About Egg Tempera
Egg tempera is a strong durable and luminous paint made of pigments mixed with egg yolk and water. It can be used to paint on plaster (gesso), paper or card. It was the primary medium of artists in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance before the invention of oil paint in the 15th century. Tempera is also the main medium still used to produce Icons in the Orthodox church, even today.
Tempera gives strong clear colour and sharp linear detail. It is very good for softened colouring and sharp detailed texture, such as in drapery folding in light and shade. It lends itself to a style much more to do with light rather than depth, such as one finds in oil painting.
It is touch dry in minutes, but usually takes six months to a year for a painting on plaster (gesso) to dry out fully. It can be scraped down very easily and worked fat over lean and lean over fat. It is closer in medium to acrylic than oil for its properties as it is so fast drying but has different optical effects.
Tempera must be used the day it is made, and although there are readymade tempera paints on the commercial market, these bear little resemblance to the tempera produced with fresh egg yolk and pigment. The disadvantage to this is that once the paint is dry on the palette, it must be discarded and a new batch made up. It was this, and the brittleness of the paint which meant it can crack if painted on canvas, that in 15th century Europe oil started to be added to the paint to slow the drying time down, and eventually the egg yolk was removed altogether to create oil paint. The Dutch were at the forefront of these developments and for examples of both egg tempera paintings and early oil paintings look at paintings from the 15th century collections at the National Gallery, London, UK. In particular the work Sandro Botticelli is an outstanding example of egg tempera painting of Jan van Eyck is a magnificent example of early Dutch oil painting, both painting in the same period.
In tempera painting one works from dark tones to light, the paint being powerful enough to paint white over black. This is one of the reasons the Orthodox church have retained the use of tempera for icons painting is that the painting of dark to light echoes the theology of light coming out of the darkness, as Jesus said 'I am the light of the world'. The egg itself represents the Holy Trinity, yolk, white and shell and the very act of making the paint, as well as the undertaking of the painting itself is seen as an act of mediation, a very old idea of making as meditation with the concept that as one creates in the physical world, so one also creates this in ones inner world, like a kind of prayer in making.
For more information about egg tempera and why Rebecca chose to work in this unusual medium please visit the Biography page of this site and watch the film 'Dark into Light' by filmmaker Lorna Easterbrook.
Rebecca also teaches classes in egg tempera, please see the Courses page for more details.