This week in my History of Art II class, we made Egg Tempera paint. This was the type of paint that was used during the early part of the Renaissance, before oil paint was popularized. It was made by mixing egg yolk with pigments. Egg tempera is quick drying, which makes it nearly impossible to blend. Instead, artists had to use small brushstrokes to layer colors, which meant pieces done in egg tempera took a long time to be completed.
Making this paint in class was so interesting. Some pigments were harder to mix than others, especially the blue (you can see in the image that the blue paint was clumpier because it didn’t dissolve as well). The consistency of the paint reminded me of gouache, which I love to use, but unlike gouache, you couldn’t really go back into it. Once the egg tempera was dry, that was it. Some of my classmates used the egg tempera to make flowers or cats, but I just wanted to try it out, so I made a simple design (although, I’m thinking about adding to it). I had never heard of this until this semester, and although I know it is an old method, it made me wonder if there were any contemporary artists who use egg tempera. With a quick google search, I found Doug Safranek.
Safranek is an artist located in New York City who got a Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Inspired by a professor who told him that his style of pastel drawings resembled egg tempera paintings, Safranek began researching and working in egg tempera. He has used this technique ever since. Many of his paintings are of New York City and Coney Island, which showcase the excitement and the many emotions of each of the scenes. Other paintings are portraits and still-lifes.
Safranek’s paintings of Coney Island are particularly amazing. In The Brass Ring, pictured here, the attention to detail is nothing short of extraordinary. Each individual person has their own unique expression. The clothing shown has wrinkles and patterns, even those in the background. Safranek was even sure to include the mirrors on the carousel! The detail is especially amazing considering that the medium requires small, layered strokes. Plus, the painting is not very small – it’s about 18” x 21”. The painting truly puts you at an amusement park and allows you to feel the excitement of the day.
Although his NYC and Coney Island paintings are amazing, his portraits truly show how far art has come throughout history. Above is Safraneks’ Ali Jones compared to Sandro Botticelli’s Idealized Portrait of a Lady from the late 15th century, both of which were done in egg tempera. Despite using the same medium and technique, Safranek’s painting has more definition and feels more realistic. This is likely due to better proportions and the incorporation of emotion. Ali Jones depicts a woman with a slight smile, her eyes looking off to the side. She seems curious and maybe a little shy. She feels very real and relatable. Botticelli’s painting, in comparison, feels very posed and flat, although the clothing is rather intricate.
Here are some more of Safranek’s work – in the first one, you can really see the small strokes:
I find it fascinating that, although we have come so far in materials and techniques, we are still able to go back to historical methods of art making. Not only can we emulate the masters, we can expand upon them, just like Doug Safranek has done. I think it’s important to learn and understand art history in order to truly value modern art. Trying egg tempera this week made me appreciate the artists that have come before me – especially because I had to actually make the paint instead of just ordering it online! If you have the time, you should definitely try it!
Featured Image and All Safranek Images: http://dougsafranek.com/portfolio/