Painting with Egg Tempera

Painting with Egg Tempera
Egg tempera, once the standard painting medium in Western Art, became less popular during and after the fifteen-century with the advent of oil paint. Oil paint seemed to have clear advantages over tempera – deeper intensity of colors and much slower drying times.

The slow drying time meant less waste. An artist could prepare paint and use it for several days. Egg tempera, on the other hand, must be mixed each day since the egg-based vehicle dries quickly. Middle-age and Renaissance artists had no way of preserving their tempera paint from day to day.

Of course, egg tempera paints were never abandoned all together. In fact, the paintings of famed artist, Andrew Wyeth, are a testament to the medium. In the hands of a skilled artist, egg-tempera can rival oil paint in terms of representational descriptiveness.

What is Tempera Paint?

Modern day tempera paint goes by different names. You may find it called “poster paint” or simply “tempera paint”. It’s very popular in art classes from elementary through high school since it’s inexpensive and easily cleaned up. But this type of paint is very different from true tempera paint.

True tempera paint is made from ground up pigments mixed with an egg binder. The yolk of the egg is used and the white of the egg is discarded. But since the yolk dries very quickly and is susceptible to cracking over time, other agents are added to the mixture.

True tempera paint is long lasting and many of the paintings created with egg tempera centuries ago still exist today. Modern day “tempera paint” or poster paint is not long lasting and is easily removed from the surface with water.

Most egg tempera paintings from centuries past were created on wood panel. Poplar wood was most commonly used. But since this wood warped over time, panels were constructed by combining several slats together. A high level of craftsmanship and skill was required just to prepare the surface. Fortunately today, we can simply purchase prepared masonite – also referred to as “Clayboard”.

But the artist could not simply paint directly on the wood panel since the paint would be absorbed into the wood. Instead, the surface had to be prepared by applying a layer of gesso. This layer of gesso not only provided a suitable foundation for the painting, but also removed any textural inconsistencies in the surface. The result was an ultra smooth surface, suitable for developing fine details.

Techniques for Painting with Egg Tempera

Understanding the characteristics of the medium that you use is very important and every medium is different. For example, we shouldn’t approach a watercolor painting in the same manner that we approach oil painting. Egg tempera is no different. We shouldn’t assume to use the same techniques for tempera painting that we use for oil painting. In fact, the process of painting with tempera is so different from painting with oils and acrylics that many artists consider it to be more closely related to drawing.

Egg tempera is best applied with thin, linear washes. The paint itself is somewhat transparent and should be layered to build up rich color. If tempera paint is applied too heavily and quickly, it can crack over time.

Instead, it’s best to apply the paint with layers. Cross-hatching your applications eventually leads to solid areas of color.

Thin marks made with egg tempera

Tempera paint doesn’t blend well like oils and acrylics do. Instead, complexity in the color and gradations are best created by layering the applications.

Glazing with Tempera

Because of the nature of tempera, it is suited for glazing. Glazing is the process of layering translucent applications of color over other areas of color. Each glaze slightly alters the color. This allows the artist to make subtle changes in the value, intensity, and hue. Glazing is also a poplar technique with oil painting, watercolor, and acrylics.

Developing a Range of Value

In every drawing or painting that we create, we should strive for a full range of value and tone. With tempera painting, developing this range of value is best approached through patient layering of the medium. We can gradually “push” the darker values by layering progressively darker tones of color where appropriate. This approach is not unlike watercolor painting.

For lighter values, the same approach is taken. By glazing progressively lighter values over areas, we can gradually create areas of lighter tone. We can’t take this same approach with watercolor, but you may compare it with the process of layering colored pencils or pastels in a drawing.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the history of tempera paint and its characteristics, you may be thinking about trying this medium out for yourself. You can purchase pre-made tubes of egg tempera if you prefer, or you can make your own. Pre-made tempera tubes are expensive, but save you the trouble of making your own paints each time you want you want to paint.

But if you’re up for an easy project and a little nostalgia, you may find mixing your own paints a pleasant adventure. But, it should be pointed out that you’ll need to mix the paint for each painting session. As the yolk dries, which happens fairly quickly, it gradually becomes unusable.

Below we’ll cover:

  • How to make the egg tempera vehicle.
  • How to make egg tempera paint.
  • A description of the egg tempera painting process.
  • A sample painting, photographed in stages, completed in egg tempera.

