Egg Tempera Pallette

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.

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