What Is Tempera Paint? Everything You Need to Know

In Tempera Paint by Chris BreierLeave a Comment

Photograph of bottles of tempera paint

Tempera paints are common in schools because they’re easy to use and inexpensive. Even though tempera paint is popular, there’s some confusion about what it is and what it’s made from. 

What is tempera paint? Tempera paint is a water based paint that cleans up with soap and water. Most brands are certified non toxic and are free from allergens. The basic ingredients are water, starch or cellulose, calcium carbonate, and pigments. It’s often confused with egg tempera which is entirely different.

In this post, I answer the most common questions people have about tempera paints. But first, I need to clarify the difference between these inexpensive paints and the egg tempera paints that are used by professional artists.

This post contains affiliate links to Amazon and Blick Art Materials which means that if you click on a link (photo or text link) that leads to these sites and make a purchase, I earn a commission at no cost to you.

What’s the Difference Between Egg Tempera and Tempera Paints?

Regular tempera paint is a generic name for the inexpensive water based craft paints that you find in schools. This is the tempera paint that the rest of this article is about.

Egg tempera is a completely different type of paint. It’s a combination of artist grade pigments and eggs. The yolk of the egg is the binder that holds the paint together. 

These paints are used by professional artists and it’s rare to find them in art supply stores. In fact, artists typically make their own egg tempera paints.

Some of the artist grade pigments are toxic but they have other qualities that make them attractive for paint making. For example, these pigments may have exceptional covering power or saturation. 

This is a very old and traditional painting medium–there are egg tempera paintings in museums from the 1600’s. It was more popular before the invention of oil paints, which are easier to use.

Egg tempera paints are still in use today, but it’s not nearly as common as other painting mediums such as oils, acrylics, and watercolor. 

Andrew Wyeth is a more recent artist who frequently painted with egg tempera paints.

Egg tempera paints aren’t the kind of paints that you give to your children to use for an art project. Some of the pigments are toxic and they’re not easy to use. 

When people refer to “tempera paint,” they’re usually referring to the inexpensive and non toxic paint that children use in school. Below are the answers to all of the most common questions pertaining to this type of tempera paints.

What Is Tempera Paint Made From?

Tempera paint ingredients vary by brand. Generally speaking, tempera paints are a combination of water, calcium carbonate, non toxic pigments, and preservatives. The binder is either starch or cellulose.

Paint is essentially a combination of pigment and binder. Pigments often come in powder form and you can think of the binder as the “glue” that holds the pigment together. The binder is also what makes the pigment stick to the canvas or paper.

Gouache and watercolor use gum Arabic as the binder, but I think tempera paints use something different. Blick says they use starch or cellulose as the binder which makes sense because it’s less expensive than gum Arabic.

I believe the starch that they use for the binder may be cornstarch. Some of the lists of allergens say they contain corn. Other brands state that they will thicken if shake them up, which is a quality of cornstarch. 

Calcium carbonate is chalk and it gives tempera paint a matte finish, and opacity. This gives the dry tempera paint an appearance that’s similar to gouache. 

None of the manufacturers would disclose what they use for pigments, except to say they’re non toxic.

If I had to guess, I would say they’re food grade colorants because they’re non toxic and more affordable than artist grade pigments.

Does Tempera Paint Contain Allergens?

There are allergen free tempera paints that are free from latex, dairy, casein, soy, egg, gluten, peanuts, and tree nuts. The popular brands of tempera paints list all of the allergens that their paints don’t contain.

For example, the Blick essentials tempera paints are free from all of those allergens. Here’s a link to the allergens that Crayola tempera paints do NOT contain

While manufacturers don’t disclose all of the ingredients they do reveal if their paints contain any of the common allergens.

Are Tempera Paints Toxic?

Many tempera paints are AP certified non toxic. This organization tests art materials to determine if they’re toxic. Most brands of tempera paint also advertise their tempera paints to be free from allergens. 

Compared to professional artists paints, tempera paints are the safer option. 

