Fine art, painting, teaching and research

These recipes are available in a few other places elsewhere on the internet but I am republishing them here as a matter of cultural preservation.

Tempera grassa is an overlooked paint in our understanding of ‘old masters’ methods and materials. Essential reading here: National Gallery Bulletin

Tempera grassa behaves just as the substance it is – as an egg-tempera emulsion that is weighed toward the oil – so it partakes of the qualities of both oil and egg emulsion – i.e fine hatching strokes are possible, but its also something you can block-in areas with, or (at a stretch) scumble with. It dries slower than egg tempera and faster than oils. As such it is great for underpainting, and with practice, much more.

Stages of drying

As David at has written, tempera grassa has steps of drying that are important to pay attention to. The post here is worth paying attention to. I have republished the most relevant info below, because it looks like the site has been abandoned, and it would be a shame for the information to be lost.

By keeping these stages in mind and learning to work with them instead of against them, you will find that tempera grassa is extremely flexible, in some ways like a water-miscible oil paint.

In my experience, these seem to be the changes the paint goes through:

1. The paint is WET. As you first apply the paint, it is entirely workable. If you squeeze most of the paint from the brush, tempera grassa can be applied with drybrush hatching strokes, which tend to fuse together slightly (unlike egg tempera). It can also be gently blended with fingers or a soft dry brush. If the brush is loaded with more paint, it goes on loosely like any water-based paint. Once on the surface, it has a consistency similar to gouache and, depending on the recipe and the thickness of the paint, is workable for anywhere between one and five minutes.

2. The paint is TACKY. As the water evaporates out of the paint, there is a point at which it becomes sticky and difficult to work with. As you feel it enter this stage, leave it alone. It is not workable and attempts to manipulate it will pull up multiple layers of paint. If you accidentally dig a hole in the paint, stop and let it set before trying to fix it. It is possible to deliberately work with the paint at the tacky stage to create interesting textural effects, but this requires practice before the technique becomes controllable.

3. The paint has SET. The water has evaporated and the egg component is holding the paint in a semi-solid state. It feels firm but damp to the touch; rubbing will pull it off the surface. If the paint is applied thinly and the recipe is egg-rich, it will set a few minutes after becoming tacky (less if it was drybrushed on). If the recipe is oil-rich, it can take a long time to set (or there may not be enough egg for it to truly set at all). When the paint reaches this stage, you can paint over it, but only with soft brushes and a fairly delicate touch. Too much paint, or too firm a hand, will disrupt the surface just as if it were tacky. If the paint refuses to set properly after 20 or 30 minutes, a layer of thinned egg yolk (no oil) can allow you to paint over it without needing to wait for it to firm up.

4. The paint is DRY TO THE TOUCH. With egg-rich tempera grassa recipes, it takes anywhere from ten minutes to several hours before the paint feels dry and can be worked over without the risk of disrupting lower layers. If the recipe is oil-rich, it can take days to get to this state. Placing the painting in a sunlit room as it dries is a good idea—it won’t make the oil dry faster, but the actinic light will strengthen the egg component of the paint.

5. The paint is DRY. The oil component of the paint has oxidized to the point that the paint has hardened and is difficult to scratch with a fingernail. This can take anywhere from a day to a bit more than a week.

The working quality of these stages and the time it takes to reach them depend on the recipe you are using, how much you have diluted the paint, how thickly you are painting, how wet the layers underneath are, and local weather conditions. In order to paint easily with tempera grassa, you will need to constantly attend to the feel of the paint in order to get a sense of what stage it has reached. You can’t keep adding layers indefinitely, so you must recognize when it is time to stop working on a given passage and let it dry. Compared to oil painting, however, tempera grassa requires far fewer instances in which you must skip working for days at a time in order to allow the paint to dry.

Pietro Annigoni demonstrating making Tempera Grassa

Tempera Grassa Recipes

1) Transcription of Pietro Annigoni’s “tempera grassa” recipe
as recorded by Antonio Ciccone forwarded to David C. Hancock June 21, 2004:

Tempera Grassa

Titanium n110
gn. 100 bianco zinco 2 gr.120
ocre n120, 125
terra ombra n200
Prussia oltermare n180, 200
terra siena terra rossa n120
lacca grasaiise (?) n180 (gray lake? lacquer?)
rosso Indhi n130
nero avorio n250
cadmio 120
cobalt 250
vede emerald 200

(1 part:) 2 uove rossi e uno intero
(1 part:) 1/2 olio lino cando + 1/2 vernice mastice

2) (from Dawn Cookson, Appendix, Painting witih Annigoni: A Haleyon Decade as a Student in Florence 1958-68. London: Unicorn Press, 2000.
This formula is Cookson’s own, and is not strictly attributed to Annigoni):

Formula for oil-tempera medium

For those who may find the procedure of personal interest:–

To make the emulsion:

Eggs, in the proportion of one whole egg to two yolks, 4 parts
Mastic varnish 1 part
Equalling half the quantity of eggs
Stand oil 1 part

To make an average mix of approximately 18-20 colours (this varies according to size of painting) 18-20 eggs are needed, as they often vary in size.

