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Old 30-09-11, 12:36 AM
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Bron Bron is offline
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Koo, Allessandra,

Love the historical discussion; please keep it up!

Modern painters who mixed their metaphors, Thomas Hart Benton, who used both egg tempera, and distemper as under paintings.

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Old 14-10-11, 06:37 PM
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Koo Schadler Koo Schadler is offline
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I’m glad you are enjoying the dialogue Bron – me too! Hope you love it a lot, because I’ve got quite a bit to say here on the topic of ET and oil…. Please pardon the length as I try to support my thoughts.

Its probably impossible to perfectly understand what happened in the transition from tempera to oil – too long ago, records are incomplete, and, as Alessandra points out, people bring a mix of mythology and bias to the table that cloud the subject. Add that most museums don’t have the time/money to thoroughly examine their collections, and even when analysis is done it is subject to the flaws of the machines and humans studying the works…what a muddle! So I don’t mean to sound definitive when I say that I think there was a transitional egg/oil period – but it is the conclusion I arrive at for now.

The book that describes Van Eyck’s Arnolfini painting as “tempera, probably with some oil” is a National Gallery of London publication from 1991, "Giotto to Durer: Early Renaissance Painting in the National Gallery". It features 69 masterpieces in the National Gallery’s collection, all with their medium listed. Among them are works by many 15th c. Italian painters traditionally considered egg tempera artists (Botticelli, Crivelli, Tura, Lippi, della Francesca, Pollaiuolo, Mantegna). All have at least one painting in the catalog described as “Egg tempera with some oil” or “Oil”. Many (although not all) of the paintings have been “analysed”. The books also lists a piece by a northern Renaissance painter, Campin, as “Oil, with some egg tempera, analysed”.

There is a chapter on techniques in the book that describes the transition from tempera to oil. It’s too long and complicated to fully transcribe, but here are some relevant sections,

“The transition from tempera to oil painting in Italy was not a sudden event. Rather it was a gradual and complex process which, while it may be clarified as increasing numbers of paintings are examined by modern scientific methods, will never by fully understood...”

“…even before the arrival of Justus [northern painter working in Urbino, Italy] Piero seems to have begun work in oil. The medium of the Baptism of Christ, an early work, has been identified as egg tempera, although a little oil may have been used for the green glazes…However judging by the wide drying cracks (impossible in tempera) on the central panel of his polyptych…Piero much have been using oil by the time he finished his work. In a contract of 1466 he agreed to paint a banner in oil…[and his painting] Saint Michael has been firmly identified as having been painted in walnut oil.”

“The best surviving example of a work influenced by Rogier [van der Weyden, Northern artist] is Cosimo Tura’s Allegorical Figure……Analysis has revealed that this first painting was executed in egg tempera…the revised design was painted this time in oil…it is difficult to believe that Tura could have used oil paint so successfully with out direct instruction”.

“Tempera grassa has been identified on several Italian paintings of the second half of the 15th century, both as an underpaint for oil and glazes and as the principal paint medium. At the National Gallery it has been found especially on works by Crivelli.”

“Verrochio’s followers also seem to have been technically versatile, able to work in both oil and tempera…Analysis has shown that painters like Ghirlandaio, Filippino Lippi and Botticelli, in his very late work on canvas the ‘Mystic Nativity’, did use oil, often in combination with tempera for lighter colours or for underpainting.”

Another good book is "From Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca", the catalog for a great show at the NY Met in 2005. Again, the technical section is way too long to reprint; in short it chronicles Piero’s transition from egg tempera to oil supported by a combination of analysis of the paint films, study of the resulting craquelure and paint slippage, and the appearance of the paintings themselves. The book says,

“Piero’s earliest experiences with oil began during his soujourn in Ferrara, about 1450, when he began to employ a still-experimental tempera grassa…this experimental period draws to a close with the technical perfection of the Montefeltro Altarpiece and other works painted in Urbino….At this time Piero used a preparatory layer with an oil binder rather than the traditional gesso and glue – a technique that he probably adapted from his direct contact with Flemish artists. A good adhesion was obtained with the colors, also mixed with oils, because of the compatibility of the materials.”

“…[Piero] interweaves the colors, using a limited palette composed of pigments in various media (oil, egg, and oil-and-egg emulsions), built up in varying, transparent layers.”

