Pigments and egg yolk

Pigments and egg yolk

You are probably familiar with the term tempera although you might not realize it.  If you went to kindergarten in the United States, chances are excellent that you used it for finger painting and crafts.  What you used in school would have been a commercially-made poster paint referred to as tempera that was composed of various non-toxic and water-soluble chemicals.  True tempera paint is bold, adheres well to nearly any surface and is nearly permanent once dry.  But did you know

…that tempera, in its truest form, is made by adding pigments ground to a fine powder with egg yolks and mixed to a uniform color?  It is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium but tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium.  Tempera paintings are very long lasting and examples from the 1st centuries AD still exist.  Egg tempera was a primary method of painting until after 1500 when it was superseded by the invention of oil painting.

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels Michelangelo Egg tempera on panel, 1497

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels
Michelangelo
Egg tempera on panel, 1497

Tempera painting has been found on early Egyptians sarcophagi decorations. Many of the Fayum mummy portraits use tempera, sometimes in combination with encaustic.

A related technique has been used also in ancient and early medieval paintings found in several caves and rock-cut temples of India. High-quality art with the help of tempera was created in Bagh Caves between the late 4th and 10th centuries AD and in the 7th century AD in Ravan Chhaya rock shelter, Orissa.

The art technique was known from the classical world, where it appears to have taken over from encaustic painting and was the main medium used for panel painting and illuminated manuscripts in the Byzantine world and Medieval and Early renaissance Europe. Tempera painting was the primary panel painting medium for nearly every painter in the European Medieval and Early renaissance period up to 1500.  For example, every surviving panel painting by Michelangelo is egg tempera.

The Green Wave, Vorhor by Georges Lacombe Egg tempera on panel, 20th century

The Green Wave, Vorhor
by Georges Lacombe
Egg tempera on panel, 20th century

Oil paint eventually superseded tempera. It replaced tempera as the principal medium used for creating artworks during the 15th century in Flemish Primitive (or Early Netherlandish) painting in northern Europe.  Around 1500, oil paint replaced tempera in Italy.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, there were intermittent revivals of tempera technique in Western art, among the Pre-Raphaelites, Social Realists, and others. Tempera painting continues to be used in Greece and Russia where it is the required medium for Orthodox icons.

You can learn more about the technique of making traditional tempera paints here.

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