I’m often asked about my materials… Egg Tempera and/or Casein…is in all of my work.
In my last semester of grad school I took a “Methods and Materials,” class taught by instructor Joshua Rose. I learned how to mix egg tempera, make oil pastels, gouache, and other…mediums. I learned to prepare a gessoed board (cheese clothe, rabbit skin glue, and whiting). It was my first experience painting, also my first real experience using color. Process caught my attention.
I’d mix my own casein now, if I lived in a more milk-friendly environment. Casein as it stands, is a protein, and a milk product. I would have problems in this Phoenix heat. Egg Tempera is mixed in small quantities and gets used up within days, if not sooner.
Ingredients for Egg Tempera
- Egg Yolk
- Dry Pigment
Take raw egg, crack open and separate out the white. Pure yolk is all you need. I recall Joshua placing a yolk onto a napkin, rolling it around the top of the napkin, to clean it off and then picking up the yolk by the membrane. He dangles it, for drama. He then pricked a little hole into the tear drop form, and let the pure yolk pour out into a container. Grinning, he tossed the membrane. I’ve learned to finesse this skill.
Mix 1 part pigment to 2 parts pure yolk, add double (of both ingredients) the amount of water. Mixture should be smooth and fluid. Too thick? Then you’ve got too much pigment, or not enough water. It won’t feel light, or smooth when applying. Too much water? Runny. Can you have too much egg yolk? Probably, but it would only make the color more translucent. Though If you apply too much egg tempera (heavily yolked) in general to an area, it’s liable to crack within a short time.
Apply the tempera to a gessoed surface. You layer egg tempera one light translucent coat at a time. I sometimes do a casein under-painting and apply egg tempera to the top surface. The image brightens, and becomes layered in a way that I like.
I get my Casein at Jerry’s, in Tempe. It has a flat, opaque quality when dry. If lightly buffed with a cotton rag, you can pull up a bit of sheen. It doesn’t mix well, thus color options are limited. Egg tempera is brighter, may be glossy, and when layered can be translucent and give the illusion of depth in the way that oil paint might. Both mediums are non toxic and water soluble.
About yolks: My framer, who had a pet duck, gave me a fresh duck egg once. It was a brighter yellow than a regular chicken egg, lots more yolk, worked great.
Both the mixed tempera and the unused yolk can be refrigerated for a short time. When I can, I use fresh chicken egg yolk. Quality is so much better. It has a more rich, smooth feel, and goes further than store bought eggs. I’ve also tried ostrich egg yolk. Didn’t work so well. Yolk was too thick. and it nauseated me.
I gravitated towards using egg tempera and casein after discovering Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington at the Phoenix Art Museum’s run of Latin American Women Artists exhibit, some years ago. The museum was going through a major transformation, was under construction, and consequently the exhibit was free. I was there almost everyday on my lunch hour, for the duration of the show. To discover these two women, master painters, was a significant event for me. I couldn’t get enough of Varo’s work especially. I noted the influence of my favorite artist, surrealist Hieronymus Bosch. Within the year of discovering her, I read every biography I could find.
Egg tempera has been used since the Middle ages, before oil painting. And casein was used as far back as Egyptian times. Here in the US, it was used by the early Shakers to adhere and paint furniture. Both mediums withstand the passing of time.
A few years ago I returned to NMSU as a visiting artist. Within the year I was invited to participate in a group exhibition, Art 5, NMSU Gallery’s Regional Art Exhibition. Consequently the school purchased three of my small egg tempera and casein works.
I spent some time with Joshua Rose, my one time adviser and teacher. I saw his current work sitting in his office. He told me it needed to be seen in the gallery, under the lights, to really get a sense of it. It looked pretty exciting in his small office. He also mentioned at the time that he would be retiring this year. Congratulations Josh, enjoy your time in your studio.