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.

About ten years ago I began to experiment with silverpoint. It’s a beautiful and ancient technique that was used long before lead pencils or even the wide-spread distribution of paper. A metal point (in this case silver, though other metals were also used) is inserted into a stylus and you begin making light scratches on a ground with enough tooth to be receptive to a light deposit of the metal particles. Since silverpoint works extremely well on traditional chalk gesso, and this had already been my ground of choice for decades, there was no learning curve for me in terms of the preparation of the ground. So I began to employ silverpoint to develop underdrawings for landscapes (intended to be created in the studio). This went seamlessly since I had already transitioned to creating my paintings in the studio based on en-plein-air value studies.

As for the silverpoint, I was very pleased with its tactile feel. Yet – in contrast to lead pencil or ink as I quickly learned – the amount of pressure you exert has no influence whatsoever on the value you create (!). It’s only possible to create deeper values through repeated motions. Because such values are developed slowly through repetitive motions silverpoint is a time consuming yet meditative activity. Nice! It creates a great deal of fine detail – softly. Deeper values can and do develop over time, especially when the surface is exposed to light for extended periods of time. But I expected my silverpoint underdrawing to become sealed under many coats of paint so I was never too concerned about its tarnishing/darkening factor.

silverpoint with india ink

silverpoint with india ink

And, since I was interested in creating landscapes where describing distance is an intrinsic factor, I began implementing india ink cross-hatching to specific areas of my foreground. This enhanced the contrast of the foreground. I thought I had developed a pretty cool underdrawing technique for myself. I was happy.

Silverpoint on traditional gesso panel

However, recently when I began a project of 13 panels to be executed exclusively in egg tempera, I discovered otherwise. I had naturally turned to silverpoint for my underdrawings. The work flowed. I was a happy little camper creating beautiful little silverpoint panel underdrawings in my cozy little studio. Until at some point it dawned on me that the silver of the silverpoint would naturally tarnish in the presence of the egg’s sulphur. It would be an organic process over which I would have little control. Banksy might be fine designing his paintings to self-destruct in a shredder at auction but that really wasn’t my intention here.

I quickly contacted Koo Schadler, a contemporary artist who creates beautiful paintings in egg tempera and who also does drawings in silverpoint. She was very kind and informative though in fact she did confirm my suspicions. At the same time she introduced me to the MITRA Forum, a website hosted by the University of Delaware where conservation experts are available to answer such (geeky) questions. They, too confirmed the difficulty.

Well, so what did the Old Masters do? While there does not appear to have been one set solution, because individual studios/guilds and masters all had their own approach, there does appear to have been a convention: washes of india ink. It was fast, easy, cheap and versatile. Using you could quickly achieve a wide range of values and on a large scale, if necessary (neither of which is silverpoint’s forté). Silverpoint may have been used early on in the design/transfer process (if you were working on panel) but even so, why carry it through when india ink is so much quicker and easier?

Returning to my project, the question remained: what to do with my already completed silverpoints? Koo had initially suggested that washes of india ink (which contains shellac) might be able to seal off the silverpoint level from the egg tempera level (though the efficacy of such a maneuver was questionable). So, I began creating light washes of india ink over my existing silverpoints. I proceeded slowly and gently in order to avoid creating values too darkly, too quickly. This worked out great and seemed to enhance my silverpoint panels! I was happy (again) though nagging doubts remained. Additionally, the MITRA Forum experts had confirmed that there are no sealers on the market able to fully prohibit oxygenation/tarnish – and attempting to create a seal that would be strong enough to do so would compromise the adhesion capacities of the egg tempera. Done.

India ink underdrawing after erasing the silverpoint.

I got up yesterday and took an eraser to my panels. I began to erase all of my beloved silverpoint work. You will hear people say that silverpoint is not erasable. That’s not my experience. With some diligent rubbing the silver came off leaving only the india ink behind. Did I get it all? I don’t know, I think so, but only time will tell. But I’m no longer worried. So in the end, the silverpoint drawings that I did do served me well: they gave me enough information to create subtle and detailed india ink underdrawings. Now I am confident enough to proceed with my egg tempera.

