Monday, May 14, 2018

Ancient Medium - Egg Tempera Painting Part 1- History and Myths

Part 1 – Some History and Myths

When people ask me if the medium of egg tempera lasts I refer them to the fact that egg tempera paintings created in the first century AD (CE) still remain, intact in museums and galleries today, often in more vibrant condition and appearance than oil paintings of a similar age.  Painting with the yolk of an egg is an ancient medium.  It was popular until approximately the 15th century when the invention of oil paint came about, along with cave paintings, fresco (painting on wet lime with pigment using no binder – The Last Supper), illuminated manuscripts (gold and pigment, sometimes egg white on parchment). Egg tempera painting is sometimes just referred to as tempera confusing it with tempera paint (see myths below).  I'm by no means an expert in egg tempera painting, but this blog will hopefully provide some basic information and dispel some myths.


Myth #1
Let’s clear up the primary myth that egg tempera is not egg tempura.  You eat egg tempura and you paint with egg tempera – don’t mistake one for the other without dire consequences!  This is a common mistake.  Egg Tempura consists of vegetables fried in an egg batter – common now in this country, but apparently introduced to the Japanese in Nagasaki by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

Myth #2
The word tempera alone is not always used to refer to egg tempera painting. The word is often used generically as well as specifically.  Tempera can be used to refer also to water-soluble, child-safe poster paint. Museums and galleries will sometimes purposely, sometimes when in doubt or mistakenly, attribute egg tempera paintings as oil and/or just label them tempera.

Myth #3
Egg tempera paintings are no more fragile than oil that can be scratched, torn, dented, ripped and otherwise destroyed, and do not need to be framed under glass. Actually they are organic and framing under glass blocks them from breathing.  Additionally, if you’ve ever left your dishes with scrambled egg on them for a day or two (I know, you probably haven’t, but let’s just say…), or had your car egged, then you know how durable egg yolk is when you try to remove it.  Once the polymerization of the egg molecule chains in the yolk have formed and the painting cures (and there is dispute whether this occurs in 6 months or over years) then the painting is quite durable, much like oil paint drying.

Myth #4
The color of the yolk will not change the color of the pigment.  While rich, organic yolks might tinge white pigment a light yellow at first mixing, the yellow will oxidize out as it dries/cures.  The color of the yolk is derived directly from the hen's diet.  Truly organic free-range hens can have a wide range of colors with the yellow-orange generally coming from feed containing yellow, fat-soluble pigments such as the carotenes in dark green plant material such as alfalfa.

Myth #5

Contrary to popular belief, even I gather within some university art departments, there is absolutely no odor to working with eggs as long as the work area is kept clean.  This means discarding rags and soaked paper used in the process in a sealed trashcan that is preferably taken out on trash day at least weekly.  True you can only use the prepared egg for a day, possibly two at the most if it was really fresh, before discarding it, but most of the egg will have already ended up on the painting anyway and is then completely odorless – forever!

Next Up, Part 2 - The Process (on May 21)