View Full Version : Egg Tempera smell

09-09-2012, 10:02 AM
Hi everybody,

First time posting here but lurked a lot and have found so much good natured help given for all sorts of media. So thanks for that first!

I've just become interested in egg tempera, so after reading a bit and bought a couple of recommended books, I started out experimenting. However, I had to scrap the first attempt before I'd almost begun since one of the early layers started to smell horrible. The whole room smelt of it (I only have a small flat), so I had to remove every scrap. It wasn't what I would define as a sulphur smell - it was one I'd never smelt before but immediately wanted to remove it.

Now, I am aware that one needs fresh eggs so I bought eggs from a farmer's market (I live in London), but this second layer of egg mix I presume must have been an old egg and applied without me realising. It was fresh from the fridge and kept out of it protected with icecubes as Mona suggests. I didn't test this egg and will be more careful in future.

What is concerning me now, is a comment by a good eggy artist (can't remember who) who said something about a 'wet dog' smell. Could it be that I'm being too sensitive to what is a normal level of smell for egg tempera, or should one just not experience any smell whatsoever and if I am, then something is wrong?

I should add that I'm either using watercolour or gouache (good ones) and only titanium white as pigment because I'm sneaking into it as a trial to see if I like the process first before I start with pigment + pigment proper.

Could I be too fussy in this? If it's unavoidable, then maybe I will have to rethink going into this media, attracted though I am.

09-09-2012, 12:17 PM
Hi Eiry, I don't have a lot of experience with egg tempera yet, but I haven't had a "bad" smell from the paint. My paintings do smell distinctly like fresh, raw egg for a long time (a couple months).

My eggs aren't particularly super fresh, just normal eggs from the grocery store. I've painted in pretty hot weather too. I keep my palette resting on a cold pack, but it still gets a bit warm (when it's above 80F indoors). I stick it back in the refrigerator whenever I take even a short break though.

I'm wondering if your paint is too thick? My "layers" are almost imperceptibly thin, and they're dry to the touch almost immediately. I use a combination of dry pigments and watercolor tubes to make my paints, as I'm still gradually building my dry pigment collection. I've been painting on Ampersand Claybord, which is really absorbent. But I've also played around painting on watercolor paper, and that has been fine too.

09-09-2012, 12:31 PM
Also, I know some recipes call for a bit of white wine or other clear alcohol in the egg medium, to act as a preservative. Or a tiny drop of clove oil. I tried clove oil for a few painting sessions. It did make the paint smell nice. My little glass of egg medium developed a fine, white precipitate in it after stirring in clove oil, which I thought was perhaps not good(?), so I stopped using clove oil. Maybe other folks know more about using a preservative in the egg medium.

09-09-2012, 01:27 PM
Thank you so much for your reply Cathy.

I suppose it is possible that the smelly layer was too thick, the couple of layers below were fine and thin and dried quickly. I was very careful; in fact was quite pleased that I seemed to be tempering ok. These layers were onto very thick watercolour paper as I'd heard if you were going to use watercolour paper, then it's a good idea to make a couple of plain egg and water layers to assist the painting on top - almost in leiu of gesso (although it clearly isn't).

Then I think I impatiently made an ground with a mix plus pigment on top of them which is when I didn't check. It dried quickly though and wasn't sticky or glossy. Oh, of course, i'd forgotten - some eggs are so much thicker than others! I think I should stop making a painting and just play with the paint for a while - that's hard when I've got paintings in my head... perhaps I should use another medium for those for a while.

Interesting that you use store bought eggs - at least there's a date on them and that you've experienced no smell but a fresh egg smell (although not quite sure what that is) - so no wet dog for you :D. And I like your idea of putting it back in the fridge when you have a break. I hadn't thought of that.

I had considered adding preservative, especially the wine :) but heard that often the experienced eggy artists don't use it. In this circumstance, wouldn't it be just like masking a body that isn't washed, with perfume? ;) Also: both watercolour and gouache already have preservative in them.

From your feedback, it sounds like my egg was a baddy or a borderline baddy from the start. I'll do the dipping in water test first I think. I believe I must have done the beginner mistake of being uber careful about using the medium, then abandoning care as I got more confident, focussing on what I was painting!

09-13-2012, 09:36 PM
I was wondering, how long are you keeping and working with the same egg yolk?

09-14-2012, 06:41 AM
Only one day or two at the most in the fridge.

09-14-2012, 08:54 AM
Doesn't anyone use vinegar? It's traditional to add a few drops of vinegar in icon painting. Not to mention that it is vinegar we use to get rid of egg smell when doing the dishes.

Of course, egg tempera smells one way or another. But so does oil paint. Egg is not harmful, that counts for something.

10-16-2012, 10:36 AM
Renaissancemedici: I didn't use any preservative because many top egg tempera artists don't seem to use it and not believe it to be necessary (ie Vickery, Koo etc).

I'm reconsidering because I seem to be sensitive to the smell - my studio is in my small flat and I find it objectionable. I don't think it's because the eggs are off or anything, because recently I've been ultra careful and done checks, and the smell isn't anywhere as bad as the last one, though I can still smell it. I suppose one person's sense of smell isn't the same as anothers ;)

I had no idea using egg t. would smell at all. Mention of the medieval or Renaissance 'smell of the studios' I've ignored, thinking - well, they didn't have fridges.... Any other paint medium I'm fine with. It's a shame because I'm beginning to like it. Otherwise I'm going to have to ditch it. I won't feel comfortable having visitors, as well as my own comfort in my own home (sitting down relaxing and having this smell follow me there).:(

So I may add some vinegar or wine (oil of cloves does sound nice but not sure of its stability) to see if it makes a difference. It's interesting that preservatives are not used by many contemporary artists, but the very traditionals do: like icon painters and the Italians. (my info may not be very accurate as I have little knowledge).

10-17-2012, 04:44 PM
I don't know what size painting you're doing, but if you're making a rather large painting, it could be the sheer size that's making the egg smell overwhelming. I've been painting rather small so far. Largest completed painting is 6"x6". But I just started one 11"x14" and just got the whole surface painted with several (very dilute) layers. This painting definitely smells more than the 6x6, just because of the increased surface area of egg paint.

Fortunately, it's warm weather here in California, and I have windows open all the time. Though I really have to get within a couple feet of the painting to notice the egg smell, it might build up indoors if I had to close the windows. You could try adding vinegar, though then it might smell like mayonnaise?

I've noticed some pigments smell more than others too. I've learned to keep my nose out of a few colors.

10-17-2012, 06:41 PM
very interesting!