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Egg Tempera

I was introduced to egg tempera painting during the early 1980’s while a graduate student the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  At that time my life-drawing instructor, the painter John Wilde, remarked that the way I layered color in the large pastel drawings I was doing at the time resembled the egg tempera technique he was taught while studying traditional painting methods at the University of Wisconsin some forty years earlier.  Intrigued by this observation, I decided to look into it.  I had always worked in oils and, other than having heard tempera mentioned in an art history class, I knew nothing of its qualities or how it was used.


I subsequently learned that egg tempera had been the principal medium utilized by painters during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.  The jewel-like altarpieces of the 14th century Siena and the quattrocento works of Florentine masters were all executed in pigments bound together with egg yolk and thinned with water.  A gessoed panel was sanded to the smoothness of ivory and a compositional drawing or “cartoon” was transferred to it.  The areas of the panel that were to be gilded would then be incised with decorative patterns, painted with red bole and covered in gold leaf.  Finally, the remainging gessoed surface would be developed in tempera in two stages: first, a fully detailed, monochromatic underpainting was completed, usually in shades of green.  Next, over this underpainting, the final colors were applied.

All of these layers of tempera paint were brushed on in thin, separate strokes that dried immediately after they were applied.  The layering of these strokes eventually defined the surface of the painting.  It was a deliberate, slow, labor intensive process which allowed for few revisions once the procedure was under way.  The result of all this careful gilding and layering was an impressive image of ethereal luminosity and, considering the delicacy of the materials, one that proved remarkably archival.  Although initially water soluble, the oil and water emulsion that forms the egg yolk eventually becomes insoluble and hard as enamel.  If applied to a stable surface, egg tempera doesn’t crack or yellow with age.  The vivid colors on quatrrocento panels glow as brightly today as they did when they first were applied over five hundred years ago.


The arrival of oil painting techniques from Flanders at the end of the 15th century, however, effectively marked the end of the age of egg tempera.  The new linseed oil based medium generally proved to be more convenient to use.  Oil paint was flexible and versatile.  It stayed wet longer, allowing the painter to blend colors after applying them to the panel.  Also, it had a broader value range that could be achieved with the older medium.  By the beginning of the 16th century virtually all major Italian painters were producing their work in oil.  After centuries of use, egg tempera largely disappeared from western art. While it would never again be a particularly popular medium, egg tempera didn’t entirely vanish from art history.  Iconographers of the Russian Orthodox Church continued working in egg tempera, maintaining a tradition that dates back to Byzantium.  In the early 19th century, English painters of the Romantic Movement occasionally turned to egg tempera in a nostalgic effort to revive the distant past.  It was in America, however, during the first half of the 20th century, that egg tempera painting experienced its most significant revival.  As early as the 1890’s American figurative painters were looking to the Renaissance for inspiration, striving to develop the same figure drawing, painting, and draughtsmanship skills they admired in the work of 15th century Italian masters.


By the 1920’s a number of schools around the United States began offering courses in fresco, tempera, and other classical painting techniques to satisfy a growing demand among art students.  Among these was Yale University, where Daniel Thompson published The Practice of Tempera Painting, the book perhaps most frequently referred to by tempera painters today.  The Art Students League offered classes in egg tempera led by Kenneth Hayes Miller and Thomas Hart Benton, and the University of Wisconsin had a program, designed by the artist and art historian James Watrous, which attracted a considerable following.

My two principal teachers at the University of Wisconsin were both graduates of this program.  In the early 1980’s Professor Watrous, then retired, still maintained his office on campus and it was to him that I was sent with my first egg tempera panels to receive instruction and occasional critiques.  Watrous demonstrated how multiple translucent layers of pigment, when thinly applied, resulted in a final semi-opaque surface which always somewhat revealed the colors of the layers beneath.  I noticed, however, that while each brush stroke dried within seconds, only after a considerable period of time did the tempera layers become insoluble.  A careless or impetuous swipe of the brush could quickly pull up underlying paint layers, re-exposing the gessoed ground.  A promising beginning would frequently disintegrate into a watery mess.  However inept the little panels that I presented to Dr. Watrous might have been, my optimistic teacher would always find a spot or two where he claimed I was starting to realize the potential of the medium, and he would send me off to try again.

In the spring of 1984, as I was finishing my MFA and preparing to move to New York, Watrous presented me with several boxes filled with powdered pigments and brushes left over from the 1940’s — wonderful old jars of various sizes, including some of which belonged to his colleague, John Steuart Curry, and others which had come from Thomas Hart Benton.  It was a wonderful gift and one which I continue to use to this day in my Brooklyn studio.

Nearly thirty years have passed since I arrived in New York, a city that never ceases to offer new subjects to a figurative painter.  There have been so many friends and mentors over the years to whom I owe so much — Robert Grilley, John Wilde, and James Watrous at the University of Wisconsin, who taught me and generations of others technical skills which were largely unavailable in most college programs; my friend and colleague Alan Goldsmith, who taught me how to gesso a panel and gave me my first collection of pigments; Robert Vickery, whose excellent book New Techniques in Egg Tempera has been such a valuable resource; Penny Schmidt, of the Schmidt Bingham Gallery, who saw merit in my early work and with whom I exhibited for many years; and Jeffrey and Dorian Bergen, who have been so generous to me and who are responsible for this show at the ACA Galleries.  Finally, I remember Paul Cadmus, whose friendship and support I enjoyed during the last fifteen years of his life.  A great tempera painter whose career spanned most of the twentieth century, he continues to inspire me and others as we carry the tradition of egg tempera painting into the twenty-first century.

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