By Millie Page, 6.2
Painting with eggs may seem unorthodox at first, but it is actually a sacred art practiced by icon painters for centuries in Europe, Asia and Africa. Last Wednesday, Bedales’ Art Department was fortunate enough to host William Pullen who demonstrated this extremely niche and traditional medium to a small group of onlookers.
Firstly, he took us through the act of how to pick up a new material. When a different medium is used the mind-set changes, which Pullen explains, is important, because as artists we must “accept and embrace change of all aspects”.
The artist himself often feels the need to ‘swap between’ different methods to avoid the artist equivalent of writer’s block, and has created everything from work in watercolour to sketches in silverpoint. On the latter art, there is no going first time the pure silver tool touches the paper, especially imbibed with chemicals to ensure a permanent mark. This creates beauty in that it is possible to see the sketcher’s first vision of the subject as they put point to paper superimposed with the finishing finite detail.
This is the polar opposite to watercolour, which are executed within minutes, and being able to switch from one of the other is a wonderful and liberating thing.
Then it came to the tempera.
This is where the sense of time held tradition is the most obvious, among powdered, occasionally toxic pigment pots and jars of rabbit skin glue, the artist opened a box of eggs (bought in a rush from Bedales Outdoor Work) and began to show us a process left almost untouched for hundreds of years.
The talk was a mix of technique and art history as well as personal experience and approach. Tempera is a troublesome and time consuming painting method, of which little was known until the 1950s when societies of curious artists developed recipes through experiment and pouring over Cenini’s original tempera handbook from the 1500s.
Gradually a small niche group of contemporary artists began to use the forgotten medium once again. As someone who is interested in using the material myself, the talk was informative for many reasons. For one, I had seriously underestimated the time it takes to paint even one painting using egg yolk emulsion as a binder. To paint something detailed it would take me weeks, or months of dedicated time!
This is possibly the reason that it has been used in past religious art, such lengthy amounts of time (not to mention the costs of the pigments) and attention to detail could be consecrated only for something believed to be truly sacred.
This is where Bill breaks the cycle. His content is virgin of the familiar coy Madonna and her child, and is free from the gold leaf and sense of grandiosity. The fruits of his labour are highly detailed, hyperrealist still lives and luminous landscapes, with the seemingly glowing quality of the tempera working to his advantage. Instead of painting massive spiritual portrait, the artist chooses instead to accurately accentuate the natural dreamlike atmosphere that lives within a landscape.
A small painting in the current exhibition is proof of this. This is another point: the constraints of tempera do not force you to follow the majority of tempera art and painting inherently religious or detailed work.
You can choose to paint in whatever way you want as long as you feel the material is a guide to the quality you want in the final product.
Indeed, the chicken did probably not expect its egg to be part of a masterpiece of cross-hatched lines of warm and cool colours, so why should the artist feel anymore obliged to paint what the observer expects. Art is unpredictable and should be a breeding ground for new ideas, for which old materials could be used.
Overall, the quasi-performance was both inspiring and intriguing, showing how a paint can behave in a completely different way to expecting, with colours becoming brighter when the opposite tone is used as an undercoat. It was also a very intimate thing; painting in tempera is a process of pure creativity from the moment the egg is hatched to the last brush stroke, and it is a blessing that art made in this way can be admired for a thousand years.