The long, expensive, and highly messy journey of giving egg tempura painting a go

I love art. I particularly love old art, from eras past. Italian renaissance frescoes and panel paintings, oh my!

Before oil came along as a binder for pigment, artists used other binders, usually egg yolk. It fell out of favour for the much more usable oils – which are frankly easy to mix, transport, they last a long time, and you can get magnificent effects using them. However I’ve always hankered after trying egg tempera, and I decided I really wanted to do it.

I bought pigments with some money I got for my birthday. NOT CHEAP but hopefully will last me a loooong time (I’m also planning to make home made pastels with them). I got the bare minimum of colours suggested in one of the books I have. I’m sure I will add to this.

I ended up getting my colours from artscene, they were good about contacting me when they didn’t have certain things in stock. I got the parcel delivered to my work (to be signed for) and I got to show off the pigments to non-painter IT people who went “what IS it” a lot!.

BTW if you are a vegan or vegetarian or a rabbit lover, you’re going to find the next bit a bit hard. I have followed the recipe for preparing the gesso panels and I’ve used rabbit skin glue. This is actually mandatory – synthetic glues don’t work with egg tempera. I’ve not got a problem with this (I’m not a vegetarian after all) but I’m aware some people might baulk at this.

It took me a while to track down rabbit skin glue. Two art shops I tried were out, the third had some luckily.

Colours! Glue!:


So you prepare the glue 1:15 glue:water in a double boiler. Put the mix in a container  and let the glue soak for an hour to absorb the water (lucky we had a big yoghurt container) in a bath of hot water, and stir until you get a thin, brownish glue.

This is my stove btw, it dates to 1951 and despite the front left burner rusted out, I love it. It’s in Fahrenheit which is weird for Australia – but also the numbers do not bear anything in reality, I know where to put the oven knob for ‘hot, medium, slow’ and that is not the recommended temperatures in cook books! Not that anything I look at is in Fahrenheit anyway!  To cook in it and not burn the crap out of what you are doing is a skill. I have that skill but it was hard earned.


Back to the topic!

There is a lot of talk over what can be used for panels. I had a bit of wood i found in the shed, seems to be a softwood. I think pine would be ok too but not huen pine which is full of oils. They used oak traditionally which is not really possible these days, though maybe Tasmanian oak (regnans plantation forests) might be ok. MDF  or plywood has been used by some, which is a much cheaper option.  You can tecnically paint onto paper but the finished result will flake from the paper unless it’s glued down to a hard surface and it needs to be prepared with gesso anyway so why would I bother!. Modern arcrylic gesso is not suitable for egg tempera, nor is stretched canvas (usually what i paint on in oil).

Cut and sand and wash the panels of wood free of dust. Here they are on my verandah drying (yes that is a mosaic on my verandah, another art project that was costly and took forever!)


Then you ‘size’ the panels with a layer of glue. This gets them ready to receive the gesso. I put down layers of baking paper on the kitchen counter top and against the giant fish tank that sits up against it, to protect it from the glue. It gets messy. the drops tend to fall and make little squishy blobbles.


Make the gesso. Gesso is that stuff that comes pre put on artists canvasses, over the canvas or the card backing, to make the surface receptive to the paint. For tempera, it has to be made of an equal measure of the rabbit glue to chalk/whitener powder – calcuim carbonate.  Again, sourcing this stuff…the books I’ve got blithely discuss using bologna chalk, which turns up NEVER on a google search. I worked out what it needed to be by looking at other blogs and discussions out there, and discovered here in Australia we call it whiting, or gilders’ whiting. Again, hard to source, I could only find one 500g packet in two art shops.


I put the powder directly into the glue pot. You have to stir in such a way that you don’t introduce bubbles into it – in theory – in practice you pour it in and it’s a mass of bubbles, but they do dissipate quickly! Ah, where theory and practice fail to mesh! I mixed it in it’s hot bath of water until it was smooth and runny.


Then applied the first coat.



SO the books suggest I apply a minimum of four coats, waiting for each coat to be touch dry,  each one with the brushstrokes in a different angle. Then you dry it completely, sand it,  and do another 2-6 coats. That’s what i’ve done, today they are ready for the final sanding. After the final sanding you ‘burnish’ the surface with a bit of cloth barely damp, to ready the surface.

The thing you DON’T do is lay down the panel on a surface that has glue or drips of gesso on it, in order to do a few coats on the back (to seal the panel). that makes it get ‘bits’ all over the surface. NOT HAPPY. Learning curve.

After a few coats you can see what it’s going to end up like.


I had assumed the surface would be chalky, but it’s very smooth and hard and no residue comes off if you rub it. The glue really binds that gesso down.

I have done about 10 coats and they are going to be taken out by me and sanded when I’m done with this post – i will use an orbital sander with a fine grit paper, it can do a better, quicker, and faster job than I can do.

So a the end of this i have four panels to work on.

This has taken me a number of hours over two/three days to do and lots of reading, lots of visiting shops, lots of money already. I still have to get a glass muller to grind the pigment with before I can start the actual painting, too.

In the next installment, you’ll see the design, the ‘cartoon’, the transfer and the inking start. All of which I plan to do today. Hence no photos yet!

Good thing I’m dedicated. 🙂

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