Egg Tempera, or You want to Paint With What?

by Grace Dawn Palmer

Egg Tempera, or You Want To Paint With What?


What egg tempera is?

Egg tempera is a method of painting which was largely popular in the early Renaissance. Botticelli's Birth of Venus (Otherwise known as the Venus on the half-shell) and other, much less famous-paintings were done in the medium. Egg tempera, not to be confused with the tempera or poster paints you get at the store, consists of egg yolk, water, and pigment. The downside to this composition is that you ahve to make your own paint fresh everytime you want to paint. The up side is that you get complete control over your paint. Paint being argumentative? Too pale? Well, just add some more pigment, and there you go.


Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing?

There is the aforementioned quality of being able to control one's materials. Also, the feel of egg tempera on the brush is just wonderful, from my point of view. Each stroke dries almost instantly, allowing the artist to build up layers of tiny hatchmarks. When dry, the paint has a particularly luminescent quality, varying towards gold tones because of the egg yolk.


What do you need?

The absolute bare minimum you need is:
A smooth piece of wood for your support. Birch is nice. Pine is not very nice, but might be ok to make mistakes. The acid in pine doesn't make for long-lasting paintings, though.

Some brushes. Watercolor brushes are good for this, as are some craft brushes. Oil brushes are too stiff, as they are mostly used for pushing the paint around. These should mostly be small, but you'll need one nice big house-painting brush for gessoing.

An egg. That's easy to get, right? It's best if this is a fresh egg. Free range eggs are even nicer, as the proteins are stronger, but they're no neccessary. Generally, if you'd eat it, it will work.

Some pigment. It doesn't matter what color, really, and if you're new to this, you might want to start out with the same chalk you make the gesso out of and some ground charcoal for a black and white painting. I get my pigments from sinopia A note of warning: be very careful with some pigments as they are quite toxic. Fortunately, most colors can be gotten for a reasonable price without toxicity. These pigments are the same as those in your normal paint, but they are more dangerous in their powder form.

Some chalk or other whiting (ground chalk, gypsum, marble dust or titanium oxide if you're feeling spendy). This is what you're going to use to make your gesso. Egg tempera absolutely will not stick to premade acrylic gesso. Acrylic is a plastic, and thus slippery and non porous, whereas the stuff made out of chalk is very porous. Of course, Botticelli never had to worry about this. He had to make all his gesso.

Some animal glue or strong gelatin. I tend to use rabbit-skin glue. i've never tried the gelatin, but word has it that if you make it quite strong, it will work as well. Don't use Jell-O. I saw you thinking that! Contrary to popular belief, rabbit-skin and other animal glues don't really smell. You just put them in some water over heat and they melt nicely, and turn into a weird gummy stuff when dry. You're going to use the glue for making gesso and for sizing your board. double boiler. I use a little aluminum one I got for about 2 dollars American. I personally never use the same pot I would cook food in, because I don't relish eating gelatin and chalk.
Some sandpaper.


How do you go about it, then?

First you make sure your board is nice and smooth. Sand it if necessary. Then take your glue or gelatin and heat up some water in your double boiler. You want to put 1/16th the amount of glue in than you put in water. Traditional recipes say it's 1 ounce glue to 16 ounces water, but I -never- need this much glue at once. Keep in mind, however, that I work on small boards. If you make too much glue, don't worry. It will keep in the refrigerator for about a week or so. After your glue is well dissolved, you want to cover the board in glue. This process is called sizing. Use a few coats, and alternate whether you're using vertical or horizontal strokes (that is, one coat horizontal, one coat vertical, etc.) Then, leave your nice sticky board to dry overnight, or for a few hours if it's very hot and dry. Sizing the board keeps it from expanding and shrinking with weather conditions, a nice quality to have when it's got your masterwork on it! Once your board is nice and dry, take your leftover glue (or make some more) and heat it up again. This time, you want to add whiting to it. Authorities vary on how much. I like to add enough whiting so that the gesso is about the consistency of commercial acrylic gesso (for those who want to skip ths bit, I've heard that Golden makes a porous gesso). Apply this like the sizing, letting it dry between coats. You may also have to sand between coats. You want a nice smooth finish. Use at least 3 coats, more is traditional.


Onward to the paint!

You can get a pre-made egg tempera. However, word is that it does not behave exactly like the real thing. It may, however, be a little bit easier to work with. I am not certain who supplies this, perhaps Golden again. To make your own paint, though, you'll need to crack and egg and separate the yolk from the white without piercing the yolk (that would be messy). The usuall way to do this is to pour the egg back and forth between the halves of the shell, and pinch the yolk away from the white. Once you have a yolk, put it on a plate or in a bowl and pierce it so you have a nice runny mess. Add as much water as there is yolk. Then take a tiny amount of each pigment, put it on a plate or dish, and add a little water so it won't blow away (I find chemistry pipettes to be lovely, as well as eyedroppers). Add egg mixture to the paint until the paint is about as runny as melted butter. The exact consistency will vary. Tada, you can now paint! I usually work with a sketch underneath my paint. You can also do an inkwash over the sketch so the lights and darks are already in place. To paint with egg tempera, use small strokes. You can't cover a large area in one stroke witht his paint, as it dries very quickly. there is an excellent discussion of painting technique, as well as lots of other information here.

The pictures that follow are examples of a piece in the sketch phase, with some colors marked in, and partially finished. I have not yet highlighted this piece.


More than a year ago
Art / Painting

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