lesson plans
D E S I G N   A N   I C O N

Written by Susan Michal, Forest Knolls Elementary School, Silver Spring, MD and Betsy Sandstrom, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, Alexandria, VA.

Grade level: Upper Elementary, Middle school, High school



  • Understand the meaning, importance and influence of the icon in the lives of Russians.
  • Learn about the Byzantine influence on Russian culture.
  • Understand the themes represented in icon painting.
  • View and learn about some of the famous icons that have been preserved or restored.
  • Learn how icons were painted.


  • Small flat scraps of wood (pine works well) in various sizes, or wood cut to a workable size (approximately 5” X 7”); surface of the wood should be smooth.
  • Lighweight drawing or tracing paper
  • Pencils
  • Soft art erasers
  • Masking tape
  • Tempera paints
  • Nontoxic acrylic coating


  1. Before students view, ask them to take notes as they watch, recording the subjects or themes represented in icons; the styles of icon painting; and the process of painting icons.
  2. View and discuss episode one.
  3. Explain that students will be designing an icon to represent a personal, religious, or historical theme in the Russian style using tempera in a variety of colors including gold as seen in the icons viewed in the program.
  4. Have each student place a block of wood in the middle of the drawing paper and trace its shape with the pencil.
  5. Students should cut the paper so that it is the same size as the piece of wood.
  6. Students will draw their icons on the cut out paper.
  7. Students should then turn their drawings over onto another piece of paper and color the entire back of the drawing using the sides of their soft drawing pencils.
  8. When the back of the paper is entirely covered with pencil, have students turn over the paper so that the drawing is right side up again.
  9. Students should secure their drawings to their blocks of wood by using small pieces of masking tape in the corners.
  10. With a pencil tip that will not easily break, students will trace over the lines of their icon drawings. The layer of pencil covering on the back of the paper will allow the drawing to be transferred to the block of wood.
  11. Students will remove the paper so they can begin painting their icons on the wood.
  12. Preparing the paint: Add a small amount of liquid acrylic to the tempera paint—about 2 talbespoons per cup of paint—to give the paints a shine. (Long ago this shine was produced by linseed oil, which was used as a varnish.)
  13. Students will use small flat-tipped and pointed brushes to paint their icons.
    NOTE: It is important that students keep their brushes in water so they will stay moist since acrylic dries rapidly. When they complete their paintings, they should immediately wash their brushes with mild soap or gentle dish washing liquid soap. Brushes should be laid out to dry on paper towels and paints should be tightly capped and stored in a cool environment out of direct sunlight.
  14. Ask students to write or type descriptions of their icons and mount them on black construction paper.
  15. Students should arrange the icons with their descriptions into an actual museum display or via the Internet in an electronic museum.

Electronic Museum Icon Display
Instead of having students paint their icons with tempera paint on blocks of wood, students could draw and paint their icons on the computer using graphic software such as KIDPIX STUDIO or Hyperstudio. The drawings could be combined with text into an electronic museum using slide show software. Completed exhibit could be displayed on the school web page.

Background Information for the Teacher
Painting is one of the oldest art forms to record the history of man. An excellent introduction to the history of painting can be found in the 1996 edition of The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia.

Since prehistoric times, many artists have painted the subjects that were most important to their societies. For example, religion was particularly important in Europe during the Middle Ages, and most of the paintings created then had religious themes.

All great paintings, regardless of subject matter, share a common feature. They do more than just reproduce an object. They also express the painter’s feelings about a subject.

People have always been a favorite subject of painters. A portrait may show an individual or a group of people, or it may be a self-portrait of the artist. The people may appear alone, in religious or historical scenes, or in genre paintings (scenes of everyday life). The presence of people in a portrait can establish a bond between the viewer and the picture. The viewer can be drawn into the painting by eye contact with the subject or out of sympathy, amusement, or even adoration if the painting portrays a hero or religious figure. 5

Until the early 1900s, most of the surviving Russian art was religious. The interiors of churches and monasteries were adorned with wall paintings called frescoes, smaller paintings on wood called icons, and various types of mosaics.

