Egg Tempera

I originally wrote this for the Niagara Calligraphy Guild Newsletter

Egg Tempera is a painting medium and method, but painters sometimes have to put calligraphy and calligraphic ornaments in their pictures. If the painter uses exclusively acrylic paints, he can easily create fine lines for calligraphic work, even white lines against black, by watering down his paint. Even acrylics in tubes the consistency of tooth paste can be made to flow in a nib pen, while still thick enough to give an opaque line. Egg tempera gives the oil painter a way of making incredibly fine details, such as required for intricate lettering.

The most direct way to use egg tempera is to add water to egg yolk, about 1 part water and one part yolk, or more water as it pleases you. You then mix this with your pigment. The purists insist that you buy pure powdered pigments, mix them with water to form a thick paste, and then grind them on a piece of glass with a glass muller to break down aggregate particles. You then can use this paste with your egg yolk and water medium. Otherwise, you can use gouache, since it is very high in pigment, or watercolours from tubes. The professional egg tempera painters I consulted discourage (without adequate explanation) the use of watercolours. Some forums I consulted suggest that the gum arabic in water colours does not go well with the egg. I rather doubt this, since ancient painting manuals, such as Cennini, mention that painters would add the juice of figs and other vegetable materials to egg and these would actually improve the quality.

Egg tempera has a reputation for going bad very quickly, but you can counter this by adding a few drops of vinegar (or oil of clove, but I have no idea where to get this) to your medium.

Now, my next suggestion, which I have tried, will seem heterodox to the purists (my comments were not posted in a forum, which leads me to this opinion). I consulted with someone who runs a store in household paints. When you buy a can of paint, the store draws from vats of dye and adds these to the paint. What, I asked, is the composition of the dye. The dye for housepaint consists of pure pigment and glycerine. The dye can be added to either oil paint or water based latex paint. Such is the nature of glycerine. I purchased some of these dyes at 1.00 per squirt, which I stored in baby-food bottles. I did a few paintings which pleased me somewhat, although it seemed that the glycerine would come to the top of the painting and take a while to disappear. I then put some of these dyes in a muffin tray and added water. When the water evaporated, some of the glycerine was taken with the water, and I was left with a very thick paste in each tray. Now this paste was and is excellent.

An additional note on these hardware store colours. The law requires that non-toxic chemicals must be used in such paint. On the other hand, if you grind your own pigments, you might be working with dust of cadmium and lead. You have to be very careful. Also, at least some brands of paint dye use only permanent colours. Also, in some cases you can even be sure what the colours really are - you can buy tubes of dye at least for raw sienna, burnt sienna, yellow ochre and others.

Using egg tempera can be more like drawing than painting (if you want). Every line you lay down with your brush sets almost instantly, allowing you to cross-hatch as if you were drawing with a pencil. The most important consideration to the painter and calligrapher, is that egg tempera can be used in conjunction with oils, in three ways. First, you can do a clear concise painting in egg tempera and then paint over it in oil in order to take advantage of the smooth mixing of oil paints. Second, you can paint with egg tempera on top of dried oil. Third, you can paint with egg tempera into wet oil. The amazing thing is that the egg tempera, although it contains water, does not have any problem sticking to oil. This is because egg tempera is an emulsion, where a gum allows small drops of water to be held in suspension in water. Egg tempera on oil retains its crisp lines, making it ideal for working careful details into an oil painting. This was how the Dutch masters (Vermeer and others) were able to make small details in their oil paintings. I made the remarkable discovery that I could use egg/oil emulsion (when I used the right consistency of oil) in a nib pen, to make very concise details, dots and lines on top of an oil painting (!). While you are working with it, the lines stay crisp because of the effect of water on ail, but with the evaporation of the water, the tempera emulsion bonds perfectly with the oil underneath.


Actually, I have worked with an egg-tempera/oil emulsion together with oils. The recipe I have is from Brigid Marlin, who has a web-site describing "mische technique" (mixed oil/egg-tempera technique). It is as follows.


