If you've ever had arts and crafts class in school, there's a good chance you've used tempera paints a.k.a poster paint. This non-toxic, allergen-free, water-based paint can come in a wide range of brilliant colors, are quite easy to use, and very accessible.
If you've read our previous articles comparing acrylic paints to oil and watercolor paints then you may find that tempera paints' characteristics are very similar to that of acrylic paint. In fact, most people can't tell the difference between tempera/poster paint and acrylic paint. If this has got you wondering yourself how exactly tempera paint differs from acrylic paint, and which one is a better fit for your painting needs, then you're in the right place.
Both painting mediums do look and work very similarly and can produce beautiful pieces of art.
Despite their similarities, some key differences between them give them their unique properties. Knowing what those differences are can help you come up with a more informed decision.
Acrylic Paints vs Tempera Paints
Let's explore the differences between acrylic and tempera paints, compare their advantages and disadvantages, then choose the right type of paint for your artistic needs.
So, let's begin:
What are Acrylic Paints?
Acrylic paint is a painting medium first used in the 1950s and has become one of the most popular types of paint today. This type of paint consists of pigments suspended in an acrylic emulsion which acts as a binder for the pigments.
Most acrylic paints use water as a vehicle. When the water evaporates, the pigments left behind stack up onto each other, held together by the acrylic binder. It's this use of an acrylic polymer that makes acrylic paints water-soluble yet more durable than tempera paints.
Advantages of Acrylic Paints
Because of their composition and water-solubility, acrylic paints gain certain characteristics that artists of any skill level can find pretty advantageous. These advantages include the following:
- Versatile - Perhaps the most often mentioned characteristic of acrylic paint is its versatility. Acrylic paints can not only be mixed and blended with other acrylic paints but also with acrylic mediums and additives. This gives acrylic paints unique qualities and lets you achieve even more awesome effects.
- Vibrant Colors - Because they can use natural or synthetic pigments, acrylic paints come in an incredibly wide variety of rich colors. For instance, our Nova Color paints come in over 90+ vibrant colors that you can mix and blend to create a nearly infinite number of shades and tones for all your painting needs.
- Can be Used on Most Surfaces - We here at Nova Color often get asked whether our Nova Color paints can be used on various surfaces. It's even led us to write articles on the subject on our blog (which you should definitely check out). Well, you'll be happy to know that acrylic paints actually stick to any porous surface – like paper, cardboard, foam, leather, wood, concrete, and stone – especially when prepared and primed correctly.
- Easy to Use - Acrylic paints are simply easier to use overall. Another advantage brought about by its being water-based, you won't need to buy toxic or noxious chemicals to thin your acrylic paints. This also makes it easier to remove accidental paint splatters and clean your paintbrushes using just ordinary soap and water.
- Durable - Because of the acrylic resin that binds the pigment together once dry, acrylic paints tend to keep their color longer, even without being sealed by varnish. They're also more resistant to physical damage and, when varnished, can retain their vibrant look for even longer.
- Quick Drying - Since most acrylic paints are water-based, they dry in just a fraction of the time you have to wait compared to other types of paint. Drying time does differ from brand to brand, though. For example, in the absence of any paint extender, Nova Color paints become dry to the touch in about 30 minutes and completely dry between 1 ½ to 2 hours.
- Widely Accessible - Acrylic paints can use natural or synthetic pigments to get their rich coloration. They're also water-based so you can just use ordinary tap water to dilute them. These two characteristics make acrylic paints more affordable and widely accessible to every painter from absolute beginners to seasoned artists.
- Safe and Non-toxic - Most acrylic paints use non-toxic ingredients and are thus completely safe to use even without gloves.
Disadvantages of Acrylic Paints
You can't please everyone and the same is true even for acrylic paints. The same characteristics that make acrylic paints a joy to use for some artists are also the same characteristics that make them a bad choice for others. Acrylic paints' disadvantages include the following:
- Choice Overload can be a Thing - Acrylic paints can come in almost any shade or tone of color you can imagine. To some artists, particularly beginners, this can instead lead to choice paralysis as they become overloaded by the sheer number of possible color options at their disposal. Pro tip: Avoid this by starting with your classic rainbow colors plus a pure white, pure black, and a medium brown color that you can brighten or darken as you see fit.
- Darkens When Dry - Most acrylic paints do darken once they dry so you'll need to take that characteristic into account when using them. Pro tip: Restore your acrylic paints' brightness by sealing them with gloss varnish once they dry.
- May Dry Too Quickly - Since acrylic paints dry quickly, you may need to tighten up your work time, especially for techniques such as blending on the canvas. Acrylic paints can also dry quickly even while in your palette or brush thereby requiring you to replenish or load up more often. Pro tip: Extend your working time without affecting paint adhesion with Nova Color's Acrylic Retarder.
- Not All Surfaces - While acrylic paint sticks very well on porous surfaces, nonporous surfaces (like glass, metal, and some plastics) simply don't take acrylic, or any paint for that matter, very well. That said, it's not impossible to use acrylic paint on these surfaces and you can definitely do so if you prepare and prime the surface correctly.
- Can Be Hard to Remove Once Dry - Acrylic paints are easy to clean with soap and water while they're still wet. However, because they're so resistant to physical damage, you may have a harder time cleaning and removing them once they dry. Pro tip: Never leave unwanted acrylic paint to dry where they're not supposed to be, especially on your paintbrushes. Take time to protect and cover the surrounding area with a tarp or newspaper and always have a spray bottle of soapy water ready.
