Tempera and Emulsion Recipes

Not all tempera painters strictly use egg yolk as the binder for their paint. Here are some of the most popular recipes consisting of egg, casein and gum tempera shared by Russian and Ukrainian icon painters. What follows are formulas and instructions on making and using tempera and emulsion paints.

Egg Tempera

As the binder of egg tempera the yolk serves as a natural emulsion, into which oil, resins and turpentine can be mixed.

Egg-Oil Emulsion of M. Dernera

Egg-oil emulsion produces a viscous paint that allows the finest brushwork for minute details in paintings.


1 average-sized egg


2/3 volume of eggshell


1/3 volume of eggshell

How to Prepare: Break the egg and drop the contents and strain through two layers of cheesecloth into a small jar. Mix turpentine and stand oil together, and pour this mixture into the jar in a very thin stream, continuously stirring until the oil is used up. An emulsion of egg and raw linseed oil will remain in suspension for some time, however, stand oil after one day will separate. To preserve the emulsion from quickly becoming spoiled add a few drops of clove oil.

How to Use: Grind pigments (dry pigments that have already been ground into a water paste) into this emulsion and paint directly on gesso panels, diluting the paint with water as desired. Undercoats should be quite thin. Subsequent coats may be applied unthinned.

Egg-Oil Emulsion

While pure egg tempera does not allow you to soften or fuse colors, this recipe gives you some of the characteristics of oil paint in egg tempera.


1 average-sized egg


1/4 volume of egg shell


4 drops

How to Prepare: Break the egg and drop the contents into a small, clean jar. Add the oil, close the jar with a lid, and shake the contents vigorously until they combine completely. Add vinegar last as a preservative to help prevent quick spoilage. Strain the mixture through two layers of cheesecloth into another jar.

How to Use: This emulsion can be thinned with water and is less oily than other emulsions. Grind pigment paste into the emulsion, but only enough to use in one painting session. This paint can be used directly on gesso panels, or wet-into-wet on fresh oil paint.

Egg-Resin-Oil Emulsion of P. Kemerova

Here is an emulsion that embodies all of the qualities of egg, damar and oil in one paint. The poppy-seed oil is light in color, slows the drying time of this emulsion and yellows less than stand oil.


2 average-sized eggs


1/4 volume of egg shell


1/8 volume of egg shell


1/8 volume of eggshell

How to Prepare: Separate the egg yolk from the white, discarding the white and placing the yolk in the palm of your hand. Pass the yolk gently from one palm to the other, drying the empty palm. When the yolk sac becomes fairly dry, pick up the yolk between your thumb and forefinger and hold it over a clean, small jar. Puncture the yolk sac and drain it into the jar, avoiding to deposit any sac into the jar.

Combine the oils and resin, then stir them into the egg yolk, drop by drop, until the emulsion is complete. Add water last in the same way to thin the emulsion as needed. To preserve this emulsion add a few drops of clove oil or 2% Phenol solution (liquefied carbolic acid).

How to Use: Use this paint recipe to paint directly on gesso panels or for painting on a casein or glue tempera underpainting. Grind pigments into the emulsion, using only as much pigment as necessary for one painting session.

Casein Tempera

Hard and moisture-resistant, casein tempera makes a quick-drying tough paint.


40 grams


250 ml


20 grams

How to Prepare: Use only fresh casein for this recipe, as it looses its strength if stored for long periods. You can substitute household ammonia for ammonium carbonate, if you reduce the amount of water in the recipe. Sift the casein slowing into half of the water, being certain to eliminate all lumps. When smooth add the ammonium carbonate and stir. Allow the mixture to stand about half an hour before you stir in the remaining water. With a palette knife combine dry pigments directly with casein paint to form a paste. Mix the pigments well to ensure a smooth paint. Casein does not require the addition of a preservative since ammonium carbonate is already such.

How to Use: Paint directly on gesso panels with bristle brushes, taking care to keep the brushes in water when not being used and carefully wash them with soap and warm water after use.

Casein-Oil-Resin Emulsion

This emulsion produces a paint that is quick setting and allows thick, impasto in mixed techniques.

CASEIN TEMPERA (See "Casein Tempera" above)

6 parts


2 parts

DAMAR VARNISH (See "Damar Varnish" below)

1 part

How to Prepare: Combine the stand oil and damar varnish in a bottle, tightly cap it and shake the contents vigorously. With the casein paint and dry pigments work up your colors on a palette or in a dish. Use a palette knife to grind each dry pigment to a stiff paste with the casein. Drop by drop, add the oil and damar mixture to the casein paint. If necessary, add a little ammonium carbonate to ensure that the oil-resin and casein combine properly. You can dilute this emulsion with water.

