Acrylic vs Tempera Paint: What’s the Difference? Which Is Better?

Imagine that you have a spectacular art project in mind. As the images begin forming in your head, you start to plan for your supplies. Then, as you stand in front of a rack of craft paints, it hits you; you don’t know whether acrylic or tempera paint is best. Why? Because you aren’t sure about the differences.

The main difference between acrylic and tempera paint is in their composition. Due to the makeup, acrylic is more durable, glossier, and thicker and is better suited for traditional art projects. Tempera paint is thinner, faster drying, and easier to clean up, even after drying.

If you need to select the best paint for your upcoming project, comparing and contrasting acrylic vs. tempera paint helps. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Acrylic Paint?

What Is Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is water-based paint featuring synthetic polymer compounds with gum arabic-based binders. It uses granular solids as pigments, so the coloring itself doesn’t dissolve. Instead, it’s suspended in the polymers and held in place by the binder.

When drying, water evaporates out of the acrylic paint. In the end, essentially, only the pigments, binder, and polymers remain. This makes the paint durable. Plus, it gives it a nice, glossy (or semi-glossy) finish and toughness.

Acrylic paint is also buildable, thanks to the polymers. It will hold a shape with relative ease, making it great for palette knife painting or brush techniques designed to create a lot of texture.

Overall, acrylic paint is relatively thick. That’s part of the reason it holds it shape well, making it possible to imbue texture into paintings or projects. However, if the acrylic paint is too thick for your liking, you can thin it easily. Usually, you can simply add water.

If you add water to acrylic, it’s usually best to go with distilled water. That way, there aren’t any minerals or particles in the water that could impact the pigments or texture.

Many acrylic paints are non-toxic. However, some may contain potentially harmful ingredients. Usually, it’s the pigments that may be dangerous, as some are known carcinogens. However, alternative pigments can provide the same hue without the risk. If you’re concerned about toxicity, focus on non-toxic acrylic paints when looking for products.

What Is Tempera Paint?

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Tempera paint can refer to multiple kinds of water-based paints. Usually, when people think of tempera paint, they envision the classic options you find in craft stores or schools.

Craft-level tempera paint is a water-based option featuring a simple composition. Along with pigments and water, you’ll find calcium carbonate, the same material that’s in chalk. There can also be starches present, such as corn starch.

Usually, this version of tempera paint is designed with washability in mind. Additionally, they are commonly non-toxic. That’s why it’s commonly found in schools and why many products in this category are marketed toward children.

Typically, craft tempera paint is creamy. It doesn’t hold its shape as well, so it may drip or flatten as it dries if applied in thicker globs. Additionally, it’s harder to build with tempera paint.

However, there is another version of tempera paint. Professional-quality versions usually feature egg or milk products in their compositions. The egg or milk acts as the binder, while gums may serve as dispersants for the pigments.

Egg tempera paint is more durable and buildable. Additionally, it’s less washable. Finally, egg tempera paint may or may not be non-toxic. Mainly, that depends on the pigments, though other ingredients may be a factor, so artists should keep that in mind when considering their options.

Acrylic vs Tempera Paint: Key Points

Acrylic vs Tempera Paint

If you’re looking at the simplest way to see how tempera and acrylic paint differ, examining specific key points is the best option. That way, you can conduct a quick comparison at a glance, potentially letting you figure out which paint is best for your project in just a few moments.

Here is a quick overview of acrylic vs. tempera paint.

 Acrylic PaintTempera Paint
CompositionWater-based featuring synthetic polymer compounds with gum arabic-based binderWater-based with some versions featuring food-based binders (typically egg or milk)
DurabilityStrong adhesion that can stand up to some scrubbing and wear-and-tear. Resists fading over timeEasily scrubbed or scraped off from most surfaces. Loses vibrancy over time when exposed to light
Dry Time20 minutes to several hours, depending on thickness and other factors5 minutes to one hour, depending on thickness and conditions
OpacityGood opacity, providing reasonable coverage in a single passExcellent opacity, providing reliable coverage in one pass
WashabilityWashable when wet, not when dryWashable wet or dry, including from fabric
TexturePlastic-like and stiff with semi-gloss to glossy finishMatte
Shelf Life5 to 10 years depending on the product line and how it’s stored2 to 5 years, depending on the product line and storage approach
CostAffordable for entry-level and intermediate versions, though high-end, professional acrylics can run from mid-priced to expensiveAffordable for entry-level and intermediate paints. Professional level versions can range from mid-priced to high-cost.
Application / UsesPaper, wood, ceramic, canvas, metal, fabricArt projects on paper, poster board, cardboard, paper mache, and similar materials

Is Tempera Paint Acrylic?

