Tempera is an artistic medium made by mixing pigments with a water-soluble emulsion, often made of water and egg yolk or oil and a whole egg. It dries completely matte and the vibrant colours of tempera paintings can last for centuries. Tempera was commonly used in Byzantine and Early Renaissance painting but experienced a revival around the turn of the 20th century.

John Duncan Saint Bride 1913

Method and Technique

The most common type of tempera is made by combining pigments with either a solution of egg yolk and an agent, such as water, vinegar or even white wine. In some modern applications the whole egg is used. In this case the paint is sometimes mixed with a little oil. It is traditionally applied to a wooden panel that has been coated with layers of  gesso, which is a plaster or chalk and glue base for the tempera to adhere to. This white base can shine through the layers of tempera, lending the artwork a luminous quality.

Mixing and working with tempera both demand a high skill level from the artist. It dries very quickly, meaning that it cannot be reworked or altered after it has been applied, nor can it be mixed or diluted with other colours. To create illusions of light and shade, the artist is required to place different tones in fine brushstrokes beside each other, in order to give the illusion of a smooth transition. This makes working in tempera a time-consuming process. However, tempera dries very vibrantly and its colours turn out relatively light. This medium does not fade or darken as other can, therefore paintings in tempera can last for a long time. The earliest examples of tempera were found on early Egyptian sarcophagi, dating back to the first century AD, proving its durability .

Tempera in the Italian Renaissance

Tempera experienced its heyday in Western art in the Byzantine period and Medieval and early Renaissance Europe, especially in Italian painting. It was used for fresco painting and manuscript illumination, but also for ‘traditional’ panel paintings. The Italian tempera tradition developed mainly in the 13th and 14th centuries when it was used in altarpieces and devotional icons. It developed into the 15th century through its adoption by artists like Piero della Francesca, Sandro Botticelli and Giovanni Bellini. Earlier Italian artists often combined tempera with gilding, placing figures painted with tempera in front of a solid golden background, but later painters increasingly used the medium for more naturalistic depictions of space and nature in their backgrounds. This increasing desire to create a sense of realism coincided with a rise in popularity of oil paint, that caused tempera to fall into disuse at the end of the Renaissance. From around 1500 oil as a medium for pigments allowed artists to layer and blend paint layers, allowing for more naturalistic painterly effects.

The Tempera Revival: Modern and Contemporary Examples

In the 19th and 20th centuries, tempera experienced something of a revival – especially in Britain. The medium was picked up by artists like the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as those who associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. They appreciated tempera for its nostalgic associations with craftsmanship, non-naturalistic art and an increasing search for simplicity in their work. In Scotland, ‘Scottish symbolist’ and Celtic Revival artist John Duncan started working in tempera from the 1910s. He sought a decorative quality in his work and held a great appreciation for the masters of the Italian Renaissance, whom he attempted to emulate through his work – though his daughter did complain about the permanent egg smell that pervaded her family’s home. Later in the 20th century, tempera painting was picked up by Otto Dix, Lucian Freud or Andrew Wyeth, among other artists.

Artists

about 1444 - 1510
1922 - 2011