The oldest manual of egg tempera painting is the twelfth-century Manual for Painters by Cennino Cennini, available from Yale as a reprint. Now, we don’t have to scrape animal skins to make tracing paper, grind our own pigments from rocks, or set weasel tails in quills to make brushes…on the other hand, praying before starting to paint, couldn’t hurt! Robert Vickery, a twentieth-century American artist and fellow Yale graduate, wrote a fine book on egg tempera with a more modern approach. Thompson’s basic book on egg tempera, mentioned before, is available as a reprint.
One of the curious characteristics of egg tempera is its tendency to sink into the absorbent gesso and dry rapidly. The egg yolk binder can also be thinned too much, which may lead to poor adhesion and cracking. Therefore, flowing washes or very wet glazes are unsuccessful. Artists should use many, many individual, semi-dry strokes, ranging from the darkest to the lightest tone in any given passage. The paint appears to be blending, but doesn’t really blend. The overall look of a tempera is “high-key” and “blonde”, generally light and bright, rather than the darkness of many oil paintings.
As is traditional, Charlotte made many preliminary drawings, traced onto the gesso panel. Most paintings took an average of six full drawings before being transferred. She would then use pen, brush, and ink to make a black and white underpainting, which was a guide for her to follow, and finally she began the painstaking layering of tempera paint.
Although it is not a necessity, Charlotte always preferred to use round sable brushes.The excellent point and precise handling enables the artist to execute very fine detail. Of all the opaque paints, egg tempera is probably the best for such detail, because it is so thin.
Charlotte’s earliest temperas reveal her immediate ease with the medium. She hadn’t yet settled on the New England subject matter that she became known for, but she experimented with many subjects. She was generally unafraid of any subject, because her training was quite complete; however, the one thing she hadn’t learned well was perspective. This was something that she’d learn after Ken Davies directed her to Storey’s Theory and Practice of Perspective, prior to her teaching at Paier School of Art. After that, she taught perspective for many years, and became known for her ability to use it well.