Tempera paint is beloved for its inherent luminance and vibrancy. While it is most commonly associated with religious panel paintings of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, it has a long history of usage; it is an ancient medium that is still in use by artists today. Some of the world’s most beloved works of art were painted in tempera, such as The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli and Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, and the techniques it inspired greatly impacted the way artists viewed and rendered their subjects.
The term “tempera” initially indicated the use of a water-soluble binding element, typically egg, to hold powdered pigment. While different ingredients such as wine and vinegar were often added for different effects and applications, the simplest formulation consisted of egg, pigment and the milk of fig branches (for its water-resistant properties). A fast-drying medium, tempera is very technically challenging to use. Not only does it have to be made fresh, but for the egg to properly “set,” the paint must be applied and then left alone. Blending took immense finesse, and techniques were devised involving layering the paint in glazes and hatching to create depth and dimensionality.
Tempera is a very permanent medium, superseding even oil paint in longevity. In ancient times, tempera was mainly used for painting murals. Often a complement to fresco painting, tempera paint was applied on dry lime plaster in a technique known as fresco secco. Tempera was also used to paint portraits on wood panels as early as the 4th century, such as some of the Fayum mummy portraits executed by Greco-Roman artists living in Egypt. It eventually became the primary medium for Byzantine and early Christian artists and was utilized until oil paint emerged during the Renaissance. As artists began to master oil painting, they would often still lean on tempera techniques. A combination of both oil and tempera paint can be seen in many renowned Renaissance-era pieces, such as the Ghent Altarpiece.
Whether it be the expertly glazed, lifelike portraits of William Adolphe Bouguereau or the expressive impasto of Claude Monet’s landscapes, when most people think of painting, they imagine works done in oil. Since its introduction to Europe in the 15th century, oil paint has been the darling of the fine art world. Other painting mediums have never quite reached its prestige, and it remains the most popular painting medium today.
Oil painting was developed in Flanders and the Netherlands in the late 15th century. It made its way to Italy, where it became the favored medium of da Vinci, Titian, Giorgione and others, transforming the trajectory of art history. It used the same powdered pigments found in tempera painting, but those pigments were mixed with linseed oil rather than egg yolk. Artists saw several advantages to the new medium over tempera. First, it was slower-drying and therefore easier to blend. Second, the artist could control the paint’s viscosity by using more or less linseed oil, allowing for greater detail. Also, the medium is translucent, meaning an oil painting could achieve greater depth and richness of color than was possible with tempera.
The earliest practitioners of oil painting applied the paint to the same gessoed wood panels used by tempera painters. The oil on canvas technique did not emerge until the late 16th century in Venice when artists discovered canvas held up better to the humidity of their local climate. This discovery would set the standard for the next several centuries of artists, and by the 19th century, oil on canvas was indisputably the most popular medium in Western art.
Watercolor and Gouache
Watercolor is one of the oldest artistic media known to history, dating back to the cave paintings of the Paleolithic era in Europe and later in ancient Egypt and across many ancient Asian cultures. Because watercolor is typically applied to paper, its development played an important role in the medium’s popularity. China has been manufacturing paper since ancient times, but it was not imported to Europe until the first paper-making mills were established in Italy in the 13th century. Even then, paper was considered a luxury, and watercolor painting did not become prevalent in Europe until the 18th century.
Watercolor is the most translucent of all the mediums discussed here as it is comprised of pigment suspended in a water-based binder that is then activated with water. The more water incorporated into the paint, the lighter and more transparent the color; when less water is incorporated, the results are more opaque. Watercolor paints are traditionally applied to paper, providing additional luminosity where portions of the paper remain visible through the pigment. Gouache is similar to watercolor but denser, more opaque and looks more flat and matte once dry.
Careful timing and working quickly are essential in watercolor painting because it dries so quickly. Also, because it is so transparent, one must work from light to dark and avoid overlapping so as to not muddy the colors. Gouache, because it is more opaque, is more forgiving in this regard. Once mastered, watercolor is a wonderfully versatile medium suitable for creating both large, spontaneous washes of color and more controlled, detailed work.
Although it is a young medium, acrylic paint has quickly risen to popularity among fine artists. As a synthetic, water-based material, it was developed initially for industrial use by German chemist Dr. Otto Rohm, and it was not produced commercially for fine artists until the 1940s. It was not until mid-century Pop artists and Abstract Expressionists began to experiment in the medium that it gained recognition and legitimacy, demonstrating its ability to provide a range of effects on canvas. Acrylic steadily became the favored medium for more and more contemporary artists.
Acrylic can produce both the soft appearance of watercolor paint and detailed work of layered oil paint. It can provide sharp, bold clarity of line and color or delicate washes. Its quick-drying nature can make blending challenging, but this also allows for faster experimentation. Artists today continue to recognize that acrylic paint’s incredible versatility lends itself well to innovation, and it remains one of the most popular artistic media.
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