First egg tempera

I have finally tried painting in egg tempera. This is something I’ve been threatening to do for literally years – every so often in the Wet Canvas forum someone would post some brilliant egg tempera painting, and I would respond with the traditional “Wow, I’ve gotta try this soon…” and then I’d go back to working on other stuff. This time it really stuck in my brain though, and I gave it a try.

First egg tempera

First egg tempera

For convenience I was going to try some of the commercial tubes of egg tempera, either Sennelier or Rowney, but then I thought heck, I’m used to working with raw pigments, why not just grind up my own and get to work. So I did – I separated a yolk from an old egg in the fridge (my fiancée Joy came upon me in the kitchen holding an egg yolk in my hand – poor woman, it just keeps getting weirder and weirder around this place), and made a sort-of verdaccio with terre verte and titanium white, both from Rublev. I sanded down the surface of an Ampersand Claybord (of which I have a stack as a gift from my mom), made a drawing with ordinary India ink using another photo portrait from Steve McCurry as reference, and went at it. The result is the above pic – unfinished, and too reliant upon the ink drawing – but representing my first real try at egg tempera.

I found the medium challenging but quite enjoyable – the study captured all of my attention for most of an afternoon, as I was introduced to some of the quirks of painting in egg yolk. One challenge was judging values across layers as the painting built up slowly. Another was the medium’s very quick drying time, which made soft edges difficult. One of the things I want to try is tempera grassa, which is an egg-oil emulsion that will make the paint strokes dry a bit slower, and therefore make it easier to blend colors for the modeling of flesh tones and so on. From what I’ve read this may alter the “jewel-like” quality of some of the colors in egg tempera – but I think that will probably be okay for flesh tones, I don’t particularly want my flesh tones to look like jewels anyway. One possibility is to do a verdaccio underpainting in pure egg tempera (like this one, except I’ll do it raw umber and black instead of the terre verte) with a full-color tempera grassa layer above – but for now I’ve got these Claybords to work on, and I don’t know how well the extra oil in the grassa will work on them. (I know that straight oil paints don’t do well on the Claybord – the absorbent ground soaks the oil right up, leaving nothing but dry pigment on the surface. Something similar might happen with tempera grassa.) So I’ll be doing eight or ten straight egg tempera studies first – which is probably a good idea anyway. I’ll make or buy some real gesso panels for the other.

There’s something about working in egg tempera that I already like a lot, and I can’t work out exactly what it is – making my own colors with the egg yolk, the clarity of the crisp colors and brush strokes, the controlled and quick building up of layers into a painting. Maybe it’s partly the feeling of tradition, the excitement of knowing that the basic process I’m using was the painting method a thousand years ago. I know I get that same rush from using traditional pigments. As I said to my fiancée with a grin on my face: This is totally medieval.


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One Response to “First egg tempera”

  1. Old Flemish Technique « Sunsikell Says:

    […] medium technique, and not really oil painting as we understand it today. Egg tempera paintings, as you may recall, were often begun with an ink drawing, sometimes a quite detailed one. Egg tempera paint was laid […]

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