The art of egg tempera: Thin veils of color mask ‘hidden realities’ at Michener

So, how do you like your eggs?

The Michener Museum in Doylestown has served up an exhibition of paintings using egg tempera, an ancient technique that uses an egg yolk as a binder. “Mavis Smith: Hidden Realities” buries surreal tension beneath a surface calm.

Mavis Smith makes her paint fresh every morning.

In her home studio near New Hope, Pa., the 54-year-old artist cracks open an egg, separating the yolk from the white. She rolls the yolk on a paper towel that absorbs any residual white, holds the yolk over a glass and carefully punctures the sac. About an ounce of pure yellow goo pours into the glass. Smith adds colored pigment powder along with a few drops of water.

“I mix the paints up every day. That’s a ritual thing,” said Smith. “I kind of like it. It’s a period where you prepare what you’re going to be doing.”

If egg tempera can be said to have a heyday, it was during the Renaissance, when most of the best religious art was done in tempera. More recently, Andrew Wyeth from Chadds Ford did all his major works in tempera.

Unlike oil or acrylic, egg tempera brushes on very, very thinly — translucently thin — and dries almost instantly. The colors only become apparent after many layers, softly emerging into rich subtleties.

“It’s just like a luminous effect,” said Smith. “When you get 10, 20 — I do as many as 100 layers or more — it creates a shimmering effect.”

That tempera shimmer works well with Smith’s choice of subject matter. She most often paints figures — usually young blond women with pale skin — in slightly surreal landscapes. Illuminated by the underwater light of a pool at night, or half-submerged in an icy lake during a lightning storm, the figures look slightly unnatural. They have an eerie quality, but it’s difficult to point to it.

“After you get dozens and dozens of layers, a very interesting point — the paint itself becomes more absorbent the more layers you put on,” said Smith. “You reach a point where you’re putting on these thin veils of color and you don’t see the brushstrokes anymore. The bottom paint layer is absorbing it. You can get the subtlest blush. At that point, it becomes magical.”

Egg tempera is much too brittle for canvas. It’s usually brushed onto panels because any flex would crack the paint. The surfaces are incredibly smooth and precise. Smith says she likes to bury hidden darkness in the layers.

“Not an obvious tension. The contrast of softness, beauty, and that one part that creates tension. If you can’t pin it down, that’s good.”

“Mavis Smith: Hidden Realities” continues at the Michener Museum in Doylestown through May 20.

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