Tempera Painting on Wooden Panels
Tempera Painting on Wooden Panels, was the main medium used up to and including the Early Renaissance; for portable smaller scale paintings.
Moving from the late Medieval into the Early Italian Renaissance period of the 15th century; saw tempera painting rise to new levels of beauty and outstanding technique. In the early 16th century, artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, developed the basic technique further. They sought to bridge the gap between the newly introduced oil paints; with their qualities of radiance, intensity, contrast and ability to blend the colours directly on the support media.
This post describes the highly skilled preparation of the wooden panel and the techniques of tempera painting and gilding; illustrated by the work of renowned artists of the period covered.
Instead of thinking about the relative strengths of a medium used to suspend and adhere the pigment (egg tempera, oil, etc.) in isolation; it is also useful to think about the support, as well as the context, for which the work of art was intended.
Tempera Painting on wooden panels, was the main medium used during the Early Renaissance (around 1400-1500); for portable smaller scale paintings. Oil-based paint, introduced around the end of the 15th century, allowed the use of the more flexible canvas support medium. Fresco, was used to cover large walls and ceilings. There are certainly earlier examples: for instance the ancient Egyptians used encaustic, which is basically pigment suspended in wax.
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.
Tempera is a word of Italian origin. It comes, from the phrase “pingere a tempera,” which means “to paint in a distemper”. The late Latin word “distemperare” means to mix thoroughly.
The technique of tempera involved mixing egg yolk, with ground colour 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 colours.
Tempera had a greater luminosity and depth of tone than fresco, but less radiance, intensity and contrast, than oil painting. Its main disadvantage, however, was its quick drying time; which made the smooth blending and gradation of tones very difficult, unlike with oil paints.
Left: Pietro Lorenzetti’s “Tarlati” polyptych, Tempera and gold on panel, c.1320
Attempts were made to limit the above disadvantages of tempera, by either varnishing the final work, or modifying the process; as in Leonardo da Vinci’s “tempera grassa” or Michelangelo’s “cangiantismo”, developments, described later.
Tempera paintings were highly valued by their patrons, even after the introduction of oil paint; because of the inherent high level of preparation of the panel and the technical perfection required in painting.
PREPARING THE PANEL
Making the support panel. From the early part of the Renaissance to the end of the 15th century, the primary support for portable paintings (those other than wall paintings); from monumental church altarpieces to diminutive works used in private devotion, was the wooden panel.
Masters were assisted by pupils and workshop members in the lengthy and complex preparation of the panels; before gilding and/or painting.
Modern technical analysis and x-radiography have deepened our understanding of this process, allowing for a close examination of the materials and techniques used by the artist.
The basis of our knowledge, however, is a 600-year-old source: a treatise on the art of painting called “Il Libro dell’arte”, composed about 1390, by the Italian painter Cennino Cennini (ca. 1370 – ca. 1440).
Because of potential warping, a single wide board could not be used. In Italy, the planks used for panel paintings were often made of native poplar, a widely available wood that was, however, soft and vulnerable to warping. Instead, seasoned planks (one that had been allowed to dry out for some time) were used; glued together and cross braced at the back for stability. Planks, were chosen for minimal knots and defects and then sanded and smoothed down.
The panel was first layered with several coats of size, a glue made from animal skins (often rabbit). Often, a piece of linen soaked in size and squeezed out, was laid over the front of the panel; to conceal any surface flaws.
Left: The gilded three-story altarpiece, the Tarlati Polyptych, was commissioned in 1320 by bishop Guido Tarlati; for the Santa Maria della Pieve in Arezzo. At its centre is the Madonna (draped in a magnificent ermine-lined robe) and child, flanked by John the Evangelist, John the Baptist, Saint Matthew, and Arezzo’s patron saint, Donatus (martyred in 361 CE).
Coating. Over this, many coats of thin “gesso” were applied. This was a mixture of powdered calcium sulphate (commonly called gypsum) and animal glue; that provided the ground for preliminary drawings. The exact composition of the mixture was critical, as the mixture became extremely hot and bubbles formed; that could end up as pinholes in the finished gesso surface.
The perfection of the surface during coating, could be checked by rubbing in ground charcoal; which revealed surface imperfections and then dusted off with feathers. Further coats would then be required.
