Introduction: Egg Tempera Paint - a Guide
Tempera paint is incredibly easy and inexpensive to make at home. This made a very enjoyable lockdown project for me and I'd like to share with you my recipe for egg-based tempera paint, along with a description of suitable pigments, and how it is to paint with.
In this project your imagination is the limit when it comes to suitable paint colours that we can make - almost anything can be suitable! I collected some plant samples from the riverside near where I live, and used these alongside food-based colours that I found in the kitchen.
Here's a quick video overview, then please read on for the details!
This project is suitable for children with appropriate adult supervision. Please bear in mind risks when out collecting plant samples and check the legality of this where you live (in the UK it is legal to collect parts of wild plants provided that you do not uproot them). Additionally do not consume any of the foodstuffs when used for the paint, and be careful not to inhale powdered material when grinding material into pigmented powder.
Step 1: What You Will Need
This project is very flexible in terms of the required items, here's what I'd recommend though:
For the paint itself:
- White vinegar (a few tablespoon's worth)
- Egg (one egg makes a lot of paint!)
- Water (for diluting paint and cleaning brushes)
- Pigments (see discussion in later steps)
- Small bowl for mixing
- Fork (for pulping samples into a paste - if you have a mortar & pestle or garlic press that might be handy!)
- Tablespoon measure
- Artist's palette (I have a small aluminium one which is ideal)
- Sketching pencils
Step 2: You're in Botticelli's Footsteps ...
If you haven't heard of tempera before, this type of paint actually has a really large role to play in the history of art, as one of the most popular types available for artists to use before oil painting became more common in the 1500s. Many famous artists such as Botticelli worked in tempera, Primavera, illustrated, being a famous example of his work. Although less popular since, it has been used by many respected artists since, and although there are many different recipes, egg-based tempera is the dominant type.
Today, an egg-based tempera is easy to make at home, and can the source of a lot of experimentation. I really enjoyed dipping my toes in this subject, and I hope you will enjoy trying this too.
Image credit: Public Domain, Wikipedia.
Step 3: Suitable Pigments
Let's take a look around the house!
There are many different things in a normal home that'll be a suitable pigment for our paint. Really, it doesn't particularly matter what you choose, provided that it provides a good strong colour it'll be worth trying. I had most luck in the kitchen cupboard. The other good advantage of this is that there are many products designed to be soluble in water or already finely ground, so there's no need to powder it further yourself. If you did need to, a mortar and pestle would work nicely. Foodstuffs are also very benign, but be think carefully if you consider powdering something household that could potentially be harmful to inhale if ground up.
Here's what I tried:
- Cumin (did not work well, see discussion in later steps)
- Cocoa powder
- Instant coffee powder
- Soy sauce
Step 4: Feed the Birds (this Step Can Be Skipped If Necessary)
Where to find suitable natural pigments
So I thought it would be a nice plan to look for some natural substances in the environment around where I live to supplement the food-based colourings that I'd already chosen. I'm lucky to live in an area with plenty of different habitats including rivers, fields, and woodland, so I hoped that there would be something to find that could suit.
Last Sunday afternoon the first expedition to find materials began, a rucksack with different ziplock bags, tupperware boxes and some implements for collecting samples on my back. I'd planned to take a walk along the riverside, where this is a large variety of different plants. As it turned out, I met some geese, some ducks, and a coot. Luckily for them my rucksack also had a tupperware full of oats for them! I didn't have much luck that day finding the right materials for this project though, so another trip was needed.
Side note: although it is common to feed waterbirds bread, like I used to do, recently the official advice from bird protection organisations has changed to discourage bread. What is definitely recommended is oats! We like to add a big bag to our shopping every now and then for them.
2nd time lucky!
On my next foray a couple of weekends later, I had a more specific idea of what to look for, and this is what I found (see photos):
- Hawthorn berries - I hoped that these would make a nice red pigment when crushed.
- Dock leaves - perhaps a green shade when mulched?
- Bloodwort flowers - white/yellow tones?
- Elm leaves - in a nice autumnal yellow with greenish hues.
These I hoped when prepared would make a nice addition to the paint colours I'd have available to use. The world really is your oyster when looking for suitable materials - just up to you to find what you can!
Step 5: Alchemy Time
"When painting the faces of young persons... use the yolk of the egg of a city hen, because they have lighter yolks than those of country hens."
