An icon (from the Greek eikon - an image) is like a picture, but is not supposed to be an actual representation of the person, more like a window into our understanding of the qualities that the saint or holy person represents, and a window into our own soul and relationship with God. An icon can be compared to a carefully constructed poem. Every element, like a word in a poem, fits very concisely and precisely to add to the overall meaning and harmony of the whole.
Each icon is supposed to be unique and written with a prayerful attitude, requiring many hours of painstaking work, including contemplating the symbolism of that particular saint.
"It's very important to be at peace with yourself and with the world around you. Writing an icon is a form of prayer. Each brushstroke is like a form of meditation. You have to have that inner peace. Otherwise, you can't do it." Maria Leontovitsh Manley, icon painter.
The board is covered with linen cloth which represents the shroud of Jesus and then the whole thing is painted with gesso and egg tempera in the required design. On the right is the earliest known icon of Christ from the 6th century.
Colour plays an important role in the design. Red represents divine life, and blue human life, whilst white is the pure essence of God, only used in resurrection and transmigration scenes. If you look at icons of Jesus and Mary, often Jesus wears red undergarments with a blue outer (God become human) and Mary wears a blue undergarment with a red overgarment (human granted holy gift by God).
Often elaborate gilding is used, made from real 24 carat gold leaf. Gold, which does not tarnish is supposed to represent the Holy Spirit, or breath of life, because you have to breathe on the fine gold leaf to get it to settle into the glue before it can be burnished to a high shine.
There is a specific order to writing the icon: from the most general space (background) to the most specific (the face).
In an interview with iconographer Marek Csarnecki he says:
It’s best to work from the outside to the inside, giving every aspect of the work its due. Painting the face first is like having dessert before dinner. You might lose your appetite for the rest of the meal."