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The Brilliant Reason the Old Masters Used Eggs in Their Paintings

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credits: Universal History Archive / Getty Images / Cropped, and Canva
Photo Credits: Universal History Archive / Getty Images / Cropped, and Canva

Many of the great classic artists were quirky, to say the least; Michelangelo never bathed, Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear, and Salvador Dalí thought he was his dead brother. There were other things that they did that, while less outrageous, were still quite strange. For example, a team of researchers have discovered that many of them added eggs to their oil paint.

Studying the great works

Determined to better understand this strange artistic choice, a group of researchers decided to investigate the use of eggs in oil paintings. They were able to get some answers, publishing their findings in the journal Nature CommunicationsWhat might be news to many of us unartistic folks is that the use of eggs in paint is actually not as wacky as it may seem.

Painting, 'The lamentation over the dead Christ,'depicting a group of people holding his dead body.
Sandro Botticelli’s painting, The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, was found to have eggs in the paint. (Photo Credit: Sandro Botticelli / Alte Pinakothek / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Apparently, it was used to help bind different pigments to make an ancient paint called egg tempera. It wasn’t until as late as the 15th century that Europeans started using oil as the binding agent instead, what we’re more accustomed to seeing now. Yet many of the old masters, artists like Rembrandt and da Vinci, continued to use eggs as well as oil in their paint. This is what the team wanted to investigate.

Testing the paint

They got hands-on to see if they could determine the practical reason why these painters would have continued using the somewhat outdated practice of adding eggs. For their test, they created three different paints. One was made with pigment and linseed oil, one with pigment, linseed oil, and a little egg yolk, and one with pigment and diluted egg yolk which when dried was mixed with oil.

'The Last Supper' painting with Jesus and his followers sitting at a long table.
Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, the Last Supper, which may also have been created using egg paint. (Photo Credit: Leonardo da Vinci / Santa Maria delle Grazie Church / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

After trying the final products, the effect of the egg was obvious. Patrick Dietemann, one of the researchers, said, “[The] egg is used for modification and fine-tuning of paint properties.” Even though the base of the paints was very similar, making even a small change allowed them to create a thicker substance that could more easily be layered to achieve an impasto technique. This thicker paint also helped to protect the art from wrinkling and cracking over time.

Egg-ceptional art

Egg yolk also helped prevent moisture damage as the protein absorbed most of the water, rather than the paint or canvas. An added bonus, the paint with egg in it also dried much quicker than the others. They concluded that by adding egg, they could “overcome unexpected problems with humidity and produce paint layers stable against wrinkling and oxidative degradation.”

Rembrandt's 'Winter Landscape,' an open plain with people and houses.
Rembrandt, another classic painter who used egg in his oil paint, may have used it in his piece Winter Landscape. (Photo Credit: Rembrandt/ Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain)

Ilaria Bonaduc, another one of the researchers, said, “I am quite convinced that they did not know the chemical and physical explanations of what they were doing, but they knew very well what they were doing.”

More from us: Henry VIII Hid a Major Clue in a Painting That Might Identify His Favorite Wife

The hope is that by conducting studies like this that the works of the Old Masters can be preserved as authentically as possible, and maybe modern painters can learn something in the process.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.