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Making Egg Tempera

Learn the Basic Steps for Making Your Own Egg Tempera

Making egg tempera consists of two steps, preparing the pigment and mixing it with an egg yolk emulsion.

Choosing Pigments

Most pigments can be used to make egg tempera paints. Pigments containing lead react with the egg yolk and should not be used. Modem synthetic organic pigments such as the pthalo, hansa and quinacridone colors are very light and fluffy and consequently hard to grind with water. The following is a list of pigments which are often used for egg tempera, along with distinctive characteristics some of them have.

  • Cadmium Red Strong, dries quickly in air and has a swamp-like odor.
  • Quinacridone Red Difficult to wet, like most synthetic organic pigments.
  • Alizarin Crimson Also difficult to wet.
  • Indian Red Gritty.
  • Mars Violet Wets easily and grinds well; gets sticky quickly.
  • Cadmium Orange
  • Cadmium Yellow Strong; does not mix easily with water and has tendency to mold.
  • Yellow Ochre Gritty and fairly weak, stays moist.
  • Raw Sienna Grinds well.
  • Burnt Sienna Grinds well.
  • Burnt Umber Gritty, but mixes well.
  • Cobalt Blue Dries quickly on the palette.
  • Ultramarine Blue Hardens quickly; mix small amounts in jars or directly on palette.
  • Viridian Gritty.
  • Bone Black
  • Titanium White Wets easily, but loses opacity if made in advance.

Preparing the Pigment Mixtures

Traditionally, the pigment is ground with distilled water on a sheet of glass, using a glass muller. The grinding surfaces should be abrasive; use a ground or frosted glass sheet and a muller with a ground glass base. The glass sheet and the muller can be reconditioned as needed by rubbing them with a mixture of carborundum and water.

Grind the pigment with a small amount of water, using a smooth continuous circular motion, until a creamy consistency is achieved. How long this will take and how much water you will need to add will vary with each pigment. The pigment will move to the outside of the circle as you grind.

Periodically, pick it up with a spatula or palette knife and move it back under the muller. Once the paste is creamy, transfer the pigment mixture to a small screw-top jar and top it with a small amount of distilled water. This will keep the pigment mixture from drying out.

A less traditional, but reasonably effective way to mix pigments is to place a couple of spoons full of pigment in a small jar such as a baby food jar, add a small amount of distilled water, put the lid on tightly and shake vigorously until it forms a paste. The amount of water needed to make a paste will again vary according to the absorption of the particular pigment Kept tightly lidded, most colors will last for quite a while prepared this way.

Note: Ultramarine Blue becomes hard and Titanium White loses opacity if stored, so these should be prepared on the palette.

Whichever method you choose, you will want to mix enough pigment (and enough colors) at one time for several painting sessions. Egg tempera paint goes a long way and an ounce or two (30-60m1) of prepared pigment should suffice for several small to medium-sized paintings.

Preparing the Egg Yolk Medium

Before starting a painting session, prepare the egg yolk medium, which consists of egg yolks mixed with distilled water. Fresh eggs are easiest to handle, since the sacs surrounding the yolks are stronger. To separate the yolk from the egg white, transfer it several times from one half of the cracked eggshell to the other, or use an egg separator (available at kitchen stores).

Carefully place the yolk on a paper towel and roll it around to remove any remaining white. Then pinch the yolk between your forefinger and thumb, hold it over a small jar or bowl, and puncture the sac with a pin or knife.

The yolk will run into the jar. Discard the empty sac. You may want to strain the yolk through cheesecloth into a second jar to remove any remaining impurities.

Egg yolks vary considerably in color and texture. The color of the yolk is unimportant. Since a good deal of water is used in the painting process, its impact on the colors of the paint will be very slight, and the yellow bleaches out on exposure to light.

Some yolks may have a thin enough consistency to use straight, but usually you will need to add distilled water until the consistency is just a little thinner than heavy cream.

Two or three large or jumbo egg yolks will usually be enough for a painting session. Leftover egg yolk- water medium will keep in a tightly capped jar for a day or two in the refrigerator.

Making the Paints

To mix your palette of egg tempera paints, use a palette knife to take dabs of the pigment-water mixtures out of the jars and put them on a palette (paper palettes which are not slick-surfaced work well). Wipe the knife on a tissue or Kimwipe alter placing each color, to avoid contaminating them.

To conserve pigment, mix a color with egg yolk medium only when you want to use it. If you need a fairly large amount transfer about an equal amount of yolk to the pigment paste and mix it with a palette knife. For small amounts, dip your brush into the yolk-water medium and then into the pigment paste and mix well on the palette.

Getting the right ratio of pigment paste to egg-water medium is not scientific; again, each pigment requires a different amount of medium. The correct proportion of yolk medium can be determined with a few trial strokes of your paint mixture. Egg tempera has a characteristic slight sheen which can be seen by looking at dry strokes from an angle. A chalky or dull look means more medium is needed. If the paint strokes take more than a few seconds to dry, or look greasy, there's too much medium in the mixture.

An easy way to experiment with egg tempera is to use tube watercolors in place of the pigment pastes. Squeeze dabs of watercolor onto your palette and mix with egg yolk-water medium as described above. Because of the gum arabic in the watercolors, the paint will be more slippery than traditional egg tempera and harden somewhat differently, but it will give you a feel for how egg temperahandles. Specifically, it allows building up transparent glazes that don't lift the underlying layers.

Painting with Egg Tempera

Egg tempera paints demand a more delicate application than most other paints. Usually, sable, red sable or soft nylon brushes are used, with good points and long bristles. Once loaded with paint, the brush is wiped on a rag or tissue, or between thumb and forefinger, to remove excess paint which could create blobs at the end of each stroke or slow the drying time of the stroke. Each stroke is laid down quickly and precisely and should dry to the touch in four or five seconds.

The action is more like using a pen or pencil than typical brushwork. Each stroke remains separate and must be allowed to dry before applying another one on top of it. Use water freely to rinse brushes and thin color, but wipe the brush before applying strokes so that the brush and stroke are fairly dry. The paint should appear translucent rather than opaque; that translucency plus the gradual build-up of thin layers of paint gives egg tempera its characteristic clarity and luminosity.

Optical color blending, where colors are layered rater than mixed, is usually employed in egg tempera, as in colored pencil. Cross-hatching is used both for color blending and to define forms. Directional strokes also help describe form. Egg tempera should be used on smooth, non-flexible surfaces. Gessoed wood or untempered Masonite panels are traditionally used, and some good prepared panels are now available.

Materials List