Tempera vs acrylic paint: is it a contest? Is one better than the other? Well it depends on whether you’re trying to paint a sculpture, a piece of masonite or board – but you have to know how each of them perform differently.
When thinking of temperas you may find yourself waxing nostalgic about time spent blissfully finger painting, however there’s a rich history behind them.
At one time, temperas were mixed by hand and even a part of ancient cave artwork! Pretty cool right?
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They were the preferred medium until oils were developed. But after reading this you may have second thoughts and want to stick with acrylics – it all depends on what kind of techniques you want to master.
The Makeup of Tempera Paint vs Acrylic Paint
For starters, the two mediums have one shared common denominator – that is being water-based. However the similarities end there. Let’s talk chemistry for a minute here!
Temperas have a unique composition of color pigments, H20, egg yolks (yes, the literal egg itself) or in some cases, casein which is milk-based.
You’ve probably seen a painting somewhere in which the medium listed is “egg tempera” and that’s why – the yolk is part of the binding material.
Acrylics, as you may recall from my earlier post, about “professional acrylics” have a synthetic polymer compound makeup and gum arabic binder which gives them their flexibility and permanence. Below are a few of my favorite brands that I use on my own:
Poster paint vs Tempera – Are They the Same Thing?
You may have heard someone refer to “poster paints” and wondered what that is exactly – yes, poster paints are a type of tempera. They are made with a glue-based binder as opposed to the food-grade ingredients mentioned earlier.
They are very popular among kiddos who want to finger paint, and are recommended highly for parents and teachers as they wash out easily and are non-toxic. The “poster” part may have derived from the fact that paper products are the main surface in which they are used on. Here are some good examples – these would be great for classroom use.
The brand on the far left (Prang) I remember using a lot when I was that age and first learning., they wash out easily and come in vibrant colors, including metallic, neon, and glitter for even more fun: You can also choose colors a la carte instead of the set. That’s a big advantage for classrooms, and perhaps one big reason poster paints are the tempera of choice….they’re free of those potential allergens in addition to being easier to clean up.
The temperas of way back when are the ones that are made with the egg or casein compound. What’s called “poster paint” is also a tempera paint, but it’s got a different makeup and does not contain those same ingredients.
What’s the Biggest Difference in Acrylic and Tempera Paints?
In a nutshell – their permanency. That’s one big reason that I have always preferred acrylics – once they’re dry and on there they are on there. Tempera paints are re-soluble much like watercolors in that you can re-dampen them. In other words, they dry quickly, but not permanently due to the fact they can be re-moistened. Acrylics will dry permanently and you cannot re-wet them once they dry completely (although if you use a special type of palette, you can protect your dispensed paint as you go and even keep it a little longer as long as it is somewhat moist.)
Acrylics tend to dry from the top down (you can see by the way they look to develop a “skin” on top but underneath is still fresh paint.
I guess I figured that out on my own one time when an accidental spill of water created an unwanted “oopsie” on my temperas and watercolor paintings.
Have you ever been to a certain venue and seen art on the windows…like holiday-themed pictures? Odds are that’s tempera paint, which is perfect for this purpose; after the said holiday is over all the shop owner has to do is get a scraping tool and bucket of water.
Acrylics vs Tempera Paint: General Use Compared
The approach is pretty similar, but wait til you start cleaning up. Generally, one reason you don’t see acrylics in many elementary school classrooms, despite them too being water-based and non toxic for the most part – the fact that they can mess up drain pipes because of the way they dry and form a kind of skin that has to be peeled off.
I know this from extensive use with plastic palettes, when they dry on there they have to be peeled off before I would rinse the palette. Temperas wash down the drain easily and don’t cause those kinds of problems 🙂
Now the art masters of long ago, did not use this kind of tempera. Their arsenals no doubt included the egg and casein-based formulas, and they were mixed by hand (which must have been messy no doubt) Paint mixing was a serious affair and often contained toxic materials.
One Medium – Two Formulas!
Thankfully now, you can buy them in tubes, or check into the powders and binding agents sold separately! Did you know that tempera paints also come in cake and stick form too? Nothing to pour, just add water.
This is good news if you’re looking for a substrate that could potentially be used to add color to clay – the dry product has a rich enough pigmentation to it that you could easily use tempera powder in place of mica powder or chalks if you wanted.
And the fact that you can add as much or as little water as you need for other project types, lets you feel free to achieve the desired consistency. This will give you some degree of flexibility when working with temperas.
Tempera Vs Acrylic Applications
Application is another way you will see big differences. Acrylics through their viscosity can vary from medium to thick, are opaque and it is possible to come up with some good layered effects.
However color saturation is more minimal with temperas which might lead you to believe you need to apply more layers – although the layers may crack in the middle. They do dry quickly as acrylics do, but with a chalky finish and matte appearance.
Temperas are suited best to :
- masonite board
But they lack the kind of binding makeup to be able to stick well to canvas, or clay for that matter. Artist canvases have a slight “tooth” to the surface making this difficult. And clay projects, even if you prime them well, the colors may not look as deep and rich as they could.
Temperas are in the same camp as gouache and watercolors – they are made to adhere strictly to a porous surface, since they lack these polymers that bind.
Can You Mix Tempera and Acrylic Paint?
I suppose you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Because of the different ingredients I don’t think you would get the desired consistencies, despite them all being water based. Also consider the fact that when they both dry, they will look very different too.
So…to recap – “poster paints” are ideal for classroom settings and the egg/casein temperas for more professional grade work. You’ll have to apply them to smooth paper but don’t forget that you can also use them to make seasonal window art as mentioned earlier.
However if you really need permanent results you need to go with the acrylics as you will be much more satisfied with the results. Good luck and happy painting to you!