November 16, 2018

By Brendan Daley

You may not think a handful of dirt could ever be useful. However, to a local painter, it is a world of possibility.

Iconographer Christopher Van Donkelaar appeared on Sept. 22 at the Cambridge Centre for the Arts, providing the audience with an indepth look into his fascinating method of painting.

At first glance, Barbara of Madoc, Donkelaar’s most recent work, appeared to be an ordinary painting. Sure, the artistry was superior, but the audience could tell that Barbara’s beauty must have been the result of something much deeper – and it was.

For the past few years, Donkelaar has been utilizing natural elements taken from the environment to produce his own paint. Through trial and error and lengthy research, Donkelaar has crafted a system for producing an array of paints via a meticulous refinery process. He then uses these paints to produce iconographic images inspired by the area in which the organic material was taken.

Sure, the paints offered at any local art store would suffice. However, according to Donkelaar, this method better connects the artist with his subject and results in a more spiritual experience.

For as long as people have been painting, they have been producing their own paint. Materials such as bone, plants and rock are some of the most common materials to be used as pigment. Since these pigments are insoluble, they need to be coupled with a binder such as egg yolk. Depending on how you refine your pigment, an artist can produce a quantity of different colours that vary in vibrancy and tone.

The process of refinement involves breaking down organic matter into a fine powder. The matter can be crushed, ground, precipitated or fired. Depending on which method Donkelaar chooses and how he alters the variables, he can produce an array of colours – nearly enough to complete an entire painting.

Although uncommon in an era where store-bought paints are readily available, the original method of producing paint still manages to strike interest in contemporary artists.

“There is something special when you stop defining colour as this LCD television thing and start identifying it as matter,” said Donkelaar.

According to Donkelaar, every geographical area has its own signature colour. It is his goal to capture these colours and incorporate them into his art.

Although the term iconography is widely used, Donkelaar specializes in iconographic images pertaining to religion. Donkelaar’s paintings are composed of religious figures and symbols that are of significance to a chosen area. After four weeks of collecting organic matter and producing paint, Donkelaar spends two weeks researching his subject, praying to the chosen saint, and finally painting.

Trained by Orthodox monks in Galion, Ohio, Donkelaar was chosen specifically during his childhood to assist the monks with their painting. His long arms enabled him to reach spots that others could not. It was later decided that Donkelaar may as well apprentice under these monks in the art of iconography.

To this day, Donkelaar continues to combine art, geology and chemistry to create unorthodox art like none other. According to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “art is the proper task of life.” Donkelaar has committed his life to his work and continually changes the way we view art.

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