EGG TEMPERA, The Medium and the Message
I have never been schooled in the canons prescribed for icon painting set forth by the Byzantine Orthodox Church, but I do love God with my whole heart, mind and soul and sincerely desire to convey that experience to others through icons. The medium of egg tempera is a marvelous technique which brings together flesh and spirit in the most peculiar and revealing way. The ground stone and egg yolk subtly teaches the painter how these two mysteries intermingle simultaneously in everything we experience and in every aspect of living.
My mom used to say, “we have the mystery of God within us, there is only the need to wake up to it.” I wake up each day eager to paint icons because through this medium and imagery I experience the expansiveness of God and great quietude. As the paint is swirling in the dish, I see a small colored cosmos of flesh and spirit and am reminded of the infinite repeating itself throughout time and space.
The iconographer paints with traditional egg tempera; egg yolk combined with fine dust called ‘earth pigments. Egg yolk and water mixture represents the raw potential for life ( from the yolk substance comes the life of the chicken) and the earth pigment represents eternity ( our earth is a multi colored billion year old rock hurling through space and time ). The orthodox icon painters teach that these two elements are mixed together to create divine image. (images which speak of spiritual life, making seen the unseen )
The natural world is balm to my soul, by painting with million year old dirt, the book of Genesis becomes a real living text. God’s first thoughts were in silence, before time and space and then the vaults were separated making water and dry land. That same water and dry land is the same ground up colored stone suspended in water I paint with. It is abundantly available in every country around the world for us to mix together and create image.
Imagine these early painters inventing such a technique with such beautiful symbolism! The idea of painting with egg and pigment is one thing, but, using it to portray divine sacred image – this is ingenious. The process itself begs the question; where is the divine experienced… through the mind?, through the hand? or through the image? In my case, all pathways intermingle and expand to include all aspects of life, more than I am able to express in words or image. The whole experience reveals how we exist as a living beings in the mind of God.
I have taught many classes and watched people have amazing experiences with this medium; somehow the process speaks when you’re painting and when you’re done the memories left in the finished image speak again. I am captivated and haunted, if in the end the image is pleasing, it is in large part because of how much I love the paint.
Icons feel ancient when you look at them, because they are!
The individual colors are diverse finely ground stones, some are lustrous, some radiantly bright and precious, some float, others heavy granular sand or smooth as mud. The egg yolk emulsifies each small grain of pigment leaving the colorful surface glossy and saturated with life. The depth of the color is created as a result of many thin layers, each with its own tone and personality. When one pigment dries and you apply another layer on top covering the previous layer, I grieve. The spontaneously created beauty of one layer is temporarily lost by the application of another layer of color. Yet with enough layers, new forms arise, each one richer and deeper in quality. In the end after three to six months, the layers become transparent as time dries out the egg making all layers more transparent, the under painting is then revealed.
The image is born in the first inscribed lines, then color is molded, modified, changed and finally aged leaving layer upon layer revealed in color. I see each icon as a metaphor, one individual life lived, layer on layer, present becomes past one moment at a time. Each layer is a day in our life or an extreme event integrated into the whole of our individual life, we are each one icon The end product is always inevitably harmonious just because the pigments themselves were created side by side as the planet evolved. Ancient earth history mixed with human desire for the divine, what a match!
Even if you do not have a particular bent towards religious imagery, you cannot deny the fascinating quality of the pigments and their majestic existence. To work with such simple beauty is intriguing, pushing around small particles of dirt which dry and form unimaginable patterns. I find myself always looking at sand at the beach, puddles as they dry or cracked earth in the desert. These patterns repeat themselves on an icon but in minuscule format. When I see a vast landscape with hills and valleys, I think I am walking around on a giant icon. It is pure delight and never happens the same way twice.
Early egg tempera painters tried exploring the mind of God through prayer and expressed their findings through image. They took the invisible and made it visible. They gave us the signs and symbols for real presence; their images descend into our hearts and make us yearn for more contact with the divine. The Orthodox tradition of icon painting linked together the physical and spiritual mysteries. The egg tempera process has taught me about the nature of God and God in nature, I believe it has still so much to teach us as a technique and prayer form, in the act of painting or the gazing at the finished product.