Now there's a daunting title for a journal posting! I hope to try and tackle the physical realities on what you are seeing (or not) and why your response may be different from that of looking at a beautiful painting.
I hope that my Journal entries help when looking at a written icon versus one of the many prints out there. It should also help to answer a common reaction or thought of "How much?!" when discussing prices for an icon or commission.
A print is cheaper yes but has a limited life span and value. As to its artistic value, it is just a photo for mass production, and not all prints are created equal. Ink is ink and it will fade in time. A better quality lithograph goes through a colour separation printing process with superior results, but again, you have to careful with lighting (especially the sun). Prints can help people have a copy of a particular icon which they would otherwise be unable to afford, and there are many specific icons which are not being copied by hand. Because of the ease and economy of prints, many are shocked when they inquire about an actual icon for purchase. The immediate knee-jerk reaction is understandable as most of us in North America have lost the concept of having real art in my lives and homes. And no, the iconographer is not asking an absurd amount. Most often, he/she is having to undercut the value of their labour in order to make a sale or get approval for a commission. It is also natural for people to overlook what they themselves expect to earn from a week's employment, and yet don't make that same assumption for the iconographer/artist. But it is their 'employment'.
For actual icons, in addition to the artistic aspects of an icon, there is so much labour involved, as well as the cost of materials. People are surprised that an iconographer has to also factor in overhead costs: electricity, the studio space, materials used, archival quality paint, brushes, tools, gold leafing, construction and preparation of each board or panel, design time, etc. All needed to do the work. When it comes to their labour, many artists often end up making less then minimum wage after factoring in all their time. This is not to judge inquirers but to help inform them as to what they are seeing and not seeing.
Some iconographers purchase pre-prepared boards but they are paying for someone's else's labour. It is still a cost to the icon. Believe me, buying prepared boards would be a blessing for my poor fingers, but with the exception of maybe 3 or 4 icons, I have always built my own boards and panels. I use a Baltic Birch plywood which will not warp. It also gives me the freedom to prepare custom sizes pending a commission's requirements or what best suits a particular image. It has been a choice of mine from the beginning and is intrinsic to my process. My writing of an icon is rooted to the raw wood, adhesive, muslin, gesso and so forth. For me, it is all part of the spiritual energy and prayer that goes into an icon.
Now how do I explain that! I have a 'Added Reading On Icons' tab in my Iconography section which provide some background to theological truths of an icon. What I want to delve into in this posting is this iconographer's values, understanding and belief at every stage. These I hold as true, completely separate from whether a viewer knows it is one of my icons or not. A viewer's response to an icon encompasses the Prototype, but is also supported by the labouring hands and love of whichever iconographer, even though they don't know his/her identity. Icons are never signed on the front, and a great many not signed even on the back.
An icon is a living thing. But it doesn't contain or carry the prototype. And yes, the theology does also say that it doesn't retain anything but goes on to say that it is a 'center from which the divine energies radiate out'. The divine energies radiating out is the key. Some viewers become uncomfortable when viewing an icon, confusing the discomfort with the thought that there must be something wrong with the icon or something else. They don't understand that the icon's prototype is reaching out the them. It radiates out to them and that requires a response in return.
The icon is a participation and a 'guiding image'. I too participate on the journey of preparing and writing an icon: the labour, the sweat and blisters, attention to detail, not cutting corners on any phase, patience, praying for guidance, etc. I am constantly aware of the fact that these two hands of mine have no special merits, and that I live in the 'noise' of family life, and yet the Spirit has brought the great and daunting gift of writing icons through the years. By being part of every aspect of the icon, and with the wood being a living thing, the Spirit guides and infuses it through my labour, patience, and prayer; ever conscious that none of this is of my own doing. This is a key difference between the Fine Arts and Iconography. Unlike with the Fine Arts world, I do not have complete freedom in creation and improvisation as an artist. I must remain true to tradition and the truth of an icon. It is not mine to experiment or to add sentimentality within an icon. It should never confuse or pose questions in the viewer's mind as to its theology and guidance. Is it prayerful! Students learning iconography, after taking some workshops, start 'painting' icons as an artist. It takes time to fully understand and absorb the notion that you are not an artist but a writer, with the same weight of responsibility as the writers of scripture. I advise any student to read and, most importantly, follow the icons of the old masters.
But back to the icon.
My own experience in writing icons has always been reaching that certain stage once the image is transferred to the board and the writing has begun, where the Prototype takes over. The Spirit and the Prototype have always been part from the designing stage, but from that point in the writing, it is my ritual to lay my hand on the icon before starting each session, asking for guidance, and just being quiet. That 'radiating out' has already begun. I've often used the term 'the icon has a vibration'. I know it is an artistic term but some people have a easier way of understanding what that means. But please don't confuse that as being all my doing. I suppose the best analogy for this would be reaping a harvest. The celebration of the fruits of the harvest from the fields or our gardens is pivotal in its connect to all the work that went into tending to the soil, planting the seed, and caring for the seedlings until maturity. We just don't celebrate the tomato, or the wheat onto itself. We celebrate it within the full context of its life which returns life to us. I see my work in iconography in the same way. My labour, perseverance, and dedication are part of the icon's foundation from which the Prototype radiates. It is all part of the living: the living wood, the use of water instead of oil in writing, the iconographer's energies and spirit, use of symbolism and tradition, and in the end, announces the Prototype's presence. In the end, once an icon is completed and installed in a home, church, or work space, it is no longer my own; it never was, but I refer to my physical connection to it. But now, I too can venerate it in exactly the same manner as everyone around me.