What is Tempera Paint?: Composition, Origin, and Examples.

Tempera paints are usually egg-based paints that are fast-drying and permanent depending upon the pigment used. Instead of eggs, any glutinous water-soluble binder may be used to create a tempera paint. 

The Origin of Tempera Paint

The word ‘Tempera is derived from the Latin word temperare which means ‘to control’ or ‘to blend in proportion’. Popularized in the early 1400s during the Renaissance and was used till the 1500s. However, the first signs of tempera have been seen in the late 4th-century cave paintings – specifically the Bagh Caves in Madhya Pradesh, India. 

Almost all portable paintings were made with tempera paint on wood panels. This paint originated in Italy and the wood used was poplar wood. These woods are carefully selected and smoothed out with sandpaper. Since the wood can shrink or warp in other ways over time, they are usually fixed with beams in the back to minimize their change in shape. Since the wood was extremely absorbent it was necessary to prep the wood before painting. 

The Composition of Tempera Paint

To prep the wood they would use a liquid plaster called gesso – still in use today. Gesso would provide the artists with a clean white surface to work on. This plaster consists of a specific ratio of chalk, gypsum, and animal-derived glue. However, after the 20th century, we use a vegan gesso mixture made with titanium oxide, glue, water, alcohol, and sugar.

Gesso

Tempera is an egg-based paint that was originally mixed with some organic pigments. These natural pigments were taken from plants, insects, and commonly minerals. One of the most expensive and difficult to obtain colors was ultramarine blue. This color pigment requires crushed lapis lazuli, which is a gemstone. The colors would then be hand ground with a sort of mortar into a fine powder or paste. Once satisfied with the texture, the pigment is mixed with eggs. 

How to Use Tempera Paint

It is important to note that only the yolk portion of the eggs is used in the paint because consistency is very desirable among artists. The film on the yolk along with the egg white is discarded. The yolk is very sticky and it is essential for it to stick to the wood panel. Moreover, the egg yolk is not transparent and therefore it intensifies the pigment and also dries up really quickly like acrylics. It is extremely important to use a smooth transitioning palette of colors when using tempera because they don’t mix well once put on the panel.

Unlike what you might think, the paint does not go bad over time or give off a rotten smell. The yolk is mainly fat and hence it has a strong yet flexible bond that doesn’t crack. Since the paint dries quickly, there is not much time for the moisture to remain on the canvas. Hence, in the absence of moisture, bacteria do not grow and the paint remains intact. Another type of tempera paint is called the Tempera grassa. This involves a 1:1 ratio of oil and egg yolk with some water. 

To create smooth transitions artists are often required to layer their paint thinly on top of one another. This is done so that the color on the bottom is not completely obscured by the new layer but in a way mixes with it. Artists use a characteristic hatching technique to soften the strong contours between two shades of colors. 

Crevole Madonna (1284) by Duccio 

Crevole Madonna (1284) by Duccio 
Crevole Madonna (1284) by Duccio. Public Domain 

Cervole Madonna is a 1284 tempera on wood work by Duccio di Buoninsegna. Tempera has often been used on a gold background which shows just how pigmented and vibrant these colors are. Even with an extremely bright background the colors of the subjects are clearly visible. 

It is also important to notice how after 800 years the paint has not faded considerably. In earlier times, paintings were often dusted with ordinary cloth rather harshly. Even with such ill-treatment tempera paint seems to withstand it pretty well. 

Birth of Venus (1482-6) by Botticelli

Birth of Venus (1482-6) by Botticelli
Birth of Venus (1482-6) by Botticelli. Public Domain

Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ is another exceptional tempera painting on canvas. The painting depicts a nude Venus standing on a gigantic shell, moments after her birth. 

In the top left corner, we see Zephyr the God of wind blowing air at Venus from his mouth. He is carrying another mythical god ‘Aura’ in his arms. On the right bottom corner, we see the goddess of spring bringing a rich cloak to dress Venus.  

The painting features fine details with even and sharp contours that have been achieved through specific inherent qualities of tempera. Since the paint dries quickly, the artist need not worry about the contours getting washed out with new layers of paint.

The painting is currently in the Uffizi Gallery, situated in Florence, Italy.

Christina’s World (1948) by Andrew Wyeth 

Christina’s World (1948) By Andrew Wyeth
Christina’s World (1948) By Andrew Wyeth. Fair Use

Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth is a more recent example of the usage of egg tempera in important paintings. The painting depicts a woman with a degenerative muscle disorder reclining on a dull grassy field. Her limbs are visibly thin and so is her body. 

The woman looks up at a gray house on the horizon. Wyeth knew the woman personally and made an attempt to draw the world from her perspective. With the help of tempera, the artist has depicted several fine details such as the texture of grass and the woman’s hair. Even though a pastel palette has been used, the contrasting lights and shadows are prominent enough to be perceived accurately.

Conclusion

Throughout its lifetime, tempera paint has been neglected for centuries at a stretch, only for it to be rediscovered. Tempera has inherent advantages such as affordability, easy availability, and fast drying that makes it so desirable. Egg-based tempera has always been an important facet of art history and continues to be an essential medium for art creation.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is tempera paint used for?

Tempera Paint may be used for any art project such as painting on a canvas, wood, or even paper. Tempera is also used for making temporary artwork on glass as it is washable. 

Is tempera paint the same as acrylic paint?

Tempera and Acrylic paints are different in composition and texture. While tempera has an egg base mixed with pigments and water, acrylics are made of plastic acrylic resin and silicone oils. 

Acrylics give a thicker and shinier finish than tempera. Tempera paint is not as durable as acrylics and may be washed off. Even though both paints dry fast, tempera dries faster because it is thinner. 

What are the pros and cons of tempera paint?

Tempera paint pros: Inexpensive, easy to make at home, easy availability, dries fast, smooth matte finish, can be used for making temporary artwork as it is not permanent. The artist has a lot of control and allows for better precision.

Tempera paint cons: It may dry up too fast and hence it is difficult to create gradual color changes. The paint needs to be applied in thin layers to achieve better color payoff which is time-consuming. The paint is not very durable.

Why do artists use tempera paint?

Since the paint dries quickly in thin layers, the artist can create a light framework before initiating their work. The paint gives great control and hence there is better precision. Upon drying the paint gives a beautiful matte finish. 

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