Monday, June 11, 2018

Ancient Medium - Egg Tempera Painting, Part 5 - Layers and Finishing

Part 5 – Layers and Finishing

Many layers of diluted pigment are used to create an egg tempera painting.  It takes approximately 100 layers to begin to see the substance of a painting (see section on Techniques for speeding up this process).  A finished egg tempera painting consists of about 300-500 layers (this can vary greatly depending on the subject matter, the technique and the artist).  In a recent article an author described the “very thin layers….” of an egg tempera painting as susceptible to damage.  I’ve not seen a report on how many layers the Old Masters actually used, but I assume their efforts were similar to today’s as both are based on similar pigments and their constituent properties.  Tempered and applied correctly there will therefore be many, many layers of pigment that, once cured, are very durable.  Dust and grime can affect an egg tempera painting just as it does oil paintings, but I doubt that it penetrates 500 layers unless some substance is poured on the painting or moisture is too high and the painting not protected in a suitable environment. This is also the case with oil paintings.  With normal wear and tear from hanging on a wall, an occasional dusting, very light vacuuming, moment in the sun, or damp sponge-path sets the egg tempera painting right again today!

Polishing the Painting

Like oil painting there is one last step.  With an oil painting this is typically a layer of varnish.  Once the egg tempera painting is complete and has dried for at least a few days to a week (better to let it cure, if you have the time, for a year), the final polishing is performed.  Using a cotton ball or cheesecloth the painter gently buffs in a circular direction over a section at a time until the entire surface of the painting has been polished.  If the paints were properly tempered then the end result is the most beautiful satiny eggshell finish that feels like microfiber or silk.  If the pigment has not been properly tempered then pigment will come off on the cheesecloth or cotton ball.

This can be the final step, although some painters follow it with a coating of varnish that restores the look of freshly applied paint just as it does with oil paintings, but varnish is not necessary with egg tempera. Other forms of finishing have been used but these two are the most basic.

Next Up, Part 6 – Care of Egg Tempera Paintings (on June 18)