Tempera vs. Acrylics Paint: Here’s Everything You Need to Know

What are acrylic and tempera paints, when should you use them, and does it matter which one you use? 

Tempera vs. Acrylics Paint Here’s Everything You Need to Know

If you’re serious about painting and you don’t know the answers to these questions – you should. Acrylic and tempera paints are two of the most common types of paint on the market.

Contrary to popular belief, they’re not all that similar, and knowing their differences can help you choose the right one for your project. 

Which paint you choose will depend on what you’re hoping to get out of your experience, and what surface you’re painting on.

So, today, we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about tempera and acrylic paint, so you can make the best choice for your project. 

What Is Tempera Paint? 

Tempera paint is sometimes referred to as ‘poster-paint’. Tempera paint is a variety of water-based paint that’s permanent, fast-drying, and mixed together using a type of chemical agent. 

Tempera paint is a popular paint that’s comprised of cellulose, non-toxic pigments, preservatives, calcium carbonate, and water.

Cellulose is what binds the tempera paint together, and this kind of paint is often used for color mixing, creating props, classroom projects, craft projects, and more.

It often produces its best results when used on cardboard, poster board, and paper. 

It’s thought that tempera paint was first used in the 13th and 14th centuries, and it was once called ‘egg tempera’ because it was made up of a mixture of linseed oil, egg yolk, water, and a powdered pigment.

The egg was used as the binding agents to stick the ingredients together, but some artists used only the yolk, while others used the whole egg. 

Here’s a roundup of key facts about tempera paint: 

  • Although it’s not permanent, it’s often not too easy to wash off, either. We’d recommend getting a washable tempera paint if you’re worried about spillages, but bear in mind that washable tempera paints are often lightfast 
  • Has a great opacity
  • Mixes well
  • Creates a creamy consistency 
  • Is often thinner than acrylic paint
  • Dries with a matte finish 

What Is Acrylic Paint 

Acrylic paint, on the other hand, is a little different. Acrylic paint is a variety of fast-drying paint that is water-based and made up of pigments that are found within acrylic polymer suspension.

It was first developed in Germany in 1934 as a simple formula, made up of acrylic resin, water, and pigment particles. Once dry, acrylic paint becomes water resistant, and it’s an extremely versatile paint that has a variety of uses. 

Acrylic paints are pretty unique. Once dry they flex, they can be cleaned up with water when they’re wet, they come in a number of formats and consistencies, and they can be used on different styles and techniques, whether they’re traditional or experimental.

Acrylic paints are also pretty low odor when compared to other paints. 

These paints are so versatile that you’ll be able to paint almost any surface, as long as it’s free from oil or wax. This means you’ll be able to paint almost anything, including rocks, paper, wood, canvas, fabric, cardboard, metal, plastic, glass, and more! 

Here are some key facts about acrylic paint: 

  • It’s fast-drying 
  • It has a thick consistency 
  • It mixes well 
  • It has a good opacity
  • It’s permanent 
  • It’s lightfast, which means it’s unlikely to discolor once exposed to light 
  • It dries with a glossy to a semi-glossy finish 

The Makeup Of Tempera And Acrylic Paint 

Now, let’s take a closer look at what makes these two popular paints. 

Acrylic and tempera paints are pretty different. In fact, the only thing they have in common is that they’re both water-based.

Unfortunately, this is where the commonalities end, and you’ll find that these paints both have different purposes.

You often won’t be able to use them interchangeably, so you should take the time to consider their makeup and uses before picking them for your projects. 

Tempera paints have a pretty distinctive makeup. These paints usually contain a composition of color pigments, egg yolks, and water.

Sometimes, tempera paints contain casein instead of egg yolks, depending on the manufacturer. Casein is a milk-based protein that gives milk its distinctive white color.

In paint, casein is used to create similar wash capabilities to watercolor paints and to provide a smooth opacity.

It also helps the paint dry fast with a velvety and often matte finish. If a tempera paint uses egg yolk, the yolk works as the binding material to bring the main ingredients together. 

Acrylics, on the other hand, are quite different. Acrylic paints often have a pretty different makeup, that’s made by mixing several pigments with a synthetic resin and then thinning them out with water.

Most acrylic paints will have a makeup of synthetic polymers and a type of gum arabic binder. This is what gives acrylic paints their distinctively flexible feeling and appearance. 

The Biggest Difference Between Tempera And Acrylic Paints 

Tempera vs. Acrylics Paint Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Now we’ve had a look at their makeup, it’s pretty easy to see that tempera and acrylic paints are different. But what is their biggest difference?

