Painting Figures with Egg Tempera
Antony Williams - Posted on 12 Feb 2008
Working with tiny brushstrokes and a limited palette Antony Williams produces surprisingly large and dramatic figurative paintings
Antony Williams was introduced to egg tempera about 16 years ago by a fellow artist, who bought him a set of tube colours. "Until then I had worked mostly in oils and charcoal," he explains. "However, egg tempera was a medium that I felt an immediate affinity for, I suppose because of my interest in drawing. With the traditional technique you apply a succession of tiny brushstrokes to build up the various effects, which essentially means you are drawing with colour.
Father and Sons, egg tempera on panel,
"There are other working methods too, of course. In fact the medium is quite versatile, with some artists painting in a very free, abstract or expressionist way. But whichever approach you adopt, a characteristic of egg tempera that you have to accept, and if possible use to advantage, is the fact that it dries quickly. Once applied, a brushstroke cannot be altered. So if you work in an objective way, as I do, then everything must be planned before you start."
Antony occasionally paints still lifes, but currently his work is predominantly driven by an interest in portraits and figure compositions which, he finds, are subjects that perfectly suit the egg tempera medium and technique. Essentially he works from direct observation of the subject matter, seeking a visual truth yet conveying this in a distinctly personal way.
Emma with Cactus cactus, egg tempera on panel,
In some paintings, such as Emma with Cactus, (left), we might well be tempted to look for an underlying symbolism. But this is not Antony's intention.
The relationships are purely formal," he says. "They are motivated by an interest in the shape and other specific qualities of the objects themselves, and how they will contribute to the impact of the composition.
"I usually have a fair idea as to what I want to achieve in a painting before I start working from the model. But, of course, things can change as the painting develops, so I never quite know how a painting will be resolved until I reach the finishing point. I like objects and elements within the painting that will give me different surface qualities to work with — the cactus, for example. I often include objects from my studio, or parts of my studio — things that I am very familiar with. Similarly, the models are mostly people whom I know quite well.
"My aim is for paintings that are interesting, and create an intensity and heightened reality in some way. Arguably, some paintings say more about me than about the inherent qualities of the subject matter, although I am often intrigued by the psychological aspects of the sitter — what is going on behind the image they present. And, particularly when painting a small portrait, I search to reveal something unique about the sitter, perhaps something about their emotional state.
"I work as much as I can from the model. But it would be costly and impracticable to expect the model to be available all the time and therefore I also use photographs. They are helpful for particular details as well as for general information, although they are never a sufficient source of reference on their own, of course.
At the first session with the model I make drawings and take photographs to explore different poses and ideas. After about a week I can usually pin down exactly what I want, and so I go ahead with a more specific drawing that will give me all the information I need to start the tonal underpainting. Once that is established, I work from the model again.
Self-portrait, egg tempera on panel,
"The scale varies. A small scale gives a sense of intimacy to the portraits, while in contrast I often make the nudes and figure subjects larger than life size, so as to increase the impact and monumentality of the image."
Antony paints on gesso panels. These are made from sheets of ZF (zero formaldehyde) MDF. This is a high quality acid-free board, which is therefore a more stable, durable surface to use. The board is first sealed with an application of rabbitskin glue and then prepared with eight or nine coats of gesso, with the final layer sanded down to provide a really smooth finish.
He buys pre-ground pigments, which initially are mixed with purified water and kept in jars; they can be stored indefinitely in this form. Then, with a palette knife, he takes a small proportion of the liquid pigment and mixes it with an approximately equal quantity of egg yolk, working on a ceramic palette. If necessary, depending on the technique, the colours are further diluted with a little more purified water. His basic palette colours are yellow ochre, genuine vermilion, cadmium red deep, Venetian red, terre verte, titanium white and ivory black. From this limited palette he is able to create an extraordinary variety of colour mixes.
The choice of brushes is another important consideration that influences the character and impact of the work. "I always buy the same brushes," Antony explains, "these being da Vinci Series 10 Kolinsky sable: hard wearing brushes that are reliable and responsive. I mostly use sizes 0 to 5/0, although for washes I might choose a slightly larger brush, size 5 or 6.
"Once I have transferred the drawing from the prepared charcoal study onto the gesso board, which I do freehand, I usually start the painting by applying a yellow ochre wash across the entire picture area. This deadens the rather powerful effect of the white surface. I then work in a tonal way, using diluted black tempera paint and aiming to recreate all the tonal variations that were stated in the original drawing. Next, for portraits and figure subjects, as an underpainting for the flesh tones, I cover most of the panel with a layer of terre verte, even across areas that aren't going to be flesh-coloured.
Antonia with Fireplace, egg tempera on panel,
"Although this colour is applied in a slightly broader way, nevertheless the process continues to rely on relatively small brushes, perhaps sizes 2 or 3, and small touches of colour all over. Therefore each layer takes quite a time to complete. The next step is to add Venetian red over the green, and then I start to model the flesh tones, mostly working with a mixture of white and yellow ochre.
"Then, all the time considering the different light and dark values, I continue to build up the effect with various colour mixes, perhaps even occasionally adjusting an area by painting over it with some terre verte mixed with white. You have to remember that all of these colours are translucent, and so the final effect depends on the sequence of colours and how these have been applied.
Still Life with Walnuts, egg tempera on panel,
"The brushmarks gradually become smaller and more refined as the painting develops, so that eventually I am concentrating on the details of the eyes, mouth and so on, and probably working with a 5/0 brush.
"At any stage I may decide to introduce a wash across a certain area in order to darken it or soften its impact. Unlike watercolour or gouache, once applied the paint is fairly permanent and thus it won't be disrupted by any subsequent layers. In fact, after several months it becomes fully permanent. However, this does mean that it is more difficult to make alterations. You can, of course, paint over an area, or indeed scrub paint off, although this is rather a drastic step.
"I think my work has been influenced by quite a number of artists, perhaps especially Lucian Freud, Euan Uglow and Andrew Wyeth. And I have also studied some of the old masters such as Piero della Francesca.
"For me, one of the attractions of egg tempera is that if you work in the classic way, with a succession of thin, translucent layers of colour, you can achieve a wonderfully sensitive and luminous quality — a quality that is unique among the painting media. However, it is a difficult medium to use out of doors, so for future projects, in which I hope to include the figure in a landscape, this is a problem I will need to overcome!"