Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Every Artist Should Buy and Read this Book: Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, by Aidan Hart

Now that I have received and read it, here is a more detailed opinion! This is the best art instruction book I know of. In my opinion it should be read and absorbed by all artists regardless of the medium and the tradition they are working in. It is available in the US from Holy Trinity Bookstore, and in the UK from publisher Gracewing's website, here. It has 480 pages, 450 illustrations and 130 drawings. It comes in hardback and costs 40GBP or $70.

Aidan Hart does a wonderful job in explaining the methods of the media that he works in: egg tempera, fresco, secco and gilding, with great thoroughness and right through to varnishing and even photographic artwork for publicity shots. As an experienced practitioner and teacher he anticipates the difficulties and questions of the students at every turn. At every stage links what is done to the underlying principles of the tradition, and this opens the door to so much more.

First, once the parameters that define the tradition are well understood, it gives the student the flexibility to start creating original work without straying beyond its bounds. Hart takes us step by step through that process.

Second, for those working in other traditions it gives a deep understanding as to how form (ie style), choice of medium, compositional design, even the framing is affected by the invisible truths that the artist is seeking to communicate. The way I paint man is determined by anthropology – my understanding of what a man is. The reason that we can distinguish between different traditions, for example the gothic and the iconographic, is that each is seeking to emphasize different aspects of the anthropology. Understanding how the iconographic tradition is governed by these considerations will help artists in other traditions, for example the baroque, to see how the theology governs the form of their chosen tradition as well.

The first two considerations are what transforms an artistic style from pastiche into living tradition, that is capable of developing and responding to its time, without compromising its core principles.

Third, he gives a simple and easily understandable explanation of the different variations within the iconographic traditions, and unusually, includes the Western variants such as Celtic, Carolingian, Ottonian and Romanesque icons and explains just why they are iconographic.

Aside from this even much of what he is teaching at a technical level is of use to all painters: especially colour theory, harmonization of design, and the different attributes of using line and tone to articulate form. Although vital, drawing skill is not enough. Hart has as well a wonderful sense of composition and colour harmony and this book gives us great insights into how he does it. He shows us that as well as experience and good judgment, there are many guiding principles that the artist can make use of. For example, as well becoming lighter and darker, colours actually change in light in shade – a green might become bluer in shadow, rather than simply dark green. Aidan explains sytematically, colour by colour, how to adjust for light and dark so as to keep a coherent, unified image. In my opinion it is worth buying the book for his personal insights in this area alone.

All this is supplemented by over 400 pictures, which include not just complete pictures of paintings, but also many which focus on small details that what he describes in the text.

Aidan Hart is Orthodox, but he does not snipe at the Western Church (as sometimes happens with other Orthodox writers) and so Catholics can read and enjoy it without worry. That said there is one small note of caution: in accordance with St John of Damascus, he describes the icon as being ‘grace bearing’. Catholics should be aware that their own tradition can describe it slightly differently. In accordance with the 9th century Eastern Father St Theodore the Studite, it tends see the action of the icon as one that is analogous to a sacramental, ie, that seeing it makes us more susceptible to the action of grace, but it is not in itself a channel of grace. I discuss this more deeply in a previous article, here.

This book is recommended as reading for anyone interested in sacred art and will, I believe do much in the future to aid the development of sacred art in the Church. Well done Aidan Hart.

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