Arguably, the biggest difference between these two paints is their permanency and longevity. When you paint with acrylic, it’s permanent once dry.

There’s no going back to alter the work you’ve done, and it’ll stick there forever, as long as it’s treated well.

However, tempera paint is what we call re-soluble. This means that it’s only semi-permanent – if you add water to a tempera painting after it’s dry, the paint will run and move.

So, bear this in mind for your next project. Although this might be bad news for your painting, it’s good news if you’ve spilt tempera paint on a surface! 

This process won’t be so easy if you spill acrylic paint. Acrylic paint dries pretty quickly, and once it’s dry, it’s resistant to solvents.

So, it’s usually best to wash your paint brushes as soon as possible to avoid them hardening up and becoming a dried, lumpy plastic-like mess. 

Can You Mix Acrylic And Tempera Paint? 

Are you thinking of mixing acrylic and tempera paint together? Unfortunately, you’ll probably struggle to get the right consistency if you mix these two paints together, so we wouldn’t recommend it.

Tempera and acrylic contain different binding ingredients and have a pretty different makeup’ this is likely to give you a pretty complex and messy consistency.

Stick to just one if you can, or mix your acrylic or tempera with another paint, instead. 

Are Poster Paint And Tempera Paint The Same? 

Although ‘poster paint’ and ‘tempera’ are often used interchangeably, some people dispute the fact that these two paints are the same thing. 

Well, poster paints are technically a type of tempera paint. Poster paint is often a cheaper alternative to tempera paint, and it’s usually made with a glue-based binder rather than a food binder, such as the egg yolk used in tempera paint. 

Poster paints are one of the most popular paints for kids to use on their craft projects, and most teachers will prefer to use them because it’s non-toxic and will wash out of your clothes easily. 

Poster paint manufacturers prefer to use the cheapest ingredients in their formula, which makes poster point a great budget-friendly alternative to tempera paint.

Although poster paint is good for kids and fun craft projects, we wouldn’t recommend using it on serious artwork. 

Poster paint is water-based, dries with a chalky (rather than a glossy) finish, and is not permanent. Poster paint is resoluble and it’s usually best for painting surfaces like poster board, paper and cardboard. 

The General Uses Of Acrylic And Tempera Paints 

Tempera and acrylic paints have pretty similar uses, but once you start cleaning up after painting, you’ll notice some big differences. 

There are many reasons why you won’t usually find acrylic paint in kids’ classrooms. Although they’re safe to use, they dry with that distinctively flex-like consistency, which can be a nightmare to clean up.

If it makes its way down drain pipes too, well… There’s going to be plenty of issues there.

The consistency of acrylic paint is likely to clog up the pipes, and a build-up may cause some serious maintenance issues.

Even if you’ve been fortunate enough not to experience this, you’ll have an idea of how this works if you’ve ever used acrylic paint on a plastic palette.

Once the acrylic is dry, it takes a lot of peeling to get it all off, and it won’t simply dissolve with the water. 

Tempera, on the other hand, is a dream. It’ll go straight down the drain without any issues, and it’s much easier to clean up. This will save you plenty of hassle when it comes to the post-paint clean-up. 

If you’re thinking of buying tempera paint, you’ll often be able to buy it in two main mediums, including in tubes, or in powders and agents that are sold separately.

Some types of tempera paint just require added water to bring them to life, making them a low-maintenance option for painters. 

If you’re a more advanced painter, tempera can be a great way to add color to other materials such as clay.

Tempera substrate has a pretty good pigmentation that could be used in place of a traditional mica powder or a chalk, and you can add as much or as little water as you need to help you achieve the right consistency.

This means you’ll have plenty of creative freedom and flexibility when working with tempera paints! 

Applying Tempera And Acrylic Paints 

You’ll also notice some pretty big differences between these two paints when it’s time to apply them. 

In terms of color saturation, tempera’s can sometimes be a little more difficult to work with. Their color saturation is less than that of acrylic paints.

This often leads most painters to add on more layers however, this tends to backfire. If you add too many layers of tempera paint to your work, it’s likely to crack in the middle. 

However, acrylics often have a medium or thick viscosity which is great for layering. You’ll also find it much easier to achieve a deeper color saturation, and you’ll be less likely to need to apply more layers.

If you do want to add more layers, acrylic paint is ideal because it dries quickly, and can be applied in a variety of transparencies and thicknesses, depending on how it’s mixed. Unfortunately, this often isn’t true for tempera paints. 

