With the mass tones applied I can begin to apply other colours and create images.
Egg tempera is unique in the way an image is created. Rather than creating with a neutral tone and then applying shadows, tempera painting works best when a dark mass tone is applied and highlighting layers are added. While the best defence for working this way is the effect of the paint colour, I have a small, personal enjoyment in applying light to create my images.
Painting the animals in this icon has been a lot of fun for me, too. Since the pigments used to create this work all come from within 100 miles of the Cambridge Center for the Arts, I decided that the animals depicted should also come from within that region. This also means that I have gotten to include in this icon many of my favourite animals, ones that I have watched and encountered since my childhood.
So, it’s time to get down to work and begin painting. It’s been a long road to get to this point (as those of you following this blog will attest to) and it is very exciting for me to begin.
The colour that I chose to begin with was the Maya Blue. This is because, to my knowledge, this pigment has never been used in an egg tempera medium, and I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen. I am happy to write that this pigment has preformed admirably. In fact, I’m so impressed with this it that I intend to continue to use it in my common iconography practice.
Applying these mass tone colours over the white gesso is very exciting, but also a challenge as I have to make sure that the balance of colours is right. As each colour is applied I end up learning about it’s properties. So as I paint, I am introduced to each pigment and it’s personality.
Before I can begin painting, I need to take the different colours that I have prepared and grind them with the egg yolk binder. Without this yolk mixture the pigment could simply be brushed off. The oldest icons used beeswax as a binder, but after the iconoclast controversy the binder typically used was egg yolk. It is a mixture of fats and is surprising durable.
Egg yolk has a long history of being used to affix coloured powders. It works well and lasts a very long time. I’ve seen examples of this egg tempera medium in Austria that was 700 years old and, from the look of them, the paintings could have been painted last year.
Preparing the binder is easy: After separating the yolk from the white (you can imagine that we eat a lot of meringues in our house) the yolk is mixed with water. Once this is done, the pigment colour is put onto a sheet of glass and a few drops of egg tempera binder are added. Using a muller, this mixture is swirled together until it is smooth. Now, I have paint!
With the gesso finished, the drawing is transferred to the panel. This drawing is called a cartoon and is always fully to scale.
Once I have the image transfered onto the panel, the entire drawing is etched using a sharp point. These inscribed lines will remain slightly visible even after layers of paint have been applied to the board. And, because of this, I can continue to develop the painting on track.
This etching has always fascinated me. If you look carefully on many old icons you can see the same lines. The reason I think they are interesting is because they are accepted only as far as guidelines. In many icon you can see significant deviations from these lines as the iconographer changed his mind to take the final painting in a different direction. Perhaps, if you look closely at the icon I’m going to paint, you might see some variations too …