The Hows and Whys of Tempera

Per Kirkeby, Untitled, 2006. Tempera on canvas, 78 3/4 x 98 1/2 in. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London, and Berlin

Per Kirkeby, Untitled, 2006. Tempera on canvas, 78 3/4 x 98 1/2 in. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London, and Berlin

Yesterday, I mentioned Per Kirkeby ‘s use of tempera. He’s not the only artist to switch to a water-based medium due to a reaction to turpentine. Peter Doig, who delivered a Duncan Phillips lecture and showed a small exhibit of chubby birds at the Phillips back in 2011, switched from oil to distemper on linen as he was trying to get away from long-term effects of paint solvents. This caution despite having a studio in Trinidad, a pavilion really, that he can open up to the air.

In this case, tempera does not mean cheap poster paint but refers to an oil-modified egg tempera. Canvas is inappropriate ground for pure egg tempera, which needs a sturdy, inflexible support like panel. Besides, even with a dedicated studio assistant separating out all those egg yolks for that much paint, the process of preparing the paint is grueling. There are dozens of recipes for a whole egg / oil emulsion tempera that can more easily be made in large batches, but there is also a shortcut. You can grind dry pigment with water into a paste, then mix it with store-bought Sennelier Egg Tempera Binding Medium, which contains egg and drying oils.

The advantage of this medium, in addition to being less toxic, is that it dries quickly, so a painting can be worked on and completed, important if you feel your time on earth may be limited. The disadvantage is that a painter thinks one way for oil painting, and another way for tempera; it is not just a change of painting medium but a sudden shift in painting thinking. Artists, when they think of an image to paint, frequently see it in a certain medium and the attendant steps required to go about achieving the desired effect; artists think in medium. It would be like a composer thinking in the range and possibilities and limitations of musical instruments when writing a score (unless you’re John Cage). Tempera may prove to be only a temporary break for  Kirkeby.

Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant

Wild Horses (Couldn’t Drag Me Away)

Per Kirkeby, Untitled, 2009.Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London, and Berlin

Per Kirkeby, Untitled, 2009.Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York, London, and Berlin

The largest of Per Kirkeby’s paintings in our current exhibitionUntitled  (2009)–is a favorite of many visitors. In an interview with Director Dorothy Kosinski, Kirkeby said:

I took the horses not from any kind of photos but from the famous works by Baldung Grien, who has four or five very fantastic woodcuts. So that’s a kind of borrowed structure. Woodcuts are very clearly defined with lines. So from them I got a starting point. One of my sons gave me a birthday gift of a big beautiful book full of pictures of horses. I dare not say it, but what am I going to do with that? I don’t need a real horse. I need the lines that pretend to be a horse.

Hans Baldung Grien was a German Renaissance painter and a prolific printmaker. He was a student of Albrecht Dürer. Grien produced three woodcuts of wild horses, each print not much bigger than a sheet of letter-size paper. Kirkeby probably chose his three horses from a herd in Grien’s Stallion and Kicking Mare with Wild Horses (1534).

Hans Baldung Grien (Germany, Schwäbischgmünd (?), 1484 - 1545), Stallion and Kicking Mare with Wild Horses, 1534. Print, Woodcut, Sheet: 9 x 13 1/8 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Hans Baldung Grien (Germany, Schwäbischgmünd (?), 1484 – 1545), Stallion and Kicking Mare with Wild Horses, 1534. Print, Woodcut, Sheet: 9 x 13 1/8 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

What about the colors he chose for the three horses–red, yellow, and green? The light yellow and spring green shows up in many of Kirkeby’s paintings throughout the years, almost like a signature; perhaps they are the hopeful colors of spring after a long Danish winter. Maybe they suggest the colors of autumn, as Kirkeby has written in his book Isolation of Parts: Yellow - red and green are the most crucial of colors. Green is the surface until the plants yield to desert yellow and red.” Chlorophyll yields to xanthophyll and anthocyanin. Or perhaps he has a distant memory of a 100-year-old painting by Franz Marc of three cows, in which a yellow one kicks up its heels with a red and a green companion.

Franz Marc, Cows, Yellow-Red-Green, 1912. Oil on canvas, 24.4 x 34.4 in. Staedtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Germany.

Franz Marc, Cows, Yellow-Red-Green, 1912. Oil on canvas, 24.4 x 34.4 in. Staedtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Germany.

Kirkeby’s medium for this horse painting is unusual: tempera on canvas. Although he is rather coy about his technique, he has written:

Move from oils and that hazardous turpentine to water-soluble paints, break down what is wooly and impasto. A more fluid, drier character emerges. From the same material in terms of content. . . . I am now intending to switch to water-soluble paints and protect my brain from turpentine-induced decay. That is my choice, and it is perhaps one that in the same way as other choices of such ‘technical’ nature will lead to something new. A new and unexpected turn.

In this case, his use of tempera led to horses.

Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant

Under the Microscope: Primitive Music

Arthur Dove’s Primitive Music (1944) is in the studio for treatment to stabilize flaking paint.

In a diary entry dated May 8, 1944, Arthur Dove describes this painting as a ”painting in tempera.”  Often, Dove used a homemade tempera mixture, made from a whole egg, dammar resin, stand oil, and water.  Usually, Dove used tempera for just the first layers of a painting that he then finished with oil paint or wax emulsion.  But in Primitive Music, Dove used the tempera paint on its own, for a smooth, translucent paint film with a velvety, matte surface.

Arthur Dove. Primitive Music, 1944. Gouache on canvas; 18 x 24 in. The Phillips Collection

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