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  • Writer's pictureMakalla Shernick

Tempera Paint

Health and Safety Disclaimer

When used properly, tempera paint is safe for use for all ages. Tempera paints are made of non-toxic pigments and water-soluble binders that do not pose a risk of harm. However, there is the possibility that some people will find the paint irritating to the skin or mouth. Further, swallowing a large amount of this type of paint could induce vomiting and other stomach issues. The Art and Creative Materials Insitiute’s (ACMI) is an organization that promotes safety in the manufacturing of art materials. They have two seals, AP and CL, that indicate the safety of a product for use with children and adults. The AP (Approved Product) Seal identifies art materials that are safe and that are certified by a medical expert to contain no materials in sufficient quantities to be toxic or injurious to humans, including children, or to cause acute or chronic health problems. The CL (Cautionary Labeling) Seal appears on products that are not hazardous if used correctly. These products should never be given to children in grade 6 or lower or anyone with a physical or mental handicap who is unable to read and understand safety labeling on packages. On the ACMI’s website, there is a tool you can use to search all AP or CL certified products by the ACMI. This can be a very handy tool in quickly deciding if a material is safe for use or not in a classroom setting.

Brands Compared: Sargent Art ($9.99 for 6 4oz primary colors), Crayola ($9.49 for 6 2oz primary colors), & Kwik Stix ($13.49 for 12 paint sticks)

Tempera paint, like most studio art mediums, is composed of powdered pigments and a binding agent. Traditionally, the binding agent for tempera is egg yolk. However, milk and plant gums are more commonly used in tempera paints today. Since tempera is made from organic compounds to ensure its non-toxicity, this means that it will eventually spoil. The use of tempera to paint dates back to ancient Egypt and is most recognizable for its use in medieval paintings. Today, however, tempera paint is most commonly used by students because of its low cost, vibrant colors and non-toxic nature. Many renowned artists throughout history have used tempera to create master artworks. The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence is a, “60-panel series portraying the Great Migration, the flight of over a million African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North following the outbreak of World War I.” This phenomenal and influential work by Lawrence explored “big ideas” of struggle, hope, triumph, and adversity using tempera paint.

The three types of tempera paint I used varied greatly in quality. The cheapest tempera paint, Sargent Art, was thinner in consistency and had less color brilliance. While at almost double the cost per ounce, the Crayola tempera had a higher viscosity and was easily the most pigmented of all the brands I compared. The Kwik Stix, on the other hand, had the least amount of pigment color.

Tempera can be a great medium for any age group. It is commonly used in children’s, K-5, art projects. The paint is water soluble with a smooth consistency and good opacity. In very young children who are still developing their motor skills, Pre-K and Kindergarten, tempera is used for finger painting. Using easily disposable cups to prepare paint for children can save on clean up time. For secondary student applications, tempera is a flexible and useful medium for “craft-like” projects. It can be used on paper, cardboard, cloth, wood, or canvas. It dries quickly and does not take long to clean up after use. This makes it agreeable to the limited time students have to work on their art projects. Further, since it dries quickly and evenly, projects using tempera paint can even be taken home if needed. I found a really great lesson for students when researching using tempera in a classroom setting. Using an interesting method called “tempera resist,” students explore art history, expression and meaning in the human figure, and apply the principles of design in relation to composition. Art Lesson: Tempera Resist Project (Grades 3-12) PDF

I hadn’t used tempera paint since I was in primary school. I really enjoyed my studio exploration with this medium, and now view it in a different light. As opposed to my initial prejudice of this being a “childish” medium, I found using tempera to be personally intuitive to use. It was natural for me to use the paintbrushes and various colors to convey expression. The primary tempera colors were easy to mix together and create secondary colors. They also combined well with water to create different levels of opacity of color. I got the idea to experiment mixing water and tempera in my exploration from the Exploring Studio Materials textbook. This text was also very useful in identifying additional materials I would need. Clean water, brushes, paper towels, and something to mix paint on (I chose Blick palette paper). By the end of my studio exploration, I began to appreciate tempera and the brands I was using for different reasons. The Crayola brand tempera was thicker in consistency and was able to create thicker textures when painting. Also, these colors were very bright and true to the hues I am used to using in other types of paint, like oil and acrylic. The Sargent Art tempera paints may have lacked the same color brilliance, however I found them easier to mix together

with different colors and water. To my surprise, despite the Kwik Stix lacking the same color quality of the liquid tempera, I found the tempera paint sticks really enjoyable to use. The sticks were solid, soft, and glided across the paper and canvas panel I used in my exploration. Instead of using the Kwik Stix as a true painting medium, as they are advertised, I found myself using them more as a mark making tool. Overall, tempera was a simple and fun medium to use. The only potential negatives to using tempera is how quickly it dries and the matte finish. If one is not aware of those aspects before starting their artwork, it could impede on the finished quality of the work.

After completing this studio exploration, I feel very confident in my ability to teach this medium to students. An aspect I will have to improve upon is my ability to teach students who have no prior experience using paint or brushes. How will I be able to teach young children to hold brushes and use them properly? Or how will I be able to show older students to create 3-dimensionality in a medium that naturally lends itself to 2D armaking? By improving my skills, both basic and advanced, I can become more informed in my teaching of tempera across all age ranges.

For my completed artwork in tempera paint, I set out to explore combining the liquid paint and the paint sticks together. I wanted to experiment with layering the paint and creating visual interest with patterns and shapes.

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