WITH EGG TEMPERA
are usually painted in egg tempera. To ‘temper’ a pigment or
colour, is strictly speaking, simply to mix it with a vehicle
substance that is a binder and dryer. Oil paint is pigment tempered
with linseed oil, Watercolour is simply pigment tempered with gum
painting on gesso is traditionally tempered with egg yolk, hence ‘egg
tempera’. It is an extremely long lasting and versatile medium.
Once cleaned, many of the panel painting executed in this medium in
the National Gallery in London have been found to be in far better
condition than paintings executed hundreds of years later in oils and
prepare an egg yolk to paint with it needs to be first separated from
the shell and the yolk sack. The yolk is then diluted 50/50 with
distilled or purified water; many painters add a little clear alcohol
too at this stage, which seems to help emulsify the fat in the egg
yolk and also it acts as anti-bacterial agent and preservative,
extending the time the tempera can be worked with. Iconographers tend
to refer to this base mix simply as their ‘egg stock’.
make tempera paint, the egg stock is simply mixed with a ground
pigment, at first roughly equal the quantity of egg stock to dry
pigment is mixed into a paste with a brush, this mixture is far too
thick and sticky to be used as paint and needs to be diluted further
to the individual painters preference.
are numerous methods for working with egg tempera; some iconographers
like to use the paint very dilute over a monochrome underpainting,
steadily building in layers or glazes. Others use translucent optical
mixes with very wet pigment applied in pure thin washes over a strong
simple line drawing.
the simplest method for a beginner to work in tempera is to use a
technique called ‘Proplasmos’, Greek for ‘first skin, or ‘first
layer’. In this technique all of the local colours of the
composition are applied over a strong brush line drawing done in one
of the darker pigments in the palette. The paint is applied in washes
or glazes; the idea is to build a strong vibrating harmonious set of
base colours for the composition that remain semi-transparent if
possible, so that the underlying line drawing never gets completely
lost. This also means that the colours will keep some of their
natural ‘glow’, as light can pass through them to the brilliant
white of the gessoed panel beneath.
palette of pigments used in iconography is very important. Many of
the colours used have theological and symbolic significance. For this
reason, iconographers where possible and safety allows, will tend to
utilise natural organic pigments.
of the pigments commonly used by icon painters are the natural earth
colours, such as Yellow and Red Ochres and Green Earth pigments of
various hues and shades, also the various darker pigments, such as
the natural dark and lighter Umber and Siena Browns and Lamp Black.
other pigments used in iconography can be derived from quite precious
and rare minerals, such as Lapis Lazuli or Azurite Blue and Malachite
traditional colours in the palette are derived from toxic substances
such as Lead White and Vermillion Red. Happily Titanium Oxide has
given us a perfectly usable replacement for Lead White, but equally
unhappily, none of the safe red pigments available are quite as
beautiful and translucent as genuine Vermillion or Cinnabar.
the ‘Proplasmos’ method, once the base colours have been applied,
the composition of the icon is re-established following the still
visible brush line drawing. Then the process of highlighting the
robes, features of the face, etc. can begin. Icon painters model the
folds, faces and other features of the icon in a series of careful
stages, getting slowly lighter with each stage until the final white,
or nearly white finishing lines are reached. It is important not to
‘jump’ between tones in the modelling too quickly, subtle and
gradual increments are much more effective. Sometimes, to great
effect, there are dramatic uses of complimentary or even contrasting
colours for modelling; for example, a particular favourite of many
iconographers who use this technique, is to model over deep warm
purple red with a cool blue grey.
important as the choice of pigment is the way that the pigment is
used. The first layers of the painting are loose, brushy and washy.
Later as tighter modelling and highlighting is introduced, the brush
marks become of paramount importance, calligraphic energetic mark
making are the hallmark of the Prolasmos technique, especially in the
later and finishing stages. To this end Iconographers tend to paint
with high quality well-made sable or squirrel brushes, the larger
squirrel brushes are particularly useful for putting on wet washes
and glazes and the smaller squirrel brushes for giving precise
energetic calligraphic marks for the finishing highlights.