What is Tempera Paint? How Eggs Shaped Art History
Tempera Definition Combines Egg Emulsion, Pigment and Water
Reading Time: 4 minutes
What came first, the chicken portrait or the egg paint? What is tempera paint and how did it illuminate a colorful history through art and architecture?
Tinúviel Sampson sits before a gesso-coated wood panel in southern Maine, brush in hand. Her models strut on three acres outside: Faverolles, Spitzhaubens, and Muscovies. Bristles dip into a mixture of water, pure artists’ pigment, and yolks collected from her own coop. Pictures take shape. First, she paints an outline then fills in delicate feathers, combs, and beaks.
Though Tinúviel’s folksy style of painting poultry is relatively new, the medium itself reigned from the Classical world, and through medieval times, until oil painting replaced it in Italy around 1500 AD. The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli, was painted with tempera, as were all surviving panel paintings done by Michaelangelo.
What is Tempera Paint?
Tempera’s definition: A technique which combines an emulsion of egg, or another binding ingredient, with pigment and water, to create colorful paint. Though other binders may include glue, honey, or milk, the most common is pure egg yolk. Historical painters ground pure pigments, often from natural minerals, and mixed in binder and just enough water to create a good consistency.
It’s theorized that ancient Greeks used egg as a paint binder; possibly the Egyptians, as well. Museums often label historical art as “tempera,” which makes it difficult to know if the binder was egg. Carlo Crivelli painted exclusively in tempera but the exact technique is undefined. Though some funerary portraits contain lipid bases with fatty acid patterns similar to egg binder, the earliest proven egg tempera painting is a mummy portrait from the 4th century AD. The first egg tempera recipes weren’t written until ca. 1400, by Cennino Cennini. This long-enduring technique fell into near-obscurity when oil paints entered the artists’ scene not long afterward, allowing for richer colors and flexible pictures on canvas.
Almost all Tinúviel’s processes are traditional. She learned how to make tempera paint from famed professor Panos Ghikas at the Massachusetts College of Art, in Boston. The course focused on traditional painting materials and techniques, where she learned how to make her own oil paints, egg tempera, mediums, and formulae. But, though Tinúviel started out with oil painting, she soon leaned on egg tempera. On her website, she showcases her artwork and discusses the historical technique.
“The big difference is it dries immediately as you’re painting, so it’s a very different kind of technique.”
Tinúviel loves the vibrant colors and the way they interact with gesso to create a rich, glowing quality. Egg tempera dries to a very matte finish. It’s not a chalky matte, she explains; egg tempera has a low-key sheen to its own. But to make egg tempera shiny, cover the dried paint with a classic oil varnish such as Damar. Shellac can also be used, though it can yellow with age.
As many poultry owners know, after cleaning up broken chicken eggs that oozed and dried on other eggs, yolk hardens and doesn’t come off easily. Egg benefits which allow paint to last for centuries also don’t allow much flexibility. Egg tempera must be applied to rigid boards; traditionally, oak or poplar panels. Tinúviel uses MDF panels purchased at hardware stores. She prepares them with traditional rabbit hide glue and gesso.
Professional artists’ pigment powders mix with pure, homegrown yolk and water. Natural pigments may be made from crushed minerals or organic sources such as plants or bone; modern pigments, such as Prussian blue, are synthetic. Though official recipes advise using distilled water for paints, she finds her well water works just fine. She advises against municipal water because it often has added chemicals which may react with either yolk or pigments. For instance, orpiment yellow pigment reacts with copper, which may be present in water flowing through city pipes. As far as the yolk, Tinúviel has the advantage of the freshest eggs, which allow the yolk to separate easier from the white.
“Not only do I have a flock of chickens as my models,” she says, “I have a ready supply of eggs in the backyard for my painting medium.”
Her three-acre property boasts heritage breeds (and a few feathered mutts) but she doesn’t restrict herself to her own fowl. Fans often email pictures of their birds for her to paint. She takes thousands of pictures at poultry shows and views website after website of online photos. Many folk artists create paintings of roosters but don’t focus on particular breeds. Tinúviel says, “I really like the idea of having a well-painted representation of the birds that are out there.”
One day, at Great Works Feed Supply, her local feed store, she showed off pictures of her paintings. The store offered to display and sell prints if she made them. “They gave me the nudge I needed to put my work out to the public,” she says. Chicken folk love their chickens, the staff said, so she should bring her work there to sell it. That led to a small artists’ business where she creates prints and magnets, selling them in the gallery called Just Us Chickens.
What is tempera paint to the world? To art history fans, it’s a forgotten technique that lines a few choice museums. For Tinúviel, it’s a rejuvenated passion that connects her talents with the backyard birds that served as original inspiration.