OF EGGS AND ARTISANS: Six painters working in egg tempera contribute to UNCW’s exhibition, ‘Art From the Egg’
When mentioning “egg tempera” to most people, images of Japanese fried eggs may pop to mind. However, anyone who studies art recognizes it as the medium of choice for early Italian Renaissance painters. Long considered obsolete, egg tempera has been pushed to the sidelines by oil and acrylic paints. Post-modernism and its ever-increasing experimentation renders it all but forgotten.
Yet, Donald Furst, longtime professor and former chair of the arts department at UNCW, has spent the last two years vigorously working with the medium and examining its unique qualities. The result of his toils is “Art From the Egg,” an exhibit of egg tempera paintings, which include his work amidst five other national artists specializing in the form.
Furst’s oeuvre consists chiefly of printmaking, and varies in complexity from woodcuts to mezzotint to stone lithography. He has shown at exhibits internationally and earned residencies at establishments, like the Tamarind Institute in New Mexico. After decades of cranking out prints, he sought relief in the unexpected.
“I’m getting a little long in the tooth,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve been at it for about 40 years, and the great bulk of that time has been spent doing printmaking, but I’m entering my second childhood, and I’ve returned to painting after 35 years of not doing any painting at all. But the wrinkle is that it’s egg tempera painting, which is rather obscure.”
The sudden switch may seem odd, but to Furst it came naturally. Even the scope of printmaking holds numerous dissimilar methods and applications, but all of them require a great deal of time and patience. There is little instant gratification in printmaking, nor in tempera painting. Hence, it lends itself well to Furst’s temperament.
“I would describe myself as an ‘incrementalist,’” he says. “In other words, often in printmaking the finished artwork is the result of construction of many individual moments. It’s many small things that ultimately are assembled into a finished product, and it struck me how egg tempera is very much that way. You don’t suddenly emit an egg tempera; it’s not a glorious burst of emotion and brush-strokes. It’s built in layers, woven together, and emerges over time, be it weeks or months.”
His paintings focus on landscapes in the vein of Andrew Wyeth, only with extra attention to color. Each blade of grass leaps out at the viewer as an individual brush-stroke in an autumnal field rich with myriad browns, purples and ochres. However, Furst’s work is the only example of non-figural painting in the exhibit. The other five artists—Fred Wessel, Michael Bergt, Koo Schadler, and husband-and-wife team Suzanne Scherer and Pavel Ouporov—focus on figural works.
Just the same, Wessel is an artist who approached tempera after teaching printmaking for 35 years. Confident in his drawing skill, he didn’t pursue painting until he was blown away by the sight of Sandro Botticelli’s work at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Afterward, he was determined to learn the intricacies of painting in tempera.
“I found myself with tears welling up in my eyes,” Wessel reminisces. “The beauty in those egg tempera paintings was overwhelming. I loved the rich and vibrant colors achieved through layers of glazing, applying thin veils of color one over another, like stained glass, all layers contributing to the final color effect.”
“Vibrancy” is the key word in describing Wessel’s work. His female forms glow with a very real sense of warmth, illuminated by the gilded backdrops that frame them. Even his still-lifes exude warmth, unhindered by the cooling floral shades of violet and green. Wessel honed his skill by studying Cennino Cennini’s “Il Libro dell’Arte,” a Renaissance-era manual for egg tempera painters.
“All of the convincing flesh tones in a painting are composed of warm and cool areas of color applied in proximity to each other,” Wessel describes. “I develop my flesh tones by working them up in an underpainting in shades of green, since it’s the complement of red or pink. Translucent areas of pink are applied over the green, methodically removing the green in various degrees. In areas like the cheeks, green is entirely removed. In more neutral areas like the stubble area in a man’s face, a hint of green is left to neutralize pinks and allow for a cooler flesh tone.”
The medium itself is abundant with history. It was first used as funeral portraits in Coptic Egypt, where painted busts were attached to mummies during interment. It then made its way into Byzantine icon paintings, which characterize much of Greek Orthodox art.
New Mexico-based painter Michael Bergt considers every historic element as he paints. His figures interact with strange beasts, stand against luminous haloes, and interact with shadow versions of themselves rendered in gold-leaf. By channeling mythic imagery through a symbolist lens, Bergt capitalizes on the medium’s rich history to gently distort reality. Bergt thinks it’s only natural, given the nature of the paint itself.
“Generally, artists that have worked with it tend to create paintings that fit more in the category of magic realism,” Bergt explains. “There’s some quality to the rendering and the surface value, which is slightly high color key closer to fresco than oil, so it has an ethereal nature to it. Someone wouldn’t choose egg tempera if they wanted to do a photorealist or impressionistic painting because the paint doesn’t lend itself to impasto. You’re really talking about a specific range of qualities and characteristics.”
Scherer and Ouporov take full advantage of the sublimity of the art form. Their paintings focus on children interacting with deeply evocative environments which range from deep-blue skies pierced by moonlight to cascades of pale peacock feathers. Scherer was the first American artist accepted to the Russian Academy of Arts during the Soviet Period in 1989. She hoped to learn by copying Russian Orthodox icon painting at the Grabar Art Conservation Center in Moscow but was barred entry for being a woman. She learned second-hand under Russian iconographer Vladislav Andrejev upon returning home. More importantly, she met her husband Ouporov in Russia during her studies. Academically trained in Russian social realism, Ouporov learned how the genre glorifies communist values and eschews anything unreal. Each yearned to transfix figurative art through fantastic, emotive means. In doing so, they move forward without robbing art forms of their history.
“[Ouporov and I] believe that is important to keep historic traditions alive within a contemporary context,” Scherer asserts. “There seems to be a grassroots, back-to-basics revival today in the arts. Many artists want to know the source of the pigments and how to make their own paints. Egg tempera is unparalleled with its luminosity and brilliant color because it is made by grinding the pigments without any added ingredients or preservatives. Plus, it’s also a lot of fun! It’s a lot like cooking and meditating at the same time.”
Art From The Egg:
Five Tempera Painters
UNCW Cultural Arts Building Gallery
601 S. College Rd.
Opening: Oct. 12, 5:30-7 p.m.
On exhibit through November 10
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