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Tempera paint

Tempera painting, popular in the early Renaissance, used egg-based paint on wood panels. Artists prepared the wood with gesso, a liquid plaster, to prevent absorption. Pigments, often ground from minerals, plants, or insects, were mixed with egg yolk to create the paint. Gold leaf, made from pounded gold, was also used, especially in religious images. Speakers: Dr. David Drogin and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Narrator: David, I wanted to ask you about materials and I guess what we were going to focus on now was tempera painting, which was very popular at the very beginning of the Renaissance period. David: In the early part of the Renaissance up until almost the end of the 1400's, all Italian painters who were making portable paintings rather than ones painted directly on the wall, used tempera paint on wood panels. When we think of painting, we think of oil and canvas. Those materials weren't really used widely until almost 1500. These kinds of tempera paintings, like the one that we're looking at here, would be for many different kinds of purposes. They could be altarpieces, they could be paintings in private settings, they could be portraits like this one. Narrator: Before we even get to the painting, let's talk about what the surface was. What did the artist actually paint on? David: Well, all these paintings were on wood panel, like I said, and the wood in Italy was always poplar wood. They didn't paint on just a single plank of wood because over time it would warp very easily and very quickly, so what artists did, and usually they would actually have someone in the workshop do this, is attach vertical planks of wood together and then attach them together across the back with cross beams. Narrator: All right, that makes sense because in museums sometimes you can actually see a little bit of a crack right along the seam of those planks. David: Exactly. Those planks could also warp, but they wouldn't warp nearly as much as one single very, very wide plank. And those, of course, would be sanded down and smoothed out and they would carefully choose pieces of wood that didn't have large knots or other kinds of defects. Narrator: So, this was really a kind of craftsmanship, that went into this. It was really like cabinet making. David: Exactly. Narrator: Would the artist then paint directly on top of the wood? David: No, they couldn't do that. Partly because of the small imperfections like the grain of wood and the knots, but also, the main problem is that the wood is absorbent. So, if they painted directly on the surface of the wood, the paint, the pigment would be absorbed like a sponge and you would really see the wood almost more than the paint itself. Narrator: So, did they put something sort of as a barrier in between? David: That's right. They had to prepare the surface of the wood to make it completely smooth and completely non-absorbent. For this they used something called gesso, which is like a liquid plaster that artists still use today. Narrator: So, that must have been a lot cheaper than the paint itself. The paint was pretty expensive, wasn't it? David: Paint was relatively expensive. Partly because of the process of making the paint that you were going to use. The gesso was inexpensive and it was a preparatory stage that enabled them to paint on the wood panel. Narrator: Now, what color was the gesso? David: The gesso was essentially white or off-white. Narrator: Okay, so then they've got this lovely, very smooth white surface and then the artist is going to go ahead and paint. Now, would they actually do a drawing underneath? David: They would sometimes do drawing underneath with chalk or something like crayon or pencil. Narrator: Let's talk a little bit about what kind of materials they used in their paint. What is paint actually made out of? Tempera paint? David: Well, tempera paint is an egg based paint. Essentially the way it would work is that the artist, or again, more likely someone in their workshop would grind up pigment. The pigment would come from minerals or plants or sometimes even insects. They would grind that up until it was a powder or a paste. Narrator: So, we're talking about a mortar and pestle here? David: Exactly. Narrator: We're talking about really taking a rock and grinding. It's a very physical kind of process. David: It's a very physical process. They're grinding something up into a paste and a powder and we might add at this point that this is exactly the reason why, in the middle ages and in the early Renaissance, painters were in the same guild as pharmacists because they both ground things up and mix them together. Narrator: Now, were these things all local to Italy? David: Not everything. The things that were local were the least expensive things and the things that needed to be imported from a distance were, of course, the most expensive things and the most expensive thing of all was ultra marine blue, which was created by grinding up lapis lazuli. The reason why it's even called ultra marine blue is that it comes from very far away from a quarry that is in modern day Afghanistan. In Italian it was called 'ultramarina' meaning from over the seas. That's why it has the name that we use if for today. Narrator: You know, you go into an art supply store now and paints actually cost different amounts, if you're getting the real paint, not synthetic dyes. So, I guess, that's really just the same reason. Would that just cause an artist to use less of the more expensive colors or were there purposes for using the more expensive colors at times? David: Since people recognize that certain colors were more visually dazzling or more expensive to make, those colors would only be used for the most important parts of the painting. Partly for economic reasons, but also for symbolic ones. So, for instance, that ultra marine blue, that very rich, deep, almost purple-y blue was only reserved for the most important figures or the most important parts of the painting. Usually in a religious painting, for the dress of the Virgin Mary. Narrator: Let's take a look at this painting, for instance, what kinds of pictures are being used here? David: Well, this painting by Filippo Lippi is a tempera painting on wood panel and the panel was created in the way we discussed. We should add that once they had their pigments ground up, they mixed it together with egg yolk and that actually created the paint itself. Narrator: Well, that's very unexpected. Egg yolk. I mean, of all the things to choose, why in the world would you choose egg yolk? David: Well, it had a good consistency and it was very, very strong and it would adhere very nicely to the gesso prepared wood panel. So, if it was prepared correctly and then maintained well, it would actually last a very long time and the colors wouldn't change. It was very stable. We need to understand that it also had certain physical properties that lead to it being used in a particular way. For instance, egg tempera paint is not transparent and it also dries very quickly and it's very hard to blend on the surface of painting. So, if you want to have shading and transition from light to dark or from one color to another, you can't place one color down then put the next color next to it and try to mix them together because by the time you're putting your second color down, the first one is already drying and they wouldn't mix