Practical Exercise 3 – Egg Tempera – Tubes (2)


Medium: Daler Rowney egg tempera and Winsor and Newton acrylic
Support: Cass Art Watercolour Paper Smooth, Hot Pressed paper, 300gsm (140 Ibs)
Colours: Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue, Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber, Alizarin Crimson, Titanium White, Cadmium Red, Cobalt Blue
Brushes: Long, round, sizes 1,5,8/Short, flat, 4
Size: 20 x 27 cm (8 x 20½ inches)


My aim in this exercise was to further explore the processes involved when painting icons in the traditional way. Since I wanted to concentrate on the process I used egg tempera tubes rather than dry pigments.

For ideas on techniques I have referred to Techniques of Traditional Icon Painting by Gilles Weismann. Since I wasn’t using the dry pigments specified in the book I have created approximate colours from the ones I had.

Session 1

Tracing from sketchbook drawing

I started by using the drawing from Exercise 2. This was then retraced onto the paper to create the cartoon. I used a mix of Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna to go back over the outlines left by the pigment.

Background, clothing and intial layers of faces blocked in

Background – I used the ‘little lake’ method to cover the background with a dilute wash of Yellow Ochre. The technique involves creating a pool of water at one end of the area to be painted and enlarging the pool across the surface by adding more paint, a little at a time. The aim is not to brush paint onto surface but manoeuvre it across the surface. When dry it creates a mottled surface.

Haloes – These were created using a thin wash of yellow ochre with a drop of Alizarin Crimson.

Draperies – For the Virgin’s cloak I used a mix of Yellow Ochre and Alizarin Crimson, slightly more than for the child’s robes and used the little lake method to apply. Cobalt Blue was used for the trimming on the cap.

Faces – Using a mix of one part Yellow Ochre to one part Raw Umber I painted three thin washes of the mixture over the faces of the figures. I used a flat brush for this and dry brush technique. Between the first and second layers the application seemed streaky and paint was lifting off, partly due to my impatience, so I left this area to dry thoroughly.

Session 2

Modelling the face, first layer

For the second session I concentrated, to begin with, on the background and draperies.

Background – For the halo area another wash of Alizarin Crimson and Yellow Ochre. Once dry I added, over the course of the session, two layers of acrylic paint in Renaissance Gold.

Draperies – For the Virgin’s cloak a layer of Alizarin Crimson and Burnt Sienna with a little Titanium White. At a later point I felt that the I needed some texture for the robe and used a No 6 round brush to apply a mix of Cobalt Blue and Titanium White, deliberately leaving the brush marks. The same mix was used for her cap.

For the child’s robe a mix of Yellow Ochre, Alizarin Crimson and Titanium White. This was also used for a second layer of colour on the trimmings of the Virgin’s robe.

Faces – For the first layer of highlights on the faces of the Virgin and child I mixed Alizarin Crimson and Burnt Sienna. This was applied following advice in Weismann’s text to create a dark layer across their faces but ensuring that parts of the previous layer show through.

Session 3

Additional contours

The next session was spent adding highlights. I used a mix of Cadmium Red and Burnt Sienna and, for the second layer of highlights added Yellow Ochre, the aim being to have a colour close to the previous layer but differentiated enough to create the highlight.

Adding to highlights

The next two layers of highlights were created by adding increasing amounts of Yellow Ochre to the Cadmium Red/Burnt Sienna Mix. I don’t think I quite understood what to do and applied the highlights across too wide an area. In addition, the paint seemed streaky and I had to work over the area several times.

Session 4

Final version

In the final session highlights were added using just Yellow Ochre followed by Yellow Ochre with Titanium White. I felt some of the previous layers Cadmium Red and Burnt Sienna were too dominant and toned them down using a layer of Raw Umber and Yellow Ochre. Finally, I outlined the haloes and clothing with a mix of Alizarin Crimson and Burnt Sienna.

On Reflection

  • As an experimental exercise, this may seem prescriptive but I wanted to explore the processes and techniques of more traditional icon painting, particularly the face.
  • The result was not overly successful from the purist point of view. I used acrylic for the halo in lieu of gold leaf and looser brush strokes for the Virgin’s robe.
  • At first, although egg tempera dries quickly, I don’t think I was giving the layers enough time to dry thoroughly.
  • I found the paint tended to be streaky and, particularly on the Virgin’s face, coverage was difficult. I’m not sure if this is due to the texture of the paint in the tubes, my technique with the application of the paint or if I wasn’t allowing enough time to ensure each layer was thoroughly dry.
  • This isn’t as stylised as I would have liked and I did find it hard to get a consistent surface with the paint. I did, however, like this technique for modelling the face. The ‘little lake’ process for the background also has potential and could be worth experimenting with, perhaps using other types of paints as a comparison.

Related Posts

Practical Exercise 1 – Egg Tempera – Tubes (1)

Practical Exercise 2 – Egg Tempera – Dry Pigments

Early Medieval Art – Research Notes –

Icons in Byzantine Art – Research Notes –


Weismann, G. (2012) Techniques of Traditional Icon Painting. Tunbridge Wells: Search Press Limited.