Egg tempera

From Academic Kids

Egg tempera is a type of paint used by artists. It is made of pigments mixed with egg yolk which acts as a binding medium. It is made fresh, a little at a time by the artist as it doesn't keep. It is not sold commercially.

A 'simple' guide to making tempera

  1. Place a small amount of the pigment paste onto a palette, dish or bowl.
  2. Add about an equal volume of the egg medium and mix well making sure there are no lumps of pigment. Some pigments require slightly more egg medium, some require less.
  3. Add water (usually less than a teaspoon per egg yolk), trial and error will dictate just how much water is required. In truth, any amount of water can be added, the important ratio is the pigment paste to egg medium.

Further instructions

An egg yolk has a membrane which contains the liquid yolk. You don't want to use the membrane to make paint. It's like using the skin off the exposed surface of house paint which has been setting open too long.

In preparing egg tempera, isolate the yolk and dry the membrane slightly by rolling it on a paper towel. Pick up the yolk GENTLY by the membrane, dangle it over a receptacle and puncture the membrane with [for instance] a toothpick to drain off the liquid inside. You will want to use distilled water. Chemical additives in the water can make the paint change color over time.

Your initial mixture of powdered pigment, yolk and distilled water will dry out and cease to flow well after you've been working awhile. This will happen whether or not you keep the mix covered--yolk just gets thick upon exposure to air. You will have to keep adding water as you work, because the pigment-yolk paste dries out, and the paint won't flow. The result is a gluey, plaster-like buildup on your work, and it's very ugly. Too much yolk in the mixture makes the paint look greasy and clumpy; too much water makes it run. You can't hurt it by adding more of everything one substance at a time until you get what you want. Most pigment powders settle out; you have to keep stirring your paint. Keep coffee stirrers on hand for that, or a palette knife. Don't make a huge amount at a time--just enough for the area you're working on.

I use a child's tea-party set for holding the yolks and the water. I also fill 2 large syringes, one with yolk and one with distilled water, as this makes it easy to control the amount of each you add to the pigment and has the added advantage of keeping the yolk from thickening with exposure to air.

Do remember to buy non toxic pigments and cover your nose and mouth with a damp rag when you're handling any powdered pigment, toxic or not. Even if the powdered pigment your're using isn't toxic, it is finely ground and gritty, and it will damage your lungs if you breathe in too much of it. Don't allow anyone into your studio when you're working with it, and wipe all your surfaces down with a damp rag when you're through.

Real Vermillion is made from cinnabar, which is mercury ore, and cadmium red, orange and yellow contain cadmium, which is poisonous. These are only two of several seriously toxic pigments. You have to be careful. Research the pigments you use. Artificial pigments, such as the quinocronones, work very well and won't kill you or give you cancer. You don't have to use the same pigments Michaelangelo did. He used them because he didn't have a choice. If you just have to use a toxic pigment to be happy, for your family's sake, be smart and use a respirator and goggles.

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