An Introduction to Tempera Paint: A Versatile and Historic Medium

Author : Vedant B | Published On : 01 Mar 2024

Tempera paint is one of the oldest and versatile painting mediums that has been used for centuries by many famous artists. Made from pigments mixed with egg yolk, it provides vibrant colors and a matte finish. Let's take a deeper look into this fascinating paint.

Origin and History of Tempera Paint

- Tempera paint originated in ancient Egypt and Greece between 1000 BC to 500 BC, where artists used it extensively for wall paintings and illuminated manuscripts. It was the most common painting medium prior to the development of oil paints in the 15th century.

- Ancient Romans also adopted the technique of Tempera Paint, using it for architectural decoration especially of indoor walls and ceilings of wealthy homes. Many ancient Roman frescoes found in Italy and other parts of Europe were made using tempera paint.

- During the Medieval period from the 5th century AD to 15th century AD, tempera was predominantly used in religious art for painting altarpieces, icons, and illuminated manuscripts in monasteries across Europe. Many masterpieces from this era survive to this day.

- Even after the introduction of oil paint in the 15th century, tempera continued to be widely used by 16th century artists like Raphael, Titian, and Paolo Veronese for sketches and some finished works due to its faster drying time.

Composition and Application Technique

- Tempera paint is made by grinding pigments, usually of mineral or botanical origin, and mixing them with an agent called a binder - usually egg yolk for its staying power and ability to hold pigments together well.

- Other binders like glue, casein (milk protein) or gum arabic were also sometimes used, but egg yolk produces the hardest-wearing paint film. Pigments can be either dry powders or hand-ground to a smooth consistence in a small mortar.

- The egg yolk acts as an adhesive for the pigments allowing them to bond to surfaces like prepared wood, canvas or walls. Tempera paint dries fairly quickly, usually within 8-12 hours, compared to oil paint which can take weeks or months to fully dry.

- To apply tempera paint, artists sweep it onto surfaces using brushes in thin, translucent layers for a matte finish or in thicker impasto streaks. Multiple glazes are built up slowly for rich, luminous colors.

Characteristics and Qualities

- Tempera yields bright, clear colors that retain their chroma over long periods without darkening or yellowing like oils tend to. It provides excellent covering power and transparency too depending on application thickness.

- The matt finish of tempera results in images with a flat, two-dimensional quality akin to stained glass or mosaics due to the lack of blending between hues. Glazing is used to softly blend areas.

- It is very durable when thoroughly dry, and highly resistant to water damage unlike other mediums. Well-preserved tempera works survive from antiquity. The paint film bonds very strongly with surfaces for archival stability.

- However, tempera is less amenable to corrections and changes compared to oils and acrylics. It fully dries in hours leaving little room for blending of colors or modification of brushstrokes.

Contemporary Use and Artists

- While less popular today compared to flexible andBlendable oils and acrylics, tempera still finds use in art education, especially for teaching drawing fundamentals and color principles to students.

- It continues to be used by some traditional and contemporary artists for its vibrant hues, versatility, and permanence. 20th century American realist Andrew Wyeth frequently used it in combination with other media in his careful trompe l'oeil still life works.

- Contemporary American painter Rackstraw Downes is renowned for his tempera-on-paper landscape images of the American countryside, executed with precise, jewel-like layers of semitransparent glazes.

- Tempera allows for pure, clean techniques emphasizing line, form and flat pattern. As an archival medium, tempera artworks constitute an important part of art history and continue to intrigue modern audiences with their luminous qualities.
Tempera paint has had a long and fascinating history spanning civilizations. Its versatility, permanence and unique visual characteristics have ensured its continued use by traditional artists even today. As a medium that has documented human creative expression for millennia, tempera remains an extraordinary artistic invention.

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