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What is tempera painting?

The history of tempera painting merges with that of the image itself. In the past – until the end of the middle Ages – tempera colors were, in fact, the most used by artists. The term ‘tempera’ derives from the archaic Italian ‘Tèmpra,’ which refers to the typical movement of mixing the various ingredients of the dye to make the color the right consistency. What is the history of this painting technique? How were tempera colors produced? Let’s see it together in this post introducing the world of tempera paint!

The history of tempera painting

Tempera painting was not born yesterday, nor the day before yesterday. No work has come down to us, but thanks to written sources, we know that even in ancient Greece, tempera colors were prevalent, especially for the encaustic technique, which consisted of mixing melted wax with colored pigments. The oldest tempera paintings we know, in any case, are those relating to the Etruscan period: this Italic population used to use tempera colors to decorate their tombs. The Romans, of course, also used tempera.

To testify the wide use of this technique in Roman times, as well as the excellent results achieved in those years, there are the portraits of the Fayyum: we are talking about a series of wooden tables painted with tempera and found in an Egyptian cemetery, in an area that, at the time of the Ptolemies, was composed mainly of Greek colonists. Most of these tables are painted with the encaustic technique, which seems to have reached its highest levels: the vivacity of the colors creates a solid impressionistic effect that, even today, leaves one entranced. The excellent conservation of these panels, it must be emphasized, is due to the arid climate of Egypt: in Greece and Italy, these paintings would have had no chance of reaching us.

The composition of tempera colors

You know, once upon a time, artists could not rely on a shop of accessories and paints for painting and cool drawing ideas, much less on e-commerce dedicated to the world of art capable of delivering products to your home in just 48 hours! The painters themselves – mostly apprentices – prepared the tempera colors in the various workshops, mixing and tempering the different necessary substances. There were various binding substances: yolk, albumen, glue, fig latex, rubber (of all types), resin, wax, oils.

Therefore, there was no objective standard, even if it can be said that, in general, the most classic tempera colors were those based on egg yolk (whereas egg white was instead widely used for decoration of miniatures and missals). To distinguish tempera colors from other colors, in any case, there is their solubility in water. Together with the binders, of course, the basic dyes, or the pigments, were mixed. Some were common and cheap, while others were downright rare and expensive.

The main characteristics of tempera colors

It is pretty common to present the fundamental characteristics of tempera colors starting from their differences compared to the more used oil colors. Among their advantages, therefore, there is undoubtedly the speed of drying. But that’s not all: they are water-based and make using these colors easier, which can dilute more easily. To wash the brushes and the materials used, use running water, at the most with the help of special detergents for the gouache.

The same advantages of tempera painting, however, can also become disadvantages. Like a two-sided coin, the rapid drying of these colors can prove to be an obstacle: the shades become more complex, and the creation of details that require lengthy wet processing becomes a real challenge.

Everything you need for tempera painting

Among the advantages of this painting, the technique should also include its cost-effectiveness: the products required are lower and, in any case, less expensive than those needed for the oil painting. Due to the low price and the minimum material required to start, it is a technique that is recommended for beginners or school children. In short, if you want to give it a try without spending a fortune, tempera is an excellent idea to start painting.

Tempera colors to start

Let’s start with the colors since that’s what we’re talking about! There are the classic tempera paint tubes on the market, and many brands, such as Maimeri and Talens, also offer primary color sets, perfect for those who want to start from scratch with the bare essentials. For the first painting sessions, thanks to the ease in mixing the different colors, starting from the primary colors, from white and black, it is, in fact, possible to reconstruct any desired color. So you won’t need sets of 50 colors! As you become more experienced, you can purchase the colors you need individually!

The brushes for painting in tempera

In addition to the tubes, the artist must count on a range of brushes of different sizes, which can be both soft and bristle – it will be the artist himself, based on the work to be done, to choose which material to prefer. Furthermore, the painter who uses tempera colors cannot do without two jars of water – one to dilute the colors and the other to clean the brushes – a palette and a rag always within reach, to dry brushes their own hands.

Where can I buy cheap paints?

But this question has a straightforward answer! I know an online shop with various products, loose or set paints, and everything you need, such as brushes, paper, or painting supports.

What is the difference between tempera and acrylics? 

Tempera colors and acrylics might look almost identical to a beginner’s eyes. They share some characteristics, but they are not quite the same. The acrylic, thanks to its composition, is permanent, while the gouache is washable. Drying times are similar and fast, but the finish is opaque in tempera colors, while acrylics exist in both bright and opaque versions.


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