Last weekend, I turned our kitchen into a chemistry lab. The Quest...to successfully make long lasting paint using only my hands and natural resources. The Result…fabulous egg tempera paint!
I was inspired by a number of factors including Victoria Finlay’s book Color: A Natural History of the Palette, Malawian artists’ need of access to affordable paint, and personal curiosity. Over the past few months I have been researching pigments and paint making techniques. Egg tempera paint is one of the oldest paints known to man, even older than oil painting. Some date egg tempera paint back to the first centuries AD, but it was most widely used in the Middle Ages with the Byzantine painters. The Greek Orthodox Church has maintained the tradition, and up to the present still uses egg tempera for icon paintings. In the secular world of art this tradition has seen a revival over the past 10 years. So much so, that there is a great online forum where you can read and participate in discussions about issues relating to egg tempera paint and painting
How does it work? The recipe is quite simple, but is a bit labor intensive when you talk about grinding your own pigments. First, prepare a fine pigment powder; then, add just enough water to make a thick paste. Next, prepare an egg yolk by separating the white from the yolk, dry the yolk membrane by rolling it around on a cloth, lastly drain the yolk contents into a container. Finally, mix 1 part yolk with 1 part pigment paste. You can add more water to dilute and get a lighter tone.
I started experimenting with egg tempera last week using red ochre clays, charcoal and papaya leaves I collected from around town. I have gotten great satisfaction tapping into my resourceful side and knowing that my paintings from Malawi are not just about Africa but made OF Africa. I am hoping to hone my skills both on the production side of egg tempera and painting techniques with the medium, in order to teach Malawian artists how they can use their natural resources for painting. I met with two artists briefly this week. They were absolutely blown away by the results of my experiment and are super excited to learn how to make paint.
I hand ground charcoal which gave me a great black. It resulted in a grainy texture, but I was able to work with it and liked the effect. Right now I'm looking for cheesecloth to use as a filter and hopefully be able to make a finer pigment paint. For green, I used papaya leaves which gave me a wonderful brilliant green. But, as you might expect, after only a few days my lime green is turning more and more yellow. Interestingly, the paint I made from boiled papaya leaves is holding the color, but the pigment is more grainy. It appears to not have dissolved into the water.
To continue my experiment I need to fine a mortar and pestle which will make the grinding process more efficient and more effective. The other obstacle is supports (i.e. paper, canvas, wood). I haven't found any good paper yet. Honestly the best is card stock. Egg tempera is not a very flexible medium. The egg yolk is the binder which isn’t very strong, therefore, on a flexible surface like canvas it is likely to crack. The best option for us would be good stiff paper or wood. My only hesitation with using wood as a support is that it might limit the local artists' market which consists mostly of western tourists who want to buy something easy to travel with. I'm still searching for some kind of drying oil (linseed, etc.) which would allow us to make oil paints and work on unmounted canvas. reality is that this is one of the poorest countries in Africa. The local artists need to use their skills as a financial means to support themselves and their families.