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An Interview with Iconographer Nicholas Tsai

We are very pleased to present a brief interview with Nicholai (Brian) Tsai of San Francisco, CA. He is currently working on the new icon for the OrthodoxCircle website and has just completed his first Pantocrator which is now installed in the dome of St. Nicholas church in San Anselmo, CA. Nicholai has been painting for several years and worships at Holy Trinity Cathedral, OCA, in San Francisco, CA.

What led you to paint icons?

In the darkest time of my life, I was led one Sunday morning to an Orthodox cathedral just four blocks from where I lived. I had never been inside the cathedral before.  I was taken by the beauty of the services, the temple, the singing, and the icons. I started attending, sporadically at first, then more frequently, over course of the next year. The cathedral became the only place where I was at peace. I wanted to have a little bit of the cathedral home with me. I made my first attempts at painting icons so I could put them on the walls of my apartment. They were amateurish, but that’s how my icon painting began.

Do you have a strong background in art?  How did you learn icon painting?

I was chrismated in 1997. About six years later, I was grateful to have lessons from the master iconographer Dmitry Shkolnik, whose iconostasis, murals and icons at my cathedral had inspired me all those years. In 2006, I added to what I learned from him by taking a workshop taught by the master iconographer Xenia Pokrovsky.  Before studying iconography, I did not have any formal art training, though I enjoyed drawing and painting throughout my youth. When I became an adult I “buried my talent” until the Orthodox Church inspired me to dig it up again.

How long does it take you to paint an icon?

I am not a fast icon painter. For one thing, usually the only time I have to work on my icons is for a few hours at night, when my main objectives are to relax, pray, and paint an icon that will be worthy of veneration.  I am comfortable if I just average one icon per month.

What is your favorite part of painting an icon? Your least favorite?

My favorite part of painting an icon is the face.  My least favorite part of painting an icon is what you have to do before you start painting - making gesso and applying it to the board.

How do you prepare yourself spiritually for your work?

The spiritual preparation for my work is Divine Liturgy.

Is there any particular event or person that has inspired you as an iconographer?

Four lessons that have been extremely important to my iconography did not come from an iconographer, but from my spiritual father of blessed memory, Archpriest Victor Sokolov. He has done more for my spiritual guidance than anyone else and contributed much to my education as an iconographer. Although he didn’t teach me how to paint icons, what he did teach me was just as important.

Father Victor often told us that we can only be saved together. When we are separated from each other, we are separated from God. When I work on my icons, I typically work alone. This usually suits my nature, but there are times when I have lamented that God didn’t make me a choir singer so I wouldn’t feel lonely. But ultimately, iconography is a communal effort. Without the community there is no need of an iconographer. So I remember Father Victor’s lesson in this light: When I work on my icons, I am never truly alone.

The second lesson Father Victor taught me was this: Study people’s faces if you want to paint icons. Although the faces in icons are stylized, you need to have an understanding of how the human face is constructed and how light reflects from its various surfaces.

The first two lessons are related to a third lesson: Father Victor said that the only way we can see Christ is in each other. How do I apply this lesson to iconography? When you paint an icon, you are painting Christ. You can only paint Christ if you know what Christ looks like. You can only know what Christ looks like if you have seen Christ in your neighbor.

The fourth lesson from Father Victor is that there are only two icons that are required for celebrating Divine Liturgy: an icon of Christ and an icon of the Mother of God. This lesson teaches me to never make iconography the center of my life. It also teaches me that I should do the best job I can on every icon I paint, as though it were going to be one of only two icons in the temple!