Notebook, 1993-


Thompson, Daniel V., Jr., Research and Technical Adviser, The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. The Practice of Tempera Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1936. Fourth Printing, 1946.

The Practice of
Tempera Painting - Uses and Limitations

Uses and Limitations of the Tempera
Five hundred years ago, Cennino d'Andrea Cennini, a painter who studied in Florence under Agnolo Gaddi, the son and disciple of Taddeo Gaddi [who was a pupil and godson of Giotto], wrote a book about his profession. Craftsmanship in painting was highly esteemed in his day; and he described in great detail all that he considered it important for a painter to know, in a work called the Libro dell'Arte, the "book of the profession," The Craftsman's Handbook, as I have translated it in the second volume of this series. Craftsmanship in painting has changed much and often in the last five hundred years, in accordance with the changing needs of painters and society. It has grown less strict in the last few generations, and that may be a good thing; but it has also grown on the whole less competent, and that is not good. Some modern painters have looked back to Cennino for instruction and found in his Craftsman's Handbook some useful guidance for present-day application. [p. 1]

Tempera Painting is a Strict Discipline
Painting in tempera as Cennino teaches it is a strict discipline, and discipline in the practice of painting has long been out of style; but it is beginning once more to be regarded as desirable. We still set great store by individual liberty, and still resent any move which threatens to curtail it; but we have begun to recognize that our technical freedom is something of an illusion. We have begun to realize that the canvases and paints and brushes with which the manufacturers supply us dictate our technical operations in no small degree; that mechanization may be as great a tyrant as tradition; and that the modern painter is really free, in point of technique, only to this extent, that he is allowed to choose his own fetters. [p. 1]

Tendencies in Modern Painting
We have begun to strain at these invisible bonds of ours. Technical experimentation in painting is rife; and in it there seems to be discernible a logical tendency to move away from the plasticity of the oil media toward the linear character of the water media. This technical direction is a natural consequence of the subjective tendencies of modern styles. Naturalistic imitation is no longer the guiding principle of painting. We have set our faces toward the abstract, the symbolic, the subjectively conceived. We no longer require the illusionary effects of natural forms in the degree which oil painting was designed to satisfy; and need in compensation greater power of linear emphasis than oil painting naturally yields. The modernist, with an abstract conception, cares less for the illusion of bulk, in many cases, than for mobility of line.

This is no new phenomenon in the history of art. Painting has always been conceived primarily in three dimensions or primarily in two according to the degree of concreteness that the painters have sought. Line is perhaps the most direct vehicle of thought and feeling. A rendering in two dimensions tends to be general. Line can suggest a third dimension, but cannot show it. When form is modeled up in light and shade, the rendering becomes correspondingly more specific, more concrete. Symbols turn into facts, and tend to be seen with the eyes instead of with the mind. Naturalism in representation is only partially compatible with a medium which stresses line; and in the past the water media have gone out as naturalism has come in. Now that the pursuit of the external face of nature has begun to slacken off, and imitation to relax its grip, it is not surprising to find the water media--particularly tempera, gouache, fresco--showing promise of a return to favor.

The tendencies of modern architecture, too, contribute to the growing popularity of these media. The power of oil painting lies, to some degree, in its natural low key, its wide range of value, coupled with depth and richness in the darks. To preserve this power a glossy surface is optically necessary. Oil painting with a flatted surface is robbed of its peculiar merit; but deep darks with glossy varnish on them do not agree so well with the many windows and light walls of modern interiors as with the more rich, ornate, or somber settings provided by architecture in the past. The water media, with their natural high key and matte surface, together with a certain crispness natural to them and foreign to oil paint, fit the decorative requirements of modern architecture better than the oils and varnishes of past generations. If a painting in tempera is varnished, the surface may be flatted without injury to the effect. [pp. 2-3]

The Media of the Future
do not think it likely that modern painting and the painting of the future will find solutions of its technical problems in a return to the fresco and tempera methods of Renaissance Italy. It is probable indeed it is certain, that we shall evolve methods of our own to meet our special needs. I do think, however, that the next reigning technique will have some fundamental elements in common with these ancient water media, and that adjustment will gradually be made in the direction of a discipline as economical and flexible as Cennino's. I believe, moreover, that acquaintance with a technique from the past which points to solutions of some problems which exist today will advance the pursuit of the ideal methods for our time.

Painters who have submitted themselves with "enthusiasm, reverence, obedience, and constancy" to Cennino's teaching have found themselves strengthened in the practice of other methods than his. They have continued to paint in tempera or returned to painting in oil with no feeling that their submission had cost them any personal liberty, and with some gain in clarity and power. There is freedom within limitations; and modern painters may find in the practice of tempera according to the strict plan of Cennino's work a path of escape from a tyranny of modern technical convention which is no less stringent because its bondage rests upon them so lightly. [p. 3]

The Limitations of Tempera Painting
Tempera [in the sense in which the word is used here] is an instrument of precision which accomplishes a certain set of purposes perfectly, and which for some other purposes is useless. Whether it [p. 3] is a useful system to a modern painter depends on what the painter wants to do. If he wants to sketch, and feel his way, and capitalize happy accidents, it will be no good to him. If he wants to catch the essence of some passing moment in his painting, some instantaneous effect of atmosphere or expression, to suggest some elusive, indescribable effect, Cennino's mantle will hang heavy on his shoulders. If he has a well-defined pictorial idea, he may do well with it. Tempera is good for rendering certain types of clearly formulized graphic conceptions. It requires clarity in formulation. It cannot adapt itself to any vagueness. [pp. 3-4]

Normal Scale
Tempera has other limitations. It is not well adapted to works of large size. A tempera panel may be pushed say to six or eight feet, in its largest dimension; but that puts some strain upon the natural scale of the method. The normal range that it covers comfortably and easily and naturally lies between twenty square inches and twenty square feet.