Bullet dodged.

After years of experimenting with the mixed technique I have confirmed two things. I love glazing; and too much glaze absolutely kills oil’s refracting light. Thus I have often, even repeatedly, found myself at cross-purposes.

Most of my experiments in the recent years have been attempts to preserve this light. Painting backwards is one of my more notable successes. However, reclaiming the white of the original panel through painting backwards doesn’t really work tactically speaking if the neighboring areas of paint have been worked-up. And adding it back at the finish line (like I did here) is OK but you can’t always guarantee that the surface will accept it by then or that the light so added will be integrated in the way you want it to be. I needed light within the painted surface, a reintroduced light, applied within and over the developing image. And of course it needed to be lean enough to bear a layer or two of glaze. How did the old masters accomplish this? Tempera white.

What is tempera white? Basically, white pigment (I use zinc white but the old masters most probably used lead) ground up in a very lean egg/oil emulsion. The emulsion I use comes from the mixed technique but one could just as easily substitute an egg yolk for the methyl-cellulose glue component. I have used this tempera white before for reintroducing light values within each layer of colored glaze when developing an image chromatically. For examples see: I am curious yellow, Seeing red, and I’d rather be blue. But in all previous attempts, I did not introduce tempera white directly over the egg tempera/imprimatura underpainting, from the get-go, so to speak. That’s what I wanted to do this time, as doing so can free me from any pre-conceived plan of chromatic image development via glazing.

So I’ve been working on a landscape of a farm on the Dammevaart just outside of Bruges. I created a watercolor study of it a few years ago. This functions for the basic composition, color relations and light study.IMG_4414 (1)

Based on this watercolor then, I transposed the design to a gessoed panel and worked it up in silverpoint, which tends to be very light valued.IMG_4334 I then laid in light areas of color via egg tempera, anticipating the colors to come. Sorry, no picture of this stage is available (but just imagine the watercolor laid in over the silverpoint drawing and you won’t be far off). My interest for the ET level was stating color relations but keeping them as just hints – not fully developed and certainly not saturated. I let the ET fully dry and oxidize for a few weeks before laying in a toned (burnt sienna) imprimatura. Sorry, no image is available of this stage either. The imprimatura acts like a very lean glaze, bringing everything into relation through its hue and tonality. But additionally it also places an inevitable veil over all design elements. The already lightly developed composition got flatter and the ET colors were only slightly visible, as though through a tinted filter.

What to do? White tempera to the rescue. IMG_4411It helped to reintroduce the forms by stating the highlight and quarter tone values. All my seeming tedious homework from the earlier layers played through. My aim now is to complete the painting with just one session of painting into a glaze. The aforementioned homework should allow me to work quickly, spontaneously and yet accurately. And despite all the detail of the under layers, I don’t aim to create a fully detailed realistic painting, rather my goal is a painting that gives the viewer’s imagination space to wander – even if just a little bit. So stay tuned.

Egg tempera revisited

May 10, 2011

Anna, #17, egg tempera, silverpoint and india ink

Anna, #17, egg tempera, silverpoint and india ink

Although I’m a huge fan of egg tempera, as a medium I generally use it for underpainting.  It’s quick drying and relatively easy to manipulate, establishing firm graphical forms, through firm graphical brushstrokes that tend to be light in tonality. But for creating soft, smooth, subtle gradations that’s not its forte unless you have boatloads of patience.  So in my book, that makes it great for underpainting, but as a stand alone medium, I’m not a purist, at least, not yet.

However, in my most recent “puzzle” painting project I planned to do just that.  Each of the 25 squares involved were developed in silverpoint, india ink and egg tempera – as underpainting or underdrawing, respectively.  Then, many of those panels received a further development in oil or wax or a combination thereof.  But, I planned to leave 8 of thsoe panels alone remaining as a  treatment in pure egg tempera, so for those 8, my skills in manipulating the medium had to suffice.  Would they?