Into a clean jar, crack a fresh egg. (I strain the egg through a small sieve, in order to strain out some of the solids). Add an equal amount of painting medium (half linseed oil, half damar varnish) then add water to the amount of both of these combined. Store in the refrigerator. It will keep for a year. Always shake well before using." Since egg white contains more water and less oil than egg-yolk, it can admit more additional oil. It may be my imagination, but this medium seems to get better with age, it drys more quickly now after six months. Another tip, don't dip your brush into your egg medium, but use a medicine dropper specifically for this purpose. *** (written much later) I have been using a damar varnish for the damar component, and I suspect that the solvent prevented the egg tempera from hardening properly.


I have had success adding a small amount of linseed oil (a capful thinned with turpentine) to an egg yolk, mixing thoroughly, and then adding the water. I got the complete recipe from the website of Kama Pigments in Quebec.

Despite all of her virtues, egg tempera dries very fast, doesn’t allow much mixing of color and demands only rigid supports. This modified formula allows flexibility by gaining some of the qualities of oil paint.

Use 1 part Egg yolk, 1 part Linseed oil, 1 part Water, 1 part White Vinegar (or oil of cloves 10 drops). DIRECTIONS: Separate the yolk from the white and drain in a little bowl. Drop by drop, mix the linseed oil vigorously into the yolk to obtain a good emulsification and add the water when done.

HOW TO USE IT: Pre-mix the amount of dry pigments necessary for your session with the binder and paint. This emulsion may be used over rigid or flexible supports with proper application of gesso. For multiple layers, use water as you solvent and, as you progress in coats, gradually reduce the amount of water used in order to respect the «fat over lean» rule. This emulsion may also be used to paint wet in wet in an fresh oil painting.


I don't know where I got this recipe. Use a whole egg (filter and press through cheescloth). Add an equal part of oil mixed with turpentine. Add an equal part of water. Add maybe a capful of vinegar (10 drops or so) for preservation. As of the time of writing, I have been using this recipe for about six months, the same batch of mix which I keep in the refrigerator between use, sometimes adding another egg and more oil. It seems to be the best recipe.

Update on Egg-Oil Emulsion

I have now used the same batch of egg-oil emulsion for three years, and I keep it in the fridge. The emulsion now has the texture and appearance of “deviled egg”, like a paste made with a boiled egg-yolk, pale yellow and opaque, but I scoop a tiny bit out, mix it with a few drops of water, stir it, and it is fine.


Egg tempera is ideally used on a rigid panel prepared with traditional gesso (rabbit skin glue, marble dust or talc or slaked plaster, and white coloration). Egg tempera does not seem to stick well on acrylic gesso, although you may counteract this (possibly) by painting your gessoed surface with egg tempera and then letting it set for a long, long time. Egg tempera and egg/oil emulsions work just fine on paper, but there may be problems later, since when egg tempera is completely dry and set, it is brittle. However, if you glue your masterpiece to a rigid surface before a year passes, I don't know why you should expect problems. An amazing property of egg/oil emulsions is that even if you paint on thin paper, the oil does not seem to penetrate and stain the paper - the protein gum in the egg somehow prevents this.

What I have been doing recently is doing an ink drawing on paper, then gluing the paper to masonite. A tip on gluing: when the paper is laid on top of the glue, bubbles may form underneath it. Use a pin and poke holes in the paper to allow air to escape. When the paper is dry, I paint the paper with a think layer of gesso (a rabbit-skin-glue and marble dust mixture I bought premixed), so that the ink drawing barely shows through (only enough to serve as a guide for painting). I will be borrowing techniques as I learn them from the art of mughal miniature painting, see Nisar Mian and look for information on miniatures.

