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

Doig’s Ravens, Meet Braque’s Bird

Peter Doig’s Corbeaux series (2011) hangs in conversation with Georges Braque’s Bird (1956), a work in the permanent collection (Photo by Claire Norman)

It was imperative to our founder, Duncan Phillips, to engage with living artists. He felt that “artists speak not only for themselves but for those of us who are intensely interested in other ways of seeing than our own.” Maintaining our connections to living artists has become an intrinsic part of the museum’s philosophy and mission.

It’s in this vein that we asked the artist Peter Doig to, in addition to delivering the spring 2011 Duncan Phillips Lecture, create a painting or a series that responds to a work in the permanent collection.

Georges Braque. Bird, 1956. Oil on canvas; 18 x 19 1/2 in.

Peter chose a work by the French painter Georges Braque, Bird (1956) – a painting whose image of a dove has become an iconic symbol for this institution – as his inspiration for the Corbeaux series.

It was particularly satisfying to watch Peter’s reaction to the Braque painting for the first time in person. While working with our staff in the gallery on his installation he kept returning to the Braque work, fixated on the figure of the dove suspended in air. It was evident Peter hoped to capture this feeling of stilled movement in his raven series, and the experience of the works in conversation is certainly kinetic: you feel as if Doig’s ravens take flight with Braque’s dove, transcending the gallery walls to transport you to a place in nature.

Visitors observing two works in Peter Doig’s Corbeaux series (Photo by James Brantley)

After his lecture, Peter enjoyed the opportunity to speak with students and young artists (Photo by James Brantley)

To learn more about Peter Doig’s work, visit the Michael Werner Gallery and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. For behind-the-scenes photos of his installation in progress at the Phillips, check out this Flickr set.

Megan Clark, Manager of Center Initiatives