Egg Tempera AND Acrylics

Just by pure coincidence, I ended up making the same icon for 2 different people, one right after the other.  One, I painted with the traditional egg tempera. For the other, I used acrylic.  I find that I love both media.  The egg is so smooth, so silky, and so lovely.  The handmade gesso is such a perfect surface–worth the hours spent mixing, cooking, applying and sanding it.

The acrylic is so easy, so durable, so quick-drying.  I can buy the acrylic gesso already made in a little jar and apply it with a brush, without having to sand later if I apply carefully.  Both kinds of paint are permanent–one media after curing, the other, well, immediately.  I am sure I will use both in my work, depending on the circumstances.

Here are both icons, for a side by side comparison.

acrylic icon on cardboard

acrylic icon on cardboard

Icon in egg tempera

Icon in egg tempera

It might not show up that well in the pictures, but the egg tempera paint has an intrinsically lovely, glowing look.  It seems brighter.  The acrylic looks nice enough, but there is always a plastic look and texture that is simply part of how it is made.  There is a darkness or murkiness to it, but perhaps that is just because of my palette.  I used paint right out of the tubes rather than mixing my own with dry pigments and medium.

I suppose the argument amongst iconographers as to which paint is best will continue.  What matters most is the prayer journey as one creates the image, and the prayers inspired by the image once it is complete.

I also found it very interesting that the same drawing done by the same artist from the same model can look so very different in expression and appearance. I don’t know what that is about, but I don’t think I can blame my own inconsistency on the kind of paint that I used!


About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
This entry was posted in art, Catholic icons, Icon, Iconography, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Egg Tempera AND Acrylics

  1. Lyn says:

    I love them both! When we get settled into our own home and I have money and space, I want to collect a few icons…this is one of my choices. Beautiful work, Kat.

    I love that the expressions are different…almost like there’s personality suited to the individual that will display this in their home.


  2. Biltrix says:

    I personally prefer egg tempera over acrylic. To me it just looks more “iconic,” but that’s just a matter of taste. As you rightly pointed out, though, “What matters most is the prayer journey as one creates the image, and the prayers inspired by the image once it is complete.”

    Your observation about the permanence of egg tempera brings to mind a trivial anecdote about the Isabella Stewart-Gardner Museum in Boston — a must see if you are ever in Beantown!

    The best thing about this museum is not the amazing collection of fine art, which is truly amazing, but the spirit of the museum. The museum security, the people who are usually there to shun you when you get to close to a painting and shout “Don’t touch!” are more like tour guides than guards. If you start talking about a painting, they will jump in and start a longwinded conversation, mentioning Mrs. Gardner’s name at least 5 times, and will always insist that you don’t leave the museum before you’ve had the chance to visit this or that particular paining. You almost feel like you are in that person’s house instead of a museum.

    Everyone of them will also be sure to add that nothing in the museum has change since Mrs. Gardner’s death (with the exception of a famous heist in 1990 when an estimated $500 million dollars worth of art, which included a famous Rembrandt painting that still has not been recovered), in accordance with here will. One of my friends muttered to me under his breath: “Surely, she did not choose this color paint for the wall!”

    One of the guards overheard this and chimed in, “Actually…”

    “…this is not the original paint she chose. In her will, Mrs. Gardner specified that the blue egg tempera walls were to be changed. The problem (according to this guard), is that the egg tempera had to be repainted every six months. We could not afford to repaint the entire museum with egg tempera so often, so this is the only thing about the museum that has changed since Mrs. Gardner passed away.”

    That did surprise me, since egg tempera icons don’t have to be repainted every 6 months, but then again, we are not talking about something the size of an icon, but an entire museum, where people inadvertently brush up against the wall and leave smudges.

    There’s your egg-headed bit of trivia for today!

