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Egg tempera is not a fussy medium

The impres­sion many peo­ple seem to have of egg tem­pera is that it is a fussy medium that can only be used in one spe­cific style. I think that comes from early 20th cen­tury pro­po­nents of tem­pera paint­ing such as Daniel V. Thomp­son. While his books are an excel­lent resource, his insis­tence that tem­pera should be used just as it was in 14th cen­tury Italy gives the impres­sion that the medium is lim­ited to very slow work using small brushes to make labo­ri­ous hatch­ing strokes.

That’s one way to paint in tem­pera, and one that every tem­pera painter should prob­a­bly famil­iar­ize them­selves with.

But there are really only three con­straints on tem­pera painting:

  • You need to paint on a rigid sup­port, pre­ferrably on tra­di­tional gesso.
  • You need to get the right ratio of pig­ment to egg yolk binder when paint­ing (you can then thin it as much as you want with water).
  • You can’t paint with thick blobs of impasto.

That’s it. You can use thick bris­tle brushes if you want. You can use a well-loaded brush, dry­brush, or even tilt the panel hor­i­zon­tal and paint with loose washes. Wet paint can be blended. You can apply layer after layer of glaz­ing. You can scrape the paint back, apply it with sponges, paint with your fin­gers, or rub par­tially dry paint to cre­ate tex­tural effects.

Tem­pera is not fussy.

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2 Responses

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  1. ScottWms says

    I agree that tem­pera can be a more spon­ta­neous medium and less rigid in approach than the aver­age per­son might think. Robert Vick­rey was a cham­pion of this idea in both of his books. How­ever, I have always felt when tem­pera is han­dled in this man­ner, the result­ing paint­ing has more in com­mon with acrylic or gouache in it’s appear­ance. There are many valid rea­sons to choose tem­pera. One that stands out in my mind is the medium’s opales­cence. This opti­cal effect is the result of lay­er­ing diaphanous pas­sages of translu­cent paint over slightly darker under­ly­ing val­ues. The ini­tial black and white ren­der­ing in ink lays the foun­da­tion for achiev­ing this qual­ity. Thomp­son takes pains to describe this effect as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for his approach. I think if one chooses a less fussy approach to tem­pera, they might well sac­ri­fice one of it’s unique char­ac­ter­is­tics that it doesn’t share with any other medium.


  2. David says


    I agree that it’s pos­si­ble to work with tem­pera in a man­ner that wastes its unique char­ac­ter­is­tics and would be more eas­ily accom­plished in gouache or acrylic. What I’m try­ing to fig­ure out is how to blend var­i­ous tech­niques seam­lessly in a way that is effec­tive and does some­thing that can only be done well in tempera.

    I have not read Vickrey’s books; I’ve been mean­ing to try to track them down used. Some of his paint­ings are quite lovely.

    Thompson’s use of a very com­plete ink ren­der­ing is based on a mis­un­der­stand­ing of how Ital­ian Renais­sance tem­pera paint­ings were con­structed. Before the use of X-ray and other non­de­struc­tive analy­sis tech­niques, it seemed quite rea­son­able that under­paint­ings were invari­ably brought to a high degree of fin­ish, and that they were used as an insep­a­ra­ble aspect of the final visual effect of the paint­ing. It has since turned out, how­ever, that Ital­ian painters often used sim­ple out­lin­ing, with shad­ing just sketched in with a few basic lines. So they did not use under­draw­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally to estab­lish val­ues the way that Thomp­son thought they did. That’s not to say that the method he describes is by any means use­less, but rather that it is not so nec­es­sary to tra­di­tional paint­ing meth­ods as he says it is.

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