What is Tempera Paint? An In-Depth Look at An Ancient Medium

what is tempera paint?

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Other than crayons and colored pencils, tempera paint is probably the first art medium that most artists from the 21st century have come into contact with. Whether it’s those powdered cakes or the goopy poster paints that come in big bottles, tempera is very recognizable for both artists and non-artists.

Think about it. Doesn’t it bring back memories of your childhood? Well…

Tempera itself has a long history that can be tracked all the way back to the ancient dynasties of Egypt, China, Greece, and Babylonia. Of course, it looks a little different now than it did then.

If you’re curious about the history of tempera, keep on reading! Today’s BIG question … “What is tempera?” will be answered below:

What is Tempera Paint?

Tempera paint, which you might also know as “poster paint” is a water-based paint medium. Today, it’s most commonly used by students in order to complete craft projects in school.

what is tempera paint?
Tempera Paint Cakes

However, back in the day, when tempera paint was better known as “egg tempera”, it was used as a fast-drying and permanent painting medium that was a mixture of pigments and a water-soluble binder (i.e.., egg yolk, which is where it got its name.)

Tempera Paint History

As mentioned previously, tempera paint has a very long, ancient history. There are tempera paintings from 1st century AD still being unearthed today, and many famous paintings painted before the Italian Renaissance period were painted using tempera.

If you’re curious about the history of tempera paint, you can take a look at ancient Egyptian paintings. The Egyptians used tempera to decorate everything from their crafts, to walls, to palaces, and even their tombs and coffins.

tempera paint history
Ancient Egyptian Tempera Paint Box (Source)

Dazzlingly colorful paintings that have been preserved to this day were created from a simple mixture of mineral pigments and a water-soluble binder.

A couple centuries down the line, tempera painting even became a popular wood panel painting medium that took over the encaustic (wax) painting technique that had ruled over that period. Its popularity did see a downward trend in the Early Renaissance period, around the 1500s, after being superseded by the oil painting medium.

However, there’s no denying that tempera paint made its mark in art history and is a lot more substantial than its current, modern-day appearance.

Why Do Artists Use Tempera?

Traditional tempera paint was the preferred choice of many artists back then because it’s easy to apply in thin layers and produces a hard matte finish. Such a medium is perfect for creating thin, graceful lines and producing a work filled with luminosity and depth in tones.

It’s also fast-drying, allowing one to finish painting sooner without delay. Although, it should be noted that this benefit turned out to be its defeat in the end.

why do artists use tempera?
“Crevole Madonna” by Duccio

During the Italian Renaissance period, many famous artists changed to using oil paints because they dried slower and allowed for smoother blending of tones. Tempera also happened to be less radiant because of its finish, which means that it’s not as brilliant in appearance as oil paint.

Note, defeat does not mean that tempera lost its place in the art community. However, it did mean that it was relegated to the back burner.

For example, in modern times, many artists use tempera paint specifically because it lacks shine. Many popular theater show props and backgrounds are decorated entirely with tempera. In such cases, it may not be the shining star, but it definitely plays its role.

How Is Tempera Paint Made?

The word “tempera” comes from the Latin verb tempere, which means “to mix.” It’s called egg tempera in order to describe the mixing of pigments and the yolk of the egg as a binder. You can try to create your own egg tempera paint by collecting the following ingredients:

  • Pigments: Pigments can come from chalk, clay, and minerals. To give you an example, the most commonly used color in ancient Egyptian paintings, “Egyptian Blue”, is not a color that occurs naturally. Instead, sand, lime, sodium carbonate, and copper compound is heated at a very high temperature to create that particular unique pigment shade.
  • Binder: Water-soluble binders are mixed with pigments in order to bind pigments together. For classic tempera, the most commonly used binder is egg yolk. But there are other formulas that use egg white, gum arabic, and animal glue.
  • Thickening Agent: In order to add volume to the mixed tempera paint, some artists also add thickening agents such as absorbent paper or stone dust powder to their tempera paint formula. These will allow you to better control the flow of your paints, though they should be used carefully as they can weaken paint film and create a paint that’s very difficult to blend.
  • (Optional) Casein: Modern tempera paints also include some casein (which is a protein found in milk). Casein helps the paint adhere better to the painting surface.

Note, if you want to make your own egg tempera paint, it’s better to follow a formula from a professional or at least someone that has experience in mixing tempera paints.

