Tempera Paint vs. Finger Paint: Biggest Differences Explained

Two young girls with finger paint on their hands, faces, and clothing.

Art supplies are a staple for childhood gifts. You might want to give paint to children you know to keep them entertained or maybe exercise their minds and dexterity.

The first question you have to ask yourself is this: What kind of paint is best for my child?

Acrylic is permanent, so this may not be best for a child’s first use of paint. I wouldn’t even think about giving oils to a child under 12.

Paints like tempera are nontoxic and washable, and finger paints may be the first thing you think of when considering art supplies for a child, but what’s the real difference? 

What’s the difference between tempera paint and finger paint? While both tempera and finger paints are nontoxic and washable, tempera paints are generally thinner and can be used for a variety of applications. Finger paints tend to be thicker and are designed to be used solely as finger paint. Many finger paints, however, are indeed tempera paints.

If you’re curious as to what the best paint for your child may be or are wondering if one can be substituted for the other in a pinch, read on.

You’ll get an in-depth look at what the real differences are between the two types of paint, including styles of use and the advantages and disadvantages of both options.

Tempera Paint vs. Finger Paint: Differences 

The similarities of tempera and finger paints are pretty apparent.

They both have a variety of colors including glow-in-the-dark shades, and they are both easy to use with nontoxic and allergy-friendly varieties available.

Let’s dive into the main differences.

Is Tempera Paint the Same as Finger Paint? 

While it very much can be used as finger paint, tempera paint isn’t the same until someone decides to use it as finger paint.

For both paints, you can use a paint brush as well as sponges or other household items like towels to practice other techniques besides using your fingers.

Tempera Paint

An assortment of colors of tempera paints in jars sitting on a table.

Tempera paint is versatile and generally nontoxic but less permanent than other water-based paints like acrylic. (We explain the differences between tempera and acrylics here.)


Tempera is generally nontoxic, but the package doesn’t always tell you the exact ingredients used.

Marketed or homemade finger paints may be the safer alternative since they are meant for smaller children.


Tempera is thinner paint, smooth and easily spreadable on most surfaces. It tends to dry fast and may feel more chalky on your hands.

It may be more difficult to build up thickness if that’s something you’re after. It is made for producing poster-like art and flat details.


Tempera is very versatile on the number of surfaces it can be painted on and is more permanent than some types of finger paint, but it is still short lived compared with professional paints.

Some boast that it doesn’t crack or fade, but I distinctly remember paintings I made as a kid with tempera cracking and the colors looking very faded very quickly.

So while it is versatile on the majority of surfaces, you wouldn’t want to use it for professional projects unless the cracking and peeling is a part of your plan.

While you can get fun colors like fluorescents, the colors also usually end up somewhat muted after a while, and they do not compare with high-quality pigments in professional or even student-grade acrylics as a permanent medium. 


Since tempera isn’t generally permanent, it’s easy to clean up from most surfaces and fabrics with soap and water.


Tempera paint is overall more pricey than finger paints, but it is still an inexpensive paint.

You can generally expect to pay $20-$30 for a set with a variety of colors, like this 18-pack of washable paints.

U.S. Art Supply 18 Color Children's Washable...
  • A full selection of 18 unique eye-catching vibrant colors at your disposal
  • Perfect for the young aspiring artist, as these washable colors are fun, safe, and easy to use

Finger Paint 

Blue, red, green, and yellow finger paints beside some splatters on white paper.

Finger paint is the staple paint for getting kids interested in art for the first time. 


Finger paints may be the safer alternative since they are specifically meant for small children.

Store-bought finger paints are generally safe, but you always have to double check the fine details on the label even if it states that it is nontoxic.

While finger paints are designed so that they won’t be dangerous on skin or if kids get it in their mouths, no matter how safe a paint is, it isn’t designed to be ingested.

If you’re looking for paint for small children who may put it in their mouths, play it safe.

Some forms of finger paint can be homemade using household kitchen ingredients, including instant pudding mix.

If your little ones are still in the phase of putting things in their mouths, instant pudding finger paint may be the best medium for you and your kids. You’ll find an easy recipe here.


Finger paints are typically thicker than tempera paints.

They are easily mixed to create fun color combinations, and they have a smooth texture which feels pleasant on your hands while painting. 


Finger paints are mainly marketed for kids to smear around on their art books for an afternoon, but with the ability to make them with kitchen ingredients they can be used for “edible paintings” on cookies or cakes.

However, kids also aren’t always the ones finger painting. Finger paints can be used by adults who are looking for new mediums to try out.

You could reinforce varieties of them and make them more permanent with clear coats and mixed mediums as well.


Finger paints are easy to clean from most surfaces and fabrics with soap and water.


Finger paints are some of the cheapest paints available; most sets cost between $5 and $20.

Even sets that comes with foam brushes, sponges, rollers, and smocks, like this 48-piece set, are typically under $20.

Little Kids Art Set - Kids Art Supplies - 48 Piece...
  • 🎨PREMIUM NON-TOXIC, WASHABLE AND STRICT SAFETY TESTED - We include only the Highest Quality...
  • 👨🏼‍🎤COMPLETE ART SET - FREE APRON INCLUDED - Paint brushes for kids, Foam Texture...

Differences Between Tempera Paint and Finger Paint  

Tempera Paint Finger Paint
Safety: 9/10 Safety: 10/10
Consistency: Thinner Consistency: Thicker
Uses: For painting on multiple surfaces, less permanent Uses: For painting with hands, non permanent
Cleanup: Easy Cleanup: Easy
Price: $$ Price: $
Best for Ages: 4 – 12 years Best for Ages: 1 1/2 – 5 years

Can You Use Tempera Paint as Finger Paint? 

Absolutely! Sometimes companies do use tempera paint as their finger paints, and anyone