Egg tempera and indirect painting

November 11, 2019

A Piece of Me #1, egg tempera on panel.

A Piece of Me #1, egg tempera on panel, 21 x 13.3 cm or 8 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.

Most of the information on egg tempera that I’ve posted on this blog thus far has referred to my use of egg tempera as an underpainting for oils. However in my most recent multi media project I’ve created a series of images painted exclusively in egg tempera, as a stand alone painting technique. This is the first time in about forty years that I have done this. So I have been both in and out of my comfort zone: there was familiarity but not mastery.

Thus I tried to create fully saturated, full value-range paintings, which in this medium can be challenging. Due to the pre-established nature of my subject matter (see link above for an explanation of the overall project), composition played less of a role: my challenge was simply to create a unified field of paint that was aesthetically pleasing. Here below are a few of the things I learned in the process:

  • A Pice of Me #41, egg tempera on panel.

    A Pice of Me #41, egg tempera on panel, 21 x 13.3 cm or 8 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.

    I began each panel with a well established black and white underdrawing. Often this meant creating a detailed value study, beautiful in itself, but which also contained enough meaningful information for the three dimensional, coloured forms to come. I began by executing these studies in silverpoint but for technical reasons, which you can read about here, I had to shift washes of india ink. For this I used the brush – not the pen nib – since I felt the pen nib would create too harsh a graphical line for this incredibly subtle medium.

  • I applied my egg tempera in many very light, successive washes. I especially wish to thank the contemporary egg tempera artist, Koo Schadler, for her painting insights. They helped me to improve my use of the technique in many different ways.
  • Of especial help was her suggestion to use fine celled cosmetic sponges for my glazes. They helped me to achieve unified fields of wash which are otherwise difficult to achieve in this fast drying medium.
  • I avoided mixing colors. All hues in the paintings (well, almost all) were achieved by superimposing layers of wash in order to achieve any particular colour. This honors the chromatic purity of each pigment as well as allows light to interpenetrate any nuanced mix of color. Strange as it might seem, even though it’s time consuming, in another way it’s also simpler, as this kind of “glazing” helped to create chromatically unified paintings.
  • Additionally, and as a related point, I tried to paint with as limited a palette as possible. I kept a list of the pigments I had used on the back of each panel. I expect this to be helpful information as I move into other panels with other media to describe similar subject matter.
  • Perhaps the most important understanding came in my own understanding about “light” and “white”. While many artists may advocate the mixture of white pigment (either zinc or titanium) with tempered paints – and I did experiment with that on some of these panels – I ultimately had to follow my own intuition and avoid the addition of white pigment whenever possible. This meant working up my mid tones slowly, yet fully, through a series of washes, many of which were partially translucent. As the painting gained in hue and saturation, I always tried to kept my brightest highlights clear of paint. When you paint with an indirect method like this, this is possible. It is also possible (another hat tip to Koo Schadler) because you can add significant amounts of water to your egg tempera paint without harming its internal integrity. This meant that the white of the gesso ground always served as my source of light. The difference between the intrinsically emanating light-beauty of the gesso ground to the dead weight of adding white pigment back in at some later stage is huge. So I avoid it whenever possible.
  • A full view of all thirteen panels is available here.

13 Responses to “Egg tempera and indirect painting”


  1. […] A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels. […]


  2. […] A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels. […]


  3. […] A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels. […]


  4. […] The black and white underdrawing on the right, the fully colored developed painting on the left. A full overview description of the whole project is here. A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels here. […]


  5. […] Like the previous panel this, too, was delectable to colorize. I’m happy and hoping to wind up the egg tempera series soon. A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels here. […]


  6. […] You can read a description of the full project here. A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels here. […]


  7. […] You can read a description of the full project here. A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels here. […]


  8. […] Now the egg tempera pieces are starting to become more complex. This one still has some basic “abstract” shapes but the importance of chiaroscuro in the foreground is becoming more pronounced. This one took me more time, so also more patience while it challenged my skills. For example, achieving the dark black area on the left is already difficult in egg tempera. The medium itself is translucent, the brush strokes dry almost immediately upon contact with the gesso and thick impasto strokes are inadvisable for technical reasons, so blending just isn’t an option. Achieving a field of an extremely dark value or saturated hue then requires the build up of countless layers of light washes. It’s a very meditative technique. You have to love it. Impetuous temperaments, be forewarned: don’t even think about scaling this mountain. You can read a description of the full project here. A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels here. […]


  9. […] I completed this panel, #46, in the egg tempera series yesterday. It was an intriguing piece to paint since I was applying lightly tinted washes over an already sculpted pastiglia surface – that had also received its preparatory black and white underdrawing in india ink. So in one sense, I had my work already cut out for me. But in another sense I had colors to coordinate and to balance, as well as textures to enhance. Compositionally, the design of the piece is quite strong, an almost white, emphatic vertical thrust on the left (the leg of my linen pants) which needs to balance with a series of tinted trapezoids (floor tiles) on the right. Luckily, there was some drapery top left whose hues and values echo some of the  shapes on the right. The pastiglia quickly and easily enhanced the chiaroscuro I wanted to add to my pants leg. I’m happy: this stands alone and, I think, will integrate well in the final assemblage. You can read a description of the full project here. A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels here. […]


  10. […] A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels here. […]


  11. […] A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels here. […]


  12. […] A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels here. […]


  13. […] A technical write up of the lessons learned about egg tempera in this series of panels here. […]


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