Learning to paint in egg tempera with Antony Williams at the National Portrait Gallery

Antony Williams Egg Tempra Workshop at the NPGI recently attended a weekend workshop at the National Portrait Gallery on painting a portrait in egg tempera run by Antony Williams. This year he won third prize in the BP Portrait competition.

I knew little of how to paint in egg tempera, other than you probably have to crack a lot of eggs. But have admired Antony’s portraits and the work of the American artist Andrew Wyeth, particularly the four egg temperas from the Helga Portrait series.

There were about 14 of us in the workshop, all with varying degrees of experience in painting portraits and a few with experience of egg tempera.

Antony initially gave us an overview of his practice and the process he goes through to paint a portrait, showing, in a slide show, examples of the stages of the work. Followed by how to prepare the panel, which involves painting about eight coats of True Gesso, rubbing it down to create a very smooth egg shell-like finish, a process that can take him a whole day. Fortunately he’s purchased some prepared panels, which was a bit of a relief! Then it was onto mixing some paint, and cracking those eggs, separating the yokes, extracting the yoke from the sac and pouring the yoke into a jar. Finally adding a little of the yoke to the colour pigment to make a paste and then mixing it with a little distilled water to make the very diluted paint that would be applied to the panel.

Because we had limited time in the workshop it would have been impossible to work from life, so we had been asked to bring in a photograph to work from. We all started our paintings by first applying a thin wash of yellow ochre over the complete panel. Then using a No1 sable, which is very small, we drew the portrait in diluted black ivory egg tempera onto the yellow ochre background, creating as much detail and a wide range of tonal values as possible. This was then covered in a very thin wash of terre verte, the drawing showing through the transparent colour. During the day Antony demonstrated how he produces a portrait and the slow process of building up the coloured layers to create the image. And that was the end of day one, it had really flown by.

Day two was a continuation of the first, making fine brush marks with Venetian red following the directions of the planes of the face and covering the panel, the image gradually building up  and again the drawing showed through the transparent layers. We continued with the next layer to pick out the highlight areas in white mixed with yellow ochre, then vermillion, followed by a darkish colour – white, ochre and black mixed. It was a very slow process building the layers, alternating between warm and cool colours, dark and light tones. No wonder it takes some artists a year or so to complete a painting. Oddly I found it quite therapeutic, compared to painting in oils.

Day two sped by and at the end we lined up our work and Antony gave a brief crit of our work.

It was a great weekend and an excellent workshop, many thanks Antony, I shall look forward to the next one and plan to continue my painting of my friend Kaps, hopefully completing it in the new year!