Not sure what made me think of posting my first egg tempera painting this week. I’d seen it a couple months ago when I was looking through my myriad of portfolios. Over a couple decades I have filled 11 portfolios, plus countless drawers, of art. And, mind you, these large flat envelope-looking containers are full to bursting with seemingly random sketches, paintings, watercolors, etchings, pen and ink renderings, newspaper articles and one lone 11 x 14 inch egg tempera on masonite board. While I was digging and muttering, I was wondering what I would write about when I found it. I hoped I wouldn’t be too under whelmed with the piece and then wonder why I’d made such a big deal out of it. Actually, I came across an interesting study of a woman (acrylic on heavy paper) I did about the same time and thought I might present that art today—but I eventually found what I was looking for, so stay tune for the Lady in Profile.
I was almost giddy when I finally saw the bag it was in. I was also pretty relieved and wondered how I had overlooked it the first time I went through that particular portfolio. As I gently ran my hand over the surface of the board, I remembered all over again how I worked to make it so smooth, and what I did to achieve the glass-like texture with such bright colors. So, my first thoughts were just that—what do I remember about making this particular piece? Where was I when I did it? And why didn’t I make more? If I think back, I remember wonderful afternoons in a “materials” art class in Krober Hall at UCB, so I think the “where” I learned about the medium is answered. I will try to explain “what” I remember about making egg tempera in the next section. And if you’re not too bored after reading the following “what” part, I think you will have an inkling of “why” I didn’t make any more. Finally, if you make it past that, there will be yet another set of “what,” “where” and “why” questions regarding the subject matter of “Looking down at my feet by the stream…”
What is egg tempera?
For me, it all starts with remembering what it is and how to make the pigments. I must confess I didn’t remember how long ago the technique was first discovered, so I Googled it. In doing so, I discovered that it was found in “ancient time” Egyptian temples. And it appears that it was used quite extensively in art during the Italian Renaissance. Andrew Wyeth (mid-century American painter) did some now famous paintings with egg tempera. Who knew?
As for how it is made, it appears that there are several formulas that have been used through the ages, but the three main ingredients are egg yolk, powdered pigment, and then one more liquid. I remember learning to make it with just straight water added to the other two ingredients. I read that some painters are adamant about the water being distilled, but I just remember getting water from the tap in the art room. The mixture needs water, vinegar, or white wine added because the egg yolk plus pigment will dry out too fast without it. And it seems some painters add vinegar or white wine in an attempt to also preserve the mixture. You probably don’t need to be reminded that an egg yolk, removed from the shell and left out of the frig, will spoil in a relatively short period of time. And the smell of a rotten egg mixed with water will stink and I can’t even imagine what a rotten egg yolk would smell like with a hint of white wine vinegar or chardonnay. So, you have to work pretty quickly with this medium, if you catch my drift.
Next, I remember that this medium needs to be applied to a stable hard surface, not canvas. This is because canvas is too pliable and dried egg tempera can crack if the surface is too flexible. And this part of the process I remember very vividly. My materials class was in the afternoon and the sun shafts drifted through a wall of windows in that Krober Hall room. I remember first prepping the board with a layer of gesso on the smooth side. There’s a great X of gesso on the back of the board, and I don’t remember doing that, but I obviously did, and I can’t think why. Maybe it was to remind you not to paint on the rough surface on the back? Yeah, right. Then there was a fair amount of sanding, mixing the paint and applying it. I remember adding the colors, with a final flourish of tiny details. I was truly surprised with the vivid colors and lovely finish. But even though I enjoyed every step of that creation, I never did another one. Over the years I have mixed a couple batches, thinking I would try it again, but never did. I think I prefer paints that come ready to go—in tubes, bottles and cakes. Ancient artists had to make their own paint, but I don’t. Even Vincent Van Gogh used oil paints (pigments mixed with oil and not egg yolks) in metal tubes. I mean, he was outside, painting in a huge hurry. He didn’t have time to catch a chicken and make the paint. And I’m sure if he had some wine, he wasn’t mixing it with cadmium sulphide. I’m with Vincent, I prefer my paint to be premixed and that’s why I never made more.
The What, Where and Why of “Looking down at my feet by the stream…”
Once the board was appropriately prepped, I remember thinking that the surface of the masonite was so very smooth, it kind of reminded me of ice, or the smooth surface of slow flowing crystal clear water in a stream. I decided the subject matter would be flowing water, making very small ripples around two rocks. I did the piece with the idea that it would be displayed flat on the ground down by your feet. And all you had to do was look over from the chair you were seated at, and see the water flowing past you. Crazy huh? What was I thinking? What if I stepped on it? What if you stepped on it? I didn’t want anyone’s footprints on there, not even mine. So, I put it away for safekeeping.
I have had “Looking down at the rocks by the stream…” on my easel all week and have enjoyed the memory of making something so personal, one of a kind with so many memories. Do you have something like that? Something you can run your hand over and remember a special time, person or whatever? How about a special painting that your great aunt or grandma made? It could even be a paint by numbers you did when you were in the fifth grade. Take good care of it. Don’t let anyone touch it with dirty hands and for heaven’s sake don’t let anyone walk on it. Who would ever think to make a painting that was meant to be displayed and enjoyed on the floor? Just one California girl, I guess!