Egg Tempera Painting

17 July 2001 -- By K. D. Kragen

Claudia McKinstry on Egg Tempera Painting

Claudia McKinstry (ably assisted by one of her own students, Dana) wowed a roomful of Professor Daniel Rice's marvelous students, at the Northwest College of Art, with a presentation on the history, nature and ontology (like, existence) of egg tempera painting, including a demonstration of the process. Claudia also brought in five of her works: "Joy," "Glastnost," "Bus," "Ed's Cad," and "Chickens."


Claudia begins with a little background. "As an artist, you need to be your own best teacher. For twelve years I had worked in the medium of Batik, which had some strong limitations. I also found some of the dyes in Batik were carcinogenic. Egg tempera, on the other hand, was a safer medium. I researched it for two years, found no contemporary artists that worked in it. The first book I studied was Il Libro del'Arte or The Craftsman's Handbook by Cennino D'Andrea Cennini, 1370-1440 (Daniel V. Thompson, trans., New York, 1960). Then I found a work, The Artist's Manual by Paul Hogarth. Artists have a tendency to complicate things a bit, to mystify things as much as possible. A book by Robert Vickrey and Diane Cochrane, New Technique in Egg Tempera, simplified the process."

At that time, Claudia was also teaching at Strawberry Hill Alternative School, which cut into her studio work. She did experiments, color analysis, and researched making the panels (egg tempera doesn't work on canvas). In her reading, she found the origins of egg tempera were unknown—the process goes back as far as Babylon. It is an extremely durable medium, pigments quite stable. In the Middle Ages and in Russian religious art, it became the predominant medium. It has also been found in first century Christian catacombs.

Claudia spent a month in Russia in 1990. People and artists she met there thought it was amazing that someone, especially outside Russia, was doing egg tempera—a process they associated with icon-making. It was Jan van Eyck (1385-1441) who developed oil and lured away artists from the extremely time-consuming aspect of egg tempera.

Speaking about her work: "After 'The Chickens' picture—well, I had to start there," she held up an egg, "after that I painted my Daughter picture, named it 'Joy'. One thing about egg tempera," says Claudia, completely animated now, "just the layers, so many layers! It takes so long, a model can't sit that long. My camera is part of the art process for me.… I just have to feel an intimacy with what I paint.... The camera allows me to take many shots of my subject in all different light. Many shots come together into the finished captured painting."

Claudia's third painting, she indicates, is "Ed's Cad." She notes, "I learned some hard lessons with this one. In one spot I made too many layers—next day it was all cracked. But ultimately that was good, because you learn right away when you make such a mistake."

Russia invitation: "I knew I had to do this! It was 1990, the year before Communism fell. We were state guests and met many artists. I found out we felt the same fears. In Novosibirsk, I got to know these artists. They were State Artists, the only artists in Russia allowed to do art as an occupation. State Artists were provided with art supplies—the rest had to buy their own." Claudia's fourth painting, "The Bus," came from this trip, while she was in Moscow. Speaking of this piece, which is clearly unfinished, Claudia explains, "These are my friends. It is incomplete because our relationships are incomplete. Sometimes you don't finish, and it's finished."

Fifth painting, "Glastnost," is also from Claudia's Russia trip. "When I walked into my Moscow hotel room, I knew I was going to paint that. The window was open, who knows when it was going to close," referring, of course, to the Russian term Glastnost, which means "openness." After two years in the medium, it was Claudia's last egg tempera painting.

Finally, looking back on this period, she notes, "An unsuccessful work is never a waste of time. I always learn from my mistakes."


Claudia - Julia Childs - McKinstry gets behind the big table, dressed in her smock, and takes up an egg. The students are captivated, get as close as they can to see Claudia work.

"Once it dries, at least a year, it's really tough, very very permanent. Canvas moves, expands, contracts, so hardwood panels (traditional Russian icons) or Masonite should be used (but watch out for the chemicals in it). Rabbit skin glue works best for me, cooked in the Microwave (till the texture of pudding). Paint both front and back of the panel to seal the surface. Use rabbit skin gesso—and chemical purity is important, less likely to affect the painting over time. Five coats of gesso (after one layer of glue), sanding in between every layer to get as smooth as possible—this is admittedly tedious. Before I begin, I sand one more time, then dust off thoroughly.

"Pigments (bought by the pound), most are inexpensive. It goes a long way—be careful. And the cobalt and cadmiums are toxic (you can wear a dust mask when mixing). Many artists take water and make a paste to start with, put into small containers. It does mold, so I just work directly with the pigments. I grind the paste till it's like butter.

"Eggs: it doesn't matter, white or brown eggs! To get the egg yoke ready, I separate the yoke out. Puncture egg sac and squeeze out yoke into a container. You don't want any egg white. Roll the yoke around on a paper towel to get off all egg white (I don't filter through cheese cloth). The fresher the egg the better. Leave overnight to get to room temperature. You only need one a day. All eggs are different, different times of the year they're different. Put water with egg yoke till consistency of cream (stir with your finger).

"Brushes: I use small brushes, you have to—sable brushes for such fine work (hog brushes just don't work). I use Daniel Smith "Autograph" brushes, Kolinsk Sables (Russian). Use a paper pallet (as also with oils). With a pallet knife take a little pigment, then mix up with yoke. You do glazes, lots of transparent glazes. You can layer the colors.

"The thing about egg tempera, it dries almost immediately (though it still takes a year to cure). It's still unstable after painting, but dry, so it can pull up, it's so tender. I do put egg yoke wash over the finished painting. The yellow of the yoke doesn't really come through other than maybe to give a warm glow to the painting."

Claudia demonstrates, makes hatchmarks in the style of Cennini. She talks about colors, burnt sienna, cobalt blue, cyan blue, yellow ochre, thalo blue, burnt umber, then invites students to try it for themselves. Some students want to do some work in egg tempera. Claudia closes the class with a time for questions.


Mayer, Ralph. The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Technique, 5th edition. New York, 1981.

Smith, Ray. The Artist's Handbook. New York, 1996.

Smith, Stan, and H. F. Ten Holt, eds. The Artist's Manual. New York, 1980.

Vickrey, Robert, and Diane Cochrane. New Techniques in Egg Tempera. New York, 1978.


A Note From CMC Studios Staff Writer & Curator Of "Glastnost" K. D. Kragen, KaveDragen Ink LLC, Thank you to the artists and art students at NORTHWEST COLLEGE OF ART who participated in Claudia McKinstry's presentation on egg tempera. Thanks also to my dear friend Daniel Rice,, who graciously hosted Claudia McKinstry, and invited me to participate. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to sit in on Claudia's presentation and to respond myself with a little philosophy of art off the cuff. You are the next generation of artists! You are people pursuing a powerful and crucial calling, however you live out or in whatever arena you pursue your aesthetic discipline and your responsibilities as artists. Shalom, and may the God of serious art protect you from the aesthetic void.