It is not well adapted for painting in a low key. The natural pitch of tempera is medium to high. Patterns of dark in dark tend to appear muddy or obscure in tempera. It operates naturally in a higher register than oil; and though it possess the power of going down to dark, it is most successful when not forced out of its natural range. What is high for the 'cello is low for the violin, and the violin shows its special character in a region which the 'cello can hardly achieve. So in tempera it is possible to work among a range of high values which in oil can be achieved only at the expense of vigor and permanence.

Finally, tempera is not adapted to the production of a warm tonality. It tends to work cool. It has to be forced if it is to yield at all the warmth and richness that oil painting yields naturally. It possesses no such extremes of warm and cool, or transparent and opaque, as oil, and no such power of rendering deep, saturated, warm colors. Reds, oranges, and yellows tend to seem cool in tempera when compared with oil; and if they are overstressed they seem to turn hot without ever becoming warm. In compensation, the cool [p. 4] colors possess incomparable clarity and freshness in tempera, and retain these characteristics indefinitely.

If a painter wants to paint large pictures, or dark pictures, or pictures with a rich, warm glow, he definitely does not want to paint in tempera. If he wants to paint pictures less than forty, or better, less than twenty, square feet in superficial area, in a fairly light, fresh, blond tonality, this method may apply. If he accepts the fundamental physical limitations, the moderate size, the high key, the cool tonality, he may than consider the stylistic limitations. He may judge whether his subject can be reduced to a precise pattern of clearly defined shapes and tones. Tempera permits any degree of complication or elaboration; but it must be deliberate and definite. Paradoxically, its power of rendering abstract conceptions depends largely upon this rigor of its technical requirements.

In practice, it is difficult to effect small incidental variations of color, such as are commonly practiced in oil painting, and also perfectly smooth transitions from one color to another. The tendency of the medium is to impose the use of methodical color changes in each area of the design separately. The painter is also subject to some limitations in passing from one value to another. In the plastic medium of oil paint it is possible to blend adjacent values so perfectly together that they merge in a continuous value progression. In tempera this can hardly be accomplished. The tones of the modeling, the transition from one value to the next tend to be more evident; and these evidences of articulation, though valuable to the painter of ideas, are troublesome to the painter of appearances. [pp. 4-5]

Factors in Naturalistic Painting
Nothing goes further to determine the degree of concreteness that a painting shall display than the treatment of light and shade. If a naturalistic system of lights, half tones, shadow edges, reflected lights, and cast shadows is used, the objects represented will necessarily appear specific. They are bound to tell in some degree as certain solids seen under certain conditions. This is true though the objects and conditions may be as far divorced from any normal natural phenomena as the most extreme stage phantasy. This solidity and [p. 5] this precision of the atmospheric setting may be either a power or a limitation to the painter. They are a power when the idea of bulk and reality are part of his subject matter. They are a limitation when he wishes to be understood in general, subjective terms. It is often an advantage to a portrait painter to be able to create the illusion of reality upon his canvas. It is often a disadvantage to a painter of the Crucifixion to have his work look like a tableau vivant. It is fatal when his aim is to express some general aspect of the spiritual significance of his subject.

Tempera lends itself readily to any system of light and shade, abstract or scientific. But its limited value range, overbalanced toward light, makes it less persuasive in a realistic scheme than oil painting. It is for this reason possible to use a scientific arrangement of lights and darks to render form without obtaining an obviously realistic result; and this paradox is not without its usefulness. Any system of light and shade may be employed in tempera, from the elementary, ideographic, medieval types, to the most highly descriptive analysis of form.

A great factor in naturalistic painting, in which oil painting outstrips tempera, is the recognition of modifications of local color according to the degree of illumination. In nature, a change of value is always accompanied by some change of color and intensity. A change in value in painting is also accompanied by some change of color and intensity, but not necessarily the same change which takes place in nature. Naturalistic painting requires that each color appear at its maximum intensity in the full light, and that its intensity diminish with reduction of the illumination. At the same time, the color itself is progressively modified. These modifications are extremely complex They depend upon the character of the light, the setting of the object, its relation to other objects, its color, its surface, and its material composition. To represent these changes fully and accurately is to pursue the specific quality of the subject to the end. This may be attempted in oil painting without much added difficulty; but it would mean vast trouble for the tempera painter to try to bring his color changes into even rough agreement with those that he observes in nature. The tempera painter accepts as a condition [p. 6] of his work the conventional substitution of some system of pigment color changes in lieu of the color changes produced by light in nature. This substitution may occasionally approximate natural phenomena; but it is generally arbitrary and abstract. [pp. 5-7]

A Critical Approach
Tempera requires either the rejection of the naturalistic ideal or a critical approach to naturalism, a willingness at least to reduce the complexity of nature to one of many possible systems of convention for the sake of subjective emphasis. It is in every way unsuitable for the use of a painter whose aim is the reproduction of the superficial appearance of natural objects.

I have set forth the limitations of tempera at some length; for it seems to me essential that they should be understood. Its weaknesses for one purpose become strengths for another. Devotees of this medium [and it inspires warm devotion in those whose needs it fits] tend sometimes to exaggerate its powers and qualities. I am anxious to have its worth appreciated, and its application to modern uses extended as far as this extension is justified; but I am keenly aware that there are many problems in modern painting which it will not solve, or perhaps even help to solve. Tempera is no panacea, but a medium of limited applicability which within its limitations does a perfect job. [p. 7]

[Thompson, Daniel V., Jr., Research and Technical Adviser, The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. The Practice of Tempera Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1936. Fourth Printing, 1946.]



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