There are many examples of tempera paint failures caused by a faulty formula. For example, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous, The Last Supperwhich is a mixture of tempera paint and oils, has gone through many ups and downs because of the unconventional paint mixture used. Many expensive restorations have been performed in order to preserve this treasured artwork, but sadly, the painting has only deteriorated more and more over the years.

Egg Tempera vs. Modern Tempera

egg tempera vs. modern tempera
Egg Yolk

As you’ve probably realized by now, there’s a big difference between the modern synthetic tempera used in modern times and the traditional, egg tempera paint made of the yolk of an egg and water-soluble pigments.

Traditional tempera is permanent and resists fading. While you can see both liquid tempera paint and powdered tempera paint that is washable — similar to watercolor paints, it can reactivate in water and fades over time.

Comparing tempera paint of the past and tempera paint today, there’s a big difference. This difference is caused by the binder used in the condensed tempera paint. Egg tempera uses egg yolk, while modern tempera paint uses synthetic binders — which create an emulsion that allows tempera paint to bind with most surfaces (e.g., glass, metal, wood, fabric, etc.)

Most Famous Tempera Paintings

Next, have a look at some of the best tempera painting examples in history:

1. “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli

the birth of venus
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
  • Artist: Sandro Botticelli
  • Medium: Tempera on Canvas
  • Period Painted: c. 1484–1486

Sandro Botticelli’s painting, “The Birth of Venus” was painted during the Early Renaissance period — before the popularization of oil paints.

It’s painted on two pieces of canvas sewn together, which was considered unusual during that period. Also notable is the use of thin tempera created with diluted egg medium— giving the painting a brilliant transparency that strongly defines the figures painted.

2. “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci

the last supper
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
  • Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
  • Medium: Tempera on gesso, pitch, and mastic
  • Period Painted: c. 1495–1498

“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci is the aforementioned famous painting that was painted with a very … unconventional tempera paint mix. The painting was painted with beautiful tones and beautiful detail, though some of those tones and details have disappeared over time.

3. “Primavera” by Sandro Botticelli

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli
  • Artist: Sandro Botticelli
  • Medium: Tempera on panel
  • Period Painted: late 1470s or early 1480s

“Primevera” by Sandro Botticelli is tempera paint on a wooden panel. Just like “The Birth of Venus” it features multiple figures and is most notable for its delicate details.

4. “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin” by Rogier van der Weyden

saint luke drawing the virgin
Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin by Rogier van der Weyden
  • Artist: Rogier van der Weyden
  • Medium: Oil and tempera on oak panel
  • Period Painted: c. 1435–1440

Just like the aforementioned “The Last Supper”, “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin” by Rogier van der Weyden is oil and tempera paint on wood. It’s considered to be half of a self-portrait, with Saint Luke’s face being that of the painter Rogier van der Weyden himself.

5. “The Flagellation of Christ” by Piero della Francesca

the flagellation of christ
The Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca
  • Artist: Piero della Francesca
  • Medium: Oil and tempera on panel
  • Period Painted: 1468–1470

For a classic painting painted during the mid-1400s, “The Flagellation of Christ” by Piero della Francesca is quite unique. Needless to say, the coloring alone stands out. It’s also known for having deep religious meaning pertaining to Christ’s suffering.

How to Use Modern Tempera Paint?

The state of the tempera paint will determine how you use it. For example, for powdered tempera or tempera cakes, you’ll need water to active it and use it effectively.

how to use modern tempera paint?
Tempera Paint for Crafts

In this way, powdered tempera paint is very similar to watercolor paints. Similarly, just like when painting with watercolor paints, you can blend colors by loading water on your brush. This is different from oil paints, which require other mediums (i.e., linseed oil) in order to blend more effectively.

As for liquid poster paint or tempera in paint tubes, it can be used straight out of the tube or bottle, similar to acrylic paint.

Extra note, both tempera and acrylic paint are quick drying, which is why they’re so popular with those who like to make crafts. The biggest difference between the two is that tempera paint is washable. It can be reactivated with water — making it semi-permanent. Whilst acrylic paint dries permanently.

How to Paint with Egg Tempera Paint?

Painting with egg tempera is, of course, a little different from painting with the tempera used today.

If you want to use traditional tempera in the same way as modern tempera, then you can mix the paint ahead of time and use the premixed paint as you go. Otherwise, you can create an egg tempera “vehicle” and mix your paint as you go along.

If you decide to do this, you can save a little in cost and customize your paints entirely. Basically, while you’re painting, as long as you can mix the shades with the dry pigments on hand, you can get any color!

