Monday, November 27, 2006

Egg Tempera Class at the V&A: The support and the drawing

Last week I spent two days at the Victoria and Albert Museum participating in an Egg Tempera class as part of the classes developed to support the two current exhibitions at the V&A - the exhibition of Da Vinci Drawings and Notebooks and At Home in Renaissance Italy.

The class tutor was Professor Marina Wallace, who is a Professor of Art at Central St Martins College of Art and Design (part of the University of Arts, London). She and Professor Martin Kemp direct the Universal Leonardo project (see note below) and the current Da Vinci exhibition was organised in liaison with this project.

I'm going to take three days to post about this class as there's far too much information and photos for one post! So I'm going to focus on the support and the drawing today, the pigments and the grinding tomorrow and painting using egg tempera on Wednesday. I have to emphasise that no matter how much one reads about egg tempera, in books or websites or in this blog post, there is absolutely no substitute for doing a class and trying it yourself. What's more I found Prof. Wallace to be a very knowledgeable and excellent tutor. The V&A classes have also been a really excellent practical perspective on and introduction to medieval drawing and painting.

Prof. Wallace used Cennino Cennini's "Il Libro dell' Arte" published in 1437 ( (The Craftsman's Handbook as translated by Daniel V Thompson 1933), as a starting point for understanding about the nature of supports, gesso and pigments. It's a really fascinating 'recipe' book - you can read the contents here and is available as an e-book here. I'm going to liberally sprinkle these blog posts with references to relevant sections of it.

Egg tempera involves painting using an egg yolk to bind the ground pigment. It dries rapidly to a fine film and is very robust and inflexible (you may recall how difficult it is to get dried egg yolk off plates when doing the washing up!). Consequently it requires a support which is equally robust and unlikely to move or warp. Painting in egg tempera in Italy pre-dated oil painting (which filtered down from the Netherlands) however many paintings in egg tempera survive in good condition - partly because the gesso panels are on which they are painted are very well made.

Egg tempera support - the gesso panel

The nature and quality of the panel is fundamental to painting in egg tempera. We started the first day by reviewing what is required of a support for the egg tempera.
  • Traditionally a wooden panel primed with chalk gesso has been used to create a slightly absorbent surface.
  • Cennini highlights how to choose the right wood for a panel in Chapter CXIII. The larger the panel the more inert the support needs to be - otherwise it may warp or crack. Apparently marine plywood works very well as a modern support.
  • Gesso is powdered chalk and is mixed with glue size to make a primer for a wood panel.
  • We learned about different types of gesso (gesso grosso and gesso sortille) and when to use each type, and that layers of gesso sit on top of one another (rather than binding together as they should) if they are applied too slowly or during damp weather. Weather conditions are very important.
  • We discussed the use of slaked gypsum versus calcium carbonate for gesso and how the quantities of size need to be adjusted depending on which is used.
  • The different sorts of glue size were highlighted (fish skin, goat skin and rabbit skin) - and apparently fish skin glue provides the smoothest finish.
  • Prof Wallace advised that if Cennini's recipe is followed exactly a perfect surface will result.
Acrylic primers are not suitable for modern egg tempera painted in the traditional way as it is too absorbent.

Drawing on a gesso panel
Traditionally, artists drew on a gesso panel using charcoal fixed with ink - but I can't improve on Cennini's description
Chapter CXXII: How to Draw on Panel. With Charcoal, to Begin with, and to Fix it with Ink.

When the gesso has all been scraped down, and come out like ivory, the first thing for you to do is to draw in your ancona or panel with those willow coals which I taught you to make before. But the charcoal wants to be tied to a little cane or stick, so that it comes some distance from the figures; for it is a great help to you in composing. And keep a feather handy; so that, if you are not satisfied with any stroke, you may erase it with the barbs of the feather, and draw it over again. And draw with a light touch. And then shade the folds and the faces, as you did with the brush, or as you did with the pen; for you draw as if you were working with a pen. When you have finished drawing your figure, especially if it is in a very valuable ancona, so that you are counting on profit and reputation from it, leave it alone for a few days, going back to it now and then to look it over and improve it wherever it still needs something. When it seems to you about right[114] [and bear in mind that you may copy and examine things done by other good masters; that it is no shame to you], when the figure is satisfactory, take the feather and rub it over the drawing very lightly, until the drawing is practically effaced; though not so much but that you may still make out your strokes. And take a little dish half full of fresh water, and a few drops of ink; and reinforce your whole drawing, with a small pointed minever brush. Then take a little bunch of feathers, and sweep the whole drawing free of charcoal. Then take a wash of this ink, and, with a rather blunt minever brush, shade in some of the folds, and some of the shadow on the face. And you come out with such a handsome drawing, in this way, that you will make everyone fall in love with your production
Below you can see my sketch of the dish of fruit and vegetables (made in 1540 of tin glazed earthenware from Emilio-Romagna) which I drew in the Renaissance Italy exhibition as my subject matter for my egg tempera painting.

Bowl of Fruit and Vegetables 1540 
tin glazed earthenware, Faenze, Emilio-Romagna
pencil and coloured pencil
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Notes: The Universal Leonardo Project is a programme aimed at deepening our understanding of Leonardo da Vinci through a series of European exhibitions, scientific research and web-based resources.



  1. Hi Katherine.
    I love egg tempera. I tend to use it in a watercolor style on a paper panel. The glazes don't move- which is nice.

  2. Katherine - If you keep posting such fascinating material, I'm never going to get on with my painting LOL. I have been eagerly anticipating this Egg Tempera report, but so hope I don't get distracted by it. I love your initial sketch.

  3. How interesting Katherine. Something like this is right up my alley in terms of interest in art and historical elements. Lucky you. Makes me want to move back to London to take advantage of courses like these.

    Your sketch of the 1540 bowl and fruit is lovely.

  4. Thanks folks - I hope you enjoy the next two posts as well.

  5. Great Post, Katherine! I LOVE the bowl of fruit & vegetables drawing. Just lovely!

  6. beautiful fruitbowl and fruit - what does '1540' refer to?

  7. Thanks Belinda and Alison

    Alison, 1540 is the year the bowl was made. I just copied down the label that was on the piece in the exhibition.


COMMENTS HAVE BEEN SUSPENDED AGAIN due to very silly ignorant people who leave spam comments without realising they have no benefit for them.

Please feel free to comment on my Facebook Page as my blog posts are always posted there (but please note anonymous comments are not published and I block and report spammers to Google and on Facebook)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.