One more book, if you will bear with me, is "Primavera: The Restoration of Botticelli’s Masterpiece" written in 1986 by the Uffizi conservators who did the restoration on that wonderful painting. A small section of the text reads,

“Botticelli and his contemporaries may well have gradually increased the amount of oil in their tempera paints as they found that slower drying allowed them to produce subtle sfumato effects, which were well suited to the expression of the new subjects and ideas emerging at the time. Thus was created an intermediate egg-and-oil tempera called tempera grassa…A fairly comprehensive analysis of the binding agents used in this period reveals the presence of more fatty substances than would normally occur in egg tempera alone, and chemical tests have in fact shown that Botticelli painted the Primavera in tempera grassa”.

“The egg-oil mixture used in the painting, and in many paintings of the time, is one of the most successful binding agents ever invented…In the Primavera, we find both oil in the paint layers and fatty substances in the ground beneath...The introduction of fatty components in Botticelli’s day marked another transitional phase in technical development.”

As for the 2004 Nutall book I referenced earlier, the author has a Ph.D from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and teaches at the Victoria and Albert, and her notes/ bibliography for the book are pretty extensive with lots of references to Jill Dunkerton's writings (a senior member of the conservation dept at the National Gallery where many of the discussed works reside). So my guess is that Nutall had good access to technical data for her book.

Still, I am sympathetic to Alessandra’s skepticism of the art historian's conclusions. I too sometimes disagree with their assumptions. One oft repeated example (from the very same books referenced above): art historians attribute the pure color used in shadows in early tempera paintings to the nature of tempera itself, saying that somehow you can’t glaze down shadows in tempera (to create more naturalistic lighting effects). But, as you tempera painters out there know, of course one can apply a dark, dirty glaze in tempera over the local color in shadow to make more naturalistic light effects. Perhaps early painters didn’t do this NOT because tempera wouldn’t let them, but because they weren’t as interested in naturalistic effects - they had other goals (as Cennini said, the purpose of art was to paint other worlds, not this one). I completely agree with Alessandra that academics can arrive at conclusions and become wedded to them, particularly in areas in which they don’t have genuine expertise (such as experience painting in tempera).

None of the above contradicts the Met bulletin that Alessandra cites. The Christus show for which the bulletin was written focused on Northern Renaissance painting and I don’t think offers sufficient examples of 1400s Italian art to draw conclusions about what mediums the Italians were using then. The bulletin concludes only that the North focused on oil, and conservators and historians generally agree upon that. Then again, there is that painting by Campin (a Northern artist) mentioned above, described by the National Gallery as “Oil, with some egg tempera, analysed”! And when I thumb through my library I find Ghirlandaio’s beautiful Tornabuoni profile portrait listed as egg tempera in one recent museum book, oil in another. The books are wildly inconsistent and it’s all very confusing!

The one thing we know for sure is that oil supplanted egg tempera as the primary painting medium sometime in the 1400s and that by early 1500 all painters – Italian and Northern alike – had mastered oil. Its irrefutable that at some point the Italians made the switch. I find it hard to believe, looking at the scientific and visual evidence as well as human nature, that there weren’t crossover artists during the transition - painters who worked in both media, and/or who experimented with them in different combinations (particularly given the advantages oil had in creating more naturalistic effects at a time when Northern and Italian alike painters were striving for greater “realism”). No doubt some Italians stayed “true” to tempera, but equally likely, as Northern artists and their oil paintings traveled to Italy throughout the 1400s, there were Italian artists tempted by the new medium, who experimented with and eventually mastered it.

I hope I haven’t put anyone to sleep with so many references cited, but I wanted to offer concrete information for those who are interested. And of course, I am eager to hear contradictory information. If the museum conservators and art historians can’t figure this one out, maybe we tempera painters can.


Last edited by Koo Schadler; 14-10-11 at 06:42 PM.
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Old 14-10-11, 06:38 PM
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Koo Schadler Koo Schadler is offline
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As for Michelangelo and his Doni tondo from 1506, I was actually lucky enough to be at the Uffizi two weeks ago and looked at that piece up close. It looks very oil like, and the label on the wall says oil. But the labels throughout the museum were inconsistent, some obviously very old and out of date, others seemingly more recent. The official website for the museum ( gives the Doni piece a title and date but unfortunately lists no medium! The web site Alessandra mentions (not the Uffizi’s official) says its egg tempera. Wikipedia says egg tempera and oil. No one seems to agree. There is a book out in Italian about the recent restoration of the piece that I presume would settle the issue, but the book is out of print. Anyone out there have a copy??
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