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Alessandra Kelley 01-11-10 06:05 PM

A Research Paper to Warm My Heart
"Ancient Egyptian Art: The Relationships Among Binders, Pigments and Surfaces" by Lisa Jay and Nessi Domizlaff at

They worked with three separate media: egg tempera, "commercial gum arabic", and "honey gum arabic", made their own paints, and tested them on limestone, paper, and papyrus.

I love this sort of experimentation.

Koo Schadler 18-11-10 01:57 PM

Thanks a million for this Alessandra - I've been wanting more specific references to the Egyptians and e.t. for ages. If you or anyone else out there knows of other references to the ancient Egyptians using egg tempera, I'd love to hear about it. Its often mentioned that they did so, but I have not seen "official" documentation (i.e. in a museum, or in a book by an egyptologist) that they did so. Although it makes all the sense in the world that they would have used egg, I would like to see more concrete info about it. I'm a little puzzled how tempera sticks to limestone for thousands of years, given that conservators are so adamant about using a true gesso ground (with its glue binder), and given the problems Leonardo had with the Last Supper.


Salamander 18-11-10 02:51 PM

Thanks for this,..Very interesting

Alessandra Kelley 25-11-10 10:54 PM

Koo: There are labeled Egyptian tempera paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY, and here in Chicago at the Oriental Institute, too. They are mostly mummy portrait masks of the Greco-Roman period.

Also, apparently the terra-cotta warriors of the Duke of Chin buried in Xi'an, China were painted with egg tempera 2000 years ago.

I don't think it's the glue in the binder that makes the paint stick; I think that's so the gesso doesn't crumble. It seems that what you need for tempera to stick is a solid, faintly absorbent surface. I should think limestone would work just fine.

But Leonardo (the flighty old experimenter) did not paint with egg tempera at all. "The Last Supper" was one of his many experimental murals which ended in disaster. It was on a notoriously damp wall, too.

jim 05-12-10 11:55 PM


Originally Posted by Alessandra Kelley (Post 5562)

this link doesn't seem to be working. is it me?

perhaps you could post the whole article if you have it archived.

Alessandra Kelley 09-12-10 07:03 PM

It looks like the site took down the paper. I've sent them a query. Sigh. That thing dated to 2005 and it looks like I found it in its last month of cyber-existence.

Koo Schadler 10-12-10 12:04 AM

Hello Alessandra,

I too have seen those Fayum egg tempera portraits at the Met - they are some of my favorites, just gorgeous. But they are relatively recent (!), so to speak, when it comes to Egyptian art. Have you ever seen artwork from the earlier Egyptian dynasties labeled as tempera? That's what I'm particularly curious about. I often hear people talk about the "ancient Egyptians" using it, and I'm sure they did, but I would love to see examples.

Your point is a good one about the damp wall on the Last Supper. My understanding is that, not wanting to bother with fresco, Leonardo worked directly with tempera and oil on top of the dried plaster wall, and that is in part what led it to fall apart so quickly - the binder and ground didn't gel. Anybody else know more about what happened there?


Alessandra Kelley 10-12-10 04:20 PM

The Paper is Back!
I spoke with the webmaster at Sewanee University, where this paper was originally posted. It seems to have been lost in an update, but he reinstated it for us (How nice!). The link above is live again, and the paper can be found there.

Koo, I'm not at all sure how far back the Egyptians used egg tempera. Most of the reference books on Egyptian art don't give a darn about media used, or dimensions, or anything of practical working information. I kind of suspect that most people put the word "ancient" in front of "Egyptian" automatically if they're talking about pre-Islamic Egypt. I would love to know if anybody has done actual physical research on ancient paint materials.

Do NOT get me started on Leonardo's "not wanting to bother". The brilliant, frustrating, lazy, lazy, lazy -- sputter, grr. He ruined more giant art projects because he had some brilliant inspiration on how to "improve" on accepted practices. We're just lucky oil paints didn't turn out to be some flash-in-the-pan gimmick so we have a few decent surviving works of art from him.

arbrador 13-02-11 05:49 PM

Leonardo and tempera
My understanding was that Leonardo (like William Blake) used a glue tempera and that was the source of the conservation disaster. Please correct me!

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