Painter Doug Safranek’s Personal History with Eggs and an Ancient Medium
Without realizing it, Doug Safranek got pulled into the very long history of the medium of egg tempera when he decided to become a painter. In 1980, Safranek started in the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which remained, at that time, devoted in part to a curriculum of classical techniques.
“Unbeknownst to me,” Safranek explains, “the University of Wisconsin was still a school that specialized in teaching classical painting techniques—fresco, encaustic, egg tempera—particularly in the 1930s through the ’50s.” The foundation for this preference took shape decades before Safranek enrolled. Artists like Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, and John Sloan taught at schools like Madison, Yale, the Kansas City Art Institute, and the Art Students League of New York in the early 20th century. In their work and the way they taught, these artists addressed the peculiarities of everyday life in cities that were changing rapidly. Rather than engaging with the ideas animating the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, the Surrealism of Dalí, and the abstraction of either Malevich or Kandinsky, they preferred to teach students to sketch like John Singer Sargent. They worked and taught their students to work figuratively and in a straightforward, representational manner to show a populace, so they hoped, as it really was. The old techniques seemed to offer these artists a renewed sense of authenticity. These, after all, were techniques with hundreds of years of history behind them. Their widespread use gave viewers a familiarity with them that made them easy to understand for a common public.
The threads of this American Regionalist movement were by no means an isolated phenomenon: similar feelings had surfaced almost a century earlier, in Britain, where the Pre-Raphaelites infamously went picking through the rags of history. Like the Americans of the early 20th century, these British painters sought alternatives to the fashionable painting methods of the time. They arrived, before Raphael, before Hugo van der Goes Portinari Altarpiece (1474-76), before the arrival of oil paints in Italy, at the Florentine Renaissance, where, among other techniques, egg tempera was in widespread use.
Artsy recently spoke with the Brooklyn-based Safranek about the history of egg tempera, and how he came to paint in it.
Ian Epstein: Was this focus on classical methods unusual relative to other art schools at the time?
Doug Safranek: Yeah, it was. It was kind of divided down the middle. I was in school in the 1980s, and figurative painting was coming back into vogue just then. Because half the teachers at the University of Wisconsin were second or third-generation Abstract Expressionists, they didn't have the drawing and classical painting skills that students were increasingly starting to be curious about. The teachers I had were much earlier graduates of the program, and had been trained classically and continued to paint that way. One, James Watrous, worked with Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, and I’ve got these jars of pigment from them that Watrous gave me. That was just the beginning, too, of computer graphics and computer art, and those people were saying, “Why do you want to paint with this stupid stuff? The future is blinking lights on the screen.”
IE: When did you first start working with egg tempera?
DS: I took up egg tempera in my third year. I was the only one in my class who took it up. I hadn’t heard of egg tempera before. When you take basic art history classes, they show you Fra Angelico or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus but you mostly talk about the images, and you don’t really talk about how they were made or the materials.
IE: Is it actually just egg yolk, like a chicken egg? How does it work?
DS: Yeah. It’s simple: crack an egg as if you were making a cake. Get rid of the white. If it’s a fresh egg, you can just pick the yolk right up, stick it from the bottom, and drain it. I take raw pigment and add a little bit of egg yolk binder. That’s it. Then you apply it. Add linseed oil to pigment instead and you have oil paint. Add wax, you’d have encaustic. Make a slurry with water and apply it to wet plaster, it will soak in, plaster acts as the binder, so it’s a fresco. I think the oldest egg tempera is from ancient Egypt.
Egg yolk is an oil and water emulsion, meaning that it doesn’t separate. The emulsifier in egg yolk is lecithin. Milk is another binder that was used. There’s an emulsifier called casein in it. Milk tempera or casein paint. The Pennsylvania Dutch used it a lot on 19th-century furniture.
IE: What are the merits of egg tempera?
DS: I like that slightly unreal quality of egg tempera. Despite the fact that it doesn’t have the light lights and the dark darks of oil paint, it dries immediately, so you can scumble and glaze, and scumble and glaze—two verbs we hear all the time in painting—you can build up light, opaque layers and then put thin sheaths of darker, more saturated color over the top, and it glows through. You see a lot of that in Rembrandt, in oil, and in Vermeer. But while Rembrandt and Vermeer had to wait 24 hours, at least, for their oil layers to dry, an egg tempera painter can apply the next layer in seconds.