Materials for Making Egg Tempera Paint

The supplies needed to get started using egg tempera are:

  • Eggs
  • Powdered pigments
  • Distilled water
  • Illustration board or another smooth surface on which to paint
  • Watercolor brushes – a small round brush and a flat brush
  • A palette, a few small containers, and paper towels

Materials for making egg tempera paint

How to Make Egg Tempera Vehicle

A paint’s vehicle makes the paint move. It is or includes the binder, which makes the paint stick and holds the pigment together. The vehicle for egg tempera is a combination of egg yolk and distilled water. The egg yolk is the binder.

Fresh eggs are supposedly best but in the modern world, most people do not have access to a hen house. Using store bought eggs is fine.

Step 1 – Separate the yolk of an egg from the white (the clear part). Do so using a slotted spoon or by passing the yolk back-and-forth between the shell’s two halves until the white of the egg falls away. Try to remove as much of the white as possible since the white of the egg may hinder the adhesion qualities of the paint.

Step 2 – Now dry the egg’s yolk by rolling it on a paper towel or pass it between your hands until it is dry. Ideally, the egg yolk sack should be strong enough to lift between the thumb and forefinger.

Step 3 – Puncture the yolk sack and collect the contents in a small dish or jar. Some egg’s yolk sacks will rupture prematurely. If you can still collect the contents then do so.

Step 4 – Discard the yolk sack.

Step 5 – Add a teaspoon of distilled water to the yolk. Stir it in.

Congratulations – the vehicle is ready. Now we’re ready to make the actual paint.

How to Make Egg Tempera Paint

All paints are made by combining a binder with pigment. Most paints will also include some of the solvent to aid in the viscosity. Egg tempera paint is made by combining pigments with the vehicle described above. The solvent, in this case is distilled water while the binder is the egg yolk (as mentioned before). So now we just need to add the pigment.

Pigment is the color. Throughout the years, pigments have been acquired from various resources including plants, naturally occurring minerals, and even insects. But before we go looking for an insect to extract color from, we may just purchase powdered pigments. Pure pigments are available through most online art supply retailers. The pigments used in the example painting below are processed by Gamblin.

Gamblin Artists Pigments

We’ll make a paste that is not dissimilar to raw oil paint. On a palette, add a few drops of water to a small pile of pigment. Use a palette knife to mix the water and pigment until it is a paste similar to the consistency of oil paint. The paste is ready.

Some artists will mix the vehicle with the paste just before painting. Do so on a watercolor palette that has depressions along the sides. These depressions will hold the premixed paint. Other artists (including myself), mix the vehicle with the paste on a flat palette during the painting process.

Egg tempera paste on a glass palette

Making an Egg Tempera Painting

There are many approaches to applying tempera paint. There is, however, a traditional, well-documented approach to applying egg tempera. It involves building up layers of small, translucent strokes over an underpainting. Underpaintings are often made using colors that compliment the subject’s natural colors. Since the example painting is a portrait, the underpainting is green. Green compliments the flesh colors which include red in their mixtures. (Complimentary colors are colors that are opposite from each other on the color wheel. Green is directly across from red, making it the compliment of red.)

As we discussed before, tempera artists during the middle ages usually painted on wooden panels. In addition to wood, illustration board is a good alternative. The example painting was made on illustration board. Priming with gesso is not required in this case, but it is a good idea. Illustration board can still absorb some of the applications. Preparing the surface with gesso provides a better surface on which to work.

Step One – Create a Drawing and Seal It

Make a contour line drawing on a separate sheet of paper. Be sure that your drawing is the right size for your illustration board or panel. Make sure that the drawing is accurate. Mistakes are difficult to cover when using egg tempera since the paint is only translucent and not fully opaque.

Use graphite transfer paper to transfer the drawing onto the painting support. Do not use carbon paper as the carbon will work its way through the paint layers over time. If graphite transfer paper is not available then simply cover the back of the drawing with a soft pencil. Trace the drawing to make a transfer.

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Acrylic medium is a good primer in this case. It looks white, but dries clear. When dry, the transferred drawing is visible, but also sealed (see below). Now the graphite will not mix into the paint colors, which would result in darker and duller colors.

