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Award-winning artist Robin-Lee Hall
Award-winning artist Robin-Lee Hall

How to Paint a Portrait Using Egg Tempera


Robin-Lee Hall - Posted on 28 Jul 2010

Demonstration: Freddie

This is a painting of my friend Freddie. I try to work from life whenever the sitter is available and, in Freddie’s case, she was a willing and very patient sitter. I sat quite close to her – about two to three feet away – so I could see details. I use a mahl stick to steady my hand when I’m painting the fine strokes (right).


Composition for portrait painting

After taking photographs and making numerous studies in pencil and pastel I decided on the composition and made a drawing on tracing paper. This drawing dictated the size of board. The drawing was transferred by rubbing pastel on the back of the tracing paper, turning it over again, placing it on the board and redrawing my lines through. I ended up with a pastel linear drawing that I sealed with a haematite egg solution. I don’t use graphite pencil as it interferes with the colour


Portrait in egg tempera

Still with the haematite colour, I drew the form of Freddie’s face with my 4/0 brush. I tried to imagine an ant walking in a vast landscape, and the undulations the ant might encounter as it walked over Freddie’s face. This is also a good exercise to develop an awareness of volume. Note my crosshatchings go around the form, as opposed to across the form


Egg tempera portrait painting

I aim to cover the whole board so that the painting is at the same stage of completion all over before I move on. Overworking one area gets it out of sync with the rest of the painting. Here I started to block in the background with terre vert and even put in the basic eye colour with the same pigment. I laid down a manganese blue for the blouse. At this stage you are not really mixing colours but laying down the foundations. Depending on what I’m painting, I might use washes instead of crosshatching to start with. I use crosshatching more because I want the gesso to glint through


Egg tempera painting

It was starting to get exciting as I added crosshatched colour over the top. This immediately created a little more depth to the face. I was still not using any white, just pure unmixed colour. I put vermillion – the real stuff and very poisonous, iron oxide yellow, terre verte and magenta into the mix. The background and hair has a little spinel black over the terre verte


Painting with egg tempera

This is the stage where I start putting on my light colours. In the shadows on Freddie’s left cheek I overlaid a mix of buff titanium, irgazine ruby and Indian yellow. The matrix of crosshatching still allows the darker colours to show from beneath, which is the whole principle of this way of working. I still hadn’t totally committed to white; my highlights were still relatively lowlights. I hadn’t touched the shirt as I wanted to concentrate on the skin while Freddie was sitting


Freddie, egg tempera by Robin-Lee Hall
Freddie egg tempera, 101⁄2x8in (26.5x8.5cm)

I built up the highlights, which consist of two types: bluish – cobalt violet and titanium white, and yellowish – Indian yellow and titanium. In the shadows are reflected mid-tones, such as cobalt blue pale with buff titanium (especially as Freddie’s wearing a blue blouse). I put highlights into the hair, plus cool blue greys made from cobalt blue pale and spinel black. Over the light side of the face I created warmth with irgazine ruby and Indian yellow and then laid pure buff titanium over the top, letting some of the colour peep through. Freddie has hazel eyes, so I worked iron oxide yellow into cobalt blue pale. Eyes are really important and I spend a lot of time on them. I floated a malachite green wash over the cool areas and continued to build up the light colours so that the face has uniformity. Finally I re-emphasised the highlights in the eyes, cheeks and nose, and added more tendrils of hair to Freddie’s right side

In this fascinating 5 page article, Robin gives the recipe for mixing egg tempera, offers advice on the type of equipment needed and much more useful and interesting information, including exercises, for anyone wishing to try this traditional medium.

To purchase your copy of the September issue of The Artist click here.

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