Demonstration of painting with egg tempera

Michael Kirkbride

This fascinating evening was a mixture of lecture and demonstration, and provided an interesting insight into the world of egg tempera directly from a local practitioner of this ancient painting method.

Mike explained some of the history of egg tempera painting. It is fast drying, stable, durable, permanent and capable of extremely vivid and intense colours. Examples of egg tempera paintings survive from the first century AD. However egg tempera was gradually superceded by oil painting during the 15th century AD.

Egg tempera painting requires the use of an absorbent ground such as gesso on a rigid support to avoid cracking. Mike usually uses MDF board as a base. This is first covered with a stretched layer of muslim glued in place with size made from rabbit skin glue. Once this is dry, several layers of Gesso ground are then applied. The gesso ground is made by warming the size and gradually adding whiting powder (a kind of powdered chalk) until the consistency of thin cream is reached. Above, Mike displays a couple of small samples of prepared grounds for use during the demonstration.

Unlike most modern types of painting, the egg tempera artist has to prepare his paints from scratch. The paints consist of pure ground pigment in a binder of egg yolk with a little water. the egg yolk is seperated from the white then the yolk sack is pierced and the yolk collected in a small jar to which a little clean water is added and then mixed.

Mike has evolved his own palette which comprices a sheet of clear glass over white paper. The ground pigments are arranged round the edges in small piles. The central area is used for mixing the actual paint.

Mike uses a sable watercolour brush cleaned in water with the surplus removed on a cloth. The brush tip is then dipped first in the egg yolk and then in the pigment before mixing on a clean area of the palette and then applying to the painting in thin layers. Thick, impasto painting is not possible with egg tempera so dark or intense colours are built up by using many layers.

Guild members having a go.

Mike, showing one of his works in progress.