What Is Distemper Paint?

dripping paintbrush
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Distemper paint is an ancient type of paint that can be traced back to the earliest eras of human history. It is an early form of whitewash made of water, chalk, and pigment, and it is often bound with an animal-based glue-like egg 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.

The Uses of Distemper Paint

Historically, distemper has been a popular interior paint for homes. In fact, it has been used since antiquity for painting walls and other types of house decoration. It is easily marked, but cannot get wet. Because it's not waterproof, it has been used almost exclusively for interior surfaces. Only in regions that seldom, if ever, see rain can it be used outside.

Despite these disadvantages, 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 quickly, and any mistakes can be wiped clean with a wet rag. Other than its durability issue, it really is a great interior house paint.

Though it saw continual use from ancient Egyptian times to the end of the 19th century, the advent of more durable oil- and latex-based house paints has rendered distemper obsolete. The exceptions are instances of historic and period-authentic structures, where distempered surfaces continue to be maintained. It also remains 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. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York even has a collection of Tibetan and Nepalese works in distemper on cloth or wood. Unfortunately, as distemper on canvas or paper is less age-resistant, there are few surviving examples.

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

Distemper Paint Versus Tempera Paint

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

The main distinction is that tempera is thick and durable, which is why it's often used in artwork. Distemper, on the other hand, is thin and impermanent. 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 paint today.

Make Your Own Distemper Paint

To make your own distemper, you will need whiting, the white, chalky powder and either size (a gelatinous substance) 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.