Enrich the Familiar with Egg Tempera

How Douglas Wiltraut captures the subtleties of his surroundings with layers of egg tempera.


To Douglas Witraut, painting in egg tempera is like peeling an onion in reverse. An egg tempera painting is composed, as in an onion, of many, thin layers. The thoughtful sandwiching (or laminating) of these layers of paint eventually results in the eye-catching luminosity and intricate colors of the typical egg tempera.

Wiltraut uses this medium to paint what he knows best. The dramatically lit subjects in his egg tempera paintings are the people, objects and places he has come to know and love during a lifetime spent in and around Lehigh county in eastern Pennsylvania.

Before moving into his present home, he and his wife lived about 20 miles west in a small village named Stony Run. It was here he met the Pennsylvania Dutch house-painter portrayed in The Painter (page 53).

This man lived directly behind the Wiltrauts, “and we became very close to him and his family,” says the artist. “He would tell us all of the history of the town and the habits, ways and traditions of the people who lived there. Being so close to this individual and absorbing all his glimpses into the lifestyle of the area inspired me to do a painting of him. The work shed, crammed with tools necessary to work the land and keep the home in pristine condition, came to symbolize many of the things important in his life and provided a setting for the portrait. It’s such experiences with people and places that are vital to an artist if he’s going to successfully convey the spirit of the subject.”

Wiltraut begins an egg tempera work with what he calls “instinctive composition.” Rather than follow a formula, he prefers to let his “artist’s eye” create a design that has balance, movement and the other necessary aspects of an interesting, successful painting. Just as a teacher advises a student prior to a test to “go with your first instinct—it’s usually the right one,” so does Wiltraut believe that instinct is most reliable. “Very often a composition that’s worked over and refined will become stale, eliminating the excitement of the original idea.”

To have exactly the right surface to paint on, Wiltraut prepares all his own panels. Untempered, quarter-inch-thick Masonite is glued to a wood cradle, and the side to be painted is sanded, sized with rabbit-skin glue and covered with six coats of warm gesso (the heat ensures absorption and bonding, although too much heat causes air bubbles to form). The back also is coated with sizing and gesso to prevent warping. After smoothing the surface with a moist, flat block of wood and letting it dry overnight, Wiltraut draws the composition with 3H to 5H pencils. His outline of the figure is precise, but he avoids the minor details since they would soon be obliterated by the tempera.

Wiltraut begins with the dark values, believing that putting them in first eliminates numerous adjustments later. For instance, since the figure in The Painter was to be illuminated by strong, raking sunlight and stands in front of a darkened doorway, Wiltraut began with the background, covering it with a network of large crosshatches, spatters, etc. His colors are yellow ochre, followed by layers of alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue. Applying the
primaries in layers creates a variety of subtle color combinations that remain visible as the background is developed, adding interest to the shadows.

Continuing to follow the development of The Painter, Wiltraut made sure he’d brought the background to a satisfactory value, then moved to step two: the development of the head. “To me, capturing a likeness and the characteristics of a person is critical. If I’m not able to achieve this, then the decision could be made not to continue.”

As seen in the detail of step two (page 52), Wiltraut again started with darker values, concentrating on the shadowed side of the face. For a foundation skin color he used yellow ochre with vermilion. At the same time, he indicated creases and changes in the facial plane with greens and purples—such cooler colors allow the creases to “sink” into the skin. They also remain visible through subsequent transparent layers.

While he was darkening the flesh tones, he added other textures into the layers of paint, including scars, whisker stipples and skin pores. The intermingling has a softening effect on the details, making them more naturalistic.

Compared to the skin, the painter’s white hair has relatively few layers of paint. Wiltraut used the white gesso for a base color, blocked in a pattern of shadows with grays, and then added washes of pale yellow ochre and ultramarine blue to give shape to the hair and head. The strands of hair needed to complete the texture were brushed in with titanium white.

While Wiltraut developed the color scheme and the details on the head of The Painter, he gave thought to the problem of painting the white shirt—a large important part of the composition. He’s looking for subtleties in color—anything that will add interest and life to the shadows.

“When looking at an object, I never think of its colors in neutral terms. I don’t say to myself this looks like a brown building, or that is a gray wall. Instead, I assign either a primary or secondary color to the object—perhaps a dull, pale purple.” He then builds grays, like those in the shirt, with glazes of these colors.

The same process is followed when painting the rest of the clothing regardless of what the final color is to be. All that needs to be done is to build up many glazes of different variations on a particular primary. Instead of the underpainting tying everything together, it’s the top glazes that create the desired color.

The top glazes can also be a compositional aid. For instance, in the first step of the demonstration, a scythe is hanging on the wall over the man’s left shoulder. As Wiltraut developed the patterns of light and shade, the scythe was pushed into the background so it didn’t interfere with the figure as the center of interest. By the fifth stage, the tool was just barely visible.

In addition to portraits, Wiltraut says he enjoys interpreting what happens to man-made objects that are in the process of being reclaimed by nature. “I have an old back porch which hasn’t been tampered with for many years,” he says. “People ask me all the time why I don’t paint it to improve the appearance. My answer is, ‘I could scrape, sand and paint it in one afternoon, but it took nature’s magic 30 years to create a wonderfully intricate pattern of checks and chips in the paint’s surface.’ Add the stains, scratches, dents and other effects of 30 years of wear and tear, and a painter is presented with a wealth of textures.”