Professional paints often contain pigments that are toxic such as cobalt or cadmium. These can be safe to use by adults who follow the basic guidelines set forth by the manufacturers. 

However, children tend to play with the paint and get it on their hands and clothing. Therefore, young children should use paints that are non toxic instead of artist grade paints.

One thing that’s a little frustrating is tempera paints don’t disclose the entire list of ingredients on the label. In fact, of the two manufacturers that I contacted, only Blick would disclose what the main ingredients are.

This is surprising to me because artists grade paints at least disclose the pigments the paint contains, right on the tube. Most of the time the name of the paint comes from the pigment it contains.

For example, Titanium White is contains titanium dioxide. Even when the name doesn’t refer to the pigments that it contains, it’s disclosed somewhere on the tube.

This isn’t true for tempera paints. The names of the colors are more basic and don’t tell you what pigment it contains.

Even if the paint is non toxic, it’s not something that you don’t want to ingest. 

For more information about accidental ingestion, you’ll want to read the safety data sheets (SDS) on the manufacturers website. Blick usually has a link to the SDS right on the product page.

If you’re a teacher, you will probably want to read through these sheets so that you will know what to do if a student gets a little carried away and gets paint in their eyes, or mouth. 

Does Tempera Paint Fade?

Tempera paints usually contain non toxic pigments, the downside is that they’re not permanent and will eventually fade. A few of the premium tempera paints are advertised as being lightfast which means they’re resistant to fading. If you can’t find any information about the paint being fade proof then you should assume they will fade.

The simple explanation for this is the children’s safety is obviously more important than the longevity of the painting.

Below are the premium grade tempera paints from Blick Art Materials which are lightfast.


Blick Premium Grade Tempera Paint

from: Blick Art Materials

Classroom art projects only have to resist fading for a few months or a few years at most, so fading isn’t generally a concern.

For longer lasting artwork, older and more responsible children may want to try a non toxic student grade acrylic paint, or student grade watercolor paints.

What Is Tempera Paint Used For?

Tempera paint is used for classroom projects, craft projects, theatre props, posters, color mixing exercises, painting windows, and more. It works best on absorbent surfaces such as paper, poster board, and cardboard. 

In a school setting, children can use tempera paints to paint pictures on drawing paper, construction paper, or poster board. 

Tempera paints are useful for creating paintings that are related to class projects. For example, students might use them to illustrate a scene from a history lesson or a work of fiction.

In art class, the students might use tempera paints to add color to an art project. Any craft project that is made from paper, cardboard, or other absorbent surfaces will work with tempera paints.

For instance, the students can use them to paint papier-mâché maps, masks, and figurines. 

Using Tempera Paints for Color Mixing Lessons

In art classes for children, tempera paints can be used to teach the basics of color mixing. 

Some easy color mixing lessons may include mixing yellow and red to make orange, or mixing yellow and blue to make green.

I recommend keeping the color mixing lessons simple because color mixing is actually a complex topic that even adult artists often struggle with.

For example, red and blue is supposed to make purple, but as I demonstrate in my post about how to mix brown, red and blue can often make brown.

The best way to mix purple is to use magenta instead of red and mix it with blue. But if you don’t have magenta, then you can simply buy a container of purple tempera paint to keep the lessons simple and fun for the students.

What Can You Use Tempera Paint On?

You can use tempera paints on a variety of surfaces such as paper, cardboard, and papier-mâché. Tempera paints are usually aren’t permanent so you may want to try a different paint if your project needs to last a long time.

Can You Use Tempera Paints on Canvas?

While you can use tempera paint on canvas, the paint may eventually fade or crack. Tempera paint remains water soluble when dry, so water may damage the surface of the painting. Acrylics and oils are more suitable for painting on canvas.

When an artist considers painting on canvas, it’s usually because they feel they have progressed to the point where they want to create a painting that they can display on a wall and want the painting to last a long time.

If that’s the case, then you should consider switching to a painting medium that is better suited for canvas and that will last longer.

