Materials & Techniques

Tempera—History and Technique

This medium, practiced extensively by 14th-century Italian artists and often associated with 15th-century Flemish painting, demands careful draftsmanship and exacting precision. Traditionally, tempera consists of pigment mixed with egg yolk and water but the whole egg or egg white may also be used. Today the term tempera is sometimes used to include pigment mixed with glue, gum or casein.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, tempera paintings were executed on gessoed wood panels. Prior to the application of paint, the wood support is usually coated with several layers of gesso and sanded smooth. The artist sketches or traces his drawing onto the board and applies the paint. Tempera must be applied in very thin layers to prevent cracking. Precise brushstrokes are used since the paint dries quickly and cannot be mixed on the painting as oil can. The paint dries to a smooth matte finish, but the surface can be varnished to obtain a glossy surface.

Artists' experimentation with the addition of oil to increase their paint's transparency eventually led to the use of pure oil paint. Oil had replaced tempera as the standard painting technique by the late 16th century, although tempera was still used for underpainting by some artists. Tempera enjoyed a renewed popularity with American artists during the 1930s-1950s, many of whom apparently rediscovered the technique independently.