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Tempera Painting

 

SANDRO BOTTICELLI (1445-1510) 'Idealized Portrait of a Lady', 1480 (egg tempera on a poplar panel)

SANDRO BOTTICELLI (1445-1510)
'Idealized Portrait of a Lady', 1480
(egg tempera on a poplar panel)

Tempera Painting was the main medium used during the Early Renaissance for smaller scale paintings on wooden panels. Any pigment which is tempered with a water soluble binder such as egg yolk, glair (egg white), gum arabic or animal glue is referred to as tempera paint.

The technique of tempera involved mixing egg yolk with ground color pigments to form an emulsion that could be thinned with water and applied with a brush. The resultant paint was carefully built up in thin layers and dried to a hard matt finish. It is a technique suited to the use of graceful lines, gentle tones and a limited palette of delicate colors. Tempera had a greater luminosity and depth of tone than fresco but less radiance and intensity than oil painting. Its main disadvantage, however, was its quick drying time which made the smooth blending of tones very difficult.

 

SANDRO BOTTICELLI (1445-1510) Detail from 'Idealized Portrait of a Lady', 1480 (egg tempera on poplar panel)

SANDRO BOTTICELLI (1445-1510)
Detail from 'Idealized Portrait of a Lady', 1480
(egg tempera on poplar panel)

In the 15th century, tempera painting reached a remarkable level of skill in the work of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). Our detail from his 'Idealized Portrait of a Lady' illustrates the outstanding quality of his tempera technique. It is a portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, a young noblewoman who was considered to be the most beautiful woman in Florence. She was the model for a number of Renaissance paintings, including several by Botticelli. For this portrait, she has dressed up as a nymph from Classical mythology.

The paintings of Botticelli are distinguished by their elegant qualities of line and shape which find a natural means of expression in the medium of tempera. You can see how his image is built up in layers as the flat golden color of her hair is shaded and tinted with light and dark rhythmic lines to suggest the texture of her flowing locks. The pearls woven into her hairstyle are simply suggested with hatched lines and stippled dots of grey-blue and white. Their centres are left transparent to pick up the local colors. The graduated tone and form of her flesh is established by underpainting any shaded areas with terre verte, an earthy green color, and then delicately stippling over the surface with thin layers of white, yellow, pink and brown to form her perfect complexion. If you look closely you just get a hint of the greenish terre verte shining through her translucent skin.

 

DUCCIO DI BUONINSEGNA (1445-1510) Detail from 'The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea', 1312-15 (egg tempera on a poplar panel)

DUCCIO DI BUONINSEGNA (1445-1510)
Detail from 'The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea', 1312-15
(egg tempera on a poplar panel)

In earlier tempera paintings that used more fugitive pigments for the flesh tints, you will see that their warm hues have faded only to leave the underpainted tonal form in terre verte. Our detail from 'The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea', a triptych by Duccio, is a good example of this defect, but due to his superb drawing and brilliant composition, none of its tender emotion has been lost.

 

MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI (1475-1564) 'The Doni Tondo', 1506-8 (tempera on panel)

MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI (1475-1564)
'The Doni Tondo', 1506-8
(tempera on panel)

At the start of the 16th century, Michelangelo raised tempera painting to a level of excellence unsurpassed to this day. In his 'tondo' (a circular artwork) of the 'Holy Family with the infant Saint John the Baptist' commissioned by the Florentine merchant Agnolo Doni, he overcame every limitation of the medium to produce his greatest freestanding painting and one of the most important artworks of the Italian Renaissance. Most people who look at this work for the first time will mistake it as an oil painting due to its dazzling array of spectrum colors and electrifying range of luminous tones. This radiant vitality is not something that you immediately associate with tempera painting. It is, in fact, an example of ‘cangiantismo’, a technique that Michelangelo used to disguise the tone and color limitations of both tempera and fresco painting.

 

Example of 'cangiantismo'

MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI (1475-1564)
Example of 'Cangiantismo' from the Doni Tondo, 1506-8
(tempera on panel)

Cangiantismo is a technique for changing the tones of pigments in tempera and fresco painting without losing the saturation of their colors. Traditionally the artist would lighten a tone by adding white or darken it by adding brown or black. However, with the limited range of color pigments available for tempera and fresco, this traditional approach tended to reduce the luminosity of the colors in a painting. With the 'cangiantismo' technique the artist would create a lighter or darker tone by using the pure form of a different color whose natural hue matched the required tone.  For example, if you look at Saint Joseph's brilliant yellow garment, Michelangelo uses a pure yellow for the lightest tones, changing to a vibrant orange for the mid-tones, descending to a burnt sienna and burnt umber for the darker and darkest tones respectively. This creates a more vibrant range of tones where the colors both retain their vitality and act successfully as a vehicle for defining form.

