How to Make Tempera Paint with Egg Yolk

The Recipe for Egg Yolk Paint Hasn’t Changed in Two Millennia

How to Make Tempera Paint with Egg Yolk

Artist Tinúviel Sampson gladly shares her secrets behind how to make tempera paint using backyard chicken and duck eggs. But first, she says, prepare the right ground.

By “ground,” she refers to the material on which the paint will lie. By tempera’s definition, it’s a hard paint with no flexibility. This necessitates a hard surface. Medieval and Renaissance artists used oak and poplar panels; Tinúviel purchases MDF fiberboard.

It’s easy to coat panels with modern acrylic gesso, which glides on smooth and dries quickly, providing a suitable surface for almost all painting techniques. But if you’re using a traditional paint, as Tinúviel does, why not prepare a traditional gesso?

“This gesso,” she says, “a true gesso, is an absorbent surface for the paint to adhere. It adds luminosity to the paint above it.”

She simmers rabbit hide glue in a double boiler until it makes a gelatin. Without actually boiling, because boiling breaks up proteins, she warms it just until it melts. Then she adds marble dust and titanium oxide. “That’s what a traditional gesso is,” she explains, “before modern acrylic gessos.” After adding enough water to create a paintable consistency, she applies it warm because it’s solid once it dries. She arranges four-inch, six-inch, and eight-inch squares, often 20 at a time, and applies up to a dozen coats. The first couple coats dry quickly but the upper coats take longer. The entire process takes three to four days.

Stories and articles about egg facts usually talk about nutrition, digestion, or a hen’s laying ability. They don’t mention the chemical makeup of egg yolk and how the fat content provides the perfect binding, allowing color to stick to a surface for a long time. But tutorials, teaching how to make tempera paint, mention that fresh eggs hold together better so artists can completely separate the white and remove liquid yolk from the yolk sac. Having a fresh egg supply, from backyard chickens, provides the best yolks for tempera paint.


How to Make Tempera Paint with Eggs

Use pure artist’s pigment, in powdered form and without fillers. These can be expensive, depending on where you buy them. Tinúviel orders from Kremer Pigments and found they have good quality and fair pricing.

“Expense ranges based on the source of the pigment, whether colored earths or rare pigments. The most expensive colors tend to be the reds, blues, and yellows. They don’t have to be expensive but if you want some really nice, bright colors, the costs do rise a bit. If you look at old paintings, you can understand why blue was reserved for only Virgin Mary or very specific highlighted features in a painting. The cost of materials. Fortunately, a little goes a long way.”

Mix pigments with egg yolk in fairly equal amounts. Do this a little at a time; if the paint dries, you can’t reconstitute it. Only mix up as much paint as you will use before taking a break. Then add enough water to reach the right consistency.

But won’t the egg yolk turn the colors yellow? Online tutorials about how to make tempera paint say no. Tinúviel also assures that the yellow color fades as paint dries. White paint remains white. The water, also, doesn’t diminish the amount of color deposited. It just makes paint glide on easier, to allow different textures and effects.

Build up layers as you paint, because each layer affects the transparency and opaque nature of the paint above it. Be sure each layer fully dries before you apply another, to avoid paint that later comes off the panel.

After each painting session, wash brushes fully. Egg yolk dries hard and is difficult to remove; egg tempera can ruin the most expensive brushes.

Completed paintings may be perfect with a matte finish, or you may want a bit more luster. With a soft brush, apply a final coat of Damar varnish, or shellac, over your artwork to give it a bit more shine. Tinúviel prefers hers matte.

Photo by Tinuviel Sampson

The finished painting isn’t Tinúviel ’s final step. Thanks to a growing fanbase and a contract with a local gallery, she scans her paintings into computer images then creates high-quality prints and posters. She even reduces images to two-inch by two-inch squares, and adheres to tiles and covers with epoxy, to create magnets for people who like to put chickens in their kitchens. Products can be found at a few local shops in Berwick, Maine, a local farmer’s market, and a big craft fair in July. For those who aren’t so local, Tinúviel has a website, an Etsy shop called “ii neko Cat and Rooster,” a Facebook page, and offers her art with Just Us Chickens Gallery.

Knowing how to make tempera paint bridges Tinúviel ’s love of art with her love of chickens, and it can do the same for other artists (and chicken owners.)

Have you learned how to make tempera paint with chicken or duck eggs? We would love to see pictures of your work.

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