    • Biltrix says:

      Typos! Sorry about that…

    • reinkat says:

      What a great story–typos and all! (I am glad I re-edited my post after midnight last night, presumably before you and others had a chance to read it with all MY typos!)
      I am surprised that they felt that the walls had to be repainted every 6 months–my understanding is that egg tempera will withstand tears, handling, kisses, and touch for several centuries. But of course it might not hold up to being scrubbed all that much, as would need to happen in a public building. But aside from all that–what a lovely anecdote, and I hope that someday I will be able to visit Boston (and see the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton!) and tour this museum. It sounds fascinating. Thanks!

  3. Catherine says:

    Thank you for this side by side posting. I am a beginning iconographer, currently completing my third icon. I work in acrylic (Jo Sonja artists’ colors), I mix my paints in order to get the color I seek. I am grateful that I don’t have to try and learn to paint in colored encaustic……..

    • reinkat says:

      Thanks for your comment, Catherine, and may God bless you in your iconography work.
      I have never tackled encaustic either, but I am drawn to it. I love the deep glow of the colors inside the layers of wax. It diffuses the light so beautifully. But I am sure it is very difficult to master!.
      One day you will have to give egg tempera a try. I think you will like it once you practice a bit.

      • Catherine says:

        Thank you, I would need instruction in the egg tempera, would never try it on my own. I will have to search for a workshop I could attend.
        I do have a question, do you have any advice on applying gold leaf? I am using Rolco Quick Drying Gold Size….it is a challenge to ‘paint’ on the size in tiny areas like trim on Mary’s veil, etc. TIA

      • reinkat says:

        I am arguably the worst gilder ever to walk the planet.

        I have my best luck with slow-drying oil size, but of course that does not work well with acrylics at all. People that I have studied with have bought an Eberhart Faber size that seems to work very well. Mirror finish. So easy to work with that you can apply it to detail areas with a very small fine brush. Washes up with water. I have not yet tried it myself.

        Another option is to use shell gold, which absolutely doesn’t work for me at all but others have beautiful results. What this is is a fine gold powder mixed with gum arabic, that you moisten with water and paint on directly with the brush. It, too, takes some practice, and I think it is best suited to egg or other natural paints.

  4. geloruma says:

    Hi Reinkat , they are both beautiful, they are cropped/framed differently which makes them appear a bit different, the egg tempera figure has more ” breathing room”. Somehow I think that suits the softness it has. Perhaps light passes through the mediums in a different way, the egg diffusing it more than the other? I think I slightly favour the egg one, but that is because it reminds me of a fresco painting.
    I have found that my digital camera picks up on nuances in light and two photos of the same sculpt can have a different colour cast.
    Didn’t notice a single typo – too busy admiring the art work!

    • reinkat says:

      Thanks for your comment and encouragement.
      I have found the same thing as you have, with the digital camera, sometimes when taking a photo (for double “insurance”) 2 or 3 times minutes apart with only slight changes in position. It is very sensitive indeed. Thank heavens for Photoshop to make it the way MY eye sees it!

    • reinkat says:

      One other thing: the cropping/framing: and in part the actual brushstrokes–they are different sizes. The egg one is 9X12, a comfortable size to work with. The acrylic one is barely 4X6 inches, and it was a challenge to work with a brush that small to smooth out the paint, and keep things clear. That seems to have made a bigger difference than the type of paint in some ways!

      • geloruma says:

        Very interesting Reinkat, I do think that is the key to them looking “different”. I find that the smaller a painting is, I tend to make conscious adjustments to make it remain readable at a distance – or for people like me needing glasses!

  5. Catherine says:

    Thank you for the size suggestion, I found some on eBay and just placed an order. Your advice is more than appreciated!!!

  6. Stephanie says:

    Have you ever used oil paints to write icons? Also, I am enjoying reading your post greatly.

    • reinkat says:

      No, I never have. Teachers have explained why, which never made too much sense to me, but I never followed up to clarify it exactly. I don’t want to use solvents, the pigments themselves are often toxic enough to handle without adding to it.

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