For centuries, egg tempera was artists’ preferred medium for panel paintings, and many of the medieval and renaissance masterpieces found in museums and art galleries were executed in egg tempera. More durable than oil and with a luminosity similar to watercolour, egg tempera offers many advantages to artists willing to embrace the challenge of working with this ancient medium.
What is egg tempera?
Egg tempera is a form of paint that is created by mixing egg yolk with powdered pigments and a little water. Traditionally, tempera was applied to wooden panels, such as poplar, coated with gesso.
Why use egg tempera?
Perhaps the greatest appeal of egg tempera is the glowing quality that it provides. Tempera is more transparent than oil and holds less pigment, which allows light to penetrate through it and reflect off the white surface of the gesso below. Another advantage of egg tempera is that, unlike oil paintings, it is resistant to light, and its colours do not darken or change with age.
How else is egg tempera different from oil?
Tempera cannot be layered in the same way as oil paint, and cannot be used to build impasto. It also dries far more quickly, meaning that artists must work on a small area at a time, building up successive layers of glazes using small strokes and cross-hatching. This makes it best suited to fine, detailed work.
The history of egg tempera
Egg tempera was used in the ancient world, including in the famously life-like Fayum mummy portraits, produced in Egypt from around the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD. In the early Christian era it was used to paint icons, a tradition that has survived in the Eastern Orthodox Church until today.
While medieval artists decorated the interiors of churches and secular palaces in fresco, egg tempera was used in almost all small-scale panel paintings until the 15th century, when Flemish artists such as Jan van Eyck (1390–1441) increasingly favoured the medium of oil painting.
The work of Michelangelo (1475–1564) brilliantly captures the turning point in Italian Renaissance art as painters switch from egg tempera to the medium preferred by their northern counterparts: in the National Gallery, London, visitors can usually observe two unfinished works, the Manchester Madonna, painted in egg tempera in around 1497, hanging next to The Entombment, painted in oil in around 1500. From that time onwards oil became the dominant medium until the 19th century, when it was once again adopted by the Pre-Raphaelites, who sought to return art to a perceived state of purity found before 1500.
Egg tempera in the 20th century and beyond
While egg tempera has never been used as widely as it was until the High Renaissance, a number of 20th-century artists adopted the medium as their own, including Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978), Stanley Spencer (1891–1959), and Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009).
One artist who has been inspired both by the medieval masters and by Wyeth is the contemporary painter James Lynch, whose light-filled depictions of West Country skies and landscapes are highly sought after by collectors. Lynch originally painted in oil or watercolour, but after teaching himself to paint in tempera using the 15th-century handbook written by Cennino Cennini, has now been working in the medium for over twenty years.
‘I was always impressed by the strength of colour and the glow of the medieval tempera paintings in the National Gallery. But I also loved the chalky layered subtlety of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings,’ Lynch explains. ‘I felt that I’d pushed gouache and watercolour to it’s limit and needed a change. I love the fact that I’m painting with a living medium, egg yolk, which literally gives life to the paint. It has a waxy feel to it, and starts to set as soon as it meets the surface. It’s a matter of building up layers of glazes to gain a rich surface. The more one puts in, the greater the reward.’ Lynch also enjoys the feeling of self-sufficiency that working in egg tempera provides, keeping his own hens to provide the steady supply of eggs that the medium requires, and preparing every part of his paintings by hand.
What supplies do you need to paint in egg tempera?
If you’re tempted to try painting in egg tempera, the art supplies you’ll need are:
- Panels: poplar was most commonly used by Italian Renaissance artists, and is more durable than MDF.
- Rabbit skin glue and whiting, to create the gesso ground for your painting.
- Egg yolks, carefully separated from the egg white.
- Pigments: the most famous supplier (used by Chagall) is Sennelier.
- Soft hair and bristle brushes.
- A ceramic palette for mixing.
How to mix egg tempera
Step 1: Carefully puncture the egg yolk over a glass jar, and discard the membrane.
Step 2: Add an equal amount of water to the egg yolk, and stir.
Step 3: Mix the liquid with powdered pigment on the palette. Note that egg tempera dries quickly, so you will need to prepare new paint each day.
Where can I learn more?
In the UK, The Royal Academy often runs short courses in painting in egg tempera. In the USA, The Society of Tempera Painters lists upcoming courses.