Egg Tempera Painting: History and Process
Notes from my studio journal, on painting and working in the archaic medium of tempera, 1989:
Mine are searching constructions, meditations on longing for a particular kind of embrace. Using old forms – images – buried in seductive order and glow, they signal both familiarity and exhaustion: art that contemplates limitation. These are not modern negations of tradition, nor cynical of the present; instead, they explore the past for the possibility of new expression. I experiment with old forms in search of definition, a way of organizing my own experience – less the way we label and consider art history, or history at all, but for memory itself: reinventing all the time ourselves and our becoming.
I try first for a finished piece, a logical conclusion in modes, but rupture that sense in contradiction: that, feeling is cited by distance, often texturally, and thus from the object – the incident of experience. Stripes and rectangles are the “knowledge” or description of the piece, and self-conscious about the work’s status as representation. Figuration remains a trace, a single gesture maybe, and a tricky substitute for the impossible symbiosis of life and recollection. Bearing this notion of “the beautiful container,” these are not paintings. They want to be paintings.
Introduction to the medium:
Taken literally, “tempera” means any substance which is used to bind powdered pigment. In practical terms, the word describes a binder made from egg. Tempera dries almost immediately to touch (becoming chemically inert over longer periods of drying), can be scraped down very easily or built up in ways that would be technically dangerous in most other media. Not to be confused with the contemporary Tempera Paint—also sometimes called Poster Paint, which is a cheap mixture of pigments with glue sizing—traditional egg tempera is a mixture of pigments with egg yolk that forms a permanent, fast-drying surface.
Traditionally, egg yolk is mixed with water, but it can be emulsified with oil or even wax. The medium is very versatile, more so than oils, where oil-saturated layers must be laid over the “lean” to insure the stability of the bond. In the case of tempera, even the reverse reaches an archival state.
The way tempera flows from the brush has been likened to drawing with a soft pencil. The drying speed and mixing requirements impose a discipline on the painter, but this is not necessarily a disadvantage once prepared. The painting strokes are applied in thin translucent layers, or films, to a fairly sturdy substrate, such as wood, prepared with a chalky white, oil absorbent and light-reflective ground (gesso). Traditional gesso is prepared by mixing crushed marble or precipitated chalk with rabbit skin glue. Its surface is soft, very fine, and does not darken with age as with linseed oil painting. For best results, the tempera painter must prepare his or her own paints by mixing fresh egg yolk, distilled water and dry, powdered mineral pigment. Chicken eggs are generally used, though Russian icon painters prefer goose eggs because of their higher oil content. The paint is then applied in very thin layers to the gessoed panel. Eventually, many layers of transparent paint are applied, working up into the highlights and down into the shadows. It is this layering which gives tempera its unique quality. If done carefully, the tempera painter can create optical effects that can’t be obtained by any other medium. No finishing is required. Over the course of several years, the surface will harden and become more durable than any oil-based varnish.
Egg tempera painting has a long and rich history because of its durability. The medium was favored in the ancient world and examples still exist from Egypt, Greece, Rome and India dating back more than two thousand years. In Europe, egg tempera had supplanted earlier media, such as encaustic (hot wax), as a vehicle for panel painting by the tenth century AD. Tempera emulsions for medieval manuscript illustration – using primarily egg whites, and developed concurrently with easel works and wooden altar pieces – were usually made on sheets of vellum, or skin, as the medium lent itself naturally to a base which contained animal oils. Up until the middle of the Renaissance, the majority of paintings on wooden panels were done in egg tempera, with perhaps the most famous example of the time being Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The real flowering of the technique occurred in Europe during the Medieval Period, when it was the dominant form of painting up until the advent of oil paint in the 1500s. Even as oil paint began to take over, tempera was still used in the underpainting stage because of its fast drying time, but it was the popularity of canvas supports that eventually phased out tempera, which requires a rigid surface, like a wood panel or a plaster wall, to prevent the dry paint from cracking.
In later Byzantine and Romanesque art, a mixture of gold leaf and tempera color characterized both manuscripts and panel works that survived well into the 15th century: gold guilding was incorporated at the base of the paintings of Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455) and in the early works of Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492). However, with the rise of naturalism, the use of gold leaf fell away, and a pure egg tempera emulsion, a mixture of yolk and water, was then applied directly to the gesso ground.
The transition to oil paint introduced to Italy and elsewhere from the Netherlands during the latter part of the 15th century was itself partly a modification of tempera, developed through the addition of oil to an egg emulsion. Both Van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) and the Italian disciple of northern techniques, Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-1479), pioneered the process. Pure egg tempera method may have come from the studio of Giotto (1267-1337) and it can be assumed that it was at its height, side by side with true fresco in the 13th and early 14th centuries. The Healing the Man Born Blind , by Duccio (1255-1319), and Madonna and Angels, by Pietro Lorenzetti (active 1320-45), are excellent examples of pure early 14th century tempera painting.
Oil impastos on an oil ground, of the type thought of as oil painting, were not standard practice until the days of Hals (1580-1666) and Rembrandt (1606-1669). The practice of tempera, then, was eclipsed by oil, but only partially and, even in the 18th century, large scale tempera works such as Rossi’s ceiling in the Villa Borghese in Rome were undertaken. Tempera remained somewhat popular – or, at least, known – in North America for another two hundred years, as influenced by the revivals in
Germany (Böcklin, 1827-1910), France (Moreau, 1826-1898) and Austria (Klimt, 1862-1918) during the 19th century. Although egg tempera never fully regained its former stature, throughout the centuries artists have frequently rediscovered the special qualities that make tempera painting a unique art form. Notable artists who have worked in the medium include William Blake (1757-1827),the mid-nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelites, and Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1908). Twentieth century and contemporary American egg tempera painters include Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Mark Tobey (1890-1976), Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and George Tooker (1920-2011).
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