#StumpACurator: When Egg Gave Way to Oil

On the pros and cons of painting with egg tempera

Sep 12, 2018

Featured artists

Sandro Botticelli

Leonora Carrington

Fra Angelico

We asked for your art-related questions—strange or straightforward—and you delivered. (See all installments.)

For this inaugural #StumpACurator, we’re tackling eggs—specifically ‘tempera,’ an emulsion used to bind pigments, made from egg and water (not to be confused with it’s culinary cousin, ‘tempura’). We’ve also created a corresponding playlist of some of our favorite egg tempera works.

Before oil paint, artists used egg tempera. What are its outstanding qualities? In other words, what does it do “better” than oil paint? What are your favorite egg tempera paintings?Scott from Alameda, CA

Well, that’s technically three questions but hey, you only live once.

The finish with tempera is matte, thin, and opaque. This is quite unlike the effect of oil paint, which can be manipulated to create everything from a luminous sheen to a rich, textured, impasto finish, imbuing colors a prismatic quality (oil is both refractive and reflective). When I asked my friend, the artist Alex Rooney, about tempera, he noted that paintings in this medium “tend to be higher in key. You can’t get the deep, saturated darks that you can with oil paint. But it has its own aesthetic charm—think the brightly, slightly chalky coloured frescoes in Italy and the works of Fra Angelico.”

Apparition of SS. Peter and Paul to St. DominicFra Angelico
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Tempera dries extremely fast, meaning that it can’t be reworked. This makes tonal shading more difficult and requires an artist to apply it in small, precise hatching. In fact, one of the reasons oil paint began to replace tempera as the dominant medium in the15th century was because tempera didn’t naturally lend itself to naturalism. As Renaissance artists strove towards greater realism in painting, they began experimenting with new formulas—tempera was just too fast-drying to allow for the precise detail, color, and shading they were after. However, tempera does do better than oil over time; its colours don’t change whereas oil yellows and darkens.

Rooney did point out, however, that many of the paintings that we think of as tempera are actually often ‘tempera grassa,’ in which the egg binder is cut with oil for specific pigments, or oil is used as a glaze: “Tempera grassa essentially combines qualities of both egg tempera and oil painting—extending the drying time, and broadening the tonal range, while keeping much of the delicate aesthetic charm of tempera.” Botticelli, for example, used this method.

Birth of VenusSandro Botticelli
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So there we go. As for my favourite? It would have to be a later example of the medium—Leonora Carrington’s Giantess.

GiantessLeonora Carrington
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Carrington (after whom the Leonora style of our Meural Canvas is named) uses tempera to great effect in this artwork—from the intricate, miniature figures in the foreground to the overall flat, fine finish which enhances its mystical quality. And it’s extremely fitting (and a genuine coincidence) that the giantess is guarding … an egg.

Poppy Simpson, Head of Curation

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Featured Playlist

Egg Tempera: Featured Works

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