There are many different methodologies by which one may create an egg tempera paintings. This demonstration describes my typical process. You might consider Purple Finch and Bachelor Buttons (above) a sampler showing many of the egg tempera techniques and effects possible.
1. Sponging and Stenciling
Having created a drawing on paper of my subject, I set it aside and began the background on my painting surface, a true gesso, hardboard panel. For this, I mixed paint to the consistency of cream, which is relatively dense for egg tempera (paint any thicker than this might crack after it dries). I used a sponge to apply several paint layers, establishing a background of a middle-value, low-chroma green (chromium oxide green dirtied with raw umber and cadmium orange). You can see the result in the unpatterned area of the above image. Kitchen sponges work well for this kind of application, but I more commonly use wedge-shaped makeup sponges, which have a smoother texture.
Well-tempered, properly applied paint dries to the touch within seconds, so I laid my drawing atop the dry background, slipped white transfer paper underneath, and traced in a few basic lines (see the very faint white lines). Next I positioned a plastic stencil from an art-and-craft store over the painted surface. Still using a creamlike consistency of paint, I sponged on a black floral pattern, avoiding the areas where the main subject matter would be placed.
2. Glazing, Masking and Spattering
Because I had the proper ratio of egg to pigment (approximately equal amounts) I could thin my paint with water. Working with paint about the consistency of ink, I enriched the background with glazes (thin, transparent layers of color) of burnt and raw umber, burnt sienna, viridian green, Prussian blue, and quinacridone magenta. I also used yellow ochre with a pinch of titanium white to establish lighter values in the background. Although the paint was thin, its application was controlled—the layers went on like veils rather than in puddles. Each layer dried to the touch within seconds, allowing me to build up many glazes within a short amount of time.
Next, from a copy of my original drawing, I cut a mask to protect the background but left the rock and marble shelf exposed. I lay my panel flat and used small weights to hold the mask in place. I mixed several values of gray by combining white, ultramarine blue, and raw umber, then spattered on paint to build up the rock and shelf. To spatter, I charged a brush with paint and then knocked it against my palette knife. I also dragged my thumb over an old toothbrush loaded with paint. To add to the texture of the rock and marble, I lay sheets of homemade transfer paper on the surface while it was still slightly damp and rubbed on irregular patterns with my fingers. To create the black marble veins, I drew lines with a sharp point atop the transfer paper.
3. Developing Temperatures and Values
I painted the cloth, using a light-value gray. I applied transparent burnt umber to warm the color of the rock in contrast to the cool grays around it. With a variety of grays and many different glazing colors I continued to develop all parts of the painting.
4. Glazing and Scumbling
Working with round watercolor brushes that ranged in size from Nos. 0 to 8, I began developing the form of the rock and cloth, and “pulled out” the glass bottle. To do this, I used slightly thicker paint of the local colors of the objects being depicted. Once the objects were rendered, I applied more glazes as well as scumbles (thin, semi-transparent layers) of white. The scumbles imparted opacity and body, subtly modified values, and helped unify the painting. Glazes and scumbles are integral to my process and I apply them throughout paintings to alter and enrich areas as needed.
5. Masking and Sponging
From another copy of my drawing, I made a second mask by cutting out the flower and bird shapes. Holding the mask in place, I sponged on dense paint to establish the local colors of the bachelor buttons (primarily white, ultramarine blue, and quinacridone magenta) and the purple finch (various earth pigments and a bit of cadmium red). I then modified these colors with scumbles, as well as glazes of many hues.
6. Enriching With Layers
Layering creates the luminosity for which egg tempera is renowned. Literally dozens of coats can be applied in a single day because the paint dries so quickly. I estimate that when this image was photographed, I had already applied 100 paint layers on my panel. At this point, the elements were in place, and it might have be tempting to stop, but I knew that if I continued to add layers, the image would become increasingly rich, luminous and realized. With a combination of sponging and brushwork, I continued to develop all areas of the painting.
7. Adjusting Values, Highlighting and Detailing
In the background, I re-established light areas that had been darkened by glazes. To make the glass sparkle and the finch feel more volumetric, I built up lights and highlights with opaque paint. A few veils of raw umber deepened the shadows and created more atmosphere. I used a No. 5/0 brush to define details. With a few final enriching glazes, I completed Purple Finch and Bachelor Buttons (above; egg tempera, 9¾x8½).
Egg tempera artist Koo Schadler is a board member of the Society of Tempera Painters. She’s the author of the book Egg Tempera Painting: A Comprehensive Guide and conducts workshops on egg tempera and old master painting. For more information, visit www.kooschadler.com.
You may be interested in these other resources:
- “Getting Started in Egg Tempera” by Koo Schadler – Brushing Up article in the April 2013 issue of The Artist’s Magazine
- A Closer Look: Techniques of Painting by Jo Kirby – With beautiful, close-up photography, this book illustrates and explains different painting techniques used by master painters.
- “Homemade Gesso Recipe for a True Gesso Panel” by Koo Schadler – Gesso panels make excellent painting surfaces for egg tempera and other media—and you can create your own gesso panels with this free article.
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