Learn How to Art: What is Tempera Paint?
Despite being lesser known today, tempera has a longer history than oil or acrylic paints.
Monks in the Middle Ages used tempera paint for illustrated manuscripts like the Book of Kells. Frescos (think of the Sistine Chapel) can also incorporate tempera paint. Oil paints hadn’t been invented yet.
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What is Tempera Paint?
Tempera is a permanent, water-soluble paint mixed with an organic medium. In the past, painters used egg yolk as the medium, which is why you might have heard of “egg tempura.”
Egg yolk-based paint dries into a matte sheen.
Today, tempera paint manufacturers often substitute egg yolk for other glutinous mediums. But to keep the paint non-toxic, manufacturers still stick with organic material.
Keepin’ it Organic
Organic material may be non-toxic, but this also means it will spoil over time. Just as it’s easy to tell when an egg has gone bad, you’ll know if your tempera paint has spoiled from the smell.
Fortunately, only liquid tempera is perishable. Once the paint has cured, tempera lasts for a very long time. Curing is different from drying. Once all the paint solvent has dissolved and only the coating or pigment is left, the paint is cured.
Like any paint, it’s best to store tempera in a cool, dry place and make sure the lid or cap is always secured. You should also avoid putting used paint back into its original container since it’s already been exposed to air.
Famous Tempera Artists Who Used Tempera
- Andrew Wyeth – Christina’s World
- Botticelli – The Birth of Venus
- Raphael – Adoration of the Magi (Oddi altarpiece)
- Francis Picabia – Machines Turn Quickly
- Thomas Hart Benton – Homestead (tempera and oil)
The Real Stuff
The original tempera paints are available today as “egg tempera.” Egg tempera imitates the original egg yolk-based paint that the masters used. (I’m sure there are differences, but I’m not an art historian so these details are beyond me.)
Much of the confusion around tempera paint comes from the variety of paints labeled “tempera.” Most people know tempera as a kids’ poster paint. I’ll get into that later, but first I’ll focus on the benefits of using the original “egg tempera” paint.
Tempera paint dries quickly, posing the same conveniences and challenges of acrylic painting. Achieving a smooth, blended look can be tricky.
You’ll also need to get used to mixing your colors quickly. You won’t have the luxury of spending as long as you want to perfect your shades and tints like with oils.
Even though tempera dries quickly, the process for layering paint is more like oil. Each layer of paint needs time to dry and cure before you apply more paint on top.
Color, Color, Color!
If the color changing properties of acrylic frustrate you, you’ll appreciate tempera, which has no notable color changes in its lifespan.
Tempera doesn’t yellow over time like oil. The color doesn’t change as it dries, like acrylic. Nor it does turn more transparent over time, something I didn’t even know could happen to paintings.
This One’s for You, DIY-ers
If you have any interest in creating your own paints, tempera is a perfect choice. The ingredients are very simple ingredients and, with the exception of pigments, you can find them all at home.
You’ll need an egg, powdered pigments, and water. The Society of Tempera Painters has a quick guide to get you started.
The only drawback is that you can’t make large batches. Only create as much paint as you’ll need for that day, otherwise, your homemade tempera paint will start to smell.
The Cracks in the Facade
Besides being perishable, tempera paint may be starting to sound pretty good. But it has another challenge that you’ll need to address.
If you fooled around with tempera paints in your youth, you might remember how the paint would get kind of dusty as it dried and start to crack. To be honest, I thought this was pretty cool as a kid. I remember crinkling the paper on purpose to get the paint to crack. But I wasn’t losing any masterpieces.
When it dries, tempera paint can feel brittle and chalky. To prevent cracking, you need to choose the right painting surface and monitor your paint’s thickness.
Picky on the Surface
Tempera paint requires a rigid surface. If you apply tempera to a thin, flexible material, you face a high chance of flaking and cracking. Painting on paper spells nearly certain doom for your painting unless you’re intentionally looking for cracks. Even painting on canvas can result in cracks and flakes.
Of course, there are artists who make tempera on paper work. They might do some extra priming or have a super secret technique. But if it’s your first time using tempera, I’d recommend a wooden board or panel primed with gesso.
Tempera also requires thin layers of paint. It’s very different from oil in this respect, so if you’re used to oil painting techniques, tempera will require some adjustment. Tempera becomes brittle as it dries, making it unable to support thick layers.
