In this article I would like to talk about the process of making porcelain icons, lithophanes. Strictly and loftily speaking, the most essential processes of creating a holy image take place inside the artist’s head. They are therefore inexplicable, and the result is always just a pale shadow of what might have been if we were closer to God. However, being infinitely grateful for what has been possible to achieve, I will try to introduce the reader to those visible traces of the human, God, saints, angels, and great artists from the past, all working together.
When it comes to making icons using whatever technique, there is a distinct possibility of seeing yourself as just a pupil for the rest of your life. Whether or not an icon-maker has a teacher, it is always necessary to look through the examples from the past before starting a new piece. For some, the purpose of ths is to make the new image “canonical’.” For me, to make it decent.
The physical work itself starts with a preliminary drawing. Very often I prefer brief sketches in order to make more room for changes in the next stages.
Having set the main proportions and contours, I then start sculpting a relatively rough relief in plasticine.
After that, I make a concave plaster cast, and then the a convex cast. I might or might not add extra details to the concave cast.
On a convex relief cast, the most significant changes with the image take place. Using a variety of cutters and knives, I make details, contours, and masses more precise.
Sometimes, I make the body curved, with a more complicated border.
When the plaster form is ready, the process of slip casting starts. Being more mechanical and exhausting than the other stages, it takes a vast amount of energy. Sometimes I have to prepare the slip myself, mixing dry powder with water, sifting and straining it several times to make the porcelain body homogeneous.
Having dried then, some porcelain casts survive, some do not, which is always a mystery. In many cases, it is possible to recycle the clay.
Proper porcelain casts then go to the kiln for firing at a temperature of 1200-1250°C (2200-2280°F), depending on the type of porcelain.
Finally, when the pieces are out of the kiln, I might or might not work on them more with an engraver, to rectify details or to significantly change facial expression.
Here is what happens in this visible, physical world when handmade porcelain lithophanes are being made. The rest may vary significantly: electric lighting or just a candle behind, a light-box or just a stand, mounted on a wall or placed on a shelf. What matters is the result.
Irina Gannota is an artist with a degree in ceramic arts from the Stroganov Moscow State Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts. During her third year at the Academy she “discovered” Orthodox Christianity for herself. This led later to her artwork mainly in porcelain icons, which can be viewed in The Marketplace and on her website. She lives and works in Moscow.
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