Why five-hundred-year-old paintings in egg tempera continue to glow brightly.
by Doug Safranek | May 12, 2015
Ever since moving to New York City, during the summer of 1984, the city has been an enduring source of subject matter and inspiration for me. Most of my New York work has been executed in egg tempera, an ancient medium that was widely used for altarpieces during the late Middle Ages and which had a resurgence in a range of secular works by American artists during the first half of the twentieth century. Several of the WPA-era artists who contributed to this wave were my mentors, and much of what I’ve been able to accomplish is a result of their guidance and friendship.
I was introduced to egg tempera painting during the early 1980s while a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My life-drawing instructor, the magic realist 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 of painters from the Byzantine era through the late Middle Ages. The jewel-like altarpieces of fourteenth-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 remaining 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 that allowed for few revisions once the procedure was underway. 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 quattrocento 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 fifteenth century, however, effectively marked the end of the egg tempera era in Italy. 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 support. Oil paint also had a broader value range than could be achieved with the older medium. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, virtually all painters in Italy and in the rest of Europe were executing their work in oil. After centuries of use, egg tempera largely disappeared from Western art.
Egg tempera wouldn’t entirely vanish from art history, however. Iconographers of the Russian Orthodox Church continued working in egg tempera, maintaining a tradition that dates back to the early Christian church. During the first decades of the nineteenth 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 twentieth century, that egg tempera experienced its most significant revival. As early as the 1890s, 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 Angelico, Mantegna, della Francesca, and other fifteenth-century Italian masters.
By the 1920s, a number of schools in 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. Here in New York, the Art Students League offered classes in egg tempera led by Kenneth Hayes Miller, Thomas Hart Benton, and Reginald Marsh. In Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, N.C. Wyeth taught egg tempera to a number of students including his son Andrew; and at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, artist and art historian James Watrous established a program emphasizing classical painting techniques which attracted a considerable following.
My two principal teachers at the University of Wisconsin, Robert Grilley and John Wilde, were both graduates of this program. In the early 1980s 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. Watrous demonstrated how multiple translucent layers of pigment, when thinly applied, resulted in a final, semi-opaque surface which always somewhat revealed the layers of the colors beneath. Watrous also taught me that egg tempera was a more versatile, user-friendly medium than generally thought. Unlike their Medieval predecessors whose use of tempera was strictly dictated by tradition, twentieth-century painters discovered they could use tempera in ways that were bold and gestural as well as delicate and controlled. Artists as varied as George Tooker, Ben Shahn, Reginald Marsh, and Jacob Lawrence would find egg tempera to be an ideal vehicle for their artistic expression.
In the spring of 1984, when 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 1940s — 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. More recently, a family friend of Vaclav Vytlacil gave me a number of jars of pigment that came from Vytlacil’s collection. These have been wonderful gifts which I continue to use to this day in my Brooklyn studio.
Over thirty years have passed since I arrived in New York, a city that never ceases to present new subjects to a figurative painter. In the urban scenes that have made up a large part of my work, I’ve attempted to note not only the clutter and eccentricities of daily life but also that which is timeless and universal in a fast-paced environment. I’ve found that the meditative process of layering the thin, delicate brushstrokes that make up the surface of a tempera painting has the effect of imparting an intimate stillness to even the most active composition.
There have been so many friends and mentors over the years to whom I owe so much —they include 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; Robert Vickery, whose book New Techniques in Egg Tempera has been such a valuable resource; and Koo Schadler, a superb artist and teacher who has brought egg tempera instruction to artists around the country. I’m also grateful to Ira Goldberg who invited me to introduce egg tempera to a new generation of painters at the League. Egg tempera is an ancient medium well suited to contemporary approaches; I encourage everyone who’s curious about egg tempera to join me and my assistant, Benisse Lester, in the upcoming Wednesday and Thursday evening summer classes, or in one of the Sunday classes held during the regular session. Finally, I remember Paul Cadmus, whose friendship and support I enjoyed during the last fifteen years of his life. A great draughtsman and painter whose career spanned most of the twentieth century, Cadmus continues to inspire me and others as we carry the tradition of egg tempera painting into the twenty-first century.