Acrylic or Tempera

There is disagreement among iconographers these days as to what is the proper media in which to create icons:  the traditional egg tempera or the modern material:  acrylic paint.  I myself usually opt for the traditional:  handmade gesso, a carefully prepared wooden board, and mixing my paints with powdered pigments and egg.  I find the rich glow of the tempera paints and the perfect surface of the gesso to be most beautiful. But there is much to be said for the convenience of modern inventions, especially under special circumstances.  It all depends on the situation.

I am writing an icon for someone who lives in a thatch-roofed mud hut in equatorial Africa.  The icon needs to be light enough to mail and will be small.  I will paint it on cardboard rather than a heavy wooden board, and mail it disguised as a greeting card to avoid theft.  I wondered about the high humidity there, and decided to seal it with gesso and paint on the front, back, and sides to protect the image from moisture.  Tropical areas have healthy insect populations, so I figured that the plastic qualities of acrylic paints might be less prone to damage than an egg-based paint.

So, here I go, repeating the same image that I have been practicing on, in an entirely different medium, but with the same hopes, prayers, and blessings with every brush stroke.


About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
This entry was posted in art, Catholic icons, Icon, Iconography, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Acrylic or Tempera

  1. I am interested to know why you use the word ‘writing’ and icon? As an artist surely you should be using the media that appeals to you the most? I appreciate that the gesso and egg is traditional. What do you think?

    • reinkat says:

      The environmental situation for this icon won out over my preferences. I do prefer the lush richness of egg tempera, but the fact is that dogs like to lick it and flies like to eat it . . . until it truly hardens through and through to fossil-hardness, it is vulnerable. After it hardens, it can last for centuries.

    • reinkat says:

      Oh, I forgot your first question: in brief, icons are referred to as “written” instead of “painted” because they are the equivalent of the Gospel, told in line and color. The Word of God in painted image, and thus “written”.

  2. geloruma says:

    Hi Catholic salmon
    (Hope I am not violating blog etiquette with my intervention as the question isn’t for me;)
    Egg tempera does have qualities that enable finer mark making than acrylics.
    So the use of egg tempera may not be for the sake of tradition alone.

    • reinkat says:

      and in this case it is for specific environmental considerations as well. thanks for your input.

      • geloruma says:

        yes I agree with you on the use of acrylics for the reasons you gave.
        I have heard the description of “writing” an Icon explained in more practical terms; Graphics, iconography etc use “graph” as part of a compound word pertaining to a variety of mark making: apparently there isn’t a word to describe painting as such; just mark – making. So Icons are “written” rather than painted.
        While Icon- ography (I am told ) relates to the image of God, Porno – graphy translates as images of evil. I ‘m not a language student so I can only repeat what was explained to me; I like the example you gave that the word of God is transposed into Images that communicate that word.

  3. Hi,
    I have used both acrylics and egg tempera in the painting/writing of icons/sacred images. I enjoy the use of both types of pigments. My most recent sacred images have been done in acrylic and I hope to post images of them on my blog in late August.
    One note of caution in using acrylics: make sure you have a good quality medium to mix with the acrylic pigment. Do not use water alone as your medium. I also lay down seven layers of warm white acrylic paint over the board to act as a quality foundation for the pigments. I use boards made by the Innerglow Painting Panels Company from Pennsylvania, they can be found at, great people and a fine product.
    The reason for using a compatible medium is that the chemistry of the acrylic pigments will be compromised by water alone. If you are using “Golden” brand of acrylics, obtain the acrylic medium that has been chemically adjusted by the Golden Company to compliment the Golden pigments.
    This medium will “bind” the pigment and assure its adhesion to the board or surface that you are putting it on. This chemical “binding” is critical for success. Once you have added the medium to the pigment you can then add some water to thin out your paints in order to obtain the layering that you desire.
    There is a richness and depth to the egg tempera that the acrylics do not have, however, when I teach the basics of iconography to adults I use acrylics to teach the process.
    After seven or more sacred images done in acrylic, and they have the basics of the process down, then I will switch them into egg tempera so they can experience the richness of that sacred art tradition.
    Having spent my career in teaching high school students, I learned early on that you have to make sure that the student has a grasp for the fundamentals of a process, and once they have the fundamentals down, you can then move on to more sophisticated levels of application.
    As you know, unless you are naturally talented, it takes a great deal of time, effort, and prayer to learn the “basics of the process.” I believe It is like the feeding of a young child – start them with hamburger and then, when they are ready, they will appreciate and be able to digest the steak!
    By the way, make sure you varnish it with a good quality varnish such as Utrecht’s all-in-one Acrylic Medium and Varnish combination which should be thinned down with no more than 20% water for fluid strokes. But be careful for this type of varnish dries very very quickly depending on the humidity in the room.
    One of my colleagues has had success using Minwax Fast Drying Polyurethane Varnish and she applies it with a foam brush (be careful of not pulling your gold with the foam brush).
    In any case practice with one or both of these varnishes on a plain board (that has had a small section of gold leaf applied to it) before putting it on your finished icon in order to see how they flow, its reaction to the gold leaf, and the drying time.
    Truly, practice before hand, I know the results of what happens when you don’t! :{(
    Best wishes in your acrylic adventures!

