“How Egg Tempera Painters Crack the Mystery of the Perfect Yolk,” By Karen Chernick

“How Egg Tempera Painters Crack the Mystery of the Perfect Yolk”

‘Just in time for Easter and Passover, we’ve hatched a practical guide to the centuries-old egg-based paint.’

By Karen Chernick


What would Easter be without the decorated egg? Powder blue, rose pink, and daffodil-yellow ovals have become synonymous with the springtime holiday, and painting or dyeing the white canvas of egg shells has reputedly been a popular tradition since the Middle Ages. Eggs are also a fixture on Passover Seder plates, symbolizing a sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem.

But there’s also a centuries-old artistic tradition of painting using the eggs themselves. Egg tempera was a ubiquitous technique during the early Italian Renaissance, when it was considered the standard for portable easel paintings. Botticelli, Raphael, and Andrew Wyeth all painted with tempera. Today, the quick-drying medium, which employs a 50/50 blend of egg yolk and color pigment, is mostly in use by a brave few contemporary practitioners (who must not mind the smell of aging eggs in the studio).

These seasoned artists know what to look for in the perfect paint-worthy egg. Some of them, such as Mary Frances Dondelinger, have been known to use hundreds of eggs a month. Others are regulars at particular farmers’ markets, or swear by a specific brand of store-bought eggs. Just in case you’re not able to raise your own hen (which most agree is the very best option), here’s your guide to sourcing the ideal egg, according to six contemporary egg tempera painters.

Sandro Botticelli, “The Birth of Venus,” tempera on canvas (c. 1486, via Wikimedia)

1. Do you want to eat it?

If it doesn’t look appetizing to eat, it probably isn’t — and shouldn’t be used for painting, either. “The best eggs for egg tempera are fresh and healthy,” says Miranda Gray, a New-Mexico based painter. “The eggs that you would most want to eat yourself are the eggs that work best for egg tempera.”

Robin-Lee Hall, a UK-based artist, agrees: she buys the same eggs for her studio and her refrigerator. A loyal customer of a British brand called Burford Browns, Hall says, “They make delicious creamy scrambled egg.”

2. Is it fresh?

The fresher the better, for eggs and most perishable ingredients. But how far do you take that recommendation? “I heard of one painter who caught the eggs before they hit the nest to get the freshest and warmest eggs for painting,” says Mary Frances Dondelinger. Of course, not everyone has a flock of hens at their disposal.

Robin-Lee Hall, “Joy,” egg tempera on gesso panel, 28 x 24 inches (courtesy of the artist)

Beyond the sell-by date on a store-bought egg carton, you can gauge whether an egg is fresh by the strength of the shell, and how easy it is to separate the yolk from the egg white. “If the egg is old or sickly, the membrane between the yellow and white is not strong, the shell is thin and weak, and it is very difficult to separate the egg,” Gray says.

3. What color is the yolk?

It’s worth shelling out the extra money for richer-colored yolks. As a culinary ingredient, yolks are a binder that adds a creamy texture to dishes. In tempera painting, they are the glue that keeps pigment particles together. “The cheapest eggs have the palest yolks,” says Rosemary Antel, a Seattle-based landscape painter. “Pastured hens and organic eggs have yolks that are almost red-orange.” Hall buys Burford Browns because of their “bright rich cadmium orange yolk,” she says. “It needs to be rich and thick.”

4. Free-range from the farmers’ market, or store-bought?

There isn’t a consensus among egg tempera painters on whether farm-fresh eggs make a difference in the final painted product. “I have tried organic versus not, brown eggs and white, and shades between, and found it’s not of any significant difference,” explains Mona Conner, a tempera portrait painter. “It’s just about the freshness.

“For many years I bought store eggs for eating and painting,” says Ella Frazer, a Scottish-born painter now based in Florida. “I am now vegetarian and always buy organic cage-free eggs. I certainly haven’t noticed any change.”

Miranda Gray, “Yoda in Spring,” egg tempera on panel, 5″×7.5″ (courtesy of the artist)

5. Do you have to paint with chicken eggs?

Painters of a different feather may not use chicken eggs at all. According to Antel, Alaska Natives have a tradition of mixing salmon eggs with finely ground rock to create paint.

Among artists drawing from the European tradition, birds have been the egg-hatchers of choice, but chickens don’t have a monopoly on egg tempera. “There is talk of using eggs that have a larger oil content (emu or goose eggs for example) thus producing more brilliant colors,” says Dondelinger. “But when I’m using hundreds of eggs in a month I look for ease of access and I’ve had beautiful results with eggs from the humble chicken.”

Antonio da Fabriano II, “Saint Jerome in His Study,” The Walters Art Museum, tempera and gold leaf on wood panel (c.1450, via Wikimedia)

Featured image: Robin-Lee Hall, “Amber Still Life,” 10×12 inches, egg tempera on gesso panel (courtesy of the artist)


By Karen Chernick, Reprint from Hyperallergic, 30 March 2018, © 2018 Hyperallergic Media Inc.

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