Where Did Distemper Paint Come From?

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, bound with either an animal glue or the adhesive qualities of casein (a resin that comes from solidified milk). As opposed to tempera, distemper paint is thin and not durable, but can be made inexpensively and tinted nearly any color.

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 wall painting and other types of house decoration either on interior surfaces or outside in regions that seldom, if ever, see rain.

Distemper is much less expensive than oil paints, and as such 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, except in instances of historic, period-authentic structures, where distempered surfaces continue to be maintained, and 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.

Also Known As:

peinture à la colle

Examples

"Love, when it is ours, is the other name for self-abnegation and sacrifice. When it belongs to people across the airshaft it means arrogance and self-conceit. The bride crossed her oxfords and looked thoughtfully at the distemper Cupids on the ceiling." - O.

Henry, The Voice of the City: Little Speck In Garnered Fruit.