Tempera Questions and Answers

Posted on 08/07/10 No Comments

Four tempera related questions were posed to our members and several have responded. The shared knowledge of our fellow tempera-ites helps us to develop as painters, so many thanks to those of you who share what you’ve learned over the years.  In fact, there are about 120 cumulative years of egg tempera experience contained in the answers below!

Mona Diane Conner
www.monadianeconner.com <http://www.monadianeconner.com> 
 
1. How many years have you worked in egg tempera?
Thirty-four years –  egg tempera has been my primary medium since 1976.
 
2.  Why did you choose it as your primary medium?
I had an almost instant feeling of “This is it!” on my first try with egg tempera, in the summer of 1976.  I had, throughout art school, a natural desire and tendency to want to glaze and scumble on my paint regardless of whatever medium I was working with, and had been trying to do it that previous year with plain gouache, which has its limits, so it was the ability of egg tempera to build up layers, together with its capacity for fine detail that I immediately gravitated toward.
 
3.  What is your favorite or most unusual tempera tool or supply?

Tough question, but off the top I have three tips:  
(1) First of all, you can’t beat the absorbency of Bounty brand paper towels for rolling the yolk sack dry, and also for holding the yolk sack (the sack sticks to the paper towel) while you squeeze its contents out.  And since now they come in perforated half-sheets, they are also great for daubing my brush and wiping off my palette.

(2) Another thing I discovered a long time ago, although I haven’t had the advantage of access to it for many years—-if you live near a farm with chickens, strike a deal for getting the eggs from them super-fresh.  If you have ever used freshly laid eggs for your egg tempera, it is like painting with velvet! I can’t over-emphasize that it is not even close to the store-bought egg experience!  (Although at my local food coop, I can get large brown eggs with an expiration date of 6 weeks, it’s still not as good.)  

(3) I pack my egg medium jars in a flat-bottomed container lined with ice, and replenish the ice as I go.  While there are other methods of preserving the medium, I prefer doing it this way for two reasons:  it minimizes the odor of the eggs, and also my experience is that the paint behaves better (better consistency, less tendency to pick up under layers, etc.) when the medium is kept chilled as I work.  I also cap and refrigerate it overnight for use on the second day.
 
4.  As an experienced tempera painter, is there something new that you’ve learned about the medium, that has surprised you, in the past year?

I learned in my icon painting classes that the pigments which don’t mix well in water, or which stay gritty when ground, must be mixed initially with a very minute amount (one or two droppers-full) of egg medium, and ground in.  VERY GRADUALLY increase the egg medium to a thinner paste as you grind it.  The automatic tendency is to think you need more egg or water to smooth it out, but this won’t fly.  The trick is very small amounts of egg and lots of grinding in order to get the paste to eventually go smooth. (See George O’Hanlon’s description of pigments which “are hydrophobic and require more egg medium to wet them” in the Spring ’09 newsletter for a chemical explanation of why this works best.)
 
5.  If you could give one piece of advice to a beginning tempera painter, what would it be?

Advice to a beginning tempera painter would be to devote yourself to perfecting your ability to scumble and glaze, since the key to successful egg tempera painting is its translucency.  The other important thing I would say is don’t be afraid to experiment, and remember that while there are limitations to the medium, there are no hard and fast rules either.  Robert Vickrey was never afraid to experiment!  For the first twenty years I worked with egg tempera, I did so in relative isolation, not having the internet or Society of Tempera Painter colleagues to network with about techniques, and much of what I have learned over the years has been through trial and error, and ongoing practice.  That said, I am also very grateful to have found the Society of Tempera Painters in 1998, and its great group of very knowledgeable tempera painters to exchange information with and learn from.  It’s much more fun for me to paint in the context of a community of artists who share the joy of this medium!
 
Darya Carney

1. How many years have you been working in egg tempera?

I began my tempera career in January 1993, with a one-semester icon-painting class. I had been a science major in college; this was my first painting class in any medium, and I took the class because my (then newlywed) husband had signed me up. Nor was I converted by the end of it. But I wanted to paint icons: tempera seemed more ‘authentic’ than acrylic for icons, while it was certainly a lot more trouble.