- Some Cheap Brands - Not all acrylic paints are created equal. Since acrylic paints are easier to manufacture, it's easier to find low-quality options on the market. Feel free to check out Our blog post on the difference between cheap and professional acrylic paints for a more detailed discussion.
What are Tempera Paints?
The term "tempera paint" was originally used to call a type of painting medium that used pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder, like egg yolks, to produce permanent and fast-drying works of art. This egg tempera was used as early as the 3rd century and was only superseded by oil paints when the 1500s came about.
Today's tempera paint (interchangeably referred to as "poster paint ") is a distemper paint that binds its pigment with materials such as starch, cornstarch, cellulose, gum-water, or another glue size. You can often find this type of paint contained in jars or bottles or a powdered form.
Let's use the modern definition of tempera paints as we move forward.
Since tempera paints also use water as a vehicle – like acrylic paints – they tend to dry within 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how thick the paint layer is and how hot and humid the environment is.
Advantages of Tempera Paints
Similar to watercolors, tempera paints are some of the earliest forms of painting media known to artists and have only been improved through the centuries. Today's poster paints possess certain characteristics that some artists find advantageous. These advantages include the following:
- Water-based - Tempera paints use water as a vehicle. Because of this, it's easy to change their viscosity with water, and cleaning them off is a breeze - even after drying.
- Safe and Odorless - Poster paints are safe to use and odorless. This means you can use them even in tight enclosed spaces like your bedroom or basement.
- Comes in Two Forms - Tempera paints can come in a variety of colors in both pots/bottles as well as powdered form. This allows for some interesting creative options.
- Quick-drying - Since this paint relies on water, it tends to dry fast and with a matte finish.
- Affordable - Tempera paints are common stock in every art store and come in a range of prices fit for any budget.
Disadvantages of Tempera Paints
Based on the above-mentioned advantages, you can see why new painters often confuse tempera paints with acrylic paints. Not only do they look the same, they tend to act the same way too.
That said, it has several disadvantages that set it apart from acrylic paint. These disadvantages include the following:
- Requires a Porous Surface - It's in the name. Poster paints are most often used on paper or cardboard because they require a porous surface. You can use poster paint on foam, wood, stone, or concrete but not on plastic, glass, fiberglass, or metal.
- Generally Less Durable - Tempera paints tend to crack, flake, or peel off over time, sometimes even after you seal them with varnish.
- Reactivates With Water - While it makes tempera paints easier to clean off and less staining, beginners may find poster paints confusing to work with because they tend to reactivate with water.
- Easily Muddied - Because it effortlessly reactivates with water, it's easier to muddy your colors when blending a new layer of poster paint on top of an existing layer.
What's the Difference Between Acrylic and Tempera Paints?
Now that you've gained a deeper understanding of both acrylic and tempera paints, how exactly do they differ from each other? To make it easier to compare these two popular painting mediums, let's look at them through the following factors:
1. Color Vibrancy and Opacity
When it comes to the richness and opaqueness of color, acrylic paints and tempera paints stand on equal footing.
This can be attributed to how both paints are formulated:
As you previously mentioned, acrylic paints have their pigments suspended in a polymer emulsion. This polymer emulsion binds the pigment particles together once the water dries, thereby allowing acrylic paints to hold their color and brightness over time.
Similarly, poster paints are made with pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder (like starch or another glue size). Just like acrylic paint, the binder holds the pigments in place once the water evaporates.
To the untrained eye, it can be hard to tell each paint from the other once they dry. However, poster paints tend to dry flat and matte, while acrylics leave a smooth glossy finish.
2. Mixing and Blending
When it comes to mixing and blending, it's a win for acrylic paints.
While acrylics can be difficult to blend because of their quick drying time. You can easily extend their working time by adding either acrylic medium or acrylic retarder. The quick drying time shouldn't be much of a problem when it comes to blending.
In contrast, poster paints tend to effortlessly reactivate with water, so you'll usually get a muddied mix of colors instead of achieving your desired blending effect.
3. Health and Safety Considerations
Both acrylics and tempera paints are generally safe to use as long as they're used as intended by the manufacturers and with health and safety in mind.
For instance, acrylic paints' synthetic polymers can release harmful fumes when heated or burned, so it's important to keep them away from open flames or sources of heat.
Poster paints, despite the "non-toxic" label, should not be used as face or body paint and should be washed off with soap and water when they come into contact with your skin.
4. Cost and Accessibility
When it comes to cost and accessibility, tempera paints take the win, but with some caveats:
Tempera paints are generally cheaper, easier to clean up, and require fewer supplies compared to acrylic paints. All you really need is a brush, some water, and some poster paints and you're all set.
While acrylic paints cost a bit more than tempera paints, they're also more durable, versatile, and can be used on a wider range of surfaces. Not to mention the fact that acrylic paints are also blendable, leave a smoother finish, and are longer-lasting.
Acrylic and Tempera Paints: Which One is for You?
Tempera paints are just as vibrant and opaque as acrylic paints. They're also quick-drying and cost less than acrylic paints.
Acrylic paints are simply more versatile, blendable, more durable, and leave a smoother finish. While they may cost a bit more, you do get what you pay for when it comes to how the paint performs.
So, between acrylic and tempera paints, which one is right for you?
We'll have to go with acrylic paints on this one. While it's certainly possible to make rudimentary arts and crafts with tempera paints, acrylic paints are simply superior in comparison.