Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sinai Pantocrator Process #1

Today I am starting work on an image of the Sinai Pantocrator, a very famous icon which is the oldest known representation of Christ in this style. An icon of Christ Pantocrator is usually characterized by the features of the face as well as the posture. Pantocrator is a Greek word which was used to translate the Hebrew for YHWH Sabaoth, which can also be translated "Lord of Hosts." Such images usually depict Christ as almighty and powerful, as a ruler, and as a judge. His right hand is normally raised in blessing, although in this very early icon it happens to be a different gesture usually symbolizing teaching. The book represents the Gospels.

When working with iconographic imagery, it is often critical to keep a very close eye on the proportions of the image, as they are what often makes the icon instantly recognizable. Since I am not intending to produce an icon in the most traditional manner but desire to keep the proportions as close to identical as possible, I am turning to a old trick used by many great masters before me: optical tracery.

Of course, there is much controversy over exactly how the great masters did this, with some asserting that they used camera obscura, while others posit somewhat more technically advanced optics like the camera lucida. I've tried using those now-outdated forms of optical reproduction. even going so far as to make some live portraits using the camera lucida, and have found that using modern digital optics is far less fiddly and far more accessible. So here I am offering a small peek into the work that goes into re-interpreting an icon.

First, some color work is needed on the original photograph. The original icon is extremely dark and finding highly detailed photographs of it can be difficult without simply taking your own shot. I worked with what I had, desaturating it slightly, increasing contrast and widening the white balance. This helps bring out the individual brush strokes, although it also blows out the color. Since establishing starting line art is the intent, I do not mind the loss of color here.I will be able to refer to other references for coloration and shading later on in the process.

I then put the image into my painting program, where a hot magenta color can be layered on top with rough pencil strokes to begin laying out some of the proportions. I could of course have copied with a grid or other more primitive measuring systems, but this method obviously works much better and more accurately. The ability to onion-skin the preceding layer allows for rapid revision of the line weight and position, and allowing for easier experimentation.

Finally, I would like to add that this method is not always the best way to start work. It is very rigid and often does not allow the sorts of fluidity and originality that many artists seek. However, with icons this is not something that needs to be stressed so much, and so this kind of starting method is perfectly appropriate here.

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