With proper care and the right paints, paintings on canvas can last for centuries. 

Aside from the longevity issues, tempera paints may present other problems when you use them on canvas.

Very thick layers of tempera paint may crack as they dry. Canvas is flexible and that can encourage cracking, although canvas boards are more rigid.

Additionally, tempera paint remains water soluble when dry. So when you paint over previous layers, you run the risk of reactivating the paint beneath it.

If none of these issues are a concern, you might want to try painting on inexpensive canvas boards. They’re much more affordable than stretched canvases and are great for fun painting projects. 

They will also give you an idea of what it’s like to paint on canvas and may lead you to try out acrylics or oils in the future.

Check out my in depth guide to canvas boards to learn more them.

Can You Use Tempera Paint on Wood?

You can use tempera paint on wood but it’s not at all water resistant or very resilient. So you can use it to paint wood objects that will remain indoors. For greater water resistance, you may want to use acrylic paint or a paint that’s made for use on wood instead.

Can You Use Tempera Paint on Fabric?

While most fabrics will accept the tempera paint, the paint will eventually crack or flake off as the fabric stretches and bends. Tempera paint isn’t flexible nor is it waterproof so it’s not suited for painting on clothing.

There are paints available that are made specifically for use on fabric. There are fabric mediums that you can add to acrylic paint to make it more suitable for painting on fabrics. 

These fabric paints can hold up to washing on the gentle cycle and they should remain flexible.

Some of these fabric paints require heat setting them with an iron so they will hold up better in the wash. Other brands claim they don’t require heat setting.

Below are the fabric paints from Pebeo.


Pebeo Setacolor Fabric Paint and Mediums

from: Blick Art Materials

Can You Use Tempera Paint on Windows?

Tempera paints are perfect for painting on windows because they’re temporary, inexpensive and removable. You can remove the paint with a wet sponge and warm water. Windows that have tint film applied to them may not be suitable for tempera painting. 

You can paint directly on the windows with a brush. A common technique is to sketch the outlines with black and then fill in the drawing with color. 

Tempera paints aren’t permanent so they may eventually crack and maybe even flake off the window as the paint ages. How long this takes depends upon environmental factors such as humidity and sun exposure.

When it’s time to remove tempera paint you can wash it off with a sponge and soapy warm water. 

One caution is that some windows are tinted with a plastic film. This is common in office buildings, schools, and other small businesses. The tinting helps to reduce the cooling costs during the summer and some of them even filter out UV light. 

The concern is you may scratch the plastic film when you paint on it. Be sure to get approval before painting on windows, and it may help to talk to someone from the  maintenance department beforehand.

How Long Does It Take for Tempera Paint to Dry?

Tempera paints dry to the touch within 5 to 10 minutes but it depends upon the weather conditions, how thick the paint is, and the absorbency of the paper.

Tempera paint dries through the evaporation of water from the paint. So the temperature, humidity levels, and air circulation have an influence on the drying times. 

Generally speaking, water based paints dry quicker in low humidity environments because the dry air encourages the water in the paint to evaporate faster. High humidity causes the paint to dry slower.

Cooler environments cause the paint to dry slower than warmer environments. The warmer temperatures drive off the moisture from the paint.

Wind or indoor air currents will cause the paint to dry faster. This is true indoors too if you paint near a window, fan, or vents for heating and cooling.

You can use a hair dryer to make the paint dry faster.

Another factor that influences the drying rate of tempera paints is how absorbent the surface is that you’re painting on.

The more absorbent the surface is, the faster the paint will dry. This is because a very absorbent surface will pull the moisture out of the paint faster than a surface that is less absorbent.

For example, tempera paint will dry faster on construction paper than if you were to paint on glass which is non absorbent. Poster board has a slick coated surface which is somewhere in the middle.

Is Tempera Paint Washable?

In general, paint can be difficult to remove from fabrics, although there are special washable tempera paints that should come out in the wash. Regular tempera paints may leave some staining on lighter colors. 


