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 and so to be avoided in powdered form. The lead based pigments discolor upon exposure to sulphur fumes anyway. Apparently their discoloration can 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. I use a glass muller and a piece of frosted glass for this purpose. However, it is possible to pre-grind a number of common colors in distilled water and keep the paste in a small airtight jar (with a moistened sponge inserted in the lid) ready for use. This saves time and energy. This bigger work then of grinding up pigment pastes needs to be done only once  every few months or so (depending on your usage). The muller and glass plate need to be thoroughly cleaned after each grinding session. Then for actual daily painting, I temper (with egg) only a few pigment paste for each session. This does not take alot of extra time or effort. A bean of pigment paste mixed up with an equal amount of egg suffices.

Generally, I like to use earth pigments.  They are hydrophilic so they grind up easily with water and temper with egg well, too.  Grinding your own colors allows you to get to know the pigment’s characteristics in an intimate way.  Translucency, saturation and handling then become first hand knowledge.

In that past, because I have used egg tempera as an underpainting, I often temper each color with a little 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. Others may prefer to use titanium.

For the color palette itself, I use ultramarine blue, viridian green, venetian red, burnt umber, burnt siena, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, vine black and zinc (or titanium) white. I tend to honor spectral purity so I don’t mix up colors on the palette but instead superimpose thin layers of a yellow and red for example to achieve an orange.

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