Sealed contour line drawing

Step Two – Create an Underpainting

The green underpainting was made like a watercolor painting. The values were lightened by adding both water and egg yolk to the paint, instead of adding white. The underpainting was not made by building up layers of small strokes as previously described, instead broad strokes were used. We’ll approach the strokes differently as we develop the colors over the underpainting.

Contour line drawing of the portrait and initial egg tempera applications

Add Natural Colors Over the Underpainting

Next, small strokes of natural color are applied over the underpainting. The direction of these hatching marks follows the contours of the subject. In doing so, they help describe the subject’s form. You’ll notice in the image below that there is still a great deal of underpainting peeking out from behind the first layer of hatch marks. The green will contribute to subtle temperature changes, a hallmark of flesh tones.

It’s a good idea to keep a scrap of paper handy. Blot you brush tip on the paper before making your strokes. Otherwise the first few strokes of a loaded brush may become opaque blobs. Many tempera artists do this before making any strokes on the final surface.

The light marks in the beard were created with a specific painting technique – dry brush. To use the dry brush method, load a brush with color, then blot most of the paint away. With only a bit of color left in the brush, each bristle is likely to make its own tiny mark, giving the impression of super-fine detail. Dry brush also leaves bits of the under layer exposed. In this case, the dark underpainting and the light dry-brush marks work together to create the impression of texture.

Layering egg tempera paint

Step Four – Continue Layering Flesh Tones and Adjust Color Temperature

Continue building up the layers of flesh tones. Be sure not to lose contrast while doing so. Near the end of the painting process, a warm brown was used in the shadows. Look at the side of the face next to the ear. See how the green underpainting is still evident. It is responsible for the cool, dull color in this area as compared to the warmer shadows around the eyes. Contrast in value is important, but we can also create contrast in color temperature as well.

Step Five – Add a Contrasting Background

This painting is nearly complete. Many medieval tempera paintings made use of gold leaf in the negative space around the subject, particularly Byzantine iconography. So, in keeping with that tradition, a gold leaf substitute was used in the background. This particular product, called Rub-n-Buff, is smeared on and spread to a thin layer. It dries in minutes and can be buffed to a metallic sheen.

Choosing Background Colors

Background colors can be chosen to either contrast or harmonize with the subject. If you want to make your subject stand out from the background, you may chose a color that is the compliment of the subject. If you want the background to be more subtle, you may chose a color that is analogous to the subject.

Some experimentation may be required to find the best background from your subject and technology can help with that. To learn more about experimenting with background colors, take a look at this article…Experimenting with Background Colors

Now our egg tempera painting is complete. Upon close inspection, we can see the short strokes that were added by hatching as well as the work that the underpainting does for us.

Portrait with Egg Tempera

The shiny metallic gold visually separates from the flat egg tempera, seemingly bringing the subject forward. However, if a more unified surface is desired, one can also buff the egg tempera to a dull sheen. It is advisable to wait a few days before doing so, so that the yolk vehicle can cure and harden first.

A Final Note

Perhaps it’s clear that painting with egg tempera is quite different from other painting mediums like acrylics and oils. While the process shares some techniques with its modern cousins, it’s not the same and should be approached differently.

When you’re finished with your painting, the best way to protect it is to frame the work behind glass. I would suggest avoiding applying fixatives or varnish which may alter the color and values of the painting. Although it may feel dry to the touch, it’s best to wait a few months to allow the painting to become fully dry before framing.

So if you’re up to trying out a new medium that’s one of the oldest around, then why not give egg tempera a shot. You may find that this “blast from the past” becomes your newest obsession.

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Lesson Discussion

  1. I enjoyed this post on egg tempera but it left me with a number of questions. I’ve been researching and gather materials to paint religious icons. Some of what I have learned: natural gesso is better than acrylic gesso as the latter doesn’t absorb the egg tempera as well; in preparing a wood surface, a layer of linen or muslin should be laid (using rabbit glue) with many layers of the natural gesso on top (I’ve been wondering how necessary this is as it doesn’t sound like an easy step!); one can “preserve” the egg tempera up to a week by adding some white vinegar and storing it in the refrigerator; a varnish called Olifa is good for preserving the painting but it is complicated to apply. I’d appreciate any comments on these points if you have experience with them. Thanks.

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