Talking Tempera: An Ode to Bengal Masters

Tempera techniques have been intrinsic to the Bengal School of Art and there is a school of Tempera artists from Bengal who continue to popularise this unique form of painting -- stalwarts like Ajoy Ghose worked diligently to keep the medium alive.

By Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Tempera is a method of painting with pigments that have been mixed into an emulsion and water. The emulsion used is usually egg yolk. As a medium, Tempera was used in Europe for painting on wood panels, from the 12th or early 13th century until the 15th century, when it began to give way to oil paints that were brighter and more attractive.

Ritratto del doge Giovanni Mocenigo, Gentile Bellini, 1478 - 1479, From the collection of: Museo Correr
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Saint Thomas Aquinas in Prayer, Sassetta, ca. 1423–1425, From the collection of: Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
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Madonna and Child, Follower of Fra Filippo Lippi and Pesellino, c. 1470, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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These are examples of European paintings done in Tempera between the 13th and 15th century.

Marriage of Nuruddin by Abanindranath TagoreVictoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata

Tempera in India

In the early part of the 20th century, a large number of Indian artists, notably of the Bengal School took up Tempera as one of their primary media of expression.

Artists such as Gaganendranath Tagore, Asit Kumar Haldar, Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Kalipada Ghoshal and Sughra Rababi were foremost in their use of the Tempera medium. After the 1950s, artists such as Jamini Roy and Ganesh Pyne established Tempera as a medium for the new age artists of India.

The story of three sisters, Abanindranath Tagore, 1930, From the collection of: Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata
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The hunch- back of fish-bone, Abanindranath Tagore, 1930, From the collection of: Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata
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The Rich Lord at Home (Caricature), Gaganendranath Tagore, 1916, From the collection of: Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata
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On the way to flower show in darjeeling, Gaganendranath Tagore, 1916, From the collection of: Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata
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The Cobbler, Ganesh Pyne, 1979, From the collection of: Peabody Essex Museum
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Bengali Lady, Jamini Roy, early 20th century, From the collection of: Peabody Essex Museum
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Examples of early works in Tempera style done by Abanindranath, Gaganendranath Tagore and Ganesh Pyne from collections belonging to the Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata and Peabody Essex Museum.

Javanese puppet by Gaganendranath TagoreVictoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata

Continuing traditions of the Bengal School Tempera Style

The Bengal School artists all had individualistic styles, but the use of indigenous materials such as tempera, or a subdued colour palette with limited colours was a common theme. The artists learnt the Tempera wash technique from foreign artists and innovated the style.

Tempera Tales - Floral stories (2018) by Payel AcharjyaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Floral Tales by Payel Acharjya

Tempera is traditionally created by hand-grinding dry powdered pigments into a binding agent or medium, such as egg, honey, milk (in the form of casein) and a variety of plant gums. 

Payel's floral works are stunningly beautiful and replete with details, in a technique that is difficult to master.

Her series on Nature is inspired by what she sees around her,  and this is the artist’s ode to beauty in Tempera. She received the prestigious Abinandranath Tagore Memorial Award in 2016 and has experimented with painting in various mediums.

Artist Payel Acharjya (2018) by Payel AcharjyaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Payel Acharjya

She won the prestigious Abanindranath Tagore Memorial Award in 2016 and has experimented with painting in various mediums. Besides her Nature series, Payal is inspired by the miniature works that were popularised by the Mughal rulers in India.

Tempera Tales - In Anticipation (2018) by Payel AcharjyaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Tempera in Miniatures

Payel Acharjya has also experimented with other art forms, namely Miniatures, which she has painted in Tempera style.

These work, albeit being small in size, have several outstanding features; the intricate brushwork contributes to their unique identity. 

Tempera Tales - Festive Season (2018) by Payel AcharjyaSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

This style of painting the human eye is typical to Tempera style works, yet the overall composition is inspired by Miniature paintings.

While Miniature paintings are known for their bright colours, Payel's Tempers works are subdued, with emphasis on shades like indigo, purple and pink.

Artist Kaushik Coomar (2018) by Kaushik CoomarSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Kaushik Coomar

An exponent of this Indian style of painting, the artist is a student of Ajoy Kumar Ghose and experiments with Tempera to express his vision. 

Tempera Tales - Market place (2018) by Kaushik CoomarSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Life Scenes by Kaushik Coomar

Tempera paintings are very long lasting, and examples from the first century AD still exist. 

Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1310 - 1311) by Duccio di BuoninsegnaMuseo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza

Christ and the Samaritan Woman

An example of an early tempera work (1310-1311) done by Tuscan artist Duccio di Buoninsegna.

Tempera Tales - Market place (2018) by Kaushik CoomarSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Coomar experiments with the medium to express his artist's vision. Here he depicts everyday scenes from rural India - busy markets, daily village life. This work is bustling with life and events, all seemingly happening at once, yet disconnected from each.  

