Egg tempera – once again

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. In common painting parlance that practice could be referred to as using it within a “mixed” technique, that is, egg tempera for the underpainting “mixed” with oil for the final layers. However, without getting too involved in technical jargon, the “mixed technique” actually refers to the development of an egg/oil emulsion that many scholars and painters now describe as the “oil painting” method discovered in the fifteenth century by the Northern Renaissance painters (beginning with Van Eyck). Thus, this invention was certainly not the discovery of merely superimposing layers of oil paint over layers of egg tempera. Rather this egg/oil emulsion, possessing some of the advantages and disadvantages of both media, allowed the the painter to go in either direction. Whether that is/was practically possible is still a source of debate, among practitioner-painters, scholars and archivists. I myself, have experimented with these things for about forty years with mixed results, some sublime, some destined simply for garbage can.

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.

But what is known is that, over time as technologies and flexible painting surfaces advanced, the oil technique gained precedence over the egg to the point where egg tempera became an all but a lost art. My own expansion into it then is the reverse: oil first, then egg tempera, and as such, slowly. In the past when I have embarked on ET experiments they were done either in the context of a multi-media project (oils, egg tempera, encaustic, acrylic, etc…) or as an underpainting for oil. This current project then is an example of the former, although this time I already felt I had many years of ET experience under my belt by now, helping me to treat the panels with even more attention, helping me to hopefully create beautiful painting in their own right.

So, after all this experimental time, I tried to create fully saturated, full value-range paintings. Due to the pre-established nature of my subject matter, composition played less of a role: the challenge was simply to create a unified field of paint that was aesthetically pleasing. Here below are a few of the points that helped me to accomplish this:

  • the creation of a well established black and white underdrawing on each panel before painting. This often meant creating a detailed value study, beautiful in itself, but which also contained enough meaningful information for the colorful three dimensional forms to come. I began executing these studies in silverpoint but for technical reasons, which you can read about here, had to shift to india ink.
  • the use of 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.
  • I avoided pre-mixing any colors in my painting bowls. All hues (well, almost all) were achieved by superimposing layers of wash in order to achieve any particular color. This honors then the chromatic purity of each pigment as well as allows light to interpenetrate any nuanced mix of color. Strange as it might seem, though time consuming, in another way it is also simpler, this “glazing” helps to create unified paintings. Additionally, for any given panel 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.
  • perhaps most importantly, my own understanding about “light” and “white”. While many artists advocate the mixture of white pigment (either zinc or titanium) with all 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; while for an alla prima technique, it is next to impossible. This meant that the white of the gesso ground always served as my source of light – within the painting – not any old white pigment added back in. For me, as a bit of a purist, the difference between the intrinsically emanating light-beauty of the gesso ground and dead light of adding white back in at some later stage is huge. So I avoid it whenever possible.
  • A full view of all thirteen panels is available here.

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