Madonna and child painting how to - Botticelli in egg tempera


Copy of the original,
c. 1483, Tempera on wood
Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan

Inspired by my all-time favourite artist, Sandro Botticelli, I painted this Madonna and Child as a gift. The hours spent in meditative silence over this painting meant I had a lot of time to reflect on the image, and on my own painting method. 

The original painting, executed with egg tempera on a wooden panel, was and still is considered to be one of Botticelli's finest works. It depicts the Virgin Mary, teaching the Christ Child to read from a prayer book. Here, Botticelli displays his usual elegance and spiritual grace; the purity of the outlines, the svelte and grave figure of the Madonna, and the deep, rich colours all enchant the viewer. Never one to overlook an allegory, he has also painted a bowl of fruit in the background, with cherries representing the Christ Child's future Passion, and the figs his Resurrection. 

However, the real beauty of the original painting lies in its sentiment. The scene is quite touching, the emotional centre of the work being the returned gaze of mother and child. Mary's eyes are bowed, and the look is one that could be described as both loving and sorrowful, as she seems to contemplate her boy's future. 

Madonna and Child Botticelli painted halo
Madonna And Child painting detail of gold


Before the introduction of oil paint, many artists used a tempered mixture of pigments and emulsions to create their paints. One of the most popular emulsions used in the early Renaissance was egg yolk. This particular emulsion, when mixed with pigment and painted on board with a dry brush in many layers, provided the paintings with a luminous effect. The artist would begin with an underpainting, of shadows and cool tones of green and blue for skin, that would eventually be painted over with warmer colours and highlights. 

Egg tempera can be one of the most rewarding paints to work with, as although it takes a lot of patience to create the desired, layered effect, its translucency lends itself to the creation of light, colour and depth in a painting. Anyone who has a deliberate and meditative approach to art making will enjoy using egg tempera.


I sketch out the picture in pencil with much detail, as egg tempera does not lend itself to improvisation.

Virgin and Child sketch

The underpainting begins, and I paint on many colours, looking to the original for direction. Blue undertones are painted onto areas that will be in shadow, and rosier tones are painted on areas like the cheeks. The highlights of the forehead, nose and chin are left white, as this will make the face appear more luminous.

Madonna and child painting the layers

Next, I glaze over the underpainting with a layer of skin-toned paint. To enhance the porcelain effect of the Virgin's face, I added quite a bit of white paint to the mix. 

I fill in the smaller details of the face with a fine brush: the eyes, the mouth and the nose.

Some people prefer to leave the eyes till last, as they really bring the painting to life. I am never patient enough to do so.

Botticelli Madonna painting the face

I paint the undertones on the Christ Child, and he begins to look a little like a rainbow being. 

No matter though, have faith in your abilities, and it will look beautiful in the end.

Painting Botticelli's Madonna and child - layers

Again, I glaze over the underpainting with a layer that is skin-toned.

Madonna and child painting how to

More fine brush work as the details are filled in. 

Then I prepare the underpainting for the clothing, in royal blues and carmine reds for the Virgin, and a softer blue for the Christ Child.

Madonna and Child painting in egg tempera

I get a little impatient to see what things will look like in the end, and move on to the hair. Darker colours first, and then dry brush strokes of golden hair strands over top. 

Layer 6

The deeper colours of the robes are then worked out, slowly but surely. 

Madonna and Child Botticelli painting in egg tempera

Finally, the fun part! I detail in the gold halos with both gold acrylic paint, and gold leaf. I also add the spangles on the Madonna's robe. Nothing on Botticelli's masterful gilding skills, gained from his experience as a goldsmith, but still quite pretty.

Madonna and Child Botticelli painting