How to Use: Apply this emulsion directly to a gesso panel. You can vary this recipe by adding a greater percentage of oil-resin (up to two times the amount) for greater flexibility and slower drying time. This quick–drying paint will set up in 10 minutes or less and must be used while fresh.

Gum Tempera

Gum arabic, gum tragacanth, cherry gum and dextrin can be used as the basis of gum tempera and emulsions.

Gum Arabic Tempera

Water-soluble gums are a major constituent of watercolor paints because they are easy to make, non-toxic and quick drying. Gum arabic is none of the most commonly used.


1 part


2 parts

How to Prepare: In a double-boiler heat the water and stir in the gum arabic. Powdered gum takes less time to dissolve than lumps, but complete dissolution still requires about two days. After the solution cools, cover and leave it until the solution is clear. Strain the gum-water through two layers of cheesecloth into a clean jar. Keep this solution refrigerated when not using, because it spoils easily. You may add a small amount of glycerin (no more than 5 percent) to this solution to reduce brittleness in the final paint film. Add a few lumps of camphor to this solution as a preservative.

How to Use: Mix pigment paste with the gum solution into a thin paste and paint directly onto paper, parchment or gesso panels. For opaque paint, use a larger proportion of pigment to the gum solution. For transparent watercolor technique, thin the paste with water. When the painting has dried it may be varnished.

Gum Tragacanth Tempera

Gum tragacanth, unlike gum arabic, does not dissolve into a true solution with water. Rather, it absorbs water to form a suspension.


1 part


30 parts


enough to moisten gum

How to Prepare: Finely powdered gum tragacanth is available and is easier to use than lumps. Put the gum into a clean bottle and add enough alcohol to make a soft paste. Add the water last and shake it all together. Gum tragacanth requires about two days to absorb all the water and to swell in a mucilaginous suspension. Strain the suspension through cheesecloth into another clean bottle to obtain a more uniform consistency. You may add a small amount of glycerin (no more than 5 percent) to this solution to reduce brittleness.

How to Use: Make a paste of dry pigments and water, and mix with the gum solution into a thin paste and paint directly onto paper, parchment, canvas or gesso panels. When the painting has dried it may be varnished.

Gum-Resin Emulsion of A. Beklina

Use a gum arabic, gum tragacanth or cherry gum solution as the basis of this emulsion. Gum solution has a weak emulsifying force therefore it is important not to use more than 1 part oil or 2 parts resin to 4 parts of gum solution.

GUM SOLUTION (See above)

6 parts


1 part


1 part


1 part

How to Prepare: Combine the Copaiba balsam and essential oils together in a clean jar and allow the balsam to completely dissolve with the solvents. Combine all ingredients at room temperature in a clean bottle; cap and shake vigorously to emulsify. For an oil-resin emulsion, reduce the amount Copaiba balsam and solvents by one half and add one part of stand oil to the recipe.

How to Use: Use on any sized support—paper, cardboard, panel or canvas. Make a paste of dry pigment and water, and then combine with the emulsion and apply to the support with bristle brushes. Thin coats of paint will dry within an hour. Dilute this paint with water.

Glue Tempera or Distemper

Animal glue makes a very strong glue solution, which can be used as size, in gesso or as a quick-drying paint when mixed with pigments.


1 part


10 parts

How To Prepare: Soak the powdered glue overnight then warm in a double-boiler -- do not heat over 160º F -- until the glue dissolves. Add alum to the solution to harden and preserve the glue.

How to Use: Keep the solution warm while you use it but never overheat it or warm it over direct heat. Make a paste of dry pigment and water, and grind this with a palette knife into the warm glue solution. Using bristle brushes apply the paint directly onto gesso panels. Painting in thin layers gives the best results as thick paint tends to crack.

Gelatin Tempera

Gelatin makes a low-cost, quick-drying paint and is ideal as a size for water gilding when mixed with bole or gilders burnishing clay for the best burnished finishes possible.


1 part


8 parts

How To Prepare: Soak the gelatin in water for 15 minutes or until the gelatin swells. Heat in a double-boiler until the gelatin dissolves. Add alum to the solution to harden and preserve the gelatin.

How to Use: Keep the solution warm while you use it but never overheat or warm it over direct heat. Make a paste of dry pigment and water, and thoroughly mix this paste with a palette knife into the warm gelatin solution on a glass plate. Use bristle brushes and paint directly onto gesso panels in thin layers.

Damar Varnish

Damar resin—either Batavia or Singapore—is available in pale yellow lumps, and serves many purposes: medium, glaze and final varnish.


1 part


1 part

How To Prepare: Place the resin lumps and turpentine in a tightly capped bottle, agitate daily until the resin has dissolved, which will require a few days. If the damar lumps contain impurities, strain through cheesecloth into a clean bottle.