 

LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452-1519) 'The Musician', 1488-90 (oil and tempera on panel)

LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452-1519)
'The Musician', 1488-90
(oil and tempera on panel)

Before oil paint was adopted as the principal technique for easel painting, Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first artists to use a combination of tempera and oil, called tempera grassa, to try to extend the limitations of the medium. He would use one part egg yolk mixed with one part linseed oil to form the binder for his pigments. In his painting of 'The Musician' (thought to be either the French composer, Josquin des Préz, or Leonardo's friend, the singer Atalante Migliorotti) you can see the oily effect of this mixture in the unfinished painting of the vestments. This was an attempt to increase the intensity of his colors and lengthen their drying time which offered him the opportunity to create the dramatic 'chiaroscuro' [1] and the subtle blends of 'sfumato' [2] tone that identify his work.

Leonardo approached the technique of fresco painting with the same characteristic spirit of experimentation but with disastrous consequences which can be seen in the 'The Last Supper', his masterpiece from the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

The Tempera Painting Technique

 

CARLO CRIVELLI (1435- 1495) 'Madonna and Child', c.1480 (egg tempera on a wooden panel)

CARLO CRIVELLI (1435- 1495)
'Madonna and Child', c.1480
(egg tempera on a wooden panel)

Carlo Crivelli (1435-95) was an artist of Venetian origin who painted exclusively in tempera. His 'Madonna and Child' c.1480 is typical of his angular style which looks back to the influence of late Gothic art. Although Crivelli’s painting technique may appear limited in comparison with the graceful elegance and technical mastery of Botticelli or Michelangelo, his work embodies all the traditional characteristics that we expect in a tempera painting during the Renaissance.

 

CARLO CRIVELLI (1435- 1495) Detail from 'Madonna and Child', c.1480 (egg tempera on a wooden panel)

CARLO CRIVELLI (1435- 1495)
Detail from 'Madonna and Child', c.1480
(egg tempera on a wooden panel)

  • Tempera is a very exacting technique to master. It is not a spontaneous medium and requires a methodical and craftsman-like approach to the preparation and the process of painting.
  • Tempera needs a solid support as the use of a flexible surface such as paper or canvas would result in the cracking and flaking of the paint.
  • The support for a tempera painting was a wooden panel constructed from several planks, most commonly made of poplar. Our detail above from Crivelli's 'Madonna and Child' shows the edge of the panel which has been glued to a back-board to support it in its frame.
  • The panel was sealed with several applications of animal glue, usually made from boiling the skins and bones of rabbits. When dry it was coated with a gesso ground (a white chalk and animal glue based primer) which was scraped down to a glass smooth surface ready for painting.
  • The initial sketch was drawn in charcoal and stabilized with a watercolor ink.
  • Tempera had a limited number of colors available to the artist with a restricted tonal range that impeded the dramatic possibilities of contrast in a painting.
  • Some artists would varnish the finished work to intensify the chalky colors that distinguish a tempera painting. Others would mix oil with their egg yolk binder in a variation of the technique called Tempera grassa in an attempt to make their colors more vibrant.
  • The soft luminous qualities of tempera color were built up by painting flat areas of local color on which semi-transparent layers of paint were stippled and hatched to create a blend of light and dark tones. This classic tempera technique, which is essentially drawing with color, is quite visible in our details above and below.

 

CARLO CRIVELLI (1435- 1495) Detail from 'Madonna and Child', c.1480 (egg tempera on a wooden panel)

CARLO CRIVELLI (1435- 1495)
Detail from 'Madonna and Child', c.1480
(egg tempera on a wooden panel)

The animal and still life attributes that decorate Crivelli's 'Madonna and Child' symbolize the sacred and the profane natures of man. The luscious apples and the phallic cucumber represent temptation and lustful desire, while the fly is a symbol of decay, pestilence and death. The Christ child holds the spiritual antidote to these in the form of a goldfinch, which is used in Renaissance art as a symbol of healing and redemption. The legend of the goldfinch evolved from its colorful markings. It was believed that the gold streak on its wings offered protection against the plague while the blood red spots on its face were obtained by removing the thorns from Christ's head at the crucifixion.

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'Primavera' c.1482 by Sandro Botticelli

'Primavera' c.1482 by Sandro Botticelli

 

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