together very well. Narrator: It probably dried on the brush actually. David: It does. People have to work quickly and they have to develop special techniques in order to achieve the effects that they wanted to get. Narrator: Unlike oil painting as we know it, this is almost like drawing, in a sense. David: In a way it is more like drawing and they needed to be able to get very fine details to achieve the kinds of shading and colors that they needed to get. And we should add that sometimes they used brushes that only had one hair in them because they could achieve those kinds of detail with tempera. Since I mentioned before that it was very difficult to blend from light into shadow or from one color into another, what artists did was, they would lay one color down and then they would place very, very thin fine lines of another color on top of that. If those thin fine lines were very close together you would see mostly the color on top, but if the artist started to make them even thinner and thinner and spread them out more and more then you would see more of the condulair underneath shining through. From a distance you don't even see those lines. It just looks like a nice, even gradation from one tone into another, but when you look closely, you can see that hatching and you can see the way that the artist achieved that effect. Here you can really see it on the chest of the young woman, where it goes from a bright highlight on the left into the darker red on the right. If you look closely, if you zoom in or see this painting in person you can see the actual lines and how the white lines are thick and close together on the left and then slowly get thinner and thinner and space out the further you get to the right. Narrator: We wanted to talk about gold because tempera was not the only material that was used in these early Renaissance paintings. I think here's a good example. What are we looking at? David: This is a painting of Saint Andrew by Simone Martini. It's at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and this is a really great example of to talk about how gold was used frequently up until the early Renaissance, specifically or most widely in religious images to give them a kind of other worldly quality to make them seem more spectacular and spiritual. Narrator: So, this is real gold? David: This is real gold in the background. The figure is painted with egg tempera in the manner that we discussed before, so if you look carefully you can see the hatching technique that we talked about, but in the background we see gold and that is, in fact, real gold. It's gold leaf and the way that someone in the artist workshop would prepare that is by pounding gold very, very, very thin. Narrator: Because gold is really malleable and it's really elastic, isn't it? David: It's very, very soft. It's very elastic and it can be pounded into extremely fine, thin, practically transparent sheets of gold. That's exactly what they did. They prepared lots of small squares of this thin gold leaf in preparation for putting it on the painting. Narrator: So what you're telling me is if I scrape the gold off of this, I would really end up with that much gold. David: Probably not. There's not very much there. It's very, very thin, which is important for a reason that we'll come to. But they couldn't just stick the gold onto the painting and expect it to stay there. They had to prepare the surface of the painting much in the same way that they used gesso to prepare the painting for the tempera. In this case, they used a very sticky, red clay to attach the gold to the surface of the painting. This actually served a couple of purposes. One thing is that, like I said, it was sticky so it helped the gold to stay where it was supposed to go, but the other thing was that it was important it was red because the gold is pounded so thin, it's essentially a little bit transparent and the red clay underneath helps give the gold a very, very warm glowing tone, rather than a colder yellow that it would otherwise have. Narrator: I can actually see that, especially on the left side of the painting. David: That's exactly why this is a great example to use to talk about gold leaf because you can see the red clay coming through a little bit, since the painting is about 700 years old and the surface has degraded a little, you can see the red clay in a much more visible way than you would have originally and you can also see the individual squares, the individual leaves that they used. Where they overlap it's a little bit thicker and it makes a grid where you can see how these were laid down on the surface. Narrator: Now, gold survives pretty well. Why would this degrade? Was it cleaned? Did somebody ... David: It could be from over cleaning probably. That's the most likely cause. Narrator: So, somebody actually, what they'll do, is takes a rag and actually rubs it. David: You would not believe the way that paintings have been cleaned in the past several hundred years. Narrator: And actually that makes sense because in a church, soot would build up. David: Sure. Narrator: There were no electric lights, of course. David: Exactly. In fact, that's an important reason to think about why they used gold because the churches and the small chapels that these kinds of paintings were displayed in were, of course, not lit with electrical lights, but were primarily lit by candle light burning in front of these objects and so that gold, especially with the red clay behind it would create an incredibly reflective, glowing surface that really contributed, again, to the other worldly quality of the represented subject. Narrator: Oh, it must have been beautiful because you have the flickering flames actually and it would sort of dance against the surface. David: Exactly. It had a much more vibrant, flickering, almost vital quality than what we see in a museum where something is lit with a steady spotlight. Narrator: But I want to pick up on what you said a moment ago, because you said that there was an other worldly quality, so the gold actually has a real symbolic value here. David: Sure, exactly. Like the blue that we were talking about before, obviously on one of the most important paintings and subjects would have gold in the background and it does contribute a symbolic quality that comes in part from it's economic value. Narrator: So, now. I see the squares where the individual pieces of gold leaf were applied and I see the seams that you mentioned and that's really great, but I also see that there's a lot of detail in the gold and maybe even some words. Can you speak a little bit about that? David: Sure. If you zoom in on the head, you can see that the halo around the figure is actually in the gold and the way that artists did that in this period was by tooling. They used different kinds of tools to punch and rub and pound into the gold to give it a three dimensional textural surface. Again, if you think of this in front of candles the light flickering from the candles when it hit that textured surface would shine even more brightly and more vibrantly than the flat gold around the rest of the painting. Narrator: It's just gorgeous and it does do something really interesting, which is that it makes Andrew really feel like he's not in our world. That he's really in a kind of different and a kind of spiritual space. David: Exactly and that was largely the point of religious paintings up until the early 1400's. (piano playing)