Where Did Distemper Paint Come From?

A Good, Cheap Paint for Temporary Projects

19th Century Mongolian distemper with highlights of gold, depicting Shakyamuni flanked by Chenrezig and Manjushri
19th Century Mongolian distemper. Wikimedia Commons

Distemper paint is an ancient type of paint made of water, chalk, and pigment. It is bound with either an animal glue or the adhesive qualities of casein, a resin that comes from solidified milk.

The primary problem with distemper paint is that it is not durable. For this reason, it is used more often for temporary or inexpensive projects rather than fine art. Historically, distemper has been a popular interior paint for homes.

The Uses of Distemper

Distemper is an early form of whitewash. As a decorative paint, it is easily marked and cannot get wet. It has been used since antiquity for painting walls and other types of house decoration. Because it's not waterproof, it has most often been used on interior surfaces. In regions that seldom, if ever, see rain, it can be used outside.

Distemper is much less expensive than oil-based paints. Due to this, it was also used for posters and scenic backdrops on the stage. It has almost never been used for fine art paintings.

Though it saw continual use from ancient Egyptian times to the end of the 19th century, the advent of oil- and latex-based house paints have rendered distemper obsolete. The exceptions are instances of historic and period-authentic structures, where distempered surfaces continue to be maintained. It's also somewhat common in theatrical presentations and other short-term applications.

Distemper Paint in Asia

Distemper has been used extensively in Asian painting traditions, especially in Tibet. As distemper on canvas or paper is less age resistant, there are few surviving examples. The Metropolitan Museum of New York has a collection of Tibetan and Nepalese works in distemper on cloth or wood.

In India, distemper wall paint is a popular and economical choice for interiors.

Distemper Paint vs. Tempera Paint

There is some confusion about the difference between distemper and tempera paints. Some people say that distemper is a simplified form of tempera paint, though there are significant differences.

The main difference is that tempera is thick and permanent, which is why it's often used in artwork. Distemper, on the other hand, is thin and not permanent. Both are made with natural components and require just a few ingredients. However, because of the permanence issue, tempera is used more often than distemper today.

Make Your Own Distemper Paint

Distemper does have its disadvantages, but it was a popular paint for so long because it is cheap and provides good coverage in just a couple of coats. It also dries fast and any mistakes can be wiped clean with a wet rag. Other than its durability, it really is a great interior house paint.

To make your own distemper, you will need whiting, the white, chalky powder, and size or animal glue to act as the binder. Water is used as the base and you can add any pigment you like to create an infinite variety of colors.