Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Subject of Art #18: Egg Tempra Painting - An Ancient Medium in the Modern World!

January 28th-30th, BINDERS will be hosting the workshop “Painting in Egg Tempera” with Phil Schirmer. This is a variety of painting that has a long and rich history and it’s worth taking a look more closely. Not to be confused with the contemporary Tempera Paint—also sometimes called Poster Paint, which is a cheap mixture of pigments with glue sizing—traditional Egg Tempera is a mixture of pigments with egg yolk that forms a permanent, fast-drying surface.

Egg tempera paintings are very durable and the medium was favored in the ancient world for that reason. Examples of egg tempera still exist from Egypt, Greece, Rome and India dating back more than two thousand years, but the real flowering of the technique occurred in Europe during the Medieval period, when it was the dominant form of painting up until the advent of oil paint in the 1500’s. Up until the middle of the Renaissance, the majority of paintings on wooden panels were done in egg tempera (the rest were encaustic which is not nearly as durable), with perhaps the most famous example of the time being Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”. Even as oil paint began to take over, tempera was still used in the underpainting stage because of its fast drying time, but it was the popularity of canvas supports that eventually phased out tempera, which requires a rigid surface, like a wood panel or a plaster wall, to prevent the dry paint from cracking.

Phil Schirmer describes the egg tempera technique as follows:
“The first step is to prepare a traditional gesso by mixing crushed marble or precipitated chalk with rabbit skin glue. This is heated and applied in six to eight coats to a masonite panel (the Italians used either poplar or linden wood panels). After drying, the surface is smoothed by a wooden block dipped in water. The panel is then lightly sanded and left to cure for a few days before painting. The paint is prepared by mixing powdered pigments with egg yolk and distilled water. Chicken's eggs are generally used, though Russian icon painters prefer goose eggs because they have a higher oil content. The paint is then applied in very thin layers to the panel. Cennini's technique calls for executing the entire first layer in a monochromatic tone (black or brown and white), then glazing in the colors. In principle, this is still done by contemporary tempera painters, though they may do the underpainting in different colors. Eventually, many layers of transparent paint are applied, working up into the highlights and down into the shadows. It is this "layering" which gives tempera its unique quality. If done carefully, the tempera painter can create optical effects that can't be obtained by any other medium. No finishing is required. Over the course of several years, the surface will harden and become more durable than any oil-based varnish.”

Although egg tempera has never fully regained it’s former popularity, throughout the centuries artists have frequently “rediscovered” the special qualities that make tempera painting a unique artform. Notable artists who have worked in the medium include William Blake, the Pre-Raphaelites, Giorgio de Chirico, Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn and Andrew Wyeth. You can find a wealth of information on the subject as well as communities of artists like Phil Schirmer who are committed to keeping this artform relevant to the world we live in. Visit the The Art School at BINDERS to find out more about Phil’s upcoming workshop!

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