera artist, educator
Since adolescence, Alina Smolyansky has been a capable artist, initially dedicated to watercolour painting. However, in recent years, after following not only her parents, but also her grandfather into a career in engineering, she started looking for more meaning, both in her life and her art.
About ten years ago, this search brought her to an icon-painting class. Inspired by this new art form, Alina now paints traditional Eastern Orthodox icons as well as other paintings, using traditional egg tempera, an over a-thousand-year-old technique.
Egg tempera attracted Alina by its simplicity, purity of colours, and above all its history and traditions. Alina’s inspiration stems from Eastern Orthodox icons, mediaeval manuscripts, and the serenity of nature.
Alina is also one of the few teachers of egg-tempera painting and traditional Eastern Orthodox icon painting in North America. Alina holds a BA in Professional Communication from Royal Roads University, as well as a diploma in Architecture. Her works are in private and public collections in Canada, United States, Germany, Great Britain, Australia, Thailand and Israel. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, and is available for commissions, presentations, workshops, classes.
Alina’s goal as an artist could be expressed in the following words: “If my art makes at least one person aspire to higher spiritual goals, then I will say that my career as an artist has been successful.”
About Egg Tempera painting
Known from antiquity, egg tempera was the primary painting medium of the Middle Ages. It was the medium for religious and inspired art in the Byzantine world as well as Europe until it was replaced by oil paint in Italy in the 16th century.
Slow drying oil paints blend more readily than fast drying, linear tempera. This makes it easier to paint smooth transitions and three-dimensional forms in oil. In other words, oil is better suited to creating natural light effects, atmosphere and more realistic imagery in general. Greater realism suited the less spiritually oriented, more scientific and humanistic culture of the Renaissance.
Yet, egg tempera remained the required medium for Orthodox icons in Greece and Russia.
Egg tempera paint is made of pure pigments (dry coloring powders) mixed in egg emulsion (egg yolk and water mixed in the 1:1 ratio, with a few drops of vinegar to preserve the mixture). Egg emulsion dries quickly and adheres firmly. Egg tempera paintings are long-lasting; icons painted in the 12th to 14th centuries survive to this day.
Egg tempera is painted on wooden panels prepared with a gesso base that promotes adhesion and creates a smooth luminous surface. Mostly, egg tempera is applied in small brush strokes on top of another thoroughly dried coat of paint. Thus, the two layers of paint are mixed optically but not physically. This creates a unique transparency that is not possible by mixing paints directly. This glazing produces clear, pure colours - egg tempera's greatest advantage over oil painting.
The finished product can appear matte like pastel, but brightens dramatically under oil-based varnish.
About eastern orthodox icons and icon painters
Icon (from the Greek Εικων - image) is a Christian religious image of a saint or an event from sacred texts, designed for individual or church prayer and liturgical use. Typically, icons are painted in traditional egg tempera (a mixture of dry pigments and egg emulsion) on a wooden base.
Unlike pre-Christian (Pagan) idols, icons must not be regarded as images of the Deity, but as symbols that allow spiritual communion with the archetype. When Orthodox Christians show respect for icons, they are expressing feelings for the people and events depicted and not for the icons themselves.
This also affects the relationship or status of the icon painter/artist. Unlike artists today, the icon painter is more like the often anonymous scribe of antiquity, whose role was to copy holy texts. Of course, the level of technical skill of the icon artist is a factor. In addition, it was believed that the level of connection of the icon painter also made a difference and could be appreciated by the trained viewer.
About the icon painting process
An icon starts with an inspiration and a concrete idea. In the past, iconographers used icon-paintings manuals – a compilation of approved icon patterns (line drawings of saints or compositions). However today, many icons can be found in books or even more online, including icon patterns. A chosen icon is printed, carefully positioned on an icon board and transferred to the board (usually with a pencil and tracing paper).
Liquid glue (gilding size) is applied to any areas to be covered with gold leaf (typically, halos and the background) and optionally to the edges of the board. Gold in iconography represents divine light, thus, we apply gold before starting painting.
Historically, an iconographer had to find and grind his own pigments, so mixing colours was a long process. Although pigments (dry coloured powders) can be purchased in some art supply stores, mixing pigments with egg emulsion requires time and effort. Moreover, once they are mixed in egg emulsion (a mixture of egg yolk and water), the paint must be used quickly, as it cannot be stored.
Egg tempera paint is similar to watercolor and is suitable for both opaque and transparent effects. It dries quickly on the absorbent gesso.
Traditional icons are painted from dark to light. The first layer is liquid and semi-transparent. The paint (various appropriate colours) is applied to the landscape, architecture, garments, skin, etc. When all the areas are painted in this way, the icon is considered “opened.” This first stage is only the beginning. The rest of the icon, all the highlights and details, will be painted with more opaque paint and will take considerably more time.
The icon is a stylized form of religious art that avoids realistic depiction. Thus, shapes are revealed by applying mid tones to the base coat and then fine highlights in a specific manner, prescribed by religious canons.
Sometimes egg tempera is applied in thin and nearly transparent glazes, laid on top of each other until the desired color, saturation and shadows are achieved. This is necessary because egg tempera dries quickly and cannot be blended once applied. This technique was adapted for iconography later, in the 19th century.
The icon is completed with the name of the saint or of the feast depicted. The icon painter is not supposed to sign the icon. This western practice of signing artwork is practically unknown in traditional iconography.