For the textures in Scrub Tub (above), he began with his usual procedure of drawing a pencil outline on a gesso-covered Masonite panel. Then, he blocked in the pencil drawing with layers of alizarin crimson, yellow ochre, orange and ultramarine blue. Early in the glazing process, he brushed in lines defining the wood grain—the more layers of paint he put over them, the darker the lines became. Fewer layers were put on the highlights along the edges and the side. Where necessary, some were accentuated with titanium white.
Spattering was the most effective method of rendering the complex textures in the old sidewalk and steps. As concrete weathers, it erodes and the gravel in it is slowly exposed, leaving a finely pockmarked surface. On top of a base tone of cerulean blue and yellow ochre, Wiltraut spattered gray and white dots to suggest a pattern of small, highlighted peaks and shaded valleys. Finally, to unify the spatters into solid-looking surfaces, two or three glazes of thalo blue and ivory black were brushed on.

When Wiltraut rendered the texture of the tub and the concrete, he had to use a different combination of painting techniques on each. The same “change of pace” was necessary in order to do the chipped paint and weathered, exposed wood on the house. First priority was to keep the crack lines visible under the glazing—those were painted in with cerulean blue and yellow ochre. Next, to create the aged, mottled effect of old white paint, he brushed in a layer of titanium white, leaving some of the gesso bare. When he went over the titanium and gesso with a glaze of off-white, each accepted the paint differently, making an uneven, blotchy pattern.

After the foundation was firmly in place, Wiltraut brought the chipped and peeling paint shapes into focus with fine-line brush work and carefully controlled spattering. The gray color of the exposed wood was built up with glazes of cerulean and ultramarine blue, yellow ochre, alizarin crimson and black. Finally, he added the stains and some more yellowing.

Like the old masters who mixed their own colors, Wiltraut prefers to start from scratch. Artists who use tube paints (some companies manufacture egg tempera in a tube) are assured of uniform texture and color. Uniformity, however, can be a drawback—it’s not always possible to manipulate premixed tube colors for creative results. Wiltraut instead buys large jars of dry pigment from Winsor & Newton. Each day, he takes out as much as he needs and mixes the colors with fresh egg yolk as he paints (see box at left). As a result, a particular color may not be exactly the same as the batch mixed the day before. It could vary in texture, intensity or value—all of which helps the unexpected or the unusual to occur. “Every painter mixes the egg and the paint differently,” says Wiltraut. “That’s one of the things that makes each egg tempera painting unique.”

A master of painting weathered and worn textures, Doug Wiltraut enjoys interpreting man-made objects in the process of being reclaimed by nature. His efforts have earned him awards from the Butler Institute of American Art, The Knickerbocker Artists and numerous others. A fine arts graduate of Kutztown University, Wiltraut is now President of the National Society of Painters in Casein & Acrylic and Senior Vice-president of Audubon Artists, Inc. His work is included in private, corporate and museum collections, and is reproduced in limited-edition prints (available through 969 Catasauqua Road, Whitehall, PA 18052).

Capturing Textures with Tempera
Egg tempera can capture the feeling of light and texture like no other medium. In Windfalls (23 x 35), Doug Wiltraut built the different textures with numerous layers of tempera. The transparency of the paint allows all the layers to influence the finished look, creating a strong, internal luminosity.

One: Develop the Darks
When a dark background envelops a much lighter focal point, such as in The Painter (40 x 36), Wiltraut develops the darker values first. Here, he applied yellow ochre, then layered alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue over it.

Two: Build a Likeness
After he was satisfied with the background value, Wiltraut began working on the face. In a portrait, the likeness is of paramount importance and should be established before going to the next step.

Detail: Yellow ochre and vermilion were roughed in for the skin color. In successive layers, Wiltraut added creases, whiskers and other distinguishing characteristics that would remain visible through the transparent tempera.
Three: The Colors of White
Wiltraut doesn’t see any neutral color in the shadows on the white shirt. Instead, he combines glazes of primary or secondary colors so they mix optically and blend into a rich gray.

Four: Moving Outward
Now, the painting “grows outwards from the head,” says Wiltraut. While he worked on the face, he was tackling the problem of the white shirt and suspenders, but then began the foundation colors for the pants and arm.

Five: Finishing Glazes
Through subsequent glazes, Wiltraut has rendered the scythe barely visible, focusing more attention on the main subject. The completed portrait shows a rugged Pennsylvania Dutch man who has earned his living as a housepainter. His rolled-up sleeves are a symbol of the work ethic that is an integral part of his life. The suspenders have been an everyday piece of his attire—years before they became a fad.

Building Weathered Textures
Old objects found at auctions or obtained from relatives are among Wiltraut’s favorite subjects. The Scrub Tub (24 x 34) was an auction acquisition. To render each different weathered texture, he varied his technique. The pockmarked concrete required spattering that was unified with later glazes. For the tub, he blocked in basic colors, then brushed in lines that defined the wood grain, and finished with additional glazes.

Don’t let the preparation steer you away from egg tempera. Here’s all it takes:
Mix the yolk of a fresh egg with distilled water in a 1-to-1 ratio. Tap water is not used because it contains impurities that may cause unforeseen problems in the painting later on.
Place small piles of dry pigment on a glass palette. When painting on a white panel, Wiltraut puts white paper under the glass to mix the paints over the same color as the panel.
To mix the color, dip the brush into the diluted egg yolk and into the pigment. If the mixture resembles a thin, waxy curl when scraped off the palette, the proportion of egg to pigment is correct.

While thin washes are an important part of the egg tempera technique, other application methods work well also, including crosshatching, spattering, drybrush and stippling.

This article, written by Walter Garver, appeared in the June, 1991 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.