Anna_08

Anna, #8, egg tempera

The trickiest section by far was the face (which I left for the last).  Early on I had decided to underpaint all the flesh tones with green earth, or terra verte pigment, similar to the Siennese painters of the Renaissance. (At that stage the figure looked rather ghoulish and I had to console myself that it would change.)  Darker facial details were also painted with the same green earth.  As I began to overlay with my warmer colors, the face came to life.  Great!  That particular facial square had also received some pre texturing with sculpting putty so the sculpting contributed in its own way, for example, the hair on the left only required of a few layers of burnt umber as a wash.

The final mixed media collage can be seen here.

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.  The unvarnished final work has an almost chalk-like 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.

For anyone wishing to ask experts geeky questions about the medium check out the MITRA forum. In the past there has also been the Society of Tempera Painters (whose informative forum is currently offline). The Tempera Society had a well established site and forum, documenting many aspects of the process as well as related techniques. In its absence, I’d suggest picking up a good book and starting in. The online version of Daniel Thompson’s, The Practice of Tempera Painting is one of the most extensive sources around.  Cennini is charming even if a bit antiquated in his terminology and procedures.  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 firm and stable panel not on a stretched canvas.  At the moment, I use egg tempera 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.

Pigments:
Be sure to supply yourself with a good collection of dry pigments – avoiding poisonous materials whenever possible.  You don’t want to breathe in toxic dust. By grinding your own paints you get to know the specific characteristics of each pigment – opacity/translucency, saturation, hydrophobic or philic, chromatic nuance. Online suppliers are very helpful if you do not live in a large city with a big art supply store. Get a thick piece of frosted plate glass and a glass muller. Otherwise a pallette knife and wooden painter’s pallette can suffice in a pinch. 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. To extend that drying out time I usually insert a piece of sponge at the top of the jar. Keeping it moist prolongs the life of the pigment paste.

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 an equal amount of distillled water, cap, and shake it. Store in the refridgerator.

Tempering the Paint:
On your glass palette add equal amounts of pigment paste and egg yolk. I use a palette knife to measure a “bean” of pigment paste and a small pipette to measure the same by dipping into my prepared egg. Mix until smooth. If you have already ground up your pigments in distilled water, then adding the egg binder now is easier and requires much less grinding. Some pigments will require more yolk, others less. To make sure you have tempered your paint correctly, Take a moistened sable brush, dip it in your newly mixed paint and lay a stroke on a nearby piece of window glass. It should dry quite quickly. Then take a one-sided razor blade and gently scrape the paint swash off. It should maintain its own consistency and curl off like a ribbon. If you have not added enough egg the pigment will return to powder and flake off. If you have added too much egg the paint film will lack chromatic saturation. Let experience be your guide. Soon you will get the knack of it.

When you are satisfied that you have tempered your paint correctly, transfer this mixture to a painting cup. I use a nested set of porcelain dishes that have a top cover. The tempered paint is rather thick, too think for painting, so at this point it is important to add additional water in order to arrive at the right mixture of pigment/yolk. How much water? Apparently, that doesn’t really matter. If your paint has been tempered correctly you can (if you wish) dilute it with large amounts of water so as to paint with many fine watercolor-like washes. As you work, it may seem as though the color is not building, but be patient and you will see that it does.

Painting:
Sable brushes dipped in this watered down paint will be too saturated for the painting stroke. Using your 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 many light thin strokes. Do not immediately rebrush a stroke. Let it dry, then add another level. Because it dries so quickly this is usually not a problem at all. In this way soft transitions can be achieved. But is is important to let your brush dance over your whole painting. Do not obsess in any one area, if it has not thoroughly dried it can become overworked and lift off earlier levels of paint, creating a hole that is difficult to repair. Stay light and playful, attentive to the whole work. Each artist decides how to use this medium to his/her own ends.

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.