Can You Use Tempera Paint On Canvas? 

Tempera vs. Acrylics Paint Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Unfortunately, most modern tempera paints are formulated for kids’ use, which means it can easily wash off surfaces.

If you paint a canvas with tempera paint, you’ll often find it’s easy to wash off and its colors can fade over time if it’s exposed to sunlight.

Tempera paint is also not as thick as acrylic paint, which means it’s likely to drip once applied to a canvas.

What’s more, tempera paint is also known for developing a brittle consistency once dry, which means it’s likely to crack on the canvas and fall off. Instead, we’d recommend using tempera paint on any of the following surfaces: 

  • Paper
  • Paper mache 
  • Cardboard 
  • Post boards 
  • Glass
  • Mirrors 
  • Wood 
  • Masonite board 

The Pros And Cons Of Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is a long-lasting, popular choice for painters. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of using acrylic paint. 


  • Dries quickly 
  • Creates permanent effects
  • Great texture and opacity
  • Comes in various colors
  • Paints well on different surfaces 


  • Can be more expensive than other paints
  • Difficult to clean up 
  • Can contain toxic chemicals 
  • Permanent, meaning you can’t correct a mistake after painting 

The Pros And Cons Of Tempera Paint 

So, how does tempera paint stack up against acrylic? Here are the most notable pros and cons of using tempera paint. 


  • Easy to clean
  • Dries quickly 
  • Cheaper than acrylic paint
  • Ideal for paper projects
  • Nontoxic 
  • Allergen-free


  • Semi-permanent and won’t last forever
  • Can crack and become brittle on some surfaces
  • Difficult to layer
  • More likely to fade over time 

Do Tempera And Acrylic Paints Contain Toxins?

If you’re thinking of using tempera paint, good news – most tempera paints are non-toxic. However, some egg-based tempera paints can contain toxic pigments, including cobalt and cadmium.

Although these are safe for adults to use, children should stay clear. If you want a non-toxic tempera paint, we’d recommend one that doesn’t use an egg binding agent.

You should also look for an AP-certified tempera paint; this organization will test the ingredients in the paint and determine their toxicity. If a tempera paint is AP certified, it’s non-toxic. 

Most acrylic paints are not toxic to humans when they’re used correctly. You’ll often find most modern acrylic paints are labelled as non-toxic, however, some varieties may contain harmful ingredients.

You should always check the label and instructions before using acrylic paint to minimize any potential risks. 

Although most tempera and acrylic paints are non-toxic, you should always check their ingredients first. Some of the most common toxic ingredients that have been found or are currently found in paints can include: 

  • Lead: Lead can be found in some paints, and can even cause health risks when inhaled or ingested. Although lead is unlikely to hurt you if it comes into contact with your skin, inhalation could be dangerous.
  • Cadmium: Thankfully, cadmium is a rather rare ingredient in modern paint. Cadmium is known to be carcinogenic, and any material that contains it should be handled with a mask and gloves. If you ever need to use a paint that contains cadmium, use it in a well-ventilated space, and take care not to let the paint come into contact with your skin, clothes, or furniture.
  • Cobalt: Cobalt is another common magnetic material that was frequently used in all sorts of arts and crafts in the past. Thankfully, cobalt is not used in most modern paints, but you should still check the ingredients label to be sure. Cobalt can be dangerous to the lungs, eyes, heart and skin, and can damage your health if it’s ingested, inhaled, or even absorbed through the skin.
  • Chromium: Although chromium can actually be beneficial to the human body in small amounts, too much can cause adverse reactions such as ulcers, rashes, and nosebleeds. There are even more severe long-term effects including liver and kidney damage. Chromium can be toxic if it’s inhaled, absorbed into the skin or ingested, so ensure you’re not buying a paint that contains it. 
  • Manganese: Manganese is healthy in moderation and in natural forms, but in other forms like paint, it can become toxic. If manganese is found in paint, it’s usually used as a binder. In high amounts, manganese can cause damage to the nervous system and internal organs, and it can be easily absorbed into the skin, which makes it dangerous. Although it’s no longer a common ingredient in modern paints, you should still take care to avoid it. 

Final Thoughts 

Acrylic and tempera paints have very little in common. Their different ingredients, purposes and characteristics mean they often can’t be used interchangeably.

If you’re a more serious painter, we’d recommend using acrylic paints for your projects. However, tempera paint can be an excellent choice for small arts and crafts projects, and it’s particularly great for kids.

Not only is it easy to use, but it’s also easy to clean up! 

Adrianna Dune

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