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Question about tempera

Christina writes,

I am new to egg tem­pera and here is my ques­tion. To mix the pig­ment with the egg yolk do you have to use one of those glass grinders and heavy glass sur­face? In my effort to work with­out the grinder I bought some liq­uid pure pig­ment made by cre­a­tex. It is a con­cen­trated pig­ment dis­persed in water. It han­dles well and the col­ors are great. I’m just won­der­ing if I’m miss­ing some­thing. Is there any pre­mixed pig­ment paste one could use? The only neg­a­tive side in han­dling the pig­ments I have is that they are liq­uid and I can’t make them any thicker.

Egg tem­pera is very easy to work with. For most pur­poses, you don’t need one of those glass grinders, which are called mullers. I use my muller much more for mak­ing and mix­ing oil paint than tem­pera. In the old days, when pig­ments mostly came in the form of rocks, it took a lot of work to grind them down to a rea­son­ably even par­ti­cle size, and mulling was the last step in that grind­ing process. Nowa­days, the pig­ment pow­ders you can buy are almost always ground evenly and to the right size for mak­ing into paint. There is a school of thought that says that pig­ments need to be mulled in water in order to make sure that every par­ti­cle is sur­rounded by water, with­out any micro­scopic clumps of par­ti­cles stuck together. In the­ory, that makes sense. In prac­tice, you just can’t tell the dif­fer­ence between tem­pera made using mulled com­mer­cial pig­ment and tem­pera made using the same pig­ment, but with­out all that work. Mulling pig­ment is kind of a pain.

Here’s what I do: wear­ing a dust mask, I trans­fer pow­dered pig­ment into a small glass jar (baby food jars work great if you first boil them to kill any resid­ual bac­te­ria). I then add some dis­tilled water (which you can get cheaply from your local phar­macy). I take off the dust mask, put the cap on the jar, and shake hard for 30 sec­onds or so. The pig­ment and water are now mixed thor­oughly. How much pig­ment and water to use? It’s not that impor­tant. Most pig­ments will even­tu­ally set­tle in the water to the bot­tom of the jar any­way, leav­ing clear water at the top, so they cre­ate their own pig­ment to water ratio. For those that stay in solu­tion with water, any rea­son­able mix­ture will do. I shoot for a con­sis­tency between cream and ketchup. Every cou­ple of weeks I need to check my jars and add water to those that are start­ing to dry out.

The pig­ment dis­per­sions sold by some com­pa­nies work just fine also. For some pig­ments they make par­tic­u­lar sense. Ultra­ma­rine, for exam­ple, set­tles to the bot­tom of a jar of water and forms a hard mass that you have to dig out with a palette knife. An ultra­ma­rine dis­per­sion is eas­ier to work with. Tita­nium white gets kind of chunky in water and requires a lot of mix­ing. But most pig­ments work just fine as pig­ment pastes.

To make tem­pera, sep­a­rate an egg yolk. I like to mix in a very small amount of dis­tilled water to thin it down and then shake it hard in a small jar. I mix the yolk and the pig­ment paste in a ratio of about 50/50 (some pig­ments like a lit­tle more yolk, some a lit­tle less). That’s it; you have paint. You can test it by paint­ing it thinly onto a sheet of glass. Let it dry and then scrape it off with a razor blade. Does it peel off cleanly? You have good paint. Does it flake off or break apart? You have too much pig­ment or too much yolk. With just a lit­tle prac­tice, it’s pretty easy to make it right every time.

Posted in art materials, art technique, tempera.

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6 Responses

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  1. Sharon says

    One note to add for any­one else inter­ested in tem­pera — you can’t make egg tem­pera any “thicker”. You might get away with a bit of tex­ture in a white, but usu­ally any real tex­ture or thick­ness will cause your paint to flake off.

  2. David says


    You are, of course, cor­rect. Try­ing to achieve impasto effects with tem­pera is a bad idea.

  3. judy stokes in africa says

    Hello. i am teach­ing art in Africa to 100 orphans. i mix tem­pera with water and after a day, it is set­tling and is very hard to dig off the bot­tom of the jar. try to use it as a water color instead of a thick paste. it goes far­ther. is there some kind of oil i can use to keep the pig­ment in sus­pen­sion instead of set­tling? we have cook­ing oil, egg goes bad and we are prone to salmanella. any ideas?

  4. David says


    I think what you do is absolutely wonderful.

    I’m not sure what to sug­gest. It is impor­tant to note that “tem­pera” poster paint, com­monly used in art classes for chil­dren, has noth­ing to do with egg tem­pera. (Other than being kinds of water-based paint, of course.)

    I think that poster paint is basi­cally a kind of gouache, bound with gum ara­bic. (Per­haps a reader will be kind enough to cor­rect me if I’m wrong about that.) It is typ­i­cally made with the most non-toxic pig­ments pos­si­ble, so that chil­dren won’t be harmed if they ingest it. How­ever, I would also sus­pect that man­u­fac­tur­ers of poster paint use a num­ber of dif­fer­ent recipes that do not have the same prop­er­ties. I would not rec­om­mend adding oil as, in the absence of an emul­si­fier, it will not mix with water.

    There are var­i­ous recipes out there on the net for mak­ing poster paint using house­hold mate­ri­als. You may find some of those useful.

    Sorry I could not be of more assistance.

  5. David Vickery says

    Hi David, I have been think­ing of paint­ing the out­side of my win­dow, which faces East, with tem­pera paint, just to block some of the sun. I found a prod­uct labeled “poster paint”, but I’m not sure if this is tempera.

    It’s impor­tant that I be able to wash this off before leav­ing the apart­ment I’m in.

    Your com­ment would be very much appreciated,


  6. David says


    I’m afraid that I can’t be much help to you. The kind of tem­pera dis­cussed here is egg tem­pera. It is noth­ing like the poster paints that are some­times labeled “tempera.”

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