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Old 21-02-17, 03:14 AM
Koo Schadler's Avatar
Koo Schadler Koo Schadler is offline
Tempera Painter
Join Date: Dec 2003
Location: Alstead, NH & Zirahuen, Mexico
Posts: 317

Hello Lora,

Sarah Sands is great - very knowledgeable and generous with what she knows.

As to egg tempera being called a "blond" paint, or "high-key", I don't think this is an inevitability of tempera; I put it into the category of an egg tempera misconception. However there are reasons why people may think of tempera in this way. (To be clear, high-key means a painting that has a predominance of mid to light values).

1) As you note, tempera's high PVC means colors are not fully saturated (for reasons explained in Sarah's article). When a color is less saturated, it's value is a bit lighter, like a dry rock versus a moistened rock. However just because a color's value is slightly lighter doesn't mean it's a high value; i.e. an unsaturated black in egg tempera is still a dark value, albeit not as dark as a saturated black in oil. So even though tempera paints are a bit lighter overall in value than, for example, oil paints, it doesn't mean that tempera paintings are invariably high-key. A tempera painting composed entirely of mid to dark value colors is a low-key painting; it's just not quite as dark or low-key as it would be in a more saturating medium like oil.

(By the way, if one varnishes an egg tempera that changes the saturation to something more akin to oil; i.e. like wetting a dry rock.)

2) Another reason people may think of egg tempera as invariably high-key or blond is that some teachings suggest adding white to every color in tempera. The reason this is suggested is because tempera paint is very thin, which creates a lot of transparency (thin paint appears transparent, even colors that aren't inherently transparent), and all this thinness makes it hard to build opacity, density and body in a paint. Adding white gives opacity and body to color; it also of course raises the value, hence high-key. But it's not necessary to add white to every color in tempera; it's perfect possible to develop opacity and body by adding white to some colors, while leaving others in their pure state, including mid to dark value colors that can be painted on top of opaque, bodied paint. Again, high-key is not inevitable to egg tempera.

3) Finally, another reason I can think of for tempera being termed "high-key" is that the period in which egg tempera flourished (late Gothic, early Renaissance) tended to favor high-key imagery, and this imagery is so associated with tempera that the medium itself is presumed to be the reason. But the paint isn't why those paintings are high-key; it's because the late 1300s, early 1400s took a more spiritual approach to painting (as Cennino Cennini said, "the purpose of art is to paint other words, not this world") and a high-key painting was in keeping with the lightness of the spiritual world. So artists of the time tended to favor high-key imagery; it was an aesthetic choice, not an inevitability of the paint.

So, as I see it, there are several reasons why egg tempera paintings MAY be high-key; however they do not HAVE to be. Any other thoughts are most welcome!


Last edited by Koo Schadler; 21-02-17 at 05:39 PM.
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