Grounds and supports for egg tempera and tempera-oil emulsions (other than rabbit-skin glue gesso)

I have been enjoying tempera-oil emulsion painting, also known as tempera grassa. I recently did a painting with tubed egg tempera, which is a lean oil-in-water emulsion, and decided I need to research the ground and support, since it didn’t adhere very well to an acrylic primed canvas. Choice of ground and support depends on the relative proportion of oil and water in the emulsion, ranging from traditional gesso on panel for pure egg tempera to oil-primed stretched canvas for a heavily oil-biased emulsion. Painting on panels is generally much more durable than on stretched canvas. The almost universal recommendation for egg tempera is to make your own panels with rabbit skin glue gesso, but I don’t want to work with large quantities of powder if I can help it, so am looking at other options.  

A few things I have tried with tubed egg tempera and somewhat fatter methylcellulose (MC) emulsions are Arches oil paper and Multimedia Artboard. Both had good points and problems. Multimedia board seemed too slick for tubed egg tempera; it worked much better for MC paint. Unfortunately, it is brittle and very prone to cracked corners if not mounted on something. Arches worked well with egg tempera and MC, but buckled if the paint was thinned with much water.  Paint could be lifted off both surfaces, even after a day, but I’m using oil in the mix so that’s expected.

Here are some things I have collected from the web for pure egg tempera and tempera emulsions.

1. Rag paper and board
AMIEN.org suggests 4-8 ply rag museum board or watercolor paper mounted on panel for egg tempera. Neither would be durable with oil emulsions, and both should be framed under glass.

2. Canvas and acrylic mediums – if you don’t mind a plastic surface!
AMIEN also thinks unprimed cotton canvas mounted on a panel and sealed with 2 coats of Golden Gac-100 should be okay for egg tempera, though it probably should be framed under glass. This led me to Golden’s site, where there is a lot of info that might be applied to egg tempera and emulsions. They recommend following 2 coats of gac-100 with 2 coats of fluid matte medium if a clear semi-absorbent ground is desired for acrylic painting; this might also work for oil emulsions since the gac-100 protects the canvas from oil. Another Golden suggestion for an absorbent ground for acrylic is 1-2 coats of light molding paste on top of 2 coats of gac-100. All these are probably best on panels. I would contact Golden before tryng these on ambitious paintings with emulsions.

I tried the cotton canvas and 2 coats of Gac-100. I really didn’t like it at all. It seemed very unforgiving and unpleasant in feel.

3. Absorbent grounds
AMIEN says absorbent acrylic grounds such as Golden absorbent ground or Daniel Smith watercolor ground are fine for egg tempera, and Golden verifies that their ground has been used for several years for egg tempera, though they have not tested the combo. Absorbent grounds should also work for oil emulsions, though Golden calls oils experimental on the surface. Amien also thinks Golden Sandable Gesso should work, but Golden was less sure and hasn’t tested it; they say its absorbency falls between regular gesso and absorbent ground, also that it should only be used on panels. Golden’s absorbent ground seems to require a lot of prep, using several coats and allowing 24 hours between coats for best practice.

Daniel Smith has much less info, and only calls for one or two coats and one day to dry, but they are positioning it for watercolor and crafts. I have used it to paint on a mirror, and found that it stuck extremely well, at least in the short term. I tried a test with Daniel Smith watercolor ground and tubed egg tempera on panel, and was fairly happy. Washes took nicely, and after 10 minutes the paint didn’t lift badly. (I tested Sennelier tubed egg tempera paint, and gouache plus Sennelier medium 1:1). It’s gritty and I suspect would eat up good brushes.

Sealing and varnishing may be a problem with these grounds, if you don’t want to frame under glass. Golden has a fair amount of info on their site about this. For tubed egg tempera, framing under glass is probably wise anyway, but for an oilier egg or methylcellulose emulsion paint that might be framed without glass, these grounds make sealing a bit problematic, since they can soak in the varnish, making it permanent.

Update: I have been working on a tempera grassa painting on Dibond, gessoed with 3 coats of Golden acrylic dispersion ground, then 2 coats of Daniel Smith watercolor ground. It is working quite well, but I would go for three coats of the watercolor ground, since there were some patchy spots around the edges that didn’t take the paint nearly as well. It felt nice to work on, a bit sandpapery. I also prepared a test sheet of Golden Absorbent Ground, with strips of one to five coats, put on a day apart as recommended, over dried acrylic dispersion ground (I used Fredrix Universal canvas). Two coats is not enough; three feels adequate; four seems to completely obscure the weave of the canvas; and five seems maybe a bit unneccesary. I think I would opt for three or four, but will have to see how it handles in practice. It feels softer and less grainy than the Daniel Smith product, and kind of velvety. Looks like it should be a nice surface.

4. Claybord
Ampersand Claybord is marketed as usable for egg tempera or tempera emulsions or oils. Most egg tempera artists seem to dislike it, but not everyone seems to be following the Ampersand recommendation of applying up to four thin coats of paint to prep the surface, then waiting overnight before starting. For oils, they recommend oiling out before painting. Since it is very absorbent, the note above about sealing also applies. Ampersand is pretty breezy about varnishing, and is not addressing questions of removability.

5. Acrylic-primed canvas
Sennelier specifies that their tubed egg tempera can be used on acrylic primed canvas, though pure egg tempera shouldn’t. I would guess that results will vary with different acrylic gessos. My tests so far have not been great; I don’t think there is enough oil in the paint to bind to most acrylic dispersion grounds.  Oilier tempera emulsions do seem okay on standard canvas. D.B. Clemons says that methylcellulose emulsions can be painted on acrylic-primed canvas, but it’s always safest to mount on panels.  I have done one painting with MC emulsion on acrylic primed canvas, using casein as the first layer. This worked fine and I had no obvious problems with adherence or lifting of the MC emulsion. Several tests on Fredrix Universal canvas also seemed fine.

6. Commercal gesso panels
A company called True Gesso makes traditional gesso panels, but they are pretty expensive. I will have to order one and see what I’m missing.

So far, the DS absorbent ground is my first choice for tubed egg tempera, and Arches oil paper second. Both have a nice feel and behaved pretty similarly as far as washes and lifting, though possibly I had more lifting with the Arches.  (I did not find any advantage to adding extra egg-oil medium (a 9:1 mix) to Sennelier tubed ET; in fact this may have caused more lifting. There did seem to be an advantage to adding a little Sennelier binder.)  For methylcellulose-oil or other oilier emulsions, acrylic gesso seems okay, probably best mounted on panel.