How to Use: To use as a final varnish on tempera painting, dilute the solution with four times as much turpentine. This recipe is best for use in emulsifying or combining with other ingredients to make mediums. This damar solution dries in about one hour.

Preparation of Pigments for Tempera

Pigments intended for use in tempera and emulsion paints are best acquired in the form of a finely divided, dry powder. However, natural mineral pigments, such as cinnabar, azurite and malachite, are better to use in relatively coarsely ground form. To ensure a smooth paint, grind the dry pigment in water into a stiff paste and store it in this form prior to adding the pigment to paint, unless otherwise directed in the recipe. The proportion of pigment to paint binder will vary greatly for each pigment and binder. Thus, for example, the same quantity of whiting may require only one part of gum emulsion but two parts of casein emulsion.

Paints that you intend to cover with a varnish or olipha should have a higher proportion of pigment to binder, then paintings you do not plan to varnish. It is better not to mix enough binder with pigment than too much binder. A deficiency in binder can easily be corrected by impregnating the dried paint surface using the same emulsion diluted with water and applied with a soft brush.

When preparing pigments for mat paint films, dark-toned colors work best with emulsions containing a higher oil content. However, light-toned pigments should be used with emulsions having a smaller content of oil.

During long storage, pigments sometimes lose their ability to become properly "wetted" and are more difficult to mix with water. In this case, you can add a small amount of glycerin or Oxgall to the grinding slab when mixing with water.

Here are a few observations about the use of certain pigments in tempera and tempera-emulsions:

Cadmium Red, Madder Lake, and Naples Yellow Do not allow these pigments to come in contact with metal. Always grind these pigments with a ceramic, stone or glass pestle, and use plastic knives when mixing on a palette.

Chrome Red, a brick-red crystalline powder, is basic lead chromate and can be successfully used in tempera, but does not withstand too fine grinding from which it acquires a yellow nuance. It is not widely used because it lacks brilliancy and is readily affected by sulfur gasses.

Cinnabar is a bright red, natural mineral pigment, consisting of mercury sulfide. It was widely used in Russian icon painting since the 12th century and in oil painting since the 18th century. It is successfully used in tempera and oil painting and is quite permanent.

Hematite is a dark, cherry-red natural mineral with some types having a yellowish-red or brownish-red nuance. It consists of ferric oxide with clay and quartz, possesses excellent covering power, and is impervious to alkalis and weak acids. It has been used since ancient times and is successfully employed in all painting techniques.

Lead White or flake white in egg tempera can yellow and with the drying of the egg emulsion may acquire a dirty nuance as a result of contamination with hydrogen sulfide that may be present in putrefied egg emulsions.

Minium (See Red Lead)

Prussian Blue is very sensitive to alkalis, such as ammonia used in casein tempera, which causes it to turn brown, especially if stored for long periods as a prepared pigment.

Red Lead, minium or orange mineral is red tetroxide of lead made by heating litharge or white lead for some hours at a temperature above 480º C. In Russian icon painting, it was frequently substituted for more costly cinnabar (See Cinnabar).

Surik is a name widely-used in Russia for almost any reddish-brown pigment. The name usually applies to minium (see Red Lead). It is good for scumbling over glazes of madder lake. With the drying of egg lipids it acquires a darker nuance. Surik Jeleznii is another Russian name for hematite or red ochre, which consists of iron oxide and natural impurities, such as clay and quartz (See Hematite).

Ultramarine is sensitive to weak acids and suffers from the presence of strong vinegar, being decomposed by it and liberating hydrogen sulfide in the process.

Umber requires a large amount of emulsion to form a paste and slows the drying time, so that it can be dissolved by water for some time afterwards. It also frequently separates from the binder and decomposes in casein emulsions. To avoid this a small amount of ammonium hydroxide can be added to the pigment when grinding it with the binder.

Zinc White or zinc oxide (like lead white) is sensitive to acids, such as vinegar. Zinc white has considerably better covering power in tempera than in oil paint.

Where to Find Ingredients Mentioned in this Article


Where to Find



Natural Pigments

Rabbit skin glue

Natural Pigments


Gum arabic

Natural Pigments

Gum tragacanth

Natural Pigments


Poppy-seed oil

Kremer Pigments

Walnut oil

Natural Pigments

Raw linseed oil

Natural Pigments

Stand oil

Natural Pigments



Natural Pigments

Ammonium carbonate

Natural Pigments

Casein powder

Natural Pigments

Clove oil

Natural Pigments


Natural Pigments, drug stores


Natural Pigments, drug stores


Copaiba balsam

Natural Pigments


Natural Pigments



Hardware stores


Natural Pigments, art supply stores