April 17, 2024
Tempera Paint

Tempera paint: The Most Traditional and Ancient Kind of Paint

Tempera paint, also known as poster paint, is one of the oldest types of paint known to humans. Originating in ancient Greece and widely used in medieval religious artwork, tempera paint continues to be popular today due to its ease of use and vibrant colors.

History of Tempera Paint

Ancient Origins
Tempera paint can be traced back to at least Ancient Greek times, with some of the earliest known examples found on Greek pottery from as early as the 5th century BC. Because it uses primarily pigment and a water-soluble binder such as egg yolk, Tempera Paint was extremely accessible to early civilizations. Its longevity also meant that art made with tempera could endure for centuries. Famous early masterpieces like those seen in the frescoes of Pompeii were created using tempera paint.

Rise of Religious Art
During the Middle Ages, tempera rose to widespread use in illuminated manuscripts and church frescoes across Europe. Monasteries employed skilled illuminators who slowly and meticulously applied tempera paint to manuscripts, creating lavishly decorated books of hours and bibles. Painted church interiors gained popularity as a way to visually narrate Bible stories for illiterate congregations. Artists like Giotto di Bondone helped transition religious art from the stylized Byzantine style to more naturalistic forms.

Transition to Oil Painting
In the 15th century, oil painting emerged as a new widespread technique. Its slow-drying properties allowed for subtle blending of colors and a heightened level of realism. As the Renaissance era dawned, oil painting surpassed tempera as the preferred medium of major artists. Tempera did remain popular for wall paintings and decoration, but fell out of favor for panel paintings and portraits.

Modern Revival
While largely abandoned by professional fine artists, tempera saw a revival in the 19th and early 20th centuries as an accessible medium for schoolchildren. Its bright, matte colors made it ideal for elementary art classes. Tempera paint also regained popularity among ecclesiastical decorators for church restoration projects employing traditional techniques. Today it remains one of the most widely used types of paint worldwide in crafts and K-12 education settings.

Composition and Properties of Tempera Paint

Pigments and Binders
The pigments used in tempera are generally finely ground mineral or plant-based colorants such as ochre, carbon black, azurite, and red lead. These pigments are mixed with a hydrophilic binder – traditionally egg yolk. When dried, the egg proteins coagulate and bond the pigment particles. Modern commercial tempera often substitutes casein (milk protein) or gum arabic as binders. Water acts as the solvent or thinning agent.


Compared to oil paint, tempera dries very quickly – usually within 8-24 hours. This lends itself to layered application as each layer dries before the next goes down. It has a matte, chalky finish rather than an oil paint’s glossy sheen. Clean up is easy with soap and water. Tempera is highly compatible with paper and gesso board supports but not raw canvas or wood. It exhibits excellent colourfastness and longevity when dry.

Working with Tempera Paint

Substrates and Priming
Tempera works best on surfaces primed with gesso, a chalky preparation traditionally made from powdered gypsum mixed with rabbit skin glue or acrylic polymer medium. The porous gesso acts as a tooth to help the tempera bind and adhere. Paper, illustration board, gesso board and primed canvas are all suitable supports. Raw wood and unprimed canvas tend to absorb tempera too much.

Layering Techniques
Tempera layering techniques mimic fresco painting styles. A delicate underpainting layer establishes the light and shadow values. Transparent layers of color are gradually built up – darker tones applied first followed by lights. Glazing, hatching and scumbling help blend and soften edges. Due to quick drying time, tempera allows for smooth blending of wet-into-wet color and layering of semitransparent washes.

Use in Crafts and Art Education
Beyond fine art contexts, tempera sees widespread use in crafting, decorating and elementary art instruction. Teachers appreciate its non-toxicity and ease of clean up. Activities like stamping, sponge painting, finger-painting and resist techniques make tempera accessible for young children’s process-oriented fine motor skill development. It transfers well to fabric for projects like homemade greeting cards.

With roots stretching back to ancient civilizations, tempera paint has stood the test of time based on its brilliant, lasting colors and user-friendly properties. While largely superseded by oil paint in fine art milieus, tempera sees active use today for practical and educational applications where its fast-drying qualities are assets. Its natural pigments and simple recipes also appeal to many makers and crafters seeking traditional painting experiences. The methods of the old masters, from illuminated manuscripts to medieval frescoes, continue with this historically rich painting medium.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research.
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it.