19 March 2011

Adventures in Egg Tempera

I finally got to answer a question that crosses the mind of every beginning egg tempera painter. Perhaps chicken eggs are the best-suited eggs for painting, but what about other bird's eggs? I finally got the opportunity to deviate from the prescribed course when I found quail eggs for sale at Talin International Market in Albuquerque. Ideally you paint with the freshest, organic eggs available, so it's definitely a risk to paint with quail eggs shipped in from California and have been sitting on shelves for an indeterminate period of time.

Egg tempera is an ancient painting medium using egg yolk as a binder for pigments. The yolk has to be separated completely from the white (paint with egg white paints was used in European medieval manuscripts and is called "glair"). The quail eggshells are quite beautiful, cream with brown speckles and pale blue on the inside. They are softer than chicken eggs and don't break as cleanly. On the plus side, probably due to the smaller surface area, the yolk sac isn't as fragile as a chicken's.

The quail egg yolk handled very much like chicken yolk. I use a 1:1 yolk-water ratio with a drop of vinegar to keep the paint from spoiling quickly. I had a 7"x5" true gesso panel and found an 19th-century tintype of a Cherokee girl from Indian Territory, that was in the public domain, to provide subject matter for this experiment. The underpainting is built up with transparent layers. Ideally you get some paint on your brush, wipe it off, and then create barely perceptible layers, but my patience only goes so far before I finally resort to cross-hatching the top layers. I leave visible brush strokes, but I like the energy this gives the work. Egg tempera is about the least spontaneous art medium I know of.

The handling and the end results of the quail egg tempera were good. The only advantage I can see to painting with quail eggs is the smaller yolks allow you to use exactly as much as you need every time you painting, instead of leaving the remaining yolk mixture in the 'fridge.

Although I've never heard it suggested that precontact peoples in the Americas used egg tempera, many tribes domesticated turkeys, so at least it's possible that egg tempera might have a history here. Indigenous paint binders I do know about include bear grease, lime, blood, squirrel fat, cherry sap, milkweed juice, cucumber juice, and pine pitch. I'd be very curious to know if tribes used rabbit fat or walnut oil as a paint binder.

From Ahalenia

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