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Practical class: Egg Tempera painting

Ah, the richness of raw pigments.
Are you like me, an alchemist at heart? I’m not talking about turning lead into gold…well, not exactly…although one could argue that that’s exactly what we can do here. Do you see all these beautiful golden yellow pigments? They are all lead based.

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Flake white is basic carbonite of lead and is made by exposing lead to ascetic acid. This is historically one of the most important pigments of art, used as the ground for many paints. Yellows are made by heating lead white. Duller yellows, such as Naples yellow is lead mixed with antimony oxides, and reds are often made by heating lead white to a high heat.

Great news for art, not so great for artists. Lead is in every way poisonous and must be respectfully handled.

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Gold is the only substance which remains itself…gold. It is hammered into ultra thin sheets and applied with gum Arabic.

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Other important pigments are:

Mercury: Vermilion, cinnabar, and other brownish pigments (something tells me alchemists didn’t live long)
Silver: greys and, obviously, silver
Copper: a natural blue, incorporated with malachite, makes azure blues, verdigris, greens, and even blacks when oxidised.
Iron: Perhaps the most versatile, it makes every shade from flesh tones to natural earths like: yellow ochre, red ochre, raw sienna, burnt sienna, terra verte, Indian red, Venetian red and Mars black.

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As a matter of fact, the ancient alchemists assigned planets to the elements in this way:
Gold = Saturn
Mercury = Mercury
Silver = Moon
Copper = Venus
Iron = Mars
Tin = Jupiter
Lead = Saturn
explaining some pigment names, like Mars Black and Mercury Red

Oh fascinating, but we’re slightly off topic.

Come, let’s try our hand at egg tempera painting under the expert coaching of Lily Corbett, master painter from The Prince’s School of Traditional ArtsĀ (yes The Prince of Wales.)

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So egg tempera might be a little bit of an investment in raw pigments. I’m not sure how much raw pigments cost, but one only needs a limited amount of them because they blend and mix beautifully to make a rainbow of colours. Just for reference, here is a stockist in the UK.

The other thing one needs is a fresh egg yolk and water, plus a drop or two of lavender oil and vinegar.

To get the egg yolk, separate it from the white (incidentally, can you see a lot of meringues in your painting future?), and then carefully run the yolk in its sack between the palms of your hand trying to mop up as much of the white as you can, because any egg white will cause the resulting mix to dry too quickly and drag rather than smooth over the paper/canvas. Then, hold the yolk by its membrane over a small bowl and pinch or prick a hole at the bottom allowing the contents to drain into the bowl. Discard the membrane. Now, mix in about a tablespoon of water to the egg yolk, a drop of lavender oil and a couple drops of vinegar. The vinegar is essential, but the lavender oil can be left out. It just gives the egg base a bit of a silky smoothness.

Now you can sprinkle some powdered pigment onto your palette and pour some egg mixture on another part of your palette and blend one into the other.

The other option, and the one we had, is to sprinkle some powdered pigments into small cups on a watercolour palette and add the egg mixture. The longer this mixture stays undisturbed in the cups, the more the powders will settle to the bottom, and you will have to stir with your paint brush each time you want to use that pigment.

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The way we began this journey was with a square of plain paper, a square of transparent velum, a cloth covered in a red ochre powder pigment and a square of gessoed paper as a painting board. This is the way egg tempera has traditionally been started.

Now we draw something on the plain paper. In the end, I went with a fanciful thistle/carnation flower.

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Now we layer. Four layers like so: transparent velum at the top, plain paper with design underneath, followed by red ochre square, red ochre facing the gessoed side of our painting board. (PS. washed off the willow weaving (previous post) about three times with harsh soap and still have tannins under my nails!)

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Next just trace the design onto the transparent velum, thereby pressing it onto the gessoed paper in red ochre.
Then, remove the velum, plain paper and the red ochre piece, take some of your mixed pigment and paint the design by following your red ochre lines. I used a blue here.

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Traditionally, the next step is to paint in the entire design with a neutral iron based pigment. I went with the green one which Lily supplied us with. This makes a good base for the other pigments to adhere to, and, the pigments are built up in layers, each layer making the painting more and more vibrant.

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Layer the paints in a cohesive manner because each layer must be dried before another layer is applied, otherwise the wet layer will lift the one underneath. I went clockwise.

Now here’s the trick…and it might just be a bit of a big one! Egg tempera doesn’t behave like any other medium. The pigments, once dried, do not reconstitute like watercolours with water, and this includes the mixes on your palette. They do not stay wet to be worked with very long like oils, and here’s the dilemma: You have to work fast enough not to have the paint dry on your palette, but slow enough to make sure each layer of paint on your painting is dry enough to go over with a second layer.


But I bet that by the 100th painting, we’ll have got the hang of it. šŸ˜€

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The next deal breaker might be that the colours must be mixed in small amounts, and therefore, as you can see, I couldn’t get a consistent purple by mixing the red and blue pigments. But again, that’s probably just lack of experience.

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So I kept working on my little painting. Painted purple layers over purple layers, yellow and orange layers, green on green on yellow on green, highlighted, lowlighted, mixed in a little blue, a little red, outlined, filled in and generally mucked about with this for an hour, and in the end I’m quite impressed with myself and with this medium.

It’s extremely forgiving. It’s extremely vibrant. It’s extremely ancient and traditional and lovely and satisfying, and overall, I think I’ll repeat the process. I can’t promise 100 more paintings, but we’ll see. šŸ˜€

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Comments: 5

  • July 24, 2015

    Mixing those raw pigments… So like being an alchemist. I love it.

    Gorgeous colors… in your painting… How you do things like highlighting, lowlighting, etc. Amazing!

    My husband has applied gold leaf, to his woodworking. So I have seen the sheets of it. He is the artistically talented one, in the family. šŸ™‚


  • July 25, 2015

    Wonderful! I’m too impatient and not a very good artist I’m afraid. What an interesting process V. The details and colours are lovely ..

  • daryledelstein

    July 25, 2015

    awesome lesson …. i gave up painting when i realized i was never going to be a photo realist .. now i do my ‘art’ with an iPhone and a Nikon … both are way more fulfilling for me ..

  • Shahana Akter

    July 27, 2015

    Very good lesson for artists. They will be benefited so much.

  • December 12, 2023

    What sort of transparent vellum?

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