Hrm. If only there was a time for gift-giving coming up… where you could ask someone for a piece of art, or money towards a goal, or something…
I still think you’d be happy with a custom icon. Yeah, it’s expensive, but it’s okay to save up $500x2 to get what you want the first time, rather than waste $100x2 on something that you settled for.
I do like the way the Prosopon School handles their pigments. You had mentioned that you don’t find Conception Abbey’s icons to be beautiful— could you post a few pictures of icons that you do find to be beautiful?
So, when I do icons in class, each one takes six days, working eight-or-nine-hour days. So if you figure you’ve got, say, sixty hours’ worth of physical work in just one icon (not counting the mental time investment, which can be significant, especially if there’s no pattern), and you run it at minimum wage— and then you add in the cost of the materials (board, gold, pigments), that kind of helps put it in perspective as to what you’re compensating someone for when you ask them to do custom work.
To save on materials, like board cost, you can ask an artist to use Claybord. The ones I buy are, like, 1/8" thick or something, so they’d need to be put on a small easel on a shelf, or perhaps mounted somehow. But the ones with the recessed surface (kovcheg) are more substantial and are much nicer, and are worth the extra expense.
I’ve been thinking about egg tempera on gessoed board, but have you considered a wood carving like something from here? They’re custom carved, and pricing is according to the size you choose.