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Making egg tempera

In com­ments, Mae writes,

i have just bought pig­ment pow­der and am prepar­ing wood (with gesso) to make an icon type painting…can you give me any tips on mix­ing egg tempera…the type of oil etc.

Pre­pare pig­ments as fol­lows: while wear­ing a dust mask, use a palette knife or spoon to trans­fer each pig­ment to a small glass jar (baby food jars work great if you first boil them for 20 min­utes to remove bac­te­ria). Add dis­tilled water. Put the cap on the jar and shake. You now have a pig­ment paste. Take the mask off, since there isn’t any more pig­ment dust to worry about.

Sep­a­rate an egg yolk into another jar. Add about a tea­spoon of dis­tilled water and mix. To make egg tem­pera paint, mix about equal amounts of the egg mix­ture with pig­ment paste.

This is clas­sic egg tem­pera of the sort that is used to make ikons (I’m pretty sure about that, but I am no expert on ikon paint­ing). You can add other sub­stances to it (oils, resins, etc.), but I sug­gest you learn to paint with just yolk, water, and pig­ment before you try to exper­i­ment with more com­plex mixtures.

Have fun.

Posted in art materials, tempera.

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6 Responses

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  1. mae says

    thanks so much David, thats great and happy st patricks day from the streets of dublin

  2. David says

    You’re wel­come. Boy, do I miss Ireland.

  3. penny says

    I would love to find out the best place to buy egg tempera—-am start­ing icon paint­ing v. soon. P.

  4. David says


    Although you can buy tube paints that are labeled “egg tem­pera,’ I have not found them sat­is­fac­tory. Real egg tem­pera is com­posed of egg yolk, pig­ment pow­der, and water. If you tried to put it into a tube, it would go bad very quickly. Com­mer­cial tube egg tem­pera is an oily approx­i­ma­tion of the real thing.

    You can buy pig­ment pow­der in many of the larger art stores. You can also get it online from places like Williams­burg and Sinopia. I use the method described in th post above, keep­ing my pig­ments in jars mixed with water. Oth­ers like to mix pow­dered pig­ment with egg medium as they use the paint. Either way, it must be mixed up fresh and any unused paint dis­carded at the end of the day. This sounds like a lot of trou­ble, but it’s really a mat­ter of just a few min­utes work at the start of a paint­ing ses­sion. Pig­ments may seem expen­sive, but two ounces will last for many paintings.

  5. Scott says

    You men­tioned mix­ing dry pig­ment with water in baby food jars. I’ve heard a cou­ple of col­ors, ultra­ma­rine blue and tita­nium white, will harden if pre-mixed with water in jars. Do you know of any oth­ers that should not be pre-mixed?

    The other ques­tion I had is should one use a lot of water and less pig­ment? I assume the pig­ment will set­tle to the bot­tom of the jar and sep­a­rate from the water. Or should there only be enough water to cre­ate a gum­mier paste after shak­ing? I want to mix pig­ment with water for more con­ve­nient use, but I don’t want to cre­ate prob­lems for myself by using too lit­tle or too much water.

    Now that you have a baby you’ll be set for life with baby food jars. I have two large boxes of empty baby food jars in my attic from when my daugh­ter was a baby.


  6. David says


    Ultra­ma­rine is a bit of a pain, as it does harden when mixed with water. I keep it as a paste any­way, dig­ging it out with a knife when needed. Tita­nium white doesn’t get hard in the same way; it annoy­ingly chunky. If I didn’t have a squeeze bot­tle of tita­nium white dis­persed in water (from Robert Doak), I would mix the dry pig­ment fresh each time.

    In terms of how much water to mix, it’s really a mat­ter of expe­ri­ence with each pig­ment. Some stay in solu­tion; some sep­a­rate. My default with a new pig­ment is to mix in just enough water to make a work­able paste, with the jar about 2/3rds full. A cou­ple of days later, I add more water or more pig­ment if that seems like a good idea.

    But really, there is a wide mar­gin for error. I’ve never had to throw pig­ment away because it was mixed with too much water. Any rea­son­able ratio of water to pig­ment will work until you fig­ure out how what is opti­mal. It’s not some­thing to get par­tic­u­larly con­cerned with.

    And yes, I have plenty of jars now.

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