Mavis Smith, Sink or Swim, 2003, egg tempera on gesso panel, H. 26 x W. 28 inches, James A. Michener Art Museum. Museum purchase funded by Lorraine Nevens Greenberg

Egg tempera is a method of painting that dates back hundred off years. To create it, pigment is mixed with water and egg yolk to create a paint that must be applied quickly and thinly. This paint reached its peak popularity in the Renaissance, before falling out of fashion with the invention and rise of oil paint.

Mavis Smith, the artist of this painting, works in egg tempera; she filmed a demonstration of the use of egg tempera with her work in 2012. She creates portraits that are mysterious and lead to many questions.

Take a closer look at her work, Sink or Swim. Think about the various questions below during your observations.

  • What kind of details can you find?
  • How has the artist set up this composition? What do we see? What don’t we see?
  • Who is this person?
  • Is the subject a female or a male? Why?
  • What could the message be in this artwork?
  • What does the expression “sink or swim” mean?
  • What do you think the artist, Mavis Smith, is trying to say in this work?

Tell us what you think! If you would like to learn more, visit Mavis Smith on our Bucks County Artist’s Database.