Do you know about egg tempera and iconography?
As I’ve travelled on my art and craft journey, I took classes on a range of art mediums, such as a drawing class, and a botanical illustration class.
A painting medium I sought to find more information about was egg tempera. This is the paint medium used in iconography.
For a number of months, I took lessons about iconography and egg tempera from an iconographer.
Here’s some of what I leant.
Table of contents
- What is egg tempera?
- What surface is egg tempera painted onto?
- Egg tempera is an art medium
- Religious Iconographers
- What is religious iconography?
- Where is iconography used?
- Religious Iconographic (and egg tempera) painting techniques
- Dry Pigments
- A word of caution – Health and Safety and dry pigments
- How to make egg tempera
- What’s a Levkas board?
- Egg tempera on paper or board?
- Video – an egg tempera and iconography toolbag
- In conclusion
What is egg tempera?
Egg tempera is an ancient paint medium. It is a simple art medium that is made by the artist. While there are a range of methods of how to make it, it always includes egg yolk. The recipe variations occur with the liquid elements. For example, some recipes include white wine, vinegar, or water.
When made, the egg mixture is mixed with dry pigment to form paint.
Egg tempera is painted in thin transparent layers, which when dry is luminuous.
What surface is egg tempera painted onto?
Egg tempera is painted onto a Levkas board, also known as an icon board. It is made from timber and limestone chalk, and it is sanded to a smooth surface .
Egg tempera is an art medium
Egg tempera is an art medium used by artists. It is not a medium that is used only by iconographers. For example, it can be used by contemporary artists. Fred Wessell is an artist who uses egg tempera in his artwork.
You may find online courses about how to paint with egg tempera, like this course by Doug Safranek.
Let me stop here. The notes below are my observations about using egg tempera, and iconography learnt over a short period of time.
You can find more information about religious iconography from others who are experts in this field.
For example, Aidan Hart is a UK based iconographer. He has an informative website, and he also wrote a comprehensive iconography book called “The techniques of icon and wall painting“. It is available for sale from his website.
Peter Murphy is also a UK based iconographer, who also provides iconography courses.
You may find information about religious iconographers from various societies, such as the British Association of Iconographers.
Or online iconography classes may be available, such as these iconography courses on Skillshare.
You can also find iconographers who may offer lessons in your local area.
What is religious iconography?
Have you looked at an icon and wondered why it appears uneven and unnatural? This is because the images depicted are not of this world.
The above painting used thin transparent layers of egg tempera. The surface used is paper board. The reason for using paper board for this version, is that is a practice piece. The colour mixture, and paint stroke used was practiced on with this board. When it was sufficient, it was replicated on the final board. This was practice piece was added to the art workflow because the Levkas board is difficult, and time consuming to make.
The above image is the final painting. It includes iconographic techniques such as transparencies, and assiste. It is more luminuous than the painting on the paper surface.
The first thing I learnt was that iconography is not art. Here’s why:
An icon follows strict rules.
Artists do not place their artistic interpretation in the image.
An icon does not have an artists signature.
The artist is the medium through which God is channelled to create the image.
An icon is a visual word of God.
Where is iconography used?
Iconography is commonplace in Greek and Russian orthodox churches, and Eastern churches.
Religious Iconographic (and egg tempera) painting techniques
What are iconography techniques? Some are:
Assiste is the process of applying gold leaf to an icon.
Transparencies is the process of applying very thin layers of paint to achieve a transparent image. This can be used with egg tempera on contemporary artwork.
Iconography is geometric. When creating an icon, you’ll need a maths set. The ones with a compass, ruler, and pencil, and 180 degree protractor to create your first drawing.
What is perspective? Perspective in drawings provides a view. It gives a drawing or painting a line for a viewers eye to follow.
With iconography, the perspective is ‘inverse’, or ‘reverse’ perspective.
There is no egg tempera paint without dry pigments. Dry pigments are mixed with the egg mixture to create coloured paint.
Dry pigments can be purchased at art and craft stores.
A word of caution – Health and Safety and dry pigments
Dry pigments are a very fine dust. The slightest breeze will move them on your palette. Even your breath will move them. Some dry pigments are hazarduous, and it is best to treat dry pigments as through they are all hazarduous to your health.
One precaution is that you need to use a face mask when handling dry pigments. Yet, there are other safety precautions you need to take when using dry pigments.
Check with your dry pigment supplier about how to obtain health and safety information about handling and using dry pigments.
Also, dry pigments can be hazardous to the environment. Always dispose of old paint, and old pigments responsibly.
How to make egg tempera
What you’ll need.
1 tablespoon of dry white wine, or vinegar
1 tablespoon of water
Small cup (to mix the tempera)
Small jar and lid (to keep the tempera)
- Crack an egg into your hand.
- Separate the egg white and the egg yolk.
- Wash the egg yolk under running water.
- Dry the egg yolk with paper towel.
- Hold the egg yolk in your hand over the small cup.
- Piece the egg yolk and let the contents drip into the small cup.
- The egg yolk skin case is no longer needed and can be thrown away.
- Mix the dry white wine, or vinegar with the egg yolk.
- Add enough water to thin the egg mixture.
When mixed, transfer the egg mixture to the small jar with a lid.
While the white wine, and vinegar are used as a preservative, it is best to keep the egg mixture cool in a refrigerator. It should last for many weeks.
You can now use the egg mixture and mix it with dry pigment to form paint.
What’s a Levkas board?
A Levkas, or icon board is made from a piece of hard timber. It is covered in linen, and then painted with many light layers of limestone chalk and animal glue. Finally, it is sanded back to create a very smooth stone line surface.
These are time consuming to make, and can take three days. However, it’s ideal to make them in warm weather when the layers can dry between coats.
You can make them yourself. However, craftsmen do make and sell them. For example, you can buy boards on Etsy, such as from this seller. Or you can find links to other suppliers, such as on Aidan Hart’s resource page.
Egg tempera on paper or board?
Painting on a smooth cool hard board is an enjoyable experience. In my iconography experience, I painted on both a Levkas board, and on paper. The main reason was to practice on paper, and when correct, paint on the board.
You can see examples of the drawings on paper and board below.
The image above was painted on paper. The purpose of the test paper was to try out paint strokes, and colour, to see if it was suitable for using on the final piece.
This is the final piece. It includes traditional iconography techniques such as transparency, and assiste.
Video – an egg tempera and iconography toolbag
See a video of a bag that was created to hold and carry the tools needed when taking religious iconography and egg tempera painting lessons. This bag now includes a face mask and gloves.
After taking lessons from a religious iconographer, I have a greater understanding of iconography, egg tempera, and board making. While I found it unusual that the teacher did no other type of painting, other than religious iconography, I now understand why.
As part of my art and craft journey, I have found that learning about art mediums, and art styles are not just about the art. You learn about the art’s history, and application. You get a greater education than what you think you’ve signed up for.
Have you found that as well?