What is an Egg Tempera Vehicle?

An egg tempera vehicle is a medium, basically. The term “vehicle” is used because it is what helps the pigments move.

To explain it briefly, the vehicle is a mixture of egg yolk (i.e., an egg excluding the whites and the sack of the yolk) and water.

This mixture can be set aside along with some pre-mixed dry pigments while you’re painting. And whenever you need a particular shade, you can mix it up accordingly.

Of course, this process does add a bit of extra labor. You’ll have to constantly mix shades while you go along, which is a bit troublesome. But for some artists, this brief respite before placing the brush on canvas is exactly what they need in order to fully visualize what kind of artwork they want to create.

How Long Does Egg Tempera Medium Last?

The tempera medium will last for three days. It may last longer or shorter depending on the climate of your home. Regardless, you should be able to tell if it’s gone off based on the smell.

If you want to avoid the risk of spoiling while you’re still deep in the process, make sure to mix your egg medium using the freshest egg possible. Also, don’t forget to store it in the fridge when you’re not working! Doing so will extend the shelf life of the medium up to a week.

As for whether your tempera paint will go bad after it has dried, that’s not a problem at all. Unless you’re particularly unlucky when picking eggs and the climate around your home is very humid. In that case, the introduction of moisture might make the tempera dry too slowly, causing the painting to have problems.

how long does egg tempera medium last?

Can You Store Egg Tempera Paints?

Unfortunately, you can’t store egg tempera paint. Traditional tempera does not store well after it has been mixed, so no matter what you do, it’s impossible to keep it for long periods of time.

This is one of the reasons why many tempera artists prefer to mix tempera during the painting process despite the added labor — it keeps the paints fresh and it prevents wastage.

PRO TIP: If you want to extend your work time a bit, be attentive with the materials you use when mixing tempera paint. The water should be distilled, at least. This will help prolong the shelf-life of the paint.

Things You’ll Need for Painting with Tempera

If you’re interested in trying out tempera paints, collect the following supplies:

    • Paint Surface: This can be anything from wood, canvas, paper, cardboard, etc. Modern tempera paint is very versatile in this regard.
    • Paint brushes: The best brushes for tempera are the ones used for acrylic paint. Basically, synthetic brushes for acrylic paints are best. You can also look up some good examples under the name “mixed-media brushes.”
    • Paint palette: Any cheap plastic paint palette should do the trick. It’s mainly used for blending tempera paint to mix various shades. If you want to save money or make the clean-up after-the-fact finish sooner, you can even use disposable paper plates.
    • Water cup: The water-cup is there for activating powdered tempera paint as well as cleaning residual paint from your brushes when working in between shades. There are specialized brush cleaners out there if you want to be fancy, but a paper cup or two also works just fine.
    • Paper towels: Used for clean-up whilst painting and after you’ve finished painting.

What is Tempera Best Painted On?

The best surfaces for modern tempera paint are undoubtedly paper or cardboard. They’re non-greasy and absorbent, which is just what tempera paint needs to adhere to properly.

what is tempera best painted on?
Paint on Panel

You can use tempera paint on other surfaces as well, of course. It’s just that there are considerations to be made when choosing which kind of surface to paint on:

Tempera on Canvas

Considering that tempera paints are very similar to acrylic paints, it’s easy to believe that tempera will work well on canvas too.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true. The properties of tempera render tempera paint washable. As such, it’s easy to reactivate when placed on canvas, as fabric attracts moisture — introducing water to the paint indirectly. Put simply, if you use tempera paint on canvas, it will surely fade over time.

Can Tempera be Used on Wood?

Yes, tempera can be used on wood. In fact, if you want to make your tempera paint permanent — at least when compared to painting on canvas — tempera paint on wood is more suitable.

can tempera be used on wood?
Tempera Paint on Wood

If you apply tempera paint on wood and keep it indoors, you don’t have to constantly worry about accidentally introducing moisture into the painting.

Can Tempera Be Used on Fabric?

Yes, you can use tempera paint on fabric. However, as mentioned, even if tempera paint dries completely, it can still be reactivated if moisture is introduced to the fabric.

The only way to make tempera paint permanent on fabric is to use a water-based sealer. If you want to paint on fabric, acrylic paint is better, though you’ll have to be careful and paint in thin layers, as it is likely to crack when it dries.

Can Tempera Be Used on Glass?

Yes, you can use paint tempera paint on glass. But because glass is not absorbent, the tempera paint is likely to peel off after a while.