Crayola Artista II Liquid Washable Tempera

from: Blick Art Materials

Tempera paints are relatively easy to wash off hard, non absorbent surfaces.

As I describe in the section about painting windows, you can wash tempera paint off of hard surfaces with a sponge and warm water.

If staining is a concern then you may want to opt for the washable tempera paints. 

They should also be easier to remove from clothing and non absorbent surfaces such as tiles, and hard flooring materials. 

What’s the Difference Between Tempera and Washable Paint

While tempera paint can be dissolved with soap and water, washable paint is designed to be easier to remove from a variety of materials. Washable paints are a good solution for situations where children may be prone to spilling paints on the floor, furniture, or their clothing. 

Young children may get carried away with painting and may not think about the mess they’re making.

Additionally, washable paints may be a good idea for adults who have limited coordination. These paints may be a good idea for art classes in nursing homes or for similar situations.

What’s the Difference Between Poster Paint and Tempera Paint?

Poster paint is a general term for colorful paints that are often used for making posters and signs. It doesn’t necessarily refer to a specific type of paint, although some brands of poster paints may actually be tempera paints. 

Most poster paints aren’t permanent since they’re for temporary displays or illustrations. The bright colors are for attracting attention. 


Chroma Opaque Poster Colors

from: Blick Art Materials

Some of the uses for poster paints are below. 

Students often use poster paints to advertise school events, such as dances, elections, sporting events, bake sales, and so on.

Small stores and restaurants may use poster paints to make signs by hand. Prices change frequently so it may be more economical for small stores to make these signs by hand. 

Some lines of poster paints include fluorescent colors which are very bright and will glow under a black light. While these Fluorescent colors are bright, they’re not permanent. The colors will become less vivid as they age.

What’s the Difference Between Acrylics and Tempera Paints?

Tempera paints are generally for use by children in schools and for craft projects. Acrylics offer more options for blending, building textures, glazing, and palette knife painting. They’re also more permanent which makes them more attractive to serious art students and professionals.

Below is a summary of the basic differences between tempera paints and acrylics

Acrylics Have More Options Than Tempera Paints

Acrylics are available in transparent and opaque colors while tempera paints are predominantly opaque. 

Transparent colors can appear to be more vivid as I discuss in my post about how to make acrylics more vibrant. You can use transparent colors to create brilliant glazes of color over existing areas of a painting.

There are more options for creating textures with acrylics. They’re available in a wide variety of thickness. In addition, there are gels and modeling pastes that you can use to make acrylics thicker or to add texture.

For instance, you can find a variety of texture gels that contain sand, pumice, glass beads, fibers and more.

Acrylic paint is available in a variety of finishes. You can add gloss or matte mediums to acrylics to change the surface sheen whereas tempera paint dries to a matte finish. 

Acrylics Are More Archival Than Tempera Paint

Longevity is a concern for professional artists who want their paintings to last a long time.

Acrylics are much more archival than tempera paints. This is due to the acrylic polymer that they use for the binder which remains flexible when it’s dry.

You can use acrylics in thick layers and not have to worry about cracking, whereas tempera paint has a tendency to crack in thick layers.

Artist grade acrylics, and even some of the student grade acrylics, are lightfast which means they’re more resistant to fading. 

Conclusion

Tempera paints are great for use in schools, and for a variety of craft projects. 

The affordability of tempera paints make them great for schools or educational programs that have limited budgets. Look for the allergen free tempera paints if your school has students with allergies.

Older, responsible students or adults may feel limited by tempera paints. You may want to introduce them to non toxic student grade watercolors or acrylics. 

There are student grade acrylics that have a thinner consistency that’s similar to tempera paint, so that may help with the transition. The regular tube acrylics that you find in art supply stores are usually the heavy body acrylics that are as thick as oil paints.

Oils require more care because they require solvents for cleanup. While there are solvent free methods for painting with oils, it’s not practical in the classroom.

I hope this article helped to answer your questions.

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