2. Why did you choose it as your primary medium?

My current love of tempera has much to do with the special objectives of icon painting. Perhaps some of these will resonate with secular painters. When one is creating a ‘window into heaven’, translucency and luminosity are obvious virtues. However, so are some of the apparently ‘negative’ virtues of tempera. It is often pointed out that the richness of oil painting is inappropriate for icons, as it keeps one grounded in this world, whereas tempera does not have this sensuous quality. The relative flatness of tempera works to an advantage: when the painting is distinctly 2-dimensional, it allows room to expand into a spiritual third dimension. This is enhanced by the activity contained within the many layers of the paint film, which connotes an unseen world, beyond this world, within the picture plane.
 
The time and trouble of tempera, which are real, are actually advantageous: when one is striving for spiritual depth, and for a relationship with the person being painted, it is helpful to be forced to take one’s time. Tempera also involves a number of more mundane activities (such as panel preparation, gilding and mixing paint), which build in breaks from what would otherwise be too intense.
 
3. What is your favorite or most unusual tempera tool or supply?

I do not have anything unusual or arcane to offer here, as most of my ‘gear’ is quite conventional and readily available. I paint on wood and prefer to carve out the recessed panels myself, though lately I have had to resort to plywood with the raised border overlaid (because I am working on large icons). We have our own chickens, but I can’t say that their eggs are really better (for painting) than those from the store. I like those inexpensive Yarka brushes. I no longer experiment much with new pigments, but I confess that this was a weakness in the past, and my collection numbers nearly a hundred.
 
4.  Anything new or surprising learned in the last year?

I have come to appreciate working with natural materials, and the consciousness of and closeness to the materials. One is dealing with matter that has not been rendered passive by chemical processing, but matter that asserts itself ‘with all its distinctive properties’. It is precisely through the struggle with rebellious matter that one seeks something (or Someone) higher. This is central to the work of the icon painter, who, in a material body, uses matter to depict God-made-man and a transfigured world. But I suspect it is relevant to any artist who is aware that he or she does not create out of nothing, but takes elements from the world, to reshape them and return them to the world as an expression of something more exalted.
 
5.  Advice for beginning tempera painter?

Slow down! Accept the fact that every step in this complicated process will take longer than you expect (and then some). Go on retreat from this fast-paced, high-tech world of information and multitasking: focus and go deeper.
 
Darya, could you tell us about Yarka brushes?

Yarka is a Russian art-supply manufacturer, who developed a following in this country soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Russian products were very inexpensive. While economic times have changed, their products are still very economical. I initially tried their brushes because the animals are from Russia, and Russians seem to know their way through furs. The brushes are quite unassuming in appearance, with simple, varnished wooden handles and seamless ferrules. They size them by the diameter of the ferrule — a size 3 is 3 mm across.
 
Of their watercolor brushes, their most popular are the Squirrel, and this line is still marketed under the Yarka label and has made it to the stock of major suppliers. (I just priced them through Aardvark Art, and they run $2.90 to $16.26 for sizes 1 to 10.) These are nice for applying foundation colors and washes, particularly if one works in ‘petit lac’ technique. However, the hairs tend to take up water if they are kept wet for any length of time, which makes them limp and causes them to drag.
 
The Kolinsky sable brushes get more mixed reviews, and it appears that Yarka will be outsourcing this line, which will be marketed under a Richieson label. These were actually my favorites, as the hairs are long and tapered, and they hold up well under wet conditions. The chief complaint I have heard about them is that their point is not as sharp as the expensive lines, but I use my Yarka ’0′ till I need to switch to a miniature brush. So far, I have found the full line at ASW and Opus; Aardvark is featuring a close-out for sizes 3-8, which run $4.39 10 $17.99 ($18 for an 8-mm Kolinsky sable!) So, having found a line of brushes that I really like, I am very disappointed that they will be discontinued.
 
Patricia K. Kelly
www.patriciakkelly.com  <http://www.patriciakkelly.com> 
 
1. What is your favorite or most unusual tempera tool or supply?

My favorite tool is my color-mixing journal. In this book I keep a record of the pigments I use so that I can recreate particular colors that I love. I paint a patch of color in the book and next to it list the pigments and the supplier’s name, plus the proportions needed to produce the desired color. Then I glaze over part of the color patch in order to keep a record of color effects.
 
