Egg Tempera: what have eggs got to do with art?

Egg Tempera – what is it?

Paint for egg tempera consists of dry pigments, water, and egg (usually the yolk). Oil paint is made with dry pigment and oil, watercolour with pigment and gum Arabic. So you can see that the egg is just another binder – a way of making pigment stick to paper.

It was used by medieval and early Renaissance painters such as Botticelli, Duccio and one of my personal favourites, Fra Angelico. There is no doubt that painting with egg tempera is a time-consuming and painstaking process. Indeed, once oil paint became more widely available, egg tempera was dropped like the proverbial stone in favour of this new, more flexible, medium.

Nevertheless, it is easy to use, and relatively cheap (given a good supply of eggs!) and it produces, in the hands of experts, the most beautiful effects. Robert Vickrey, sadly no longer with us, was a master of the technique.

Egg tempera has to be applied thinly – too thick and it cracks – and colour density is built up by cross hatching. That means that each coat of underpainting glows through the next layer of paint, giving a luminosity which is difficult to achieve in other mediums. If you look at Duccio’s Maestà, you can clearly see the green underpainting of the flesh tones.

The central section of Duccio's Maesta - egg tempera and gold

The central section of Duccio’s Maesta

I was told by an art teacher in Siena that the constant dusting of paintings such as this led to the pinker flesh tones wearing away, leaving green faces. I’ve got no idea whether that is true, but I like to picture elderly Italian ladies wielding cleaning cloths in adoration. But I digress….

Egg tempera dries quickly – a huge advantage for someone like me who is impatient by nature. And you can mess about with it afterwards, scraping bits off and glazing over them, which makes it a very nice medium for depicting texture.

The best support is, without doubt, a gesso panel – easy to make, but time consuming! Some people say that, because the egg tempera become more brittle with time, there is a tendency to flake off paper or canvas. However, painters like Ben Shahn produced beautiful temperas on paper, so perhaps experimentation is needed.

So – egg tempera is a medium for do-it-yourselfers, who like to know what’s in their paint and don’t mind doing a bit of work crafting panels and grinding pigments.  I’ll post some pictures up of work in progress in the blog in the not too distant future.