Egg Tempera Artist of Rural America

Why Egg Tempera?

I often hear the remark, "Egg tempera? What exactly does that mean? You mean you actually use a real egg? But I have never heard of that before." They often continue: "This is what you do? You make your own paints? Every day or two - and for each and every painting?"

I first learned about egg tempera 30 years ago, and I was in complete and utter disbelief, too. I visited the Detroit Museum of Art to see the Andrew Wyeth Exhibition of The Helga Series. I was in awe and starstruck by his egg tempera paintings. They actually took my breath away. I fell in love with his work, and so began my love of egg tempera.

While I was at the museum's Wyeth exhibit, there was a small explanation of egg tempera and how egg was used to make paint. Surely, I thought, there had to be a misprint. I also thought that maybe "egg" was an abbreviation, and I just couldn't figure out what the letters "egg" stood for.

Those thoughts continued to bubble until a few years ago, when I did an internet search of the phrase "egg tempera". As a self-taught artist, I learned how to paint in watercolour and then oils, so I decided to give egg tempera a try. Oh my, I fell in love with the medium with the first brush stroke. It flowed with such silkiness from my brush, and I was able to work in fine detail. I felt like a mad scientist experimenting with all the colour pigments and different combinations of glazing. Egg tempera is applied in thin layers (glazes) and cannot be painted thickly like oils. Also, the colours of egg tempera are very clear and pure.

Each pigment handles so differently. It is almost as if each colour has a personality of its own. Some are transparent, and some are opaque. Some mix easily; some stubbornly. Some pigments require more yolk than others because the consistency is different with unequal proportions with each one. Meaning there is no exact proportions. You will see my work evolve with the experience needed to handle the paint. Each painting is exciting because I am constantly learning different combinations and techniques of the layers of the application of the glazes and how they work with and over each other.

I use organic eggs, which are readily available on our organic farm, to prepare egg tempera. I make the egg tempera paint by hand by mixing egg yolk, water, and powdered pigments made from refined earth found throughout the world, including Italy, France, Germany and even our very own Blue Ridge Mountains. Mixing my own paints keeps me in touch with nature, and each painting has its own unique colours. My paintings are literally organic, living artworks that take about a year to completely cure. During this curing process the painting should be protected from scratches. But in the long run it becomes, tough, unusually hard and permanent. The colour of the egg tempera does not fade or darken over time. And while I am painting, to get a better look at the colours, I use clam shells to mix my paints because light permeates the thin, translucent edges. I also like the idea that the clam shells were once a living organism.

Egg tempera is one of man's oldest painting mediums. If you visit an art museum and you find a painting dated before the 1500's, check to see if the medium used was egg tempera. It's pretty remarkable when you think about it.

Pat Gamby - Egg Tempera Artist of Rural America
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