Colours (in ground powders) Dry Quantity Emulsion
1 Titanium white 100 grams 110 grams
2 Cadmium yellow light 100 140
3 Cadmium yellow dark 100 200
4 Raw umber natural 100 200
5 Burnt umber 100 120/25
6 Burnt siena 100 120/25
7 Yellow ochre pale 100 120/25
8 Yellow ochre dark 100 120/25
9 Red pozzuolo 100 120/25
10 Crimson lake 100 180
11 Cadmium red (dark and light) 100 140
12 Cadmium orange 100 140
13 Cobalt blue 100 250
14 Ultramarine blue 100 180
15 Emerald green (viridian) 100 200
16 Morellone 100
17 Black (ivory) 100 250
18 Prussian blue—if necessary 100 180/200
(very strong colour; only small quantity)

The eggs must be carefully separated and poured into a glass cylinder in multiples of 3 at a time, dividing quantity exactly in half to add the appropriate amount of emulsion. Then this mixture transferred to a suitable metal container to whisk thoroughly for half an hour in order to amalgamate the mixture which becomes a creamy white colour and smooth consistency. An electric mixer saves time and energy. Meantime the powder colours are carefully measured according to the various amounts required, starting with the lightest colours, and each one mixed on a marble slab with dry white wine, using a spatula or palette knife, and then measured carefully against the appropriate quantity of emulsion in a thoroughly cleaned container and mixed well together. The resulting liquid poured into clean plastic bottles and well capped and sealed. When mixing the powder colours, add very little wine at a time to form a paste which should not be too liquid; when the colours are added to the emulsion they become more liquid and therefore shakeable.
Obviously a larger amount of white is needed, next the earth colours, yellow, blues and green and lesser quantities of reds and black. So select different sized plastic bottles accordingly.
This process demands precision, care, time and patience. The slab, palette and mixer container must be washed thoroughly between each mixing. When the desired selection of colours are mixed, bottled and sealed these should be placed in a suitably large ceramic or plastic bowl containing damp sand and kept moist in a cool place—away from heat or cold. This way they will keep for up to 4-6 months, after which colours deteriorate and begin to smell strongly!
Before using each time, every bottle must be well shaken. A special metal palette with small pans attached around the edges to hold the liquid colours is necessary, taking care to only pour out sufficient quantities for each day’s work. These can be covered with strips of dampened cloth to avoid them drying out overnight. So that they can be used or added to for several days. However, do not return any excess paint back into bottles. There is inevitably some wastage, as with oil colours and this has to be discarded. Therefore only put out small quantities at a time.
When using and mixing the desired colours, water is used and added by brush on the palette—not into the colour pans. The colours can be used as thickly as with oils for an ‘impasto’ base, and thinly as with watercolours for glazes and fine drawing.
The possibilities of this medium are endless but not for a beginner or a speedy painter ‘alla prima’!
P. 43-5: “Annigoni had evolved his own special medium of tempera grassa (oily tempera), which involved fresh eggs, very dry white wine, stand oil and mastic varnish, the addition of oil giving the medium more flexibility and the pigments greater expansion. This medium takes much patience and time to prepare. Very simply explained, the process erquires 18 to 20 powder colours, scales to measure them, an electric mixer, a chemist’s glass cylinder into which to measure the proportions of the emulsion, a slab of marble (we used porfora, which is very cold) on which to mix the powder colours, sufficient dry white wine to form a paste, the appropriate number of plastic bottles for each colour to be kept in, and at least a day to complete the mixing of pigments with the emulsion (each colour requires a different proportion). A nearby sink into which to thoroughly wash all the implements used between each colour is also necessary.
This method involves a lot of washing up as you go along. The procedure has to be watched in order to understand each stage of the process, and that is the way I learnt, observing Nando. Thereafter I was able to prepare my own colours and recorded each mixing in a book, as the quantities varied according to the size and number of the paintings. I found this an invaluable reference and time saver.
Maintained in a large ceramic or plastic bowl containing damp sand these colours keep fairly well in cool weather, usually for about four to six months, provided the bottles are vigorously shaken each time before they are used and well sealed afterwards. All this is not as easily portable as a box of oil paints, and nor is the support wood panel on which to paint. This is, ideally, a board of well-seasoned poplar wood, although I have since worked on blockboards, suitably prepared. In either case the board needs to be covered with a fine canvas well glued down with animal size (i.e. rabbit’s foot). Finally the canvas must be given two coats of gesso to obtain as smooth a surface as possible . . .

3) Michael John Angel on Annigoni’s Painting technique:

for paint recipe)
Eggs: 3 yolks, 2 egg whites beat together
Mix 30-40 minutes total, to the book. Then add 1/4 volume stand oil & 1/4 vol. varnish.
Use an old electric hand-mixer; new ones are too strong. If mix too fast, separates the medium rather than emulsifies it.
Or else use an electric drill on lowest speed with a paint mixer attached.
Annigoni used copal varnish, which darkens like crazy; Mastic varnish yellows. Can use either.
Pigments ground in wine, ground in the smallest amount of wine possible, to a cakey paste. Use dry white wine–A. used Lacrimi Christi.
Acid in wine acts as preservative and cuts greasiness of yolk (DCH-& strengthens paint bond)
Grind emulsion with wine and pigment (don’t just mix!)

Medium: emulsion or water.
Used a custom metal palette.

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