What's the difference between gouache, tempera and poster paint?

You may have heard about gouache, tempera and poster paint. But what are the differences between them? How can you decide which one is best for you?  

Here are some insights that might help you.

Table of Contents

Tempera

What is it?

Tempera is a semi opaque water based medium that cannot be reactivated. The pigments are mixed with a binder, traditionally egg yolk. A binder is mixed with pigments.

The word ‘tempera’ also refers to the paintings done with this medium.

In some countries, ‘tempera’ can be used for ‘poster paints’ as well, although it’s not the same paint!

The colors will last for hundreds of years, think about frescoes from Middle Ages.

A bit of art history

Tempera is a very ancient medium, known by early Egyptians. You can see in the Louvre museum some mummy portraits (approx. 250 AD) painted with tempera.

This was the traditional way of painting before oil painting was discovered, early 1500. Tempera was used for ome of the most famous paintings, like the ‘Birth of Venus’ by Botticelli.

What it's meant for

It’s meant to be used on a hard substrate, like wall or wood, with a primer: plaster or gesso.

If you paint it on paper, it will crackle over time, as it’s not flexible. It’s best to use it in thin layers to get depth in colors.

A review of egg tempera paint

Why using it?

If you want to have your art seen in hundreds of years

Maybe you like the matte finish without reactivating the paint

If you feel like MichelAngelo that it’s the perfect medium.

Gouache

What is it?

Gouache is an opaque water based medium that can be reactivated. Binder and other additives are mixed with pigments, usually arabic gum (dried sap of the acacia tree), or dextrin for cheaper brands.

There is a higher proportion of pigments in the mix than watercolor, which helps opacity.

The size of pigments particles is medium, meaning they will sit on top of the paper, and infuse the paper. This allow the paint to be lifted and reactivated.

A bit of art history

A very old tradition of gouache can be found in Art history. From ancient Egypt to illustrated manuscripts.

Tubes were invented during the 19th century, allowing plein air painting.

During the 20th century it was used by animation to paint the celluloids.

Matisse used it in large colored papers that he cut to make his series of collages.

What it's meant for

Traditionally used for studies by dozens of painters. It was also heavily used for illustrations.

You can paint on a lot of different substrates.

Easy to carry, easy to clean, drying fast. A very versatile medium indeed!

Why using it?

To achieve a matte finish, to be able to layer, to have textures and transparencies… the only downside is the size of tubes, you cannot really go large!

Poster paint

What is it?

Poster paint is an opaque water based medium that can be reactivated. The pigments are mixed with a binder, usually dextrin or corn starch.

Poster paint can also be found in powder, to be diluted. The size of pigments particles is large, meaning they will sit on top of the paper. This allow the paint to be lifted, and the colors are really opaque.

Colors will fade over time.

A bit of art history

It’s mainly used for printing purpose, meant to make an original that will be printed later, so lightfastning is not an issue.

Studio Ghibli use it for backgrounds. The background artist Kazuo Oga works on wet paper, increasing the thickness of layers and the level of details. You can see his process here

What it's meant for

It’s meant for reproduction, not display, so it’s used by illustrators, commercial, animation.

It’s also used a lot by children, as it’s less expensive than gouache.

Why using it?

If you need extremely opaque colors, achieve flat surface, achieve great gradients, and need to scan your art.

Conclusion

I hope that now you see the differences between tempera, gouache and poster paint, and that you can choose the one that suits you.