Gesso experiments

The easiest way to be perfectly traditional is to be Fredrix Gesso Mix. This is rabbitskin glue, marble dust, and titanium white all mixed together in a power form. Just add water and follow the instructions. Rabbit skin glue is the same stuff basically as gelatin, only stronger. However, by itself it remains somewhat soluble. When you start to paint on the gesso surface, you may actually stir up the gesso a little if you do not use a light touch. Some painters actually deliberately use this to create an impasto effect. After you have your first dry layer of paint, the egg has sealed the gesso, and egg when it hardens is permanent.

I also added a very small amount of linseed oil to the Fredrix Gesso Mix. I have not used these panels yet, but they dried very nicely. They seem to be harder than the mix without the oil.

I found a recipe somewhere that says you can make a gesso with ordinary white glue, water, and talc. Talc is easily available cheaply in the form of baby powder. I made some gesso with this recipe and it worked perfectly, except unless rabbit skin glue, the surface was not stirred up by the first layer of paint.

I have tried different ingredients for the chalk component. I bought whiting at the hardware store, which is crushed calcium carbonate (either chalk, limestone, or marble - they are the same stuff, maybe with a different crystalline structure). Although it seems powdery in the bag, it was too gritty for a good gesso (some particles were too big). I had some success using “levigation”. This is mixing the whiting powder with water, stirring the water, and letting it settle for about a minute. The heavy particles sink to the bottom, while smaller and lighter particles float. You pour off the liquid carefully, and this liquid is made of smaller particles. They will settle as well, and this is what you can use. You can do this repeatedly to extract a finer and finer powder.

Another substance that might be useful is hydrated lime. First you should make a putty, for which you leave the lime in water for several weeks (some craftsmen with lime plaster have tubs of plaster centuries old). The lime plaster does not set fast as plaster of paris, but over months it will set and in fact changes to marble (or calcium carbonate). I have yet to make a gesso out of this, but the putty is now in a tub and has a very pleasing smooth texture.


I have a batch of rabbit skin glue that I made maybe two years ago. I keep it in the fridge to minimize spoilage, and I added a few big drops of oil of cloves also to minimize spoilage. An interesting side effect of the oil of cloves is that the glue remains in a liquid state in the jar in the fridge. It still dries very well when used. I now use Rabbit Skin Glue to prepare paper for painting. If I coat paper with Rabbit Skin Glue (with or without other ingredients of gesso, namely whiting and pigment), I can paint on the paper with any media—watercolor, acrylic, egg-tempera, and oil. This enables me to do something I have wanted to do for a long time—I can make a drawing on paper, then paint a layer of rabbit-skin glue over it, then paint over the drawing in oil, or whatever else. Finally, I can mount the paper on foamcore or anything else (or I can do this first), and the best way I have found is with rubber cement (contact cement). The secret for using this is to coat both surfaces thoroughly, then wait until they appear dry. Of course, work in very good ventilation, because the fumes are noxious. Then place the paper carefully on the other surface, and it is mounted. Rubber cement does not cause paper to wrinkle or warp.


The above painting is an example of the mische technique that I learned from the website of Brigid Marlin, although I did not follow every detail of her technique. The size of the painting on your monitor is approximately the actual size. First, I "drew" the picture in a medium of oil paste (one could use oil paint with a little beeswax). This sort of thing is analogous to fingerpainting, and you can redo your sketches as long as the medium remains pliable. Second, when it was dried I glazed it with red paint diluted in oil. When this was dry, I put in the highlights in white egg tempera. I repeated the process with yellow, then white highlights again, and blue, with a few highlights.


  • — this site is definitive in matters of egg tempera
  • — this site demonstrates mische technique
  • — this is Curry's art supplies with stores in several South Ontario cities. Curry’s no longer carries powdered pigments, at least for ordering. You can get Frederick's Gesso mix, rabbit skin glue, and marble , none of which are mentioned on the site
  •—a company in Montreal, run by artists, they have a good variety of pigments at good prices. They also ship to the United States, last time I checked.