No, tempera paint is not acrylic. While both paints are water-based and might feature similar pigments, the rest of their characteristic compositions differ.

Acrylic paints feature specific binders and polymers that you don’t find in craft tempera paint. Additionally, while egg tempera paint can contain gums for better dispersion, they also don’t have the same polymers that you find in acrylics.

What Is the Difference Between Acrylic and Tempera Paint?

Difference Between Acrylic and Tempera Paint

While the chart at the start of the article should give you some solid insights into how acrylic and tempera paint stand apart, taking a closer look is wise. That way, you can learn more about how the two paints differ, making it easier to decide which version is best for your next project.

Here’s a deeper dive into the differences between acrylic and tempera paint.


When it comes to composition, things are relatively straightforward with acrylics. Acrylic paint is water-based. It features synthetic polymer compounds with a gum arabic-based binder, creating a workable, thick paste that can be applied to a wide range of surfaces.

Things are a bit more complex with tempera paint. Technically, there are multiple kinds. First, there’s the version you see in most craft stores. These water-based paints usually have simple compositions, featuring calcium carbonate and starches, such as corn starch.

Professional quality tempera paint is different. While they are still water-based, there’s also egg along with the pigments and gums. The gums act as dispersants, while the egg serves as a binder. Often, these versions are called egg tempera paints, specifically because the egg is present in the mix.

In some cases, top-tier tempera paint may feature milk instead of egg. However, this is far less common.


On the durability side of the equation, acrylic outperforms tempera. Most craft-oriented tempera paints are easy to scrape off a surface once dried, so much so that the paint may wear away quickly even with casual contact. In comparison, acrylic is incredibly resilient. It isn’t easy to scratch off surfaces and stand up to wear and tear well.

It’s important to note that professional-quality egg tempera paints are far more durable than the more typically used craft versions. However, it still isn’t as tough as acrylic. It can be scraped off when dry, though it does take some effort.

Dry Time

If you’re comparing the drying times of acrylic and tempera paint, they come out reasonably close. Tempera paint comes out a bit ahead, with the shortest time between just 5 minutes. However, acrylic might be dry in as little as 20 minutes. Plus, depending on conditions and specific factors, it could take either paint a bit longer to completely dry, though usually no more than one or two.


When it comes to opacity, the winner of the acrylic vs. tempera paint debate is tempera. This craft paint contains calcium carbonate, which is found in chalk. This allows tempera paint to provide exceptional coverage and top-tier opacity, especially in a single pass.

However, that doesn’t mean acrylic doesn’t do a solid job in opacity. In many cases, it provides ample coverage in a single pass unless you’re using very little paint or a delicate touch. Still, tempera paint makes achieving complete coverage far easier.


Since acrylic and tempera paints are water-based, they wash up easily when the paint is still wet or damp all of the way through. Usually, you can handle errant drips with ease. Additionally, cleaning up brushes right after use may require little more than some water and a bit of manual manipulation.

Once the paint dries, things change a bit. Craft-level tempera paint is washable in any state, including fully dry. You can typically remove it from any surface type with water and elbow grease. However, there’s a chance that some pigments could stain underlying materials, especially if the paint remains in place for an extended period or the material is porous.

With acrylic paint, removing it once dried is harder. You might need to use rubbing alcohol, acetone, or vinegar to get dried acrylic paint out of brushes. The same is true if you’re trying to remove acrylic paint from work surfaces, flooring, or other areas where it dripped while working on your project.

Professional grade egg tempera also isn’t washable to the same degree as the other kind of tempera paint. As a water-based paint, it can be cleaned up when wet without much issue. However, when it dries, its washability is more akin to acrylic.


Acrylic and tempera paints do have different consistencies. Usually, acrylic paint is pretty thick, so much so that a glob may maintain its structure for quite some time.

Tempera paint is thinner. Most would characterize the working consistency as creamy. If a glob is left, it will typically spread, at times quite quickly.


Tempera and acrylic paints dry a bit differently. With tempera, you’ll get a result that looks and feels matte. There’s a slight grab if you run your finger across it when dry, though it is subtle. Tempera paint also tends to remain fairly flat, though large globs will create a bit of a rise.

With acrylic paint, the final appearance is plastic-like. The finish is usually in the semi-glossy to glossy spectrum, and it’s relatively smooth to the touch. Additionally, it has a stiff quality, making it incredibly buildable.