Overall my method isn’t scientific. I don’t use standard measurements; it’s very much by eye. Also when I find new pigments I log them in too. Unlike ready-made paints, pigments aren’t standardized, so the color and texture can vary from batch to batch and from supplier to supplier. My color-mixing journal, though not exact, is still a useful tool that helps me track experimental mixes, color combinations, and suppliers´ pigment range and quality.
 
2.  Advice for beginning tempera painter?

For years I stumbled around teaching myself to paint in egg tempera. After lots of trial and error, reading Daniel Thompson, Cennini, and Robert Vickery, I began to acquire a certain confidence in paint handling, but it took awhile. My advice would be to create or join a painting group. Check the STP website for anyone in your area and contact them to see if they are interested in meeting up to paint together. If there’s no one in your area, put up a flier in your nearest arts and crafts store. You don’t have to be a painting expert to start a group. It’s really helpful to share experiences and explore egg tempera together. Group learning offers multiple perspectives and feedback on your work that you won’t get if you work alone.
 
Dennis Harper
www.dennisharper.com <http://www.dennisharper.com>
 
1. How many years have you worked in egg tempera?

19 years.
 
2. Why did you choose it as your primary medium?

Within a year of making my first egg tempera, I found myself working
almost exclusively with it. Besides falling in love with its
particular characteristics and history, I discovered in tempera a
working method that suited my irregular and intermittent studio
schedule as a non-full-time artist. I am able to stop and restart work
on a tempera painting more easily than I could with oils, which for me
seem to require long, uninterrupted studio sessions.
 
3. What is your favorite or most unusual tempera tool or supply?

I have so many different pigments, it is hard to single out one. A
color I like very much is Terra Bianca di Vicenza, which has very
limited use. It is quite transparent and warm. I use it to glaze over
passages that need to be warmed in tone and also set back slightly
behind the picture plane. It gives a slight softness to the area
underneath it, or presence of “atmosphere.” All the various
permutations of reddish-purple iron oxide are wonderful. (Morellone,
Caput Mortuum, etc.) I also like to use a number of difference sizes
of ceramic palette cups and have favorites for different situations.
(Nerdy, huh?)
 
4. As an experienced tempera painter, is there something new that
you’ve learned about the medium, that has surprised you, in the past
year?

These two realizations did not occur in the past year, but have
developed over the last five or six years. However, in doing paintings
this year for an exhibition, they were reemphasized to me.
First, that my paintings proceed much better in later stages if I
spend the time to fully complete a monochromatic underpainting. I’m
usually eager to jump in quickly with color, but the more I refine the
underpainting the less trouble I have later. Secondly, that glazing in
egg tempera adds so much to the medium’s possibilities. And I mean
straight egg tempera, not a hybrid egg-oil technique. As I first
started in egg tempera, I kept to dry, crisp, discrete strokes of
color. Only after several years did I realize that I could lay down
broad swathes of color and build up glazes. To be able to alternate
hatch-work and glazes as much as I wanted to was an eye-opener
 
5. If you could give one piece of advice to a beginning tempera
painter, what would it be?

From reading the threads on the STP website as a moderator, it seems
that many beginning painters tend to over think the process. Instead of
sweating over minutiae and theorizing without action, I’d say just
crack an egg and mix up some colors.  Jump right in. Sure, you’ll make
mistakes but you will improve with time. Learn by doing rather than by
reading.
 
Koo Schadler
www.kooschadler.com <http://www.kooschadler.com>

1. How many years have you worked in egg tempera?

17 years.

2.  Why did you choose it as your primary medium?

In spite of its reputation, I find it very flexible.  I can work with precise line to create minute detail; I can splash and splatter and do every manner of faux finishing, all very loosely.  I also love the layering – 40 or more distinct glazes of color in a day is possible.  Try that in oil!

3.  What is your favorite or most unusual tempera tool or supply (pigment, brush, panel, other?)

Well, they aren’t very painterly, but I do like working with cosmetic sponges. When overused they can impart a texture akin to rolled on paint.  Used judiciously, they are a (relatively) fast and consistent way to work.  They have a smooth texture, can hold a lot of paint, and are a great way to build up a “base coat” of a color and get somewhere, before I go in with the slow (but pleasurable) process of layering and modeling with brush strokes. They also are a good way to apply a more or less even glaze or scumble over the surface.