    • reinkat says:

      Thank you so very much for sharing your wisdom and experience. I read your advice carefully, and although I have put several coats of Golden Acrylic Gesso on the matboard, I went ahead and put a purer coat of the gesso with Golden matte medium on top, to make sure the paint adheres. There will be no gold on this icon, just paint. I have been using Golden products for the finish varnish as well. This is my first time using just a simple piece of gessoed matboard, though. It is what is called for.

      I was really interested in your recommendations for a finishing varnish. I am looking for a good matte varnish, and want to find something I can use on egg tempera as well. I have horror stories to tell with olifa, and also with beeswax, although if I have sufficient time to cure the paint (at least 6 months in my climate) I think beeswax is the most beautiful finish.
      At any rate, I won’t worry too much about it for this little icon, just as long as it is fully sealed, extremely lightweight, and unattractive to bugs. I think the Golden varnish will be just fine.

      Thanks again for the EXTREMELY helpful advice!

    • geloruma says:

      Hi Deacon Paul,
      I also found your post interesting, some of the products you mention aren’t available here in the U.K. My favourite ground is traditional animal based gesso, cheap and tough when done well, and takes a variety of mediums.
      Gold leaf is a pain to paint on , as you say best to test the mix first.

  4. What struck me was the loving gesture of painting an icon for that beautiful child in the thatch roofed hut in Africa. I hope the icon will make it to her without being stolen. How she will treasure it! It is a gift of beauty and faith from your heart and will warm hers.

    • reinkat says:

      Thank you, Sister. That the icon will eventually get to her is one of my prayers as I paint.
      I hope she will have it forever, to encourage her and remind her that somebody on earth prays for her, loves her, and cares what happens to her, as well as the fact that she is beloved by God.

  5. lilyboat says:

    wow.. don’t be shocked.. I’ve never heard of egg-based paint! It’s so interesting!! 😀

    • reinkat says:

      That’s okay–it all sounded pretty primitive to me but I’ve grown to love it!
      And I found out some people make paint out of milk, too. I have no idea how that works!

      • Milk-based paints were used for barns back in the 1800s! Counter-intuitively durable.
        Good luck with the acrylic project. I think you will like the control and the ability to be opaque and translucent. The fast drying could drive you mad though!

      • reinkat says:

        I do like it, surprisingly enough–and one of the things I like best IS the fast drying. Using slow-drying egg tempera in my humid climate makes for the development of a lot of patience. What takes 3 months in egg tempera can be completed in a week with acrylics . . .just because of the drying time in between transparent layers.

        I had no idea that barns were painted with milk paints. No wonder they were all red–they used local pigments and red clay is most abundant in most of the country. It makes total sense.

  6. Regarding writing Icons with acrylic paint, how do you work with first, second, and third lights? Do you apply them as 3 steps in the “apply the lights” step? Please if possible, share your steps when working with acrylics. Thank you for your time.

    • reinkat says:

      Thank you, Rayda, for your question. I don’t exactly follow the 3 “apply the lights” steps. I am in the process of creating (writing&illustrating with photography) a post that will detail the steps. Thanks for checking my blog, be patient–the visuals are all finished, but the writing is not yet there. Most of the time, at least when I do it correctly, you cannot tell from the finished product whether I used acrylic or egg tempera.

  7. Sister Therese says:

    I look forward to reading your blog on the steps followed in writing icons with acrylic. I was trained in the Prosopon School method using egg tempera, but am switching to acrylics and feeling my way. The powdered heavy metal pigments used to create tempera paint are toxic, and it is easy to create an aerosol when mixing them into egg yolk.

    • reinkat says:

      Hello Sister, thank you for taking time to comment. I hope to get to that post about acrylics as soon as our springtime “birthday season” comes to a close next month. It is good to know that someone out there is interested–a blog can feel like writing into a black hole sometimes!! So, thank you! I, too, was trained in the use of egg tempera, and I prefer it in some ways. But the simplicity of acrylics is also very compelling. I have about 10 basic tubes of Golden Acrylic colors, but also mix the powdered pigment with acrylic medium to expand the range and subtlety of my palette. It is fun to experiment. I hope my report on my results will be useful to you.

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