In the acrylic vs. tempera debate, here’s a point where the two options are neck-and-neck. Overall, you won’t find any issues in mixability, as either paint type blends with other shades of its respective type with ease.

With acrylic and tempera paints, hand mixing is most common. Using a palette knife could be your best bet for acrylics due to their thickness. Since tempera is creamier, combining shades in a bowl with a stiff brush may work. Just be careful about dragging the brush across the bottom or letting the paint too far up into the bristles, as that can damage the brush.


There isn’t much difference between tempera and acrylic paint for entry-level and intermediate products when it comes to cost. However, in most cases, both are reasonably affordable.

Individual 8 to 16-ounce bottles usually run between $2 and $8 each, depending on the product line. For paint sets, they can cost between $8 and $70 in many cases, depending on the number of bottles, the color selection, and the bottle sizes.

Once you start getting to professional-quality paints, the cost goes up significantly. With top-tier acrylics, a single bottle can easily run more than $40 for just 5 ounces of paint. For professional-quality egg tempera, you might see prices starting at around $11, though some may cost well over $100.

Application / Uses

In most cases, acrylic paint is closer to a traditional artist’s paint. It will work well on paper, wood, ceramic, canvas, metal, and fabric, making it a versatile choice.

Craft tempera paint is generally best on paper products, including poster board, paper mache, and similar options. However, you could technically use it on wood, glass, or other materials; it just might not be the best choice.

With egg tempera paint, it’s possible to use it just like any other high-end artist paint, including acrylic. As a result, it’s a bit more versatile than the typical craft version.

Can You Mix Tempera and Acrylic Paint?

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Generally speaking, even though they are both water-based, you shouldn’t mix acrylic and tempera paint. The calcium carbonate, egg, or milk products in the tempera may not play nicely with the polymers and binders in acrylic.

Since there are composition differences in the paint, the final consistency might not be ideal, and the colors may not fully blend. As a result, you’re better off only mixing acrylic with acrylic and tempera with tempera.

Additionally, you’ll want to limit mixing tempera paints to those of the same type. Only combine the craft tempera paints with those of that kind. The same goes for egg tempera paint or the versions featuring milk products.

Tempera Paint vs Acrylic Paint on Canvas

If your goal is to paint on a canvas, craft-level tempera paint isn’t your ideal option. The paint may crack and fade over time. Plus, the paint isn’t particularly durable, making it a far less suitable choice than acrylic.

However, egg tempera paint has a different composition, but it still isn’t great for canvas. It lacks flexibility, which can lead to cracking and chipping. Egg tempera needs ample support if you want longevity out of the project, so keep that in mind when choosing a backing.

How to Make Tempera Paint into Acrylic

Technically, you can’t turn tempera paint into acrylic. Their compositions are different. You can’t remove the components in tempera that aren’t present in acrylic or introduce ingredients found in acrylic that aren’t typically in tempera.

However, you can thicken tempera paint to make it act a bit more like acrylic. Options like flour or corn starch may work, though there is a chance it could make the paint gritty.

If you’re more concerned about getting the durable, glossy finish you’d get with acrylic, you could use a sealant to change the appearance of acrylic paint. For example, a water-based spray-on clear coat could reduce color fade, add shine, and potentially limit cracking, so it’s worth considering if you want to make a tempera paint project look more like acrylic.

Tempera Paint vs Watercolor

Acrylic vs Watercolor

Tempera paint and watercolor paint have a bit in common. Both are considered semi-permanent, as they’re resoluble in water. Additionally, water-based paints can be thinned with water and easily cleaned up when wet or dry.

In most cases, watercolor paint – like tempera – is even washable. If it gets on fabric, a trip through the washing machine or some light scrubbing with a gentle cleanser can remove watercolor from many materials. Additionally, if the pigments are light, there may not be any staining after removing the watercolor paint, though that may depend on the pigments used.

It is important to note that some watercolors aren’t as washable. Professional-grade versions often have more pigments, making them harder to remove from fabrics without staining.

Acrylic vs Tempera Paint: Which Is Better?

Technically, neither acrylic nor tempera paint is inherently better than the other. Instead, they are simply better suited to different situations. Craft tempera paints are great for children and young artists working with paper products as a backer. They’re vibrant, easy to work with, and usually washable. Acrylics and egg tempera paints work better for classic art projects, including painting on canvas, ceramic, and other materials.

Did you find out everything you wanted to know about acrylic vs. tempera paint? If so, share your thoughts in the comments area below. Additionally, if you know anyone who could benefit from the information in this piece, please share the article.