Oil Tempera

I first worked with oil tempera in the late 1980’s during a wonderful media class taught by Michelle White, at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto Ontario. I loved the process because the materials created beautiful translucent glowing layers of colour. I have since wanted to work in this old technique but couldn’t without adequate studio space: the canvases you work on require an oil emulsion gesso — a heated gesso of rabbit skin glue, calcium carbonate and linseed oil– and you really need to prime a whole bunch of canvases at once in order to make all the work in the making of the gesso worth while.

With oil tempera you make your own paint using ground pigment combined alternately with two separate binders, applying these in layers: one is opaque (emulsion) and the other translucent (glaze).

Now that I have a wonderful studio in Farrellton Quebec  (at Place des Artistes de Farrellton, I have finally embarked on quite an adventure of trial and error and experimentation. As people visit me in my studio, comments about this process are either that the process is a lot like chemistry experiments or like working in a kitchen and I’d confirm that it is a lot of both.


This first part is done with an oil emulsion: combining stand oil, damar varnish, egg yolk, and water. The emulsion is mixed with ground pigment as I paint (ie one colour at a time). The emulsion layer establishes basic colours and shapes in a mostly opaque layer.

MmePStage 1This photo was taken before the emulsion layer was finished so a lot of the white was soon covered over.


Here the emulsion layer is complete and I have started to add some of the glaze. The glaze is made by combining sun thickened linseed oil, damar varnish, and mineral spirits and painting this mixture with the ground pigments.

MmePStage 2At this point I have washed a blue glaze over the shadow areas: under the wild garlic bulbs; under the forearm and the right side of the upper arm (below the forearm here); and on the shadow parts of the hands and face.

Below I felt that the foundation of the painting was solid: the main colours and shapes were feeling close to complete and doing what I wanted them to do in terms of vibrancy. Plus the skin tone was feeling soft and Mme’s expression close to where I wanted.

MmePStage3However, the problem to tackle here was that the arm and hair/violets were blending into one another; so it was time to solve a volume problem…

If you are wondering about the bird: that’s the last thing to do.


Using glazes, here I started to significantly lighten the hair and violets, and to darken the arm at the hair edge. This now gives the arm volume distinct from the hair. I had tried to solve this problem earlier by changing the violet colour to pink (distinct from arm fabric colour) but the change was not enough. Here the arm pulls forward and the hair falls behind.

 MmePStage 4

I also worked a lot on softening out the hands with layers of glaze and  deepening the shadows on the hands and face.


Lastly I darkened the blue in the sky so the hands would pop more.

Finished work

The last details:

MmePFinalThe crook of the arm had too much contrast with its background, so I glazed in some green into the violets to lessen the effect.

The eyes were the same blue as the background, creating a flattening effect to the whole (like a mask with eyeholes cut out) so I added subtle flecks of green and ochre to the irises to separate the two colours.

Finally Mr. Warbler was given dimension with some black and white.

Things I've made, am making, or just thinking about making