Things to Pay Attention to When Using Tempera

Other things to pay attention to when using tempera paint are as follows:

Is Tempera Paint Toxic?

No, tempera is non-toxic — which is why it is most commonly used as kid’s paint these days. It was made without any harmful additives. Note, this non-toxic tag applies to both modern tempera paint and traditional tempera paints.

is tempera paint toxic?
Tempera Paint

Also, tempera paints are water-based, like acrylic paints. So you don’t need to use harmful solvents or semi-toxic oil mediums like solvents and linseed oil in order to use tempera paint.

Of course, just because tempera is non-toxic doesn’t meant that it’s 100% safe.

For example, if you prefer traditional tempera, it’s important that you keep your egg medium in a place where it won’t accidentally be consumed to avoid the risk of salmonella food poisoning from the raw eggs used. As for synthetic tempera, there’s a risk of skin irritation and allergies after it begins to mold, so they should be cleaned up well before and after use.

Is Tempera Paint Safe for Children?

Yes, tempera paint is safe for children. It’s non-toxic, so it won’t hurt them even if it gets on their skin. There’s no need to worry about harmful odors either because you don’t have to use solvents in order to mix tempera paint.

is tempera paint safe for children?
Kid’s-Friendly Tempera Paint

Is Tempera Paint Permanent?

No, tempera paint is not permanent. At MOST, it can be considered semi-permanent, as it will eventually fade over time.

Of course, there are some tempera paint brands out there that claim that their tempera paints are lightfast — meaning that they are fade-resistant.

Will Tempera Paint Fade?

Yes, tempera paints will fade. Especially modern tempera paints, which are made to be washable, and fade easily.

will tempera paint fade?

In contrast, egg-tempera paints are known for being long-lasting, but even egg-tempera paint will naturally fade over time. It just lasts longer than today’s tempera paints.

How Do You Apply Tempera?

Tempera paints are best applied in thin, semi-opaque layers. If you paint in thick layers, the tempera paint is likely to peel off directly. So, building up the painting little by little is best.

If you’re new to tempera and want to use tempera paint in various ways before sticking to a particular technique, you can try to grasp the particularities of the medium first by trying out the techniques in the next section:

Tempera Painting Techniques

1. Layering

Tempera Paint Strokes

Tempera is different from acrylic paint in that the finish can turn out uneven if not applied properly. With acrylic paints, you can coat the surface with one or two strokes, whether you apply it thinly or thickly. However, if you want to use tempera paint, you need to be more patient.

It’s best to work in thin layers, as mentioned earlier. This way, you can take advantage of the paint’s best attributes and slowly build up semi-opaque and transparent layers, just like in the aforementioned famous paintings that use traditional tempera.

2. Light to Dark

If you’ve worked with watercolors in the past, then you’re probably familiar with the “Light to Dark” rule.

If not, painting light to dark is the practice of painting thin light shades and then slowly building up the tones in order to get darker shades.

This kind of technique is what makes it possible for paintings such as “The Birth of Venus” to have such eye-catching figures. Painter Sandro Botticelli built up his layers from light to dark with diluted egg medium to achieve that brilliant luminous effect on the figures’ skin tones.

light to dark

3. Underpainting

One way to make your painting stand out without much effort is to lay down an underpainting.

This technique is popular for those who paint with oils and gouache. Having an underpainting adds depth to the painting, which is very useful for those who want to experiment with tempera.

After all, with the medium’s matte finish, it’s easy to create a flat painting if you’re not careful. In this way, by adding an underpainting to your work, you can introduce some depth conveniently without having to worry about it at the end of the line.

4. Paint & Scratch

This next technique is best used for cheaper tempera paints, and is mostly for crafts. Basically, what you need to do is lay down a thick layer of tempera paint (which goes against what was recommended earlier — for a REASON!)

This thick layer will then be covered with another layer before it dries completely. Then, whilst both layers are still dramp, scratch the paint with a toothpick or something similar to reveal the first layer — creating a scratchboard effect.

It’s a fun technique for kids, mostly. But it can also be a pretty useful practice for later paintings.

5. Tempera with Other Mediums

tempera with other mediums
Chalk Pastel

Although tempera paint will not always react well with other mediums, you can still have a go at some mix-media experiments to see if tempera paint will work well with the mediums you’re currently using.

To give you some examples, if you want to paint using acrylic paints and tempera paints, the resulting finishes between the two can make the painting look a little off if both are used liberally. Small amounts of acrylic paint on tempera paint are fine, however.