It’s not suited for impasto (applying paint directly from the tube), knife painting, or thick, textured strokes. Instead, you’ll need to build up thin layers to avoid cracking.
Tempera Paint: The Child’s Medium
The most well-known type of tempera paint is probably poster paint. You’ll find this paint at nearly any big box store in the kids’ arts and crafts section.
Tempera paint is a popular choice as a kids’ paint because it’s non-toxic, very fluid and able to cover a lot of ground, cheap, and washable.
Tempera’s organic material makes it safe for kids, even if when ingested. Of course, I wouldn’t encourage any paint consumption.
Although the paint was traditionally made with eggs, many manufacturers who produce child tempera paint today use a substitute. So almost any tempera poster paint you find will most likely be egg-free and it’s safe for children with egg allergies.
Tempera paint works well for both crafts and finger painting.
What’s the difference between finger paint and tempera paint?
Common finger paints are non-toxic and may use a special formula with extra benefits. Some might claim that they don’t stain your fingers or fingernails. Others might include moisturizing agents to prevent your skin from drying out. But I’m not up to date on the latest finger paint technology, so I couldn’t verify any of these claims.
But tempera paint is just as safe and convenient for kids as finger paint. Tempera also has the benefit of being more versatile. Use it for regular painting or the finger variety.
Realistically, there probably isn’t much difference between a paint like this Crayola Finger Paint and a Washable Kids’ Tempera Paint. The Crayola does claim that it will not crack or rub off a surface, which if true would be a benefit over tempera. Unless your kids like the cracked paint look. Which they might.
Why Use Tempera Paint over Acrylic?
People tend to be more familiar with acrylic than tempera. So what’s the verdict? Is one better than the other? The answer is either “not particularly” or “it depends.”
Acrylic might be easier to use. It does let you use a wide variety of techniques, including thick and textured layers.
Tempera has a color advantage over both acrylic and oil paints. While some might say that oil paints give a richer color – okay, I certainly have that impression – there’s something nice about the consistency of tempera paint. The colors remain pretty much exactly as you placed them onto the surface. But know that you’ll need to use a high-quality egg tempera paint to get this color quality.
When done correctly – on a rigid surface and with thin layers – tempera has a nicer finish than acrylic, and looks less plastic-like. But if you want to paint on unconventional surfaces, acrylic might be the better choice.
In the end, it depends on what kind of painting you want to do.
- Color stays consistent
- Smooth, matte finish
- Perishable in liquid form
- Only thin layers – no thick or textured painting techniques
- Prone to cracking and flaking
- Needs a rigid surface
- Cheap poster paint variety is the most common
- DIY paint-making
- Kids’ crafts, including finger painting
- Any space (no toxic elements & doesn’t require ventilation)
- Natural or synthetic brushes, and well-suited for watercolor brushes
More Learn How to Art posts:
Learn How to Art: What is Oil Paint?
Learn How to Art: What is Acrylic Paint?
Learn How to Art: What is Watercolor?
6 thoughts on “Learn How to Art: What is Tempera Paint?”
A question from a true neophyte to painting. Would very much appreciate your help. Trying to paint a large white piece of paper all black as the background for a piece of art (collage). The paper is more or less similar thickness to construction paper, but sturdier, ribbed, not porous at all. (Size approx. two feet by three feet.) I bought tempera. It’s the perfect flat, deep, silky black color I was looking for, but it sure dries quickly and had to keep dipping the brush in water to continue painting. As I suspected, the paper has buckled. (I did tape down all four sides before starting.) I’m going to have to start over because the style of the piece definitely needs a clean, flat looking surface. So, before I start again, any suggestions? Is tempera the wrong type of paint? Is there a different way to do it? I’d hate to change the paint because the color and general look of it is just perfect. (Maybe I need just need to use considerably more paint and not wet the brush?) Thank you!
Hi Dianne, as you suggested, I think it’d be better to leave out the water and just apply paint. Don’t go too thick since it’s tempera, and use a large brush to cover the surface quickly.
The buckling problem sounds to me like something more common in watercolor, where you’d stretch the paper beforehand by soaking it, flattening it on a board, securing it (i.e. with tape), and then letting it dry. If you like the way the color looks with water or you want to save on paint, you can try stretching your paper, but there shouldn’t be as much buckling if you don’t use water.
Will try that. Thanks very much!