Under-drawing. Chalk, charcoal, pencil or ink could be used.
Gilding and Painting. Finally, when the under-drawing was complete, the panel could be painted; or first gilded, then painted. Gilding was used, to denote the religious importance of characters (Christ, Mary and Saints), for longevity and in buildings lit by candle-light or shafts of sunlight; to increase reflectivity and sparkle in low light situations. It could also be used on braiding, or the decoration of clothing of notable figures.
Medieval and early renaissance artists used tempera paints, made by using a mortar and pestle to obtain finely ground pigments; which were then mixed with egg yolk, typically on a marble slab. This medium produced a pure hue, but the paint was not transparent.
Contrary to what you might think about the use of egg, the resulting paints were long lasting (although in earlier works, the pigments used for subtle skin tone rendition, did suffer fading). They also adhered well to the support, without flaking. Because of their quick drying property, they did not suffer from bacterial decomposition and smell. Interestingly, pale yellow or darker, more orange yolks; could be used for subtle variations in light skin tones (e.g., female and male).
It needs to be understood, that it also had certain physical properties; that lead to it being used in a particular way.
Tempera paint was thinned with water and applied with a brush. Brushes as fine as a single hair, were used to create fine detail. 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 fine detail, graceful lines, gentle tones and a limited palette of delicate colours.
Some consider the technique akin to “drawing with colour“, because the tempera paint dries very fast, so you cannot blend the paint laid down; once it is applied to the painting, like you can with other mediums, like oil. This means that to create shading and blending of colours in the painting, you have to use similar techniques to drawing, such as stippling and hatching.
For example, to blend from light into shadow, or from one colour into another in a particular area, artists would first lay the lighter colour down first. Then, they would place very thin fine lines on top of that of either; a darker tone of that same colour, or of a different colour of darker tonality. Traditionally, the artist would lighten a tone, by adding white or darken it by adding brown or black. A gradation, using different colours, for example; might be yellow, orange, burnt sienna and umbria.
If the artist started to make these lines thinner and thinner and spread them out more and more, the underlying layer would come through more. If those thin fine lines were very close together you would see mostly the colour on top. From a distance you don’t even see those lines – it just looks like a nice, even gradation from one tone into another. You can clearly see this effect, in the enlarged detail images below.
The pigments would come from minerals, plants, or sometimes even insects; but were limited in the range of colours available.
Grinding and mixing, was a very physical kind of process. In the middle-ages and early Renaissance, painters were in the same guild as pharmacists. Some mineral pigments were toxic, containing mercury or arsenic.
Pigments that had to be imported were very expensive. For example, the most prized pigment was “lapis lazuli” (ultra-marine blue – “over the seas” blue), that came from a quarry, that is in modern-day Afghanistan.
These costly pigments, were used for the most important figures, or parts of the painting; for both economic and symbolic reasons. Ordinary people could recognise the significance of the colours and the fact that they were more “dazzling” to the eye, especially in low-level lighting conditions. A prime example, was that in religious paintings; ultra-marine blue was usually reserved for the dress of the Virgin Mary.
Gilding and Painting Process.
Gilding was used, to denote the religious importance of characters (Christ, Mary and Saints), for longevity and in buildings lit by candle-light or shafts of sunlight light; to increase reflectivity and sparkle in low light situations. It could also be used, on decoration or braiding of clothing of notable figures.
Gold is relatively soft and malleable and can be beaten into very thin sheets.
The gold leaf was made by pounding a small amount of gold (probably coins) into very thin sheets; which were then applied to the panel using a tool called a “gilder’s tip” (commonly an animal tooth, such as a dog).
Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1260 – c.1318-1319) was one of the most influential Italian artists of his time. Born in Siena, Tuscany, he worked mostly with pigment and egg tempera and like most of his contemporaries, painted religious subjects.
In earlier tempera paintings that used unstable pigments for the flesh tints, you will see that their warm hues have faded; leaving the under-painted tonal form in “terre-verte”.
Duccio di Buonninsegna. Detail from a triptych “The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea” (1312-15, tempera on a poplar panel); is a good example of this defect. However, due to his superb drawing and brilliant composition; none of its emotion feeling has been lost. Also, note the circular halo lines and heavily embossed detail within.