The history of the icon paintings tells the story of the Russian people and their search for and adoption of religion. The story begins long ago (A.D. 988) under the reign of Vladimir, Prince of Kiev. He sent his emissaries to various countries to learn about their religions. Vladimir felt that Russia would become a unified nation if its people practiced one central religion. One of his emissaries traveled to Constantinople and returned to Vladimir to report that the religion of the Byzantine Empire was inspiring. As a result, the prince chose the Byzantine faith of Orthodox Christianity as the faith to bring his country of turmoil into harmony.

When the decision was made, Vladimir invited many priests, architects, and icon painters to Russia. In addition, he requested that many icons be brought into Russia from the Byzantine Empire. In this way, his quest for a national religion would be supported by the religious and arts communities. Many of these people who came to Russia were from Constantinople and of Greek origin. They taught the Russians how to copy some of the icons with accuracy and reverence.

The most popular themes in icon paintings were Christ, Mother and Child, the lives of the saints, scenes from the Old Testament, angels, and historical scenes. Icons were displayed in churches and in private places of worship. The icons were grouped in a set of four and represented Christ, His mother Mary, St. John the Baptist, and the special saint of the church. These four portraits were usually displayed on the iconostasis, the large screen that divided the sanctuary from the main area of worship in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

How Icons Were Painted
There is a wonderful description of how icons were painted in the book, The Art and Artists of Russia (see Print Resources below). The icon painter had to be someone who was worthy of his craft, both humble and holy in his faith. Many of the icon painters were monks.

Icons were usually painted on panels of wood and supported from behind by two diagonal strips of wood. This support prevented the painting from warping due to the lack of heat or increase in humidity. The wooden panels were covered with a primer like gesso which is normally used to cover canvases for painting. This primer formed the base for the painting so the paint would adhere to a smooth surface. Sometimes a fine cloth was placed over the primed surface to give it a texture. The artist mixed the tempera paints with egg yolk and thinned down the liquid with a substance called kvass, a fermented drink that is produced from fruit or rye bread.

Once the painting was completed, boiled linseed oil was used to cover the art, giving it a sheen, and protecting it from the environment. However, over time many icons became covered with soot from burning candles and incense used in worship. Many icons were also damaged because churches were cold and damp, causing the paint to peel and the wood to mold or decompose. Efforts were made to repair the icons but most were unsuccessful due to lack of knowledge. In the book, The Art and Artists of Russia, the author, Richard Hare states,

“The expert restorers of the early twentieth century discovered that a lot of the older ones had been repainted several times, and that many original pure colours had turned black or brown under the old linseed-oil varnish. Unfortunately the basic rule of honest artistic restorers, only to clean and uncover original work, never to add or retouch, was often violated.”1

The early Russian painter knew no contradiction between concept and execution: he did not have to suffer that torture of creative endeavor. On the flat surface of the icon, he laid down bright patches of color and beautiful patterns of outlines, eloquent and strikingly pure notes. What he actually depicted could never be accepted as reality, or only in a very narrow sense. One recognizes the figures of people and objects, but they are transformed and at times not even immediately recognizable. The colors are bright and pure, seen in nature perhaps in the sky at sunset or in a field thickly overgrown with cornflowers. Whatever is portrayed always has an inherent quality of novelty, a sense of the unusual and the unique. At the same time this hitherto unseen, strange, colorful something becomes part of the life of the viewer, part of the space he or she inhabits. In its almost ineffable harmony of color and form lies the icon’s incomparable power of persuasion. 3

Print Resources

1 Hare, Richard. The Art and Artists of Russia. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1965.

2 Hartt, Frederick. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1993.

3 Myers, Bernard and Copplestone, Trewin, ed. Art Treasures in Russia. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970.

4 Weitzmann, Kurt, et al. The Icon: The Byzantine Tradition in Europe, Russia, and the Near East through Seven Major Epochs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

5 World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia: Painting. Chicago: World Book Inc., 1996.

Design an Icon | The Power of Architecture | Living Under Communism
Interview the Artists | Persona Project

© 1998 WETA. All rights reserved.