Similarly, you can add details on top of tempera paint with oil pastels, colored pencils, inks, etc. Chalk pastels, which have a matte finish, are a great match for tempera in terms of texture and can be used more liberally. Meanwhile, ink pens and colored pencils can be used for creating outlines and adding small details to make certain areas stand out.

Recommended Tempera Paints



Product Details

#1. Crayola Tempera Paint Washable for Kids

Crayola Tempera Paint Washable for Kids

Best Tempera Paints for Kids

  • Non-toxic paints suitable for even toddlers to play around with.
  • Tempera paint that is washable, unlike acrylic paints, and easy to clean, for faster clean-up after working on arts and crafts projects.
  • Time-honored tempera paint brand with a complete set of the most basic six colors.

#2. Sennelier Egg Tempera Set

Sennelier Egg Tempera Set

Best Premium Traditional Tempera

  • Traditional tempera of the highest quality.
  • Satiny, matte finish that is non-yellowing and water-resistant.
  • Water-soluble and non-toxic, so it’s a lot safer to use than other mediums.

#3. Colorations Simply Tempera Paint


Best Tempera Paints for Craft Projects

  • The Colorations brand offers cheap tempera paint in a variety of sizes — even offering paint by the gallon. This allows you to use it liberally when working on craft projects.
  • Comes in many different shades, including neon, glitter, etc.
  • Known as a classroom-approved brand and is used by many teachers for their students.

#4. Jack Richeson Tempera Powder Paint

Jack Richeson Tempera Powder Paint

Best Powdered Tempera Paint

  • Tempera paint powder that reactivates with water.
  • You can completely adjust the transparency of the paint by adjusting the ratio of the water added.
  • Uses strong pigments that are highly absorbent.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Tempera Best Used For?

what is tempera best used for?
Acrylic Paint

Tempera paint is a multi-purpose medium. It’s similar to acrylic paints in that it produces a satiny finish when dried, but based on the application method, it can be both transparent and opaque.

Most modern-day artists use it for school crafts, theater props, etc. because it’s convenient to use, easy to clean up, and cheaper than most alternatives.

Do You Have to Mix Tempera Paint With Water?

You don’t have to mix tempera paint with water. If you’re using liquid tempera paints, it can be used straight out of the tube. However, as a water-soluble tempera paint, having water around is still a must — if only to clean up your brush between different loads of colors.

Does Tempera Paint Dry Hard?

Yes, tempera paint dries quite hard, just like acrylic paint. This is also why it’s not recommended to use tempera on canvas or fabric — the hardened tempera paint is liable to crack or peel off after being moved around.

How Long Does Tempera Take to Dry?

It takes around 5-10 minutes for tempera to touch dry. However, for it to fully cure it might take 3-6 months, if not a year.

Can Tempera Paint Be Used on Skin?

Yes, tempera paint can be used on skin. This is unlike other types of paint, like acrylic paint — they’re not formulated to be used on human skin and should be kept away from children and pets as much as possible.

can tempera paint be used on skin?
Tempera Paint Kid’s Project

Is Tempera Long Lasting?

Yes, tempera paint is long lasting. At least, egg tempera paint is long-lasting. Modern tempera paint are washable and fade easily, but when traditional tempera paints dries completely, it can last for centuries if preserved properly.

What Replaced Tempera?

During the Italian Renaissance, tempera paint was replaced by oil paint. The main reason is that, like acrylic paint, tempera dries very quickly. The opposite is true when using oil paint — oil paintings can be worked on for a long time.

Does Egg Tempera Art Yellow Over Time?

No, tempera art does not yellow over time. With the use of egg yolk, it seems almost natural that classic tempera will yellow, but it’s actually the opposite.

More specifically, unlike oil paint, which yellows, darkens, and becomes more transparent over time, tempera doesn’t change as much. Instead, the colors remain very stable.

does egg tempera art yellow over time?

What is the Shelf-Life of Store-Bought Tempera Paints?

The shelf-life of tempera paints bought in a store is around 2-5 years. To provide some reference, acrylic paints usually have a shelf-life of 10-15 years while oil paint has a shelf-life of 30-40 years.

Final Thoughts:

Tempera paint is an ancient medium with a long history. Although it’s not as widely used in modern times by professional artists, it still has a significant impact on the cultivation of aspiring young artists as a child-friendly medium.

Furthermore, the legacy of ancient tempera has yet to wane, and many famous paintings will continue to show the beauty of tempera for a long time to come.

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