Techniques of Egg Tempera & Silverpoint

An egg tempera painting

A silverpoint drawing
The History of Egg Tempera Painting

Many people are familiar with the painting "Birth of Venus" by the Renaissance master Botticelli. The goddess, clothed in only her swirling golden locks, stands languorously upon a giant clamshell. Wind gods blow her molluscan boat toward the shore where a nymph, a flowery, pink robe in her hands, awaits to clothe the beautiful, naked figure.

Perhaps you have seen this wonderful painting at the Uffizi Museum in Florence; or maybe you're familiar with the version found on the cover of a Grateful Dead album. However ubiquitous may be her face, less well known is the method by which Botticelli rendered his immortal Venus. Like all great painters of his time, he made his paints from the yolks of eggs.

Painting with egg yolk goes all the way back to ancient Greece. The Egyptians and Romans were familiar with the technique as well. They would start with color, in the form of powdered pigments - ochers and umbers ground from the earth; celestial lapis lazuli blues made from pulverized stone; rich and smoky blacks of burnt bones and sticks. The powdered pigments were combined with water, and then tempered with a "binder", something to make it all hold together and stick. When the binder used was egg yolk, it was called an egg tempered paint, or egg tempera for short.

By the 15th century, amid the flowering of the commercial and cultural renaissance that became know as The Renaissance, egg tempera became the most popular form of easel painting throughout Europe. It was used by virtually every painter of that time: Duccio, Giotto, Fra Angelico, Ghirlandaio, Mantegna, Fra Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, and of course, that egg tempera master, Botticelli. Late Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci also were well versed in egg tempera, but by that time a new medium had arrived on the scene - oil. Slow drying oil paints blend more readily than egg tempera, and allow for more atmospheric painting. The naturalistic effects achieved with oil were better suited to the more scientific and humanistic culture of Leonardo's time. Oil painting grew in popularity, while egg tempera fell from use. Within a generation or so, egg tempera was practically obsolete.

Happily, in the 19th century the English fell in love with Italy. Numerous Brits took up residence in Florence, and began to root around in the city's archives. In 1844 an Englishwoman, Mary Merrifield, rediscovered, translated and published a 14th century manuscript by Cennino Cennini called Il Libro dell'Arte, in which the process of egg tempera painting is described. Inspired by Cennini's text, five British artists founded The Society of Tempera Painters in 1901. The revival of egg tempera had begun.

A score of early 20th century American painters adopted the "new" old medium: Thomas Hart Benton, Isabel Bishop, Paul Cadmus, Reginald Marsh, and Ben Shahn to name a few. Andrew Wyeth became the most famous egg painter of them all, when he created "Christina's World" in 1948. Like Botticelli's Venus, Wyeth's Christina became another cultural icon rendered with the yolk of an egg.

Interest in egg tempera continues to grow. Updated versions of Cennini's classic text and numerous how-to tempera books have been recently published; egg tempera paintings are more commonly seen in galleries and shows; and in 1997 a new Society of Tempera Painters was formed in the United States. The Society publishes newsletters, holds exhibitions, and has a web site replete with egg tempera information and imagery. While still relatively unfamiliar to many people, more and more artists are discovering the beauty and benefits of this ancient medium.

Egg Tempera Technique

Egg tempera painting consists of three simple ingredients: powdered pigments, egg yolk and water. The pigments are ground with water to form a paste, then mixed with the separated yolk of an egg. The yolk, like the oil in oil painting or the gum arabic in watercolor, is what binds the pigments to a surface. The surface used in egg tempera is generally a panel made of wood or hardboard that has been coated with several layers of traditional, homemade gesso (rabbit skin glue and whiting) that has been sanded to an ivory smooth finish.

Egg tempera paint is generally applied in diluted, very thin, often transparent layers of pure color. It dries to the touch within seconds; however for a painting to fully cure takes 6-12 months. Many, many layers are applied in order to build up an image. The ultimate effect of dozens of layers of interacting colors set upon the white, highly reflective, true gesso ground is rich and luminous.

Egg tempera has a reputation as an old fashioned medium that produces flat, rigid work. Egg tempera was and often still is used for icon painting but it is not limited to that style. It may be applied with traditional hatch strokes but it also can be splattered, blotted, sponged on, scratched off and manipulated in countless other ways to produce effects both ancient and modern.

Traditional egg tempera painting does require some old fashioned craftsmanship. Panels and paints are created from scratch and the painting technique, while in moments spontaneous, is also deliberate and systematic. Some are deterred by the egg tempera process, but others enjoy the workmanship involved: making gesso; mixing pigments; the relative non-toxicity of the materials involved; the luminous paintings that result. When egg tempera is compared to oil paints there are some notable differences. For example: thick, impasto layers of tempera would crack and fall off and thus are not possible; blending is limited because of tempera's quick drying nature; there is a linear (as opposed to a painterly) quality to egg tempera, also due to its fast drying time. Aside from distinct characteristics such as these, egg tempera offers a rich range of possibilities.

Silverpoint Drawing Technique

The ubiquitous pencil (a piece of graphite placed inside a hollow tube of wood) wasn't an option for a Renaissance draftsman, as it hadn't been invented yet. Instead most early artists learned to draw using a nib of metal stuck in a stylus. Copper, gold, lead, and other metals were used, but a silver point was the most popular.

Ordinary paper will not work with silverpoint. The metal needs a surface with some tooth if it is to leave its mark. Homemade gesso (made from rabbit skin glue and chalk), used by tempera artists, has both sufficient tooth and a pleasingly smooth drawing surface, and makes an ideal ground for silverpoint.

The gesso is first toned with powdered pigments and then applied to a panel. The silverpoint line is delicate. It cannot be erased. Like a tempera painting it is generally built up in many, many carefully applied layers. Over time the silver will tarnish, a much-prized characteristic of genuine silverpoint drawing.

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