No Really, That's How I Do It

Botanical Paintings Using Egg Tempera from a Tube

By Kelly Leahy Radding

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 16, Issue 2


I discovered egg tempera paints in tubes while researching media to use as underpainting for European-style oil paintings with many thin layers of glazing. I liked the fact that they were already mixed and could be used straight from the tube. My painting style is painstakingly slow already. The thought of having to mix up my paints everyday would have brought all my painting to a screeching halt. 

I began using egg tempera paints in my wildlife art; underpainting with egg tempera and finishing with oil glazes. I used both gessoed panels and heavy watercolor paper. 

I found that I liked working with egg tempera so much that I began to leave off the oil glazes; painting entirely with egg tempera in tubes by Sennelier. I found that the linear, dry brush aspect of painting with tempera suited my way of working. Egg tempera can be glazed, applying transparent layers of darker colors over lighter ones, and it can also be scumbled to lighten, cool or tone down underlying colors, using pigments mixed with white. It is particularly beautiful to add dark glazes over areas that have been lightened with white mixes; it just glows! 

When I started painting botanicals in watercolor on vellum, I wondered how egg tempera would work on vellum. To my surprise, it was very similar to , perhaps even more translucent than, watercolors, which meant that it takes a few more layers to achieve the detail needed. 

At Zecchi’s Art Supply in Florence, I discovered their line of egg tempera paints in tubes. It is traditional egg tempera: the color names are the same mentioned in the “Craftsman Handbook” written by artist Cennino Cennini in the fourteenth century. These paints are glorious! I also started using gesso panels created by True Gesso. 

The panels are wonderful; just the right amount of tooth to catch the paint, but smooth enough to get even transitions. I started with botanical subjects done in a still-life manner but I began to think about translating all of this to a traditional botanical painting with a white background. The fact that the background would be unpainted gesso was stumping me. Finally the solution came to me: I could just paint a layer of white! 

I am able to get a depth and strength of color on the panels with egg tempera that is difficult to get on vellum. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t abandon vellum, but I might think more about what technique and ground is most suitable to my subject. 

I have chronicled a painting of Fritillaria meleagris with egg tempera on a True Gesso panel. After creating my drawing, I use another sheet of tracing paper with graphite on it to transfer to the panel. I lighten the graphite drawing with a kneaded eraser, being careful that it is a fairly new one as the built up oils from your hands in the eraser could put a slick on the surface that would make the paint not adhere. 

I squeeze the egg tempera onto a palette like oil paints. I mix up colors on the palette and let them dry. I learned during Elaine Hultgren’s Illuminated Flower workshop at our last ASBA conference, that these spots of color are called ‘skins’! I wet my brush and wipe off the excess water then I pick up some color from the skin on my palette and wipe it on a towel again, to get off more excess water/paint. Most of the time, I will wipe the tip of my brush on the towel I hold over my painting (both for that purpose and to keep my hand off the surface) and then I start painting with short strokes almost like drawing. If I start to pick up paint, the brush is too wet, and I wipe it on the towel again. 

I have gotten into the habit of using the ‘formal’ dinner napkins you get at the supermarket. I like the folded thickness for the initial wipes, and then unfolded for the second wipes! 

After a few layers of short strokes following form, I use some cross-hatching, going back to following form for all the final layers. Cross-hatching adds a glaze that makes the under layers glow and helps to make the brush strokes disappear. 

I start with brushes from size #4 to #2’s, and then shift to #1’s & #0’s for the middle layers, and I usually finish with a #00. The final step is to paint the background with a light wash of white. 

The gesso panel is more forgiving than one would think; you can lift paint off of it to clean up edges, pull out highlights, etc. The most common problem is getting a hole where you don’t want one, either from too wet a brush or re-working a spot that was still wet. The beauty of the medium is that it dries rapidly allowing you to do a lot of work in a single painting session. If you have a hole, you take paint that is close to the value and color of the surrounding area and dab it into the hole then leave it alone to dry. When it is dry you can then go over it with another layer to even the area out. 

You have to resist the urge to work over areas just painted. If it is not dry, you will lift up paint. I keep an X-acto knife handy to lightly scrape any hairs, dust, etc. that get stuck in the paint, and I keep a piece of cheesecloth to rub over the painting every so often to smooth the surface of the paint.

Anyone can try out this technique, but I believe that artists with an oil painting background may particularly like it as it is a sort of hybrid technique of watercolor and traditional oil glazes, using egg tempera, without having to mix pigments with egg & water. 

I am intrigued and enchanted with this medium on both vellum and gessoed panels. I am excited to continue my exploration of egg tempera on panels, as I think I can do larger works than I can on vellum, and I love the translucent but rich effect of the combination. 


Materials Resources:

Zecchi’s Art Supply Florence, Italy - egg tempera tube paints and much more. Will ship to the states.

True Gesso Panels - gessoed panels, rabbit skin glue, etc.

Utretch paint brushes,

Koo Schadler - contemporary egg tempera artist,

Society of Tempera Painters -

  • Palette showing ‘skins’ of tempera color, selected brushes and tubes of egg tempera
  • Early washes applied to the drawing on True Gesso panel
  • Further washes develop the local color of leaf and stem
  • Pattern underpainting
  • Underpainting of petals begins
  • Color is developed over the underpainting, with paper towel providing surface protection as well as absorbent surface to manage water and paint in brush
  • Finished Fritillaria meleagris, egg tempera on True Gesso panel, 5x7”, ©Kelly Leahy Radding 2009