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Old 09-08-13, 01:50 PM
Koo Schadler's Avatar
Koo Schadler Koo Schadler is offline
Tempera Painter
Join Date: Dec 2003
Location: Alstead, NH & Zirahuen, Mexico
Posts: 318

Hi Phil,

Apologies for my sounding like a broken record, but I must, once again, defend the option of varnishing an egg tempera.

Before doing so, I'll enthusiastically agree with you that polishing a well-tempered, cured (polymerized) egg tempera painting creates a gorgeous surface that is unlike any other. I totally understand its appeal. Every tempera artist should try it at least once (if not more...)

But that doesn't mean it should be the one and only option. There are sound reasons to choose varnishing....

1. Saturation. Depending on the type used, a varnish will deepen, more or less (I prefer more), the darks on a tempera painting and expand its value range. Aesthetically speaking, I love an expanded value range.

2. Protection. Three weeks ago I had a painting due for a show, brought it to my photographer, and (to her horror) she inadvertently put a big scratch right in the middle of the painting. (It was one of the pieces in the Cape show that you and I have work in...argh, I wanted to cry!) It was an unvarnished, fresh tempera painting - they are sooo vulnerable to scratching. I fixed it but it was an arduous repair. Some artists choose to frame new temperas under glass to protect them, but this really impacts how the work looks and can lead to mold. A varnish on the other hand, depending on what sort is used, can protect a tempera against water, mold, and scratches.

3. Shine. For those who so deeply love the soft, egg-shell shine of an unvarnished tempera, I know this can be hard to believe! But, in fact, there are other beautiful surfaces to chose from; i.e. a somewhat more shiny, enameled, jewel-like finish (akin to a Van Eyck). Each to his aesthetic own.

I realize that polishing a cured tempera will also deepen the values - but only minimally, not as dramatically as would certain varnishes, and certainly not as quickly. Polymerization and polishing also harden the surface but, again, you have to wait a year or two. I don't know any professional painter who can wait that long before putting their work out in the world; it just not practical. I know this sounds crass - that time factors into one's artistic choices - but its an undeniable fact that anyone who is painting for a living contends with deadlines (or they don't make a living as a painter).

Its also important to note that not all varnishes yellow or get brittle. If a tempera artist wanted saturation and protection but not yellowing or brittleness, they could pick an appropriate varnish to achieve those goals. To whatever degree some varnishes do yellow or get brittle, the artist can take that into consideration (i.e. some artists actually don't mind a slight, unifying yellow tone on an image; or, use a final [not retouch] varnish that can be removed and reapplied at a later date, as oil painters do. Regarding brittleness, a small percentage won't necessary damage a painting that's on a well-made, solid panel support - never mind that tempera itself gets brittle as it ages, and yet that doesn't stop us from painting with it!).

In short, every material, medium and working method has benefits and drawbacks. If drawbacks kept us from working with a particular support, ground, medium, or finish we wouldn't have anything left to work with - they all have pros and cons. It seems, if we understand (to the extent possible) the choices out there, and the consequences (good and bad) to those choices, an artist should be free to work in a variety of ways, especially if it helps a painter achieve his or her artistic goals.

So, yet again I will say, that if a tempera artist likes the saturation, protection and shine of a varnish, and has considered and accepted the consequences of that varnish - then go ahead and varnish. I don't think people often object to varnishing an oil painting, even though the benefits and drawbacks are generally the same as varnishing a tempera. The only difference is, by varnishing a tempera, you lose the unique, eggshell finish that occurs only on an egg tempera. But not all tempera artists work in the medium for that reason.

I rest my case. And welcome objections. Its always fun to probe the possibilities of tempera.

Sorry to have missed you at the opening on the Cape, Phil. Hope it went well - I have no doubt that your beautiful, unvarnished temperas were greatly admired...


Last edited by Koo Schadler; 09-08-13 at 03:11 PM.
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