 
Cosmetic sponges come in various forms, but I’ve found the wedge shaped to be the most useful.  I trim the edges a bit, to make for a more rounded surface. The best tend to come from high-end cosmetic stores (the type often located in shopping malls).  They last longer and have more bounce, which means you can better control how the paint goes on. The least useful sponges come from chain drug stores. They are inexpensive but tend to be too squishy and don’t hold up very long.


I also work a lot with homemade transfer paper to transfer lines and decorative patterns.  To make, take a piece of parchment or tracing paper and, wearing a respirator, place a small amount of powdered pigment on it.  Wet a rag with a solvent (such as denatured alcohol, odorless mineral spirits, or rubber cement thinner) and use it to rub the pigment into the paper until it is evenly dispersed and the solvent is evaporated. The pigment won’t be completely attached to the surface, but sufficiently so to use for transferring. The beauty of making your own transfer paper is that you can customize your colors.


4.  As an experienced tempera painter, is there something new that you’ve learned about the medium, that has surprised you, in the past year?

I continue to be impressed with how forgiving it is (once again, in spite of its reputation). I was nearly done with a painting but knew it wasn’t working well.  So I carefully scraped out an entire corner – about a sixth of the painting. I built up the base with sponges, then carefully reworked the image with brushwork.  It had seemed a daunting task at first, but the whole thing was repaired and repainted in about 4 hours and saved the painting. I’ve come to believe that almost anything can be repaired fairly readily in tempera.

5.  If you could give advice to a beginning tempera painter, what would it be?

Tempera has a formidable reputation as being a difficult medium.  Learning anything new can be challenging, but if tempera suits your nature it is a great relief to find the right medium.   When you work with paint that you love, it’s fun as well as challenging to get better.  So be patient, persevere, and be adventuresome!
 
Anthony Suminski
www.anthony.artspan.com <http://www.anthony.artspan.com>
 
1. How many years have you worked in egg tempera?

I have worked in egg tempera off and on for about 25 yrs.
 
2.  Why did you choose it as your primary medium?

I like the glow of the paint.
 
3.  What is your favorite or most unusual tempera tool or supply (pigment, brush, panel, other?)

Most unusual tool is a dentist pick for hair details or grass.
 
4.  As an experienced tempera painter, is there something new that you’ve learned about the medium, that has surprised you, in the past year?

The use of green as an underpainting of flesh tones.

5.  If you could give advice to a beginning tempera painter, what would it be?

Save some of your paint that you use for the layers, as you might need it later to fix damages to the surface.   Happy painting!!!!!
 

Kathleen Edwards

 1. How many years have you worked in egg tempera?

I believe that I have been using egg tempera since I took a class by Koo Schadler, in Austin 3 or 4 years ago.
 
2.  Why did you choose it as your primary medium?

I chose it as my primary medium because of its versatility and luminosity.  The fact that it is organic and durable is attractive as well.
 
3.  What is your favorite or most unusual tempera tool or supply (pigment, brush, panel, other?)

I use the high dispersion pigments from Guerra Paint and Pigments, of NY.  They are ground so fine that for my purposes, final glazes on miniatures, they are really cost effective in time not spent grinding, and in how tiny an amount is necessary. I think they are fabulous and I wouldn’t want to have to live without them; also, the people there are so helpful and willing to discuss you needs.
 
4.  As an experienced tempera painter, is there something new that you’ve learned about the medium, that has surprised you, in the past year?

I don’t know if I can refer to myself as “experienced,” but I am surprised by the large number of white pigments available and how subtly but distinctly they affect the final product.  I have perhaps six that I use regularly, but my absolute favorite is: TADA!  Lead white!  I am uber-careful because of its toxicity and go to extremes to keep the area, containers and brushes segregated.  I dispose of it by wiping my containers and sealing them before I put them in the trash.  My husband takes them to the dump at the ranch and burns them for me.
 
5.  If you could give advice to a beginning tempera painter, what would it be?

Never, never give up and don’t be afraid to work outside the box.