A widely available commercial paint, tempera is often found on elementary paintbrushes in school art rooms and on the messy hands of the youngest finger painters. However, tempera is far from elementary, and its significant role in the development of an art form is anything but child’s play. In its earliest form, tempera paint was an emulsion, created through the process of mixing and thinning an oil and water blend with pigment until it reached a pasty, almost gelatinous, state. Tempera painting dates back to 12th-century Europe, and the period’s artists cultivated methods for improving both formulas and artistic techniques.
Used for medieval panel paintings, tempera evolved with the addition of egg yolks to the formula. Cennino Cennini described the egg yolk technique in an early 15th-century exposition on painting. Until the development of oil painting in the late 16th century, tempera was the principal medium of easel painting and other visual arts endeavors. However, artists found tempera’s consistency difficult to handle. Coupled with a limited number of colors, artists relied on their skill and technical knowledge to compensate for the paint’s lack of subtlety and its inability to produce the natural effects they sought.
To coax the temperamental medium into producing the desired results, a complicated technique was used, which involved priming the surface, sketching with charcoal, adding watercolor highlights and applying any underpainting. After these steps were completed, then began the slow and calculated process of building layers of tempera to produce the desired tone, depth and quality. Examples of these early works signal the necessity of artists to possess more than just ability and passion to create. Artists were now required to become experts in the techniques and processes of manipulating the very materials, which served as the conduit for their inspiration.
Galleries around the world exhibit examples of these tempera works. Two pieces that demonstrate the early technique of tempera panel paintings are the wooden panels Duccio’s “Madonna and Child with Saints Polyptych” and Botticelli’s “Madonna with Child and the Infant St. John the Baptist.” “The Crowning of the Virgin” by Raffael is an excellent representation of egg tempera on canvas. By the late 16th century, with the advent of oil paints and advancements in synthetic materials, tempera fell out of favor. Still, it holds a significant place among the many milestones in the development of painting. In contemporary times, tempera is still important as it is frequently used to spark the imaginations of young artists, who swirl its vivid colors and discover the freedom, excitement and power found in the art of painting.