Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Don't chicken out, egg tempera is easy!

I haven't posted for a while, I've been busy learning a "new" technique called egg tempera, used by artist Louise Marianetti who is showing till Saturday at the Bert Gallery. As you might know from a previous post, I inherited some art supplies from her over 50 years in the studio. Included was a barrel full of packages of dry pigments, so Cathy Bert asked artist Frank Gasbarro to take them and try his hand at egg tempera.  Last week I went to his studio to see what he was up to and I decided to try some for myself.
Egg tempera, of course, starts with the egg. Specifically the yolk. After separating the yolk from the white and rolling the yolk on a paper towel to remove any remaining white and slipperyness  you can actually pick it up like a little sack. Hold it over a bowl and puncture it and the yolk will pour out. That's the binder for your paint. How simple and pure is that?

Next you need to prepare your pigment. Besides pigments from the Marianetti stash, I was able to purchase some beautiful colors from Kremer Pigments in New York City. Some of the dry pigments are toxic and at their most dangerous in powdered form, so check out the Material Safety Data Sheet, don a dust mask and gloves appropriately, and be conscious of where you dispose of them.  I've made an effort to buy non-toxic colors, but we always want what's bad for us, so some cadmiums and cobalts insinuated themselves onto my palette.  I did contact Kremer to see if they had a list of non-toxic pigments, and they said they would try to make one up. If they do, I'll post it.

Before you mix your pigment with the yolk you make it into a paste with distilled water. You can mix up most colors and store them for awhile, so decide if you want to make just the amount for your painting, or enough to store in a jar with a little distilled water on top. The RISD store has some nice inexpensive palette cups with lids by Loewell Cornell and glass jars with plastic lids for only 60¢.  Once you've turned the pigment into paste, you don't need the mask but you might want to keep your gloves on.

You can mix most pigments with a palette knife since they are already ground very fine, but some are more difficult; either light and fluffy like baby powder, or gritty, so if you can spring for a glass muller (about $65.) it really helps. And it's so pretty, especially with the pigment reflecting through!

When you get a good selection of pigment pastes, put a small amount on your palette and mix with an equal part egg yolk. To test whether you've used enough yolk, paint a swatch on a piece of glass. It will dry quickly and you can scrape it with a knife or blade to test. If it's powdery, you don't have enough yolk, it should be more like a thin film. When you have the mixture right, you can add water to it to get the consistency you want to paint with

Painting with the tempera is a pleasure. It dries so fast that you won't be able to do a smooth wash, but you can build up layers and glazes, and really fine detail. Most colors have an amazing covering ability and the tempera will not lift off when painted over. After it cures for a few weeks it will be impervious to water and can even be polished with a soft cloth.

If you want to try it, there are some great instructions on this site. If you want to see two artist's experiments with it, come to the Bert Gallery this Gallery Night (Thursday the 17th, St. Patrick's Day!) at 6 when I and Frank Gasbarro will give a little demo on how to start to paint with egg tempera.


  1. Thanks, Kathy. I was just reading about Thomas Hart Benton using tempera with oils. No details and I couldn't quite imagine what the author meant. She said they acted as glazes and gave his work great depth; I'm thinking that perhaps the egg tempera was used over the oil paint? Does that sound possible? And if over oil, what about over acrylic?

    I love the effect of glazes but with oils, it takes a looong time for the oil to dry for the next coat. Acrylic isn't so long, but I don't find the glazing as satisfactory.

    Of course, what you describe isn't exactly a fast or easy technique to process in the field -- or is it?

  2. More power to you to use this technique - I love work in tempera but I know that I just don't have the patience. Besides, eggs are $2.50 a dozen here in SF so it's an expensive way to paint. Or should I say - another expensive painting medium. Didn't Wyeth use tempera as well? I am curious to see one of your finished pieces posted and thanks for the links as I always like to learn.

  3. June, I haven't tried this, but there are ways to incorporate oil effects into egg tempera. One way is to add a little oil in with the egg and pigment, to give more blending ability. The premixed tube egg tempera colors have added oil. Another way, used frequently by Marianetti, is to lay down a base of egg tempera and then go over it with oil, both impasto and glazing. The other way around won't work, you can't put egg tempera over oil or acrylic, it's not flexible enough.

    You can glaze with egg tempera over egg tempera during any part of the painting process—-no need to think thick over thin, though you should never get too thick. The luminosity will depend on the opacity of the pigment. One thing egg tempera really makes you aware of is the different pigment "personalities", since there are no oil or fillers to make them more consistent.

    Nancy - Wyeth did use egg tempera, as did Tooker and Mark Tobey. It does take some patience for some methods, but I can see where it can get a lot more spontaneous once you get really comfortable with it. I'm not using enough egg yolk yet to feel the price, but if I do, I'm going to save the whites to make low calorie omelets, instead of buying those egg whites in cartons. Now that's expensive!

    I'll post a finished piece soon.

  4. I love reading stuff like this. Fascinating! But frankly too much process. However, the gorgeous picture of the yolk imprinted and made me forego the protein shake this morning and eat eggs. Yum.

  5. Kathy.....great info for anyone considering this medium! is not.

  6. whaat a good post...I'm impressed.


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