Tempera vs Acrylic Paint: How Are They Alike? Different?


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?

Pin for Later? šŸŽØ

temperas vs acrylics

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:

Acrylics Set-12 ColorsAcrylics Set-12 ColorsShop NowWindsor Newton Paint SetWindsor Newton Paint SetShop NowLiquitex Color SetLiquitex Color SetShop Now

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.

Tempera Poster PaintsTempera Poster PaintsShop NowPoster paints - 16 ozPoster paints – 16 ozShop NowPoster paint assortmentPoster paint assortmentShop Now

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 glitterĀ  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.

Example of window painting…most likely these were temperas.

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 appear 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.Ā Temperas wash down the drain easily and don’t cause those kinds of problems šŸ™‚

difference acrylic tempera paint

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) Ā Paint mixing was a serious affair and often contained toxic materials.

tempera pigmentsOne 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.

The following products can be found on Blick Art Materials, one of my favorite online art material suppliers. I’m a member of Blick’sĀ  affiliate program, which means that if you make a purchase through one of the links below I may earn a commission (at no cost to you.)

Tempera Paint PowdersTempera Paint PowdersMoistenable Tempera CakesMoistenable Tempera CakesGlide-On Paint Stick SetGlide-On Paint Stick Set

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 :

  • paper
  • masonite board
  • glass
  • cardstock
  • wood

But they lack the kind of binding makeup to be able to stick well to canvas, or clay for that matter.Ā  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. There is a “color shift” that tends to happen with acrylics; so this could produce undesirable results.


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!


17 thoughts on “Tempera vs Acrylic Paint: How Are They Alike? Different?”

  1. Sandra Van Asch

    Thank you for this article about tempura paints verses acrylics. Is it true? If you mix an acrylic medium into watercolor or tempura paint they become permanent when dry just like acrylics? Can I put acrylic matte medium on a Gelli Plate and lay my watercolor picture on it and then lift carefully that it will make my picture permanent? Any info on this would be greatly appreciated. I have a lot of watercolors I do not use because I want paint to be permanent when dry. If this technique works then I will use watercolor more often.

  2. Great question! On behalf of the gelli plate I did have to do a little research (sounds intriguing -I’ll have to try one of those) I didn’t find a lot of info regarding permanency, but it did kind of discourage people from applying watercolors with them as they may bead up on the surface of the plate due to being thin and viscous. In my own experiences only oils and acrylics are definitely permanent when dry. Sorry wish I could give you a better answer… Good luck to you! Jennifer

  3. If we spray a clear sealant over a tempera poster, will colors be “water proofed”? Thank you,

  4. For tempera paintings, I’ve heard that the best sealant product is Liquitex Soluvar varnish…Spray acrylic and damar can work well for this purpose, depends on if the poster is done in egg tempera or casein. Soluvar is recommended for casein…I’d do a spot test first before committing and see how it performs and make sure it doesn’t crack or peel. Good luck on your project!

  5. Lots of BS. Acrylic doesn’t last 50 years while tempera survived even 800 years.

  6. I accidentally painted my students handprints our our holiday tshirts with tempra paints. When I realized it, I painted over the tempra handprints with acrylic paint.

    Will the final handprints be waterproof? Should I use Fabric Mod Podge on top of it? I donā€™t want to ruin the T-shirts either.

  7. Oh wow! Honestly can’t say I’ve ever used tempera paints on clothing that i can recall. So wish I could give better advice…But I did read up on fabric Mod Podge. Based on what I found out, this could work but hand-washing only is recommended. (Also I would wait at least 24 hrs before doing so.) Hope this helps!

  8. Hi there! I was trying to find information on specifically what happens when you use acrylics over tempura psint, as in i have a Painting mostly finished in tempura but wanted to continue it in acrylic for a couple details, would that be a bad idea?

  9. That’s a good question! And this could work – only problem as I see it, is that once you dipped the paintbrush in water and if the tempera side got wet while you were applying the acrylic – could mess up the effect. Tempera can always be re-moistened, and that’s the big problem šŸ™‚

  10. Kids can work with either acrylic paint Ā or tempera paint, but becauseĀ  acrylic paint is permanent, you ll probably feel a lot more at ease if they worked with tempera paint. BecauseĀ  acrylic paint dries to hard plastic, don t pour the extra paint down your drain IT WILL CLOG IT. And if you don t clean your brushes well, the same hard plastic will adhere to the bristles.

  11. Good advice. Tempera was what we used in elementary school years….Only when I got to high school was acrylic paint available (of course, we had the knowledge and maturity by then to know how to clean it up the right way…)

  12. My brother suggested I might like this blog. He was totally right.
    This post truly made my day. You can not imagine simply how much
    time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

  13. Cristina Jones

    Could you use tempura paint for pour painting? And cover it with a sealant? I coat my acrylic pours with apoxy resin. Thank you for the great article!

  14. I’ve never done a paint pour, much less mastered it…It’s very popular, so you may want to Google it and see what you can find out. Best of luck!

  15. They are significantly different in many ways, despite the fact that they are both water-based and may be diluted with water, and they both blend colors well. Their composition is distinct. Tempera is washable, but acrylic is permanent. Tempera, unlike acrylic, discolors with time because to its lesser lightfastness.

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