So said Cennino Cennini, an Italian painter born in the 1300s, famous at the time for writing a 'textbook' on late Medieval and early Renaissance painting. Now in the supermarket it doesn't specify whether the hen in question lives in the city or not, but that said I also don't think my artistic abilities will stretch as far as portraiture. Nevertheless, it's an amusing look insight into the techniques of the time!
Preparing the mixture
Firstly, break an egg and separate the yolk from the white, taking care not to break the yolk as you do so. One single egg makes a suprisingly large amount of paint, so one will do for now!
Next, you'll need your bottle of white vinegar (don't forget, it must be white, not malt, vinegar as otherwise the very pigmentation of the malt vinegar itself will affect your colour mixes). You may wish to experiment for the correct ratio of vinegar to egg yolk, but the ratio I found effective is 1 parts yolk to 4 parts vinegar (for reference, an egg yolk is about one single tablespoon). Place 4 tablespoons of white vinegar in a bowl with the egg yolk, and stir thoroughly until the two parts are well mixed. Now you have your base!
Preparing the pigment
The hawthorn berries I crushed with a fork until I had an even paste. Similarly, I mashed the dock leaves with a fork to crush it as far as possible. I'm sure a mortar and pestle or garlic press if you have one would make the job easier, but I wanted to show that a fork was good enough. Now, there's an important thing to bear in mind - is your pigment water soluble (ie dissolves completely in water)? If it is, like cocoa or coffee powder or soy sauce, then great, it can be combined easily with the egg mixture to form your paint. If not, and like my leaves or cumin powder or berry paste your substance is still fibrous or insoluble, then you will not be able to combine directly. In the pictures you can see my attempt at making paint by simply mixing cumin powder into the egg mix, and you can see little lumps of cumin in the brown paint - not what I wanted! I achieved success with making a green hue by simply squeezing the green (chlorophyll) pigment out of the dock leaves onto the artist's palette between my fingers (see the photo) and then using this to dye the egg mixture a green tint. Similarly, using the juice of the berry paste rather than the paste itself, an orangish hue could be made, which I later used a little on the sky section of my painting. I'd like to do a lot more experimentation with this - perhaps you could try using filter paper to remove any little pieces from your paint mixture?
Adding the pigment
Some guides to tempera suggest an equal measure of egg mixture to pigment, but I found this was down to how strong a colour I wanted to make, so this is up to you. Spoon a little egg mixture onto the pigment (soluble powder, or liquid like the leaf/berry juice or soy sauce for instance), and mix thoroughly with a paintbrush.
Altering the consistency
If you like, you can add small amounts of water to the mixture to dilute the paint further if you wish to reduce the intensity of the colour or make it wash more easily. I had read that tempera paint dries very fast, but I didn't find it a problem. If the paint dried a little on the artist's palette then it could easily be resurrected with a damp paintbrush. It is true thought that it will dry quickly on the paper when painted, so bear that in mind when considering your painting. Don't forget to test your paint on a scrap piece of paper before diving into your artwork!
Step 6: Just Happy Accidents . . .
Let's begin with a sketch
Rather than diving straight in with the paints, I decided to make this quick pencil sketch in an A5 pad, loosely based on a view of Glen Coe in the Scottish Highlands, a part of the world that means a lot to me. I hoped that the forbidding mountains would well suit the tones of paint available to me. I don't pretend to be an expert sketcher, but this sufficed as a suitable base to start laying paint down over.
Applying your tempera paint
With the paintbrush I began laying layers of tempera over my sketch. Overall, it was very pleasing to work with, similar to acrylic paint in my (limited!) experience. It was fun dashing back to the kitchen to find other potential pigments when I needed another colour that I hadn't yet made! Soy sauce was a good idea that made a nice resulting colour. Diluting the paint with water when needed was effective at making washes, and if any little particles from the crushed berries or such escaped onto the paper, then they could easily be removed with the tip of the brush whilst the paint was still wet. The paint colours could be mixed, and they were fun to work with!
Step 7: Conclusions
Thank you for reading! For me this was a really enjoyable project, especially the hunt for different plants that could potentially make good pigments for the paint. I was pleasantly surprised how nice the resulting paint was to paint with, and I will definitely experiment more in the future with different pigments and methods for making other colours (blue has me stumped for now!). I hope you enjoyed reading this, and I look forward to your comments.
Image credit: Public Domain, Wikipedia.
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