You can’t be an impasto painter. You can’t put thick ropes of paint on. You can’t be van Gogh or Franz Kline. If you try to put a really thick layer of tempera, it will dry, crack, and flake off. But it’s a very translucent medium: keep the layers thin, and you can have hundreds of them so you’re staring through multiple layers until they just go on to infinity, and disappear. That gives it a luminous, otherworldly feel. There’s something very opalescent about egg tempera.
I always found that I had to make a very big painting in oil to have the same visual impact of something much smaller in egg tempera. It’s not for plein air painting because you’re using powdered pigment—it’s too fussy, and a little bit too slow-going, at least the way I use it. So on a practical level it made all sorts of sense. I could paint in small studios, which were cheaper than big ones; it was a medium that attracted people’s attention because it was relatively rare. It still is relatively rare.
IE: How did you arrive in New York?
DS: I loaded up my junk in Madison, and I drove here with a friend, Colleen O'Reilly. We graduated the same year, and we had a sublet right behind Pearl Paint on Lispenard Street from a friend of a friend. The same friend later said, “If you're looking for cheap rent, go to Greenpoint.”
IE: What was the appeal of New York at the time? Was it the only option?
DS: Well, Chicago would have been a softer landing. It was closer and less scary. New York City was the scary place, the most competitive place, also a much, much rougher town.
IE: This was 1984?
DS: 1984. In Greenpoint, when I first came up onto the street—I think at Greenpoint Avenue—I remember looking and thinking “This is the most breathtakingly ugly place I’ve ever seen in my life.” Greenpoint was so provincial. Manhattan Avenue was a cash-only economy. Everything was dirt cheap. The apartment we got was considered very expensive: $450 a month for this rambling walk-through. We would take the G train to the L, and in those days, I would get off at one or two in the morning with five Polish cleaning ladies and that’s it. But after several months of being there, I started looking out of the back window and thinking, “This is really very cool. And I like all the clotheslines, and the way the fire escapes....” I started painting, looking out the window.
Doug Safranek painting several small egg tempera portraits. Courtesy of the artist and ACA Galleries
IE: There's something in the way that you've described the layering that seems to match naturally with cityscapes, and these paintings you’ve done of Coney Island with lots happening in them.
DS: I think of some of these paintings as an egg tempera continuation of the tradition of urban landscape, paintings that go back to John Sloan and George Bellows, and the Ashcan painters, who I admire. It’s fun to paint New York as it appears today, as it fastly morphs into something else.
My Coney Island paintings are kind of extravaganzas—hundreds of people racing around. They’re very complicated compositions, they take forever to sort out. Not everyone’s willing to spend months and months on an image. Those urban landscapes took that long to do. I worked on and off for three and a half years on one of the Coney Island scenes. That’s ridiculously impractical.
I remember starting to think in the 1990s that egg tempera carries the memory of Byzantium, and the Sienese altarpieces, and the Florentine Renaissance—all these magnificent religious pictures—so it has this ethereal spirituality about it. But then in the 20th century egg tempera had this revival in the United States with Reginald Marsh, George Tooker, Jared French, Paul Cadmus (who I was friends with for the last 15 years of his life), and they’re using this medium of altarpieces and icons to paint kind of gritty, inner-city, entirely secular images. They would reference Quattrocento pieces. Others, like Ben Shahn, Jacob Lawrence, or Andrew Wyeth were extrapolating from completely different sources. In the case of Jacob Lawrence and Ben Shahn, they were using egg tempera in a very non-traditional way, nothing remotely like Botticelli. They were using it like a fast-drying...almost like a watercolor.
IE: Like a sketch medium.
DS: A sketch medium that worked perfectly. If you go down to the Coney Island show at the Brooklyn Museum right now, they’ve got these Reginald Marsh paintings he did of Coney Island in the ’40s. Those are all egg tempera. Jackson Pollock did egg tempera paintings at the Art Students League of New York, but then switched to oil. In the 1950s, when figurative painting went out of fashion, egg tempera sort of slid behind the couch, and just kind of disappeared. It never really has come back.