Egg Tempera

May 25, 2009

Egg tempera portrait by Botticelli

Egg tempera Medici Portrait by Botticelli

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.

The Egg:
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.


Christina's world

Christina's world

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.


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