Areas to be gilded were prepared with a layer of “bole”, a reddish clay that provided an adhesive surface for fragile gold leaf, cut into squares (usually standard 4 inch size).
The gilded surface was rubbed with a hard-tipped instrument (often a dog’s tooth) to smooth and polish the gold leaf; a process known as “burnishing”. Gold leaf is slightly transparent, so often, the reddish ground, can be seen through the gold. This gives the gilded areas, a warmer glowing coloration. Sometimes, you can clearly see where the squares overlap.
The typical circular “halo” lines around the head, were made with a compass. Additional decoration, could be incised or stamped into the surface using metal punches, with patterns cut into one end. The tip of the punch, placed against the panel and struck from the other end with a mallet; pressed the design into the wood.
Many paintings of this period have “engaged frames”, made of wooden strips attached to the outside edge of the panel, some examples of which survive. Original frames may sometimes bear hinge marks, indicating that the work was once part of a diptych or triptych, designed to be closed. Independent panels were often used on private altars, in a domestic setting.
For large church altarpieces, it was necessary to join together independently painted panels with an “elaborate frame”. Usually, the Madonna and Child were shown on the main panels, flanked by saints and apostles; identifiable by their attributes. A strip of smaller panels, called the “predella”, at the bottom of the altarpiece; depicted additional figures or narrative episodes, from the life of Christ, Mary, or the Saints.
FIFTEENTH AND EARLY SIXTEENTH CENTURY DEVELOPMENTS
The Early Renaissance period of the15th century, saw tempera painting rise to new levels of beauty and outstanding technique. Moving into the early 16th C, artists, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, developed the technique; to bridge the gap between the newly introduced oil paints; with their qualities of radiance, intensity, contrast and ability to blend the colours directly on the support media.
CARLO CRIVELLI (1435- 1495)
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. Crivelli’s work is exclusively religious in nature and his urban settings are jewel-like and full of elaborate allegorical detail.
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.
The classic tempera technique, which is essentially “drawing with colour”; is quite visible in the enlarged sections from the painting, as shown below.
Left: ‘Madonna and Child’, c.1480
(egg tempera on a wooden panel)
Above left and right: Detail from ‘Madonna and Child’, c.1480
Note the edge of the panel, has been glued to a back-board; to support it in its frame.
The animal and still life attributes, that decorate Crivelli’s ‘Madonna and Child’; symbolise 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 colourful 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.
SANDRO BOTTICELLI (1445-1510)
In the 15th century, tempera painting reached a remarkable level of skill, as seen in the work of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). Looking at the detail from “Idealised Portrait of a Lady” of 1480; 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.
Left: ‘Idealised Portrait of a Lady’, 1480
(egg tempera on a poplar panel)
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. Looking close-up, his image is built up in layers, as the flat golden colour 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 colours.
The graduated tone and form of her flesh, was established by underpainting any shaded areas with “terre-verte, an earthy green colour and then delicately stippling over the surface with thin layers of white, yellow, pink and brown; to form her perfect complexion. Close examination, reveals a hint of the greenish terre-verte; shining through her translucent skin.
Left: Detail from ‘Idealised Portrait of a Lady’, 1480
(egg tempera on poplar panel)
MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI (1475-1564) – “CANGIANTISMO” DEVELOPMENT.
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.
Left: ‘The Doni Tondo’, 1506-8 (tempera on panel)
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 colours 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 colour limitations, of both tempera and fresco painting.
Cangiantismo, is a technique for changing the tones of pigments in tempera and fresco painting; without losing the saturation of their colours.
Traditionally, the artist would lighten a tone, by adding white or darken it by adding brown or black. However, with the limited range of colour pigments available for tempera and fresco; this traditional approach, tended to reduce the luminosity of the colours in a painting.
With the ‘cangiantismo’ technique the artist would create a lighter or darker tone; by using the pure form of a different colour, whose natural hue matched the required tone.
Example of ‘Cangiantismo’ from the Doni Tondo, 1506-8 (tempera on panel)
On close examination of 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 colours both retain their vitality and act successfully as a vehicle for defining form.
LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452-1519) – “TEMPERA GRASSA” DEVELOPMENT
‘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 colours and lengthen their drying time; which offered him the opportunity to create the dramatic “chiaroscuro” and the subtle blends of “sfumato” 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.
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