May 10, 2011
Although I’m a huge fan of egg tempera, as a medium I generally use it for underpainting. It’s quick drying and relatively easy to manipulate, establishing firm graphical forms that tend to be light in tonality. But for creating soft, smooth, subtle gradations that’s just not its forte. So in my book, that makes it great for underpainting, but as a stand alone medium, I’m just not a purist, at least, not yet.
However, in my most recent ”puzzle” painting project I planned to do just that. Each of the 25 squares involved were developed as usual in silverpoint, india ink and egg tempera – as underpainting or underdrawing, respectively. Then, many of those panels received a further development in oil or wax or a combination thereof. But, I planned to leave 8 of thsoe panels alone remaining a treatment in pure egg tempera, so for those 8, my skills in manipulating the medium had to suffice. Would they?
The trickiest section by far was the face (which I left for the last). Early on I had decided to underpaint all the flesh tones with green earth, or terra verte pigment, similar to the Siennese painters of the Renaissance. (At that stage the figure looked rather ghoulish and I had to console myself that it would change.) Darker facial details were also painted with the same green earth. As I began to overlay with my warmer colors, the face came to life. Cool! That particular facial square had also received some pre texturing with sculpting putty so the sculpting contributed in its own way, for example, the hair on the left only required of a few layers of burnt umber as a wash.
Even though it is still a work in progress (because the backside of each panel will also be painted) you can view the final mixed media collage of the front side here.
May 25, 2009
Egg tempera is an time tested technique, especially well loved by panel and icon painters. It renders flat graphical shapes and fine precise detail quite well. Softer gradual modulations are possible but take practice and patience. Unvarnished final work has an almost chalky finish to it. This technique formed the backbone-skill to any medieval or renaissance painter’s tool chest. The twentieth century has witnessed its revival with Andrew Wyeth being perhaps its most famous spokesman.
The absolute best recommendation I can think of for anyone wishing to experiment with egg tempera is to check out the Society of Tempera Painters. They have a well established site and forum, documenting many aspects of the process as well as related techniques. Otherwise, pick up a good book and start in. The online version of Daniel Thompson’s, The Practice of Tempera Painting being one of the most extensive sources around. Cennini is interesting even if a bit antiquated in his terminology. If you are looking for something more general in order to get started, try Ralph Mayer’s “The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques”, Reed Kay’s “The Painter’s Guide to Studio Methods and Materials”, or “The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting” by Max Doerner. All are tried and true comprehensive source books for the craft of painting.
Egg tempera is a paint made from an emulsion of oil and water. The final paint film is not as flexible as oil. Thus, to avoid cracking, the painting is executed on a panel and not a stretched canvas. At the moment, I use it primarily as an underpainting. The links here on the right offer some info – by no means extensive – about how I prepare my gesso and panels.
Be sure to supply yourself with a good collection of dry pigments – avoiding poisonous materials whenever possible. By grinding your own paints you get to know the specific characteristics of each pigment – opacity/translucency, absorbency, chroma nuance. Online suppliers are very helpful if you do not live in a big city with a big art supply store. If you can afford it, get a thick piece of frosted plate glass and a glass muller. Otherwise a pallette knife and wooden painter’s pallette can suffice. Grind up a small amount of each pigment you want to use in distilled water, making a smooth paste. The pastes can be stored in plastic film containers for short periods without drying out.
Locate as fresh an organic an egg as you can. Crack the shell carefully in half without breaking the yolk. Carefully move the yolk between shell halves to isolate the yolk from the white (all the while protecting the egg yolk membrane from puncture). Let the white albumen drip away. Pass the yolk back and forth between the palms of the hands in order to dry it off. Roll it across a piece of absorbent paper towel for further drying. Eventually you should be able to pick up the yolk by it’s sac. Hold it over a small clean jar (empty jelly jars from hotels are great for this) and pinch the bottom. The pure yolk will drip out. Add about a teaspoon of distillled water, cap, and shake it. Store in the refridgerator.
Making the Paint:
Add equal amounts of pigment paste and yolk to a mixing board. Grind until smooth. If you have already ground up you pigments in distilled water, then adding the egg binder is easier and requires less grinding. Some pigments will require more yolk, others less. Experience will guide you. The paint is then rather thick, too think for painting, but I transfer this mixture to my painting cup. I usually add a few brushfulls of distilled water to this small amount of paint in order to arrive at the right mixture of pigment/yolk. It is important to experiment with binder and pigment in order to find a brushable consistency that also dried to a permanently stable film.
Sable brushes then dipped in this watered down paint are still too saturated for painting. Using the thumb and forefinger press the excess liquid out until the brush renders a clean full stroke without leaving behind a blob of paint at the end of the motion.
Egg tempera does well with light thin strokes. Do not immediately rebrush a stroke. Let it dry, then add another level, if desired. In this way soft transitions can be achieved. Egg tempera is great for creating an underpainting for oils. It also is very beautiful on it’s own. Each artist decides how to use it for his/her own ends.
May 9, 2009
The list of pigments available for use in egg tempera is essentially the same as that of oil with the exception of the lead based pigments of naples yellow and flake (lead) white which are highly poisonous, anyway. The lead based pigments discolor upon exposure to sulphur fumes; their discoloration can then be avoided by varnishing the final picture but why bother when so many other safer pigments are available today?
Powdered pigments can be quite exciting to see and to use – especially for the first time. In egg tempera you must always work with powders to grind up the paint for the daily session. It is possible to pregrind up a number of common colors in distilled water and keep the paste in a small airtight jar ready for the egg yolk medium. This avoids the short time shelf life of egg spoilage.
In either case, I use a glass muller and a piece of frosted glass for grinding. Though it may sound like alot of work, in actual practice, I only use a few pigments each day so a daily session does not take alot of extra time or effort. I try to be sure to clean off the muller and glass plate directly after each grinding session.
Because you will have direct skin contact with the pigment, it is critical to inform yourself regarding its characteristics. Poisonous pigments should naturally be avoided. The Society of Tempera Painters has extensive experiential information relating to individual pigments and their various characteristics. So, take my own thoughts here with a grain of salt.
Generally, I like to use earth pigments. They grind up easily and absorb medium well, too. Grinding your own colors allows you to get to know the pigment’s characteristics in an intimate way. Translucency, tinting power and handling then become first hand knowledge. Because I use egg tempera as an underpainting, I usually temper each color with zinc white to create a tint of the hue that I want. Zinc white is somewhat transparent so I can achieve a pastel hue without adding too much water or egg to dilute the pigment. (If I add too much water, then there is not enough binder left to hold the pigment. If I add extra egg in order to dilute the paint, the binding mechanism works fine but it is harder for me to visibly control the dilution.)
For the color pallette itself, I use ultramarine blue, viridian green, mars red, burnt umber, burnt siena, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, vine black and zinc white. I tend to honor spectral purity so I don’t mix up colors on the pallette but instead paint thin layers of a yellow and red for example to achieve an orange.