Watered down colours and non-definitive brush strokes are trademarks of the Tempera medium. The artist first creates a wash on the board or fabric, then builds his scene on that wash with subsequent applications of colour.

The details in Tempera style of painting often lie in the foliage. Notice how the artist has clearly defined leaves and their shapes using different hues of green to create the effect of abundance. Human features are rarely emphasised upon in this painting style.

Tempera Tales - Shiv Parvati, Kaushik Coomar, 2018, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Tempera Tales - Durga, Kaushik Coomar, 2018, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Coomar takes great pride in depicting scenes from mythology and on Indian gods and goddesses. Being an offshoot of Chinese Tempera, exponents of the Bengal School of Art who practice Tempera painting continue to paint human figures with Oriental features and yellow skin-tones.

Artist Sabyasachi Bohra (2018) by Sabyasachi BohraSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Sabyasachi Bohra

Having studied at the Government College of Art & Craft, Kolkata, the artist was keen to explore an unusual medium like Tempera that is typically associated with the Bengal School of Art.

Tempera Tales - Loneliness, Sabyasachi Bohra, 2018, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Tempera Tales - Separation Pangs, Sabyasachi Bohra, 2018, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Nature, mythology, people are some of the common themes that Bohra depicts in his works.

Tempera Tales - The Hunter (2018) by Sabyasachi BohraSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Scenes from Mythology

One of the most common themes explored by artists who paint in this medium, this work is simple yet resplendent with detail. Once the powdered pigments are mixed, they need to be quickly applied onto the fabric, board or paper, else the paint can dry up and develop fine cracks.

Tempera Tales - Wedding Scene (2018) by Budhaditya BanerjeeSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Wedding Scenes in Tempera

While the scene in each painting is clearly depicted, details are often obscured in Tempera style painting. Unlike painting in realism, Tempera artists lean more towards Abstractionism with their work.

The scene is from the wedding of a young girl. Notice how the plantain leaf behind the bride indicates that it is piled high with lotus blossoms, yet the flowers have been painted like pink blobs with little detail and definition. 

Even the garland around the bride's neck lacks detail and definition; it's there for the purpose. 

Tempera paintings are often mistaken for watercolours. One of the most glaring differences is the variation in mediums used - for watercolours the base medium is often paper, while in Tempera it is silk fabric or board.

Tempera Tales - Sringar (2018) by Budhaditya BanerjeeSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Sringar: Tempera Medium

Often, due to the speed with which an artist needs to paint in this medium, Tempera works are created in smaller sizes. 

The most common form of classical tempera painting is egg tempera which is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually glutinous material such as egg yolk.

Tempera paint is normally applied in thin, semi-opaque or transparent layers. Egg tempera is water-resistant, but not waterproof. Egg tempera is not a flexible paint and requires stiff boards; painting on canvas may cause cracks to form and chips of paint to fall off.

Artist Partha Sarathi Bhattacharjee (2018) by Partha Sarathi BhattacharjeeSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Parthasarathi Bhattacharjee

The artist is doing his PhD under the supervision of Dr. Somnath Mukherjee and Prof. Ajay Ghose, working towards his thesis titled “An analytical study of the Mother’s (Mirra Alfassa) creation: A voice in silence”.

Tempera Tales - Tradition (2018) by Partha Sarathi BhattacharjeeSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Temple Tales by Parthasarathi Bhattacharjee

His works are primarily in mixed series and relate to popular themes used by the Indian masters of this medium. Tempera is one of the many painting mediums that the artist has mastered. 

Tempera Tales - Wisdom (2018) by Partha Sarathi BhattacharjeeSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

This painting has been done on board. Notice how the artist uses colours ranging from green to yellow only, with small highlights of range.

Red and cyan are often not used in Tempera style of painting because the technique requires gentle tones and delicate colours. 

Tempera Tales - Goddess Saraswati (2018) by Partha Sarathi BhattacharjeeSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Goddess Saraswati

The artist portrays the Goddess of knowledge in typical tempera style.

Saraswati is painted in a distinct Oriental style, much reminiscent of Thai paintings of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. The almond shaped eyes, voluptuous form and naked torso is inspired by South Asian art.

The lotus and swan are almost incidental, as the artist renders a pan-Asian portrayal to the painting, rather than the commonly seen Indian version of the goddess.

Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation engages with various young artists, in particular those practicing the tempera form of art. The Foundation while exhibiting works of these artists, has also acquired many of them into its collection.

Credits: Story

Content & Curation: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Images: Courtesy Janus Art Gallery, Kolkata & gallery g, Bangalore
Special Acknowledgment: Kallol Bose, Kolkata
Disclaimer: Copyright of works showcased in this exhibit belong to each individual artist, Janus Art Gallerygallery g and several private collections.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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