“Tempera — Nature and Narrative,” at Attleboro Arts Museum from April 6 to May 4, focuses on paintings by eight artists working with classic egg tempera as a medium of today.
We usually associate egg tempera with Italian Renaissance paintings. These masterworks produced a luminosity of color created by glazing techniques. The labor-intensive method can build freshness of color and clear resonance in dark areas as well as light areas as it achieves a harmony of color. The painters glazing techniques consisted of layering thin veils of color, one on top of the other.
Many artists are known to meticulously refine the panels on which they paint and all of the contemporary artists in this show have created their own paints. Artist and curator Diane Savino mentioned Fra Angelico, de Filippi and Botticelli as masters of egg tempera from which she has drawn inspiration.
Some will see the word “tempera” and remember chalky childhood paints that they used in elementary school, which cracked and flaked when put on thickly. Audiences visiting the Attleboro Arts Museum will instead find satin-like surfaces, richness of color and a striking linear precision that informs the contemporary egg tempera paintings on display. Viewers will be interested in the story-telling ability of these artists, which conveys a sense of suspended visual moment.
The exhibiting artists are Michael Bergt, Jon Gernon, Miranda Gray, Eileen Kennedy, Jennifer Knaus, Banjie Nicholas, Carol A. O’Neal and Savino. Through a type of portraiture, they explore observed and imagined narrative.
These artist s are process purists and it is interesting to note that they work with a medium almost unchanged since the Renaissance. They g rind their own pigments, or as a modern convenience, buy professional artist-grade pigments pre-ground and then compound their paints each day as they are working on their panel. The process is to bind or mix the pigment with egg yolk and add small amounts of water to thin the paint during application.
Artists working in egg tempera often spend much time preparing the surfaces on which they paint. For example, Savino prepares her wooden panels with a coating of rabbit skin glue and follows that with layers of gesso — made with rabbit skin glue, whiting and titanium white — to create a very smooth surface for the egg tempera. Next, an under-drawing is made, sometimes in silverpoint. Individual artists work from this stage to build up their egg tempera glazes to eventually create a refined painting. Glazing effects result in luminous skin tones as well as harmony of color, which will be evident throughout the Attleboro show. The satin sheen that characterizes finished works is the result of egg glazing, not varnish.