Art Confidential — Medium of the Masters

Medium of the Masters
The Art of Tempura

Written by Remy Haynes

The art of painting has come a long way since tempera paintings were first created over 100,000 years ago in South Africa. Being discovered only a few years ago, it has allowed us insight into what tools early artists used to make their creations come alive. Early discoveries are important today because each artist must learn first from the masters before evolving their own signature, expression, and their own way of creating their masterpiece for the world.

You don’t have to have an art history degree to have heard of tempera paints. You just have to have visited any art history museum to notice ‘tempera’ listed under the medium for such works of art as The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and Boticelli’s, ‘Venus.’ All of the great European masters of the Renaissance era worked with this widely used medium available during that time. What you may not know is that one of the main ingredients of this medium is egg yolk, coupled with powdered pigments and a binding agent. This new tool made expression possible. Egg: a main ingredient in master creation. Who knew?

Tempera was all they had at that time, until oil paints were introduced into Europe in the 16th century in Italy. Tempera painting was developed in the 14th century also in Italy. Oh those italians… known for their gelato, their afternoon libations, their passion and their incredible contribution to the art world.

It’s funny to think that such a simple recipe helped create a movement in the art world because of what it allowed painters to create. Using simple, organic ingredients tempera paint was traditionally created by hand-grinding dry powdered colored pigments with a binding agent, such as egg yolk, milk casein and a variety of plant gums. This created a thick, fast drying substance with a beautiful mat finish. It was most popularly used on wood panels and needed to be finished with a hard varnish to help preserve the color density from light exposure and weathering. Tempera paintings are so long-lasting that examples from the first century AD still exist.

It is fairly well known now, if you’re an artist of any sort who has frequented your local Blick Art Store that acrylic paint has taken over as the most popular choice of painters today but why? To answer this, we must look at the pros and cons and what artists were able to create with tempera.

One advantage of tempera paint is that it dries rapidly so it is normally applied in thin, semi-opaque or transparent layers. This allows for great precision when used with traditional techniques that require the application of numerous small brush strokes applied in a cross-hatching technique. This technique can be seen in the stunning piece from Sandro Botticelli , 'Idealized Portrait of a Lady', 1480.

Fast drying paint meant more layers, which meant more shading and inevitably more depth. Botticelli's ‘Venus’shows the shading possible with tempera. Also recognizable is the overall pastel, mat finish known with this medium.

As with every tool, there were limitations to tempera. It is water resistant but not waterproof. It fades if it isn't protected with a hard varnish and adding varnish made the colors more saturated, so as an artist this was something to take into consideration. It’s not a flexible paint so it needs to be applied to a stiff surface like wood or plaster. Applying it to softer surfaces can cause it to chip and crack. This is seen in Leonardo DaVinci “The Last Supper” where he first experimented with a tempera and oil mix. Upon close examination we can see it didn’t work out so well. Subject matter is amazing but medium, not so much. Good for Leonardo for trying something new. A true artist indeed.

Oil paints became more prominent because of their ability to create texture and darker, more robust colors but also came with a strong odor, longer dry times and a bigger price tag. And as the art world evolved so did our collective consciousness and our need to use healthier products for the environment and ourselves. Some tempera and oil paints of the past contained mercury, arsenic and lead. It’s even widely speculated that Vincent Van Gogh ate his paints out of poverty and that these toxic ingredients caused the mental break that  led him to cut off his ear.

And so, we saw a move towards a less toxic, more forgiving paint, with a more affordable price tag. Artists today have the option of using modern synthetic pigments, which are less toxic but have similar color properties to the older pigments. Even so, these modern pigments are still dangerous and certain precautions must be taken when storing and using them.

I was curious in my research of tempera if anyone currently still uses this medium. I liken the evolution of paint to the evolution of film to digital photography. I know there are still ‘purists,’ as I like to call them, that use film and I found there are still artists who prefer tempera for that certain look of the Renaissance era. I found this gorgeous portrait created almost 400 years after Botticelli created his Venus piece, called Proserpine. I found it just as arresting, detailed, and engaging.

We all must evolve and as we do, so will our art. Different tools may become available over time. It is our choice as artists to use what we need to tell our story, show our vision, and engage and inspire others. Thank you to the chickens who created the eggs for Michelangelo, Botticelli and Da Vinci to use, for without that elementary contribution we wouldn't have the robust collection of Renaissance art that continues to inspire us over generations.