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Tempera -Painting With Eggs

.Another historical medium

 Niccolò da Tolentino Leads the Florentine Troops
by Paolo UCCELLO

A simple but excellent binder consisting of the yolk of a chicken egg (sometimes the white is also used) blended with powdered pigments and thinned with water, the Egg Tempera emulsion medium has proven to be one of the most durable traditional painting medium in history. Sharing use with Encaustic painting and Casein (a protein found in milk), Egg Tempera painting was the one of the first known painting mediums until it was replaced by oils in the 15th century. However, tempera also had continued use as an under painting with oil portraits due to it’s short drying time to create more realistic flesh tones.

Tempera colors remain true and through time as paint hardens its depth and appearance improves.  The color tones with tempera when dry lean toward lighter shades meaning it works better with lighter tones throughout the painting although you can push it into a deep dark color (at risk of making it muddy) you will be most successful working with it’s natural capabilities. With painting properties much like acrylics, Tempera’s water-resistant layer dries quickly, where an application of paint can be rapidly followed with another without the color of the layers mixing. It is difficult to make gradual color transitions as done wet on wet with oils. Instead, the medium’s technique has a wonderful advantage to be able to apply multiple transparencies (glazing) to allow you to see one color through the other and to be able to work these layers in a relatively short period in time in comparison to working with oils.

Color can be applied by building light to dark in layers or by first outlining or inking your darks before starting to paint.  Painting over your mistakes with thick heavy pigmented methods of painting will be unsuccessful and will result with cracks and flaking. Unlike other mediums that allow you to blend or mix colors on the canvas, tempera is  painted in a series of thin lines or washes that demand you to outline your piece with precision. The under layer can not be entirely hidden therefore you should have your vision well mapped before you start. Although errors can be removed by lightly scratching or sanding the area to repaint, it requires a certain level of patience and discipline to be successful with this medium. Consequently, traditional Tempera can be an excellent choice for the well planned painting but ‘usually’ does not conform well to experimental concepts.

There has been a new development created by Louis Velázquez, in a formula he calls CSO Egg Tempera Medium described in his recently released book EGG TEMPERA, CSO-EGG TEMPERA, ANCIENT AND NEW: SAFETY and PERMANENCE without Hazardous Chemicals in Synthetic Paints. This is a great break through for the medium if combined with traditional tempera painting methods since, it provides a means to use both the tradition transparent glaze and an opaque version of tempera as needed as one compatible medium. 

Another difficult obstacle involved with Tempera Painting is its unforgiving support requirements. There are some artists who have used the medium on paper and canvas with success but only when it was thinned to an ink consistency or when it was blended with oil base and wax solutions. Using oils with only the yolk of the egg will make the dried medium more flexible. However, with the use of this traditional medium, think of the painting that you are about to create as a thin eggshell laid flat. Because this mixture is brittle, with the slightest amount of flexible movement you could experience a crack. For this reason many Egg Tempera works of art are relatively smaller in size.

In order to create a truly archive quality painting with this medium you should rule out some common supports such as canvas and paper. Whereas,  wood panels  are the only supports that have proven the test of time with an egg tempera painting.  Solid wood panels are good if seasoned well and you are willing to work with the weight as well as warping issues associated with this support. Laminated furniture grade 1/4 inch plywood works very well when it has been  braced to prevent warping. Bass, birch, whitewood, poplar, oak and mahogany plywood’s are satisfactory,  if they have been properly conditioned.  Cheap plywood’s must be avoided as well as sappy woods such as pine, spruce, and fir. Their  resins weep into the ground and stain the painting.

Traditionally the egg tempera binder is absorbed into the panel it’s painted on. This is  an important procedure which requires an absorbent traditional gesso for best adhesion and to promote the unique characteristics of the medium. Acrylic gesso has been used successfully but the end result is no caparison.  To prime and seal the panel, dissolve one ounce of  galantine in sixteen ounces of cold water in the top part of the double boiler. Do not over heat or boil. Only heat the solution enough to melt the gelatin and then remove it from the burner. Add to the gelatin solution two tablespoons of whiting to provide tooth for the gesso and then apply this sizing solution quickly with a brush keeping the brush loaded while the sizing is hot. An old griddle that lost it protective teflon coating (not good for food) but is temperature controlled works well for this case. Cold sizing will not penetrate and floats on the surface of the panel. Apply using a cross hatched pattern or by brushing across the panel with one coat and then up and down the panel the next. After completely covering the surface allow the panel to thoroughly dry naturally overnight or even a few days before applying several coats of  gesso. Do not attempt to speed the drying.

True Gesso is also used to fill, sculpt, and prepare a surface for gilding. On this page we are only preparing a panel for tempera. The simplest gesso recipe blends 1/2 once of gelatin to eight ounces of water with twelve ounces of gilders whiting. Plaster Paris is also used but usually only on the top coat by either replacing gilders whiting or blended with it to create a more absorbent surface. The whiting is slowly added to the hot gelatin solution and allowed to be soaked up into the size instead of being stirred. Once all the whiting is added and absorbed into the gelatin, to be certain you have a uniform mixture you can lightly stir and then strain through doubled cheesecloth. If the gesso starts to set it can be reheated but should be taken off the heat as soon as it becomes liquid.  Gesso is then applied with your brush quickly, smoothly and evenly, completely covering your panel before applying an additional coat. Do not allow gesso to dry between coats instead continue to brush on the hot gesso building up the desired surface to three to five coats. For this reason it would be best to make enough gesso to complete the expected ground or you will have to scrap it off and start over. Before the invention of electric sanders the process called for scrapping the surface to the desired smoothness. If you can maintain the gesso temperature to keep it thinned out enough to flow the layers on smoothly sanding will work fine. Start lightly with an 80 to 100 grit and progress to 400 to 600 grit sandpaper.  To avoid chips and cracks  from developing, bevel the finished panel around the outside edges.

I have been recently experimenting with what I believe is a more compatible ground for egg tempera using casein and egg white as a binder (a similar product). When I complete writing the results I will publish it in my Painter Notes.

Traditional Egg Tempera consists of three basic ingredients: pigment, distilled water and egg yolk. Making egg emulsion is easy by carefully separating egg yolk from the egg white. Hold the yolk with a paper towel and roll it around to remove any white left. Then while holding the egg yolk with your bare hand over a glass container, pierce its skin to drain out the liquid and throw out the skin. Add with enough water to dilute to a paint consistency (roughly equal to amount of egg yolk) and few drops of white vinegar. Mix slowly, until a uniform egg emulsion is made ready to mix with dry pigment. Addition of the white vinegar is to use as a preservative but if you use all your medium within a few days it is not needed. This emulsion should  be stored in a refrigerator when not used.

Note: Refrigeration and preservatives are a good measure to take for preventing your medium from going south in the middle of a painting session. However, regardless of these precautions one probable cause of this can be unavoidable. If you have previously used a container to store egg tempera medium, even if it has been washed  it may contain bacteria from the previous batch that can accelerate the spoiling of your fresh one. As a preventative measure, this is why you should sanitize a glass jar for storage by rinsing it out with denatured alcohol first.

Historically other experimental ingredients have been added to the medium such as egg white, Standoil, Poppyseed, Linseed oil,  Clove Oil, Damar varnish, Carnauba & Bee wax, Casein and Gum Arabic. These are not part of the traditional medium and all but casein alter the properties of the finished product.  All of these ingredients with the exception of casein will also alter the physical properties and overall appearance.

Some painters have experimented using oils and resins in an attempt to improve the characteristics of this medium where for others there is satisfaction in meeting the required technique to the medium. It is my belief that in order to declare a work of art as a specific medium it should be created as the masters responsible for it’s discovery. For those who take art seriously they understand that it requires tremendous amounts of discipline and adaptation to the inherent properties which each specific medium demands. Therefore, any deviations from a traditional formula should be considered experimental or mixed media.

Mixing with Dry Pigment is fairly strait forward, where you grind small quantities of your tints first with a  Muller on a slab of white marble, tile or frosted glass moistened with of water into a paste before adding the medium. There are some pigments such as Titanium White which may be difficult to break down into a smooth paste. For these pigments use of a small quantity of grain or spirits of alcohol works well.

Note: Before handing you should refresh you knowledge about working with dry powder pigments and their  hazards.  Also, pigments that contain lead react with the egg yolk and should not be used.  For those who would prefer to reduce their hazard risk from pigment particles Casein or Watercolor paint in tubes can be blended with your egg tempera medium with favorable results. Traces of casein or milk paintings  have been found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb, where as milk paint may become the oldest form of paint known. I believe it would be safe to say that encaustic, egg emulsions & casein were the mediums at that time.

A traditional silver-point sketch as an under-drawing is done next. Do not over draw or use graphite because the excessive carbon when smeared will make your painting appear dirty. I have found that light use of a  Water Soluble Pencil works just as well. I personally favor this method in the outline to create a light grisaille layer. This method allows the grayscale tones to be created that can be fixed on the panel as a layer by working un-pigmented medium into the pigments of the pencil drawing.  This will be more thoroughly explained in the WIP Blog.

Starting your painting consider the properties of the paint and the proven successful techniques utilized:

  • Egg tempera is quick drying and enables you to work swiftly.
  • Because of it’s transparent properties, this is a superior glazing medium whereas when done correctly the under layers are illuminated providing depth and interest.
  • The medium is best applied in thin layers in dry brush strokes working from light to dark.
  • Because of the thin transparent coats, Tempera paint generally dries lighter than it appears when wet where you should plan to take advantage of the white gesso that passes through your paint strokes.
  • A favored technique is hatching and cross-hatching by making gradual changes in color and tonal values as the stokes intersect.
  • Your painting should eventually materialize without visible brush strokes with a matte or egg shell luster.
  • Once dried the surface has a durable matte finish or if desired it can be polished to a light satin luster with a cotton flannel cloth. Not utilized until the renaissance era, there are varnish finishes available to seal your painting. However, a thinned glazing  that will allow retouch can be made with clean water and egg white  If you decide to use anything else, be certain to allow at least three to six months for it to dry thoroughly first..

Egg Tempera Links

Hugues Delbergue’s Egg Tempera Recipes

Society of Painters in Tempera

Earth Pigment Co -Non-toxic Pigments

Techniques of Egg Tempera & Silverpoint – Koo Schadler


Art is a “labor of love,” but it is still labor.
Cennino d’Andrea Cennini

George Tooker Andrew Wyeth:
Memory & Magic
Milk and Eggs:
The American Revival of Tempera Painting
New Techniques in Egg Tempera [Hardcover]
Robert Vickery


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