Aleksey & Olga Ivanov | Contemporary Icons

By Reed Glenn

Classic Russian icons, Renaissance art, the Colorado landscape, and images of contemporary life infuse the work of Moscow-born artists Aleksey and Olga Ivanov, a husband-and-wife team who collaborate on every painting they produce. Employing the ancient and somewhat temperamental medium of egg tempera, they create images that might be interpreted as inventive, playful, and often ironic icons of our times.

Historically, icons were traditional religious images painted on small wooden panels used in the devotions of Eastern Christians. Russian icons evolved to high art, reflecting the history, technology, and temperament of the times. Likewise, as seen in their painting TRASH AND TREASURE 3, the Ivanovs depict imagery reflecting modern life. The exquisitely composed and detailed painting includes a souvenir fan, a fortune cookie, a shopping bag, a computer mouse, and other flotsam one might find in a junk drawer. Yet these common objects are rendered with a Renaissance seriousness of execution, and the painting has the serene presence and technical perfection of a classical masterpiece.

Sometimes the incongruous items in the Ivanovs’ still lifes seem nothing more than pleasing forms, colors, textures, and shapes—like the sensuous JUNE TEMPTATION, where the viewer wants only to pluck a plump red cherry from the pretty porcelain bowl on which a glazed Geisha reaches for one of the real cherries herself.

The Ivanovs met while students at the Moscow Academic College of Art and have been together for almost a quarter of a century. They share a strikingly similar background. Both were born as only children in the mid-1960s and lost their fathers early in life (one to death, the other to divorce). They were raised primarily by their mothers, who nurtured and encouraged their children’s talent. With its wealth of arts and culture, Moscow was fertile ground for budding young artists. “I was taken everywhere,” says Olga. “We were spoiled kids in terms of theater and museums,” adds Aleksey.

It was a teacher in art college who helped to focus their attention. “He said there was one artist who was extraordinary,” remembers Aleksey. The artist he was referring to was the northern Italian painter Andrea Mantegna, one of the most significant artists of the early Renaissance. Mantegna’s

powerfully developed figures in classical settings resemble actors on a picture-frame stage. His bold use of perspective and very high or low viewpoints create tension and unusual visual perceptions.

Another inspiration for the Ivanovs was Rogier van der Weyden, one of the premier artists of early Netherlandish painting. His revolutionary handling of light, shadow, and depiction of fabrics, as well as his use of trompe l’oeil, made his work cutting edge—with three-dimensional, realistic interiors and far-ranging vistas that viewers had never before experienced in artwork. His paintings give the viewer the impression of looking through a window into a real scene.

After graduating from college, the Ivanovs found work restoring 16th- to 18th-century Russian icons. They learned how to create gesso (a type of primer), apply it to wood panels, add a layer of cloth, and paint it with egg tempera. They also learned burnishing, gilding, silvering, and other techniques of the traditional iconographers. “It was quite a process. We spent five years getting into it, digging very deep,” says Olga. “There were a number of discoveries and interesting experiences. Many of the icons were completely opaque. We opened them up, using different chemicals,” she adds. Some of the icons they worked on were door-sized painted panels that exhibited the exquisite detail and technique—“like jewelry,” Olga emphasizes—of the smaller icons. “The 17th century was the Russian Renaissance of iconography, when they came to a point of great detail and fine execution. Iconography and Renaissance art are very similar,” she observes.

“We were fascinated with egg temperas,” says Aleksey, “though our degrees were in oil, which is easy, simple, fast.” Egg tempera is not—it’s the opposite. “What really fascinated us is that egg tempera is the mother of techniques,” he continues. “First there was a pigment and an artist in cave, and the artist asked, ‘How should I apply my color on the wall to make my image?’ So one day he had an egg and mixed it with the pigment, and it dried and hardened on the stone.”

Egg tempera was the medium of choice until around 1500 and the introduction of oil paints. Ancient Egyptians used egg tempera to paint sarcophagi and mummy portraits, as did the artists who embellished the ancient Bagh Caves of India, dating from the 4th to the 10th centuries AD. Monks illuminated medieval manuscripts with egg tempera, and Leonardo da Vinci painted his famous LAST SUPPER with it. All of Michelangelo’s surviving painted wood panels are done in egg tempera.

This timeless medium is made from egg yolk, water, and powdered pigments. The yolk is used as the binding agent, and the paint is applied in thin opaque or transparent layers. If applied too thickly, it will crack and flake. When dry it has a smooth, matte look and is water-resistant. Egg tempera works well for detailed work because of the flow of the paint off the brush. “Our paintings have many different layers of paint with tiny brush strokes and cross-hatching,” says Aleksey.

Egg tempera dries almost immediately, with luminous colors and interesting texture. Compared to other paints, however, it is difficult to blend colors with it or create light hues. Underpainting is key, and previous layers affect each successive one. The painting becomes richer as the layers build up. One common technique is to alternate layers of cool and warm colors.

With the introduction of oil-based paints, egg tempera gradually lost its prominence as the preferred medium for major works of art. Although at the end of the 19th century it made something of a comeback. Mexican artists José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera chose tempera for their huge murals, and in 1901 the Society of Tempera Painters was established. More recent artists who painted with egg tempera include Andrew Wyeth, Ben Shahn, Mark Tobey, Robert Vickrey—and the Ivanovs.

The Ivanovs began their creative lives together as artists working individually. “She would critique my paintings and I would critique hers,” recalls Aleksey. “And then we decided, ‘Why don’t we do it together? Let’s create this piece together.’ And it was even better—harmony, pure harmony. So we started to present ourselves as a family team.” Now all of their works are collaborative. “It’s quite a process. We’ve really worked out how to do it. We usually have a few paintings started, and they travel from Olga’s easel to mine and back,” he explains.

“Sometimes we work on a piece for six months or more,” he continues. “It is important to look at the painting in progress and analyze it. Or put it away and take a break for a while, then start it again with a fresh eye.” They say their small paintings usually take about a month, though the diminutive but highly detailed LAST SNOW portrait took two. “The portraits are all of people who come into our lives in some way,” says Aleksey, explaining that the various objects in the image also tell a story of the person in small ways. Their large, figurative works can take up to a year. “We prefer not to rush,” he says. “We enjoy the entire process, from creating gesso to the final signature in red.”

The Ivanovs emigrated from Russia to the United States in 2002. There were a number of reasons for their move. “We were working with a New York art agency by that time, and due to bureaucracy it was nearly impossible to deliver our art to clients on time,” says Aleksey. “Also, the tremendous interest in our art in the U.S. gave us a clear message that this is the country where we want to create.” They heard about Colorado from a visiting American writer friend. After arriving in the states they headed west, and, finding the Colorado landscapes eerily similar to those in Mantegna’s paintings, they instantly fell in love with the state. Their studio and home are located just outside of Denver. “When we begin a painting it usually starts with a drive,” says Olga. “Then we will stop in a beautiful place and discuss it.”

The Ivanovs’ paintings are unique because of their subject matter, joint execution, and medium. Art historians and writers sometimes refer to egg tempera as a secret process. But it’s not really secret, say the Ivanovs. “It just takes years to learn. When you first start to do it, you feel like a child. You spend years of hard work, and sacrifice your life to it because it’s difficult to deal with the technique successfully. But it cannot be imitated, and that’s what makes it unique,” says Aleksey. “It’s all about being different, innovative. When you combine all of that, it makes a different language, your own song. We’re trying to sing our song.”


Arts at Denver, Denver, CO;

Solo show, Arts at Denver, September 17-October 2.
American Art Invitational, Saks Galleries, Denver, CO, December 3-31.

Featured in September 2010