Drawing a half-length figure

The half-length figure is one of the easiest subjects for the beginner to start work on. First gather your drawing materials together.


For your drawing exercises you will need the following: a 2B or 3B well-sharpened pencil, tracing paper, a putty rubber for corrections and a pad of layout paper, size A4 or A3, or ordinary typewriting paper for the preliminary drawings. You will also need to practise drawing with fine sable brushes (round or “rigger”), sizes 0, 1 and 2, on the same paper, using a tube of raw umber watercolour. The length of the brush hairs should be 1.25cm (1/2in). A good selection of colour reproductions for reference is also required. The student should always carry a sketchbook when visiting museums, churches, etc. in order to record valuable details. This will provide excellent reference material for future icon painting.

Preliminary exercises

Before you begin painting you should become acquainted with the style of the original icon and this is best achieved by continual drawing. If you have difficulty drawing freehand, place tracing paper over a reproduction and make a perfect tracing; then make the comparison. When you are confident that the drawings compare well, make one final drawing.

The drawing will be transferred on to a gesso-coated wooden panel and it therefore has to be the same size as your intended icon.

You will have to be a great artist to get the final lines and proportions correct first time! It is easier to begin in a fluid, freehand or sketchy manner in order to establish the general composition. As work progresses make adjustments and necessary corrections, refining the drawing and eventually defining the final lines. Emphasize the outer silhouette of the image and the inner contours that define the different areas of colour, for you will depend on these lines when painting the background colours.

When you have finished your first pencil drawings, practise going over these same drawings with a fine sable brush and raw umber. This will develop the steady hand which is essential for painting.


Some professional icon painters do not draw the image on paper first. They draw it freehand with fine brushes, directly on to the gessoed panel. The palm of the left hand may be used as a palette to mix a pigment, such as yellow ochre, with water. Unwanted lines are simply washed off with water. For this type of drawing a lot of experience is required.


Underlying the composition of an icon there is a subtle geometry of pure forms: curves (circle), verticals and horizontals (square), and diagonals (triangle). These are all interwoven into a harmonious whole or unity, a language of sacred geometry . You could indicate the centre of the icon with a vertical line before beginning to draw also, if you find it helpful, you could square up the composition by superimposing a piece of transparent tracing paper on to your reproduction and drawing a series of vertical and horizontal guide lines to refer to in your own drawing.


The outer borders, or margins, around the image are an important element in the icon, since the painting of the figure never starts at the edge of the panel. The top margin must allow space for the halo and lettering. Margins may be the same all around, or the bottom and top margins can be slightly wider. These margins are not meant to be an ordinary frame, but the necessary space between the edges of the panel and the holy image, a sort of introduction to isolate it from the mundane world. Make sure you allow for these margins when planning your composition.


The art of painting an icon requires a special language removed from a naturalistic imitation of life. It is a form of visual theology translating the Holy Scriptures. This is why it is said that icons are not painted but written, and why in churches icons are frequently placed on lecterns. The drawing technique is similar to the strict discipline required when working on calligraphy. The image must be translated into precise lines. These lines vary in thickness defining the form with its subtle configurations and geometric patterns. The drawing is completely linear without shading or shadows.

As you practise drawing, try to memorise the way faces, clothing and other features are represented, so that eventually you will become fully conversant with the style. Never draw an icon in a hurry or in a light-hearted simplistic manner like a caricature. This would destroy its spiritual feeling and dignity.