In a previous blog (25th August) I talked a little about tempera painting. It is a technique which stretches back to the Ancient worlds of Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. One has only to think of Herculaneum or Pompeii, or the marvellous churches of the Byzantine era. Moving forward in time to Italy, we see it flourishing in the hands of artists such as Giotto, Massaccio and of course, Michelangelo. With the advent of oil painting in the 16th century tempera painting fairly rapidly was eclipsed. Not until the 20th century was it revived by artists such as Orozco and Rivera in Mexico and Ben Shan and Andrew Wyeth in the U.S.A.
Technically, it is a medium which is much more difficult to hande than oils. Originally, the painting was done directly on to wet plaster (true fresco) though frequently was retouched when dry (fresco secco). The craftsmanship and discipline required in the mixing of the pigments and preparation of the surfaces to be worked on is highly demanding.
A brief recipe will demonstrate that it is not a process which can be rushed.
Soak a yoghurt potful of rabbitskin glue in 2pints of water for 24 hours. Heat this in a double boiler and stir in 64 tablespoons of whiting. Let it absorb and leave overnight.
To prepare the panels ( e.g.M.D.F.) size with a weak gesso. (4-8 layers) Both sides of the panel have to be painted to avoid warping. With each successive coat change the direction of the brushstrokes. After this leave for a fortnight to season.
To smooth the boards, a cabinet scraper should be used. Dust charcoal on to show any raised portions which can then be polished with a linen cloth dipped in ionized water.
Pigments now have to be ground using distilled water and a muller (in a figure of eight motion.) When smooth, the colours should be placed in a small jar and covered with a layer of distilled water. When the time for painting comes, egg yolk is the binding medium. Use a fresh, free range egg. Separate the yolk from the white. This yolk is squeezed into a reservoir on the palette . An equal volume of pigment and egg are mixed together , adding distilled water as necessary.
In my brief foray into tempera painting , I choose a couple of portraits by Andrew Wyeth to copy. These are incomplete , but they will demonstrate some techniques and the effects that can be achieved.
It is a slow and methodical process building up successive layers with tiny strokes. It has to be done in this way as the pigment dries instantly so the smooth blending of an oil cannot be achieved. A close up should demonstrate the technique.
As I said these studies were unfinished and would have taken hours more work to achieve the finish require, despite the fact they are only about 5 inches high.
Tempera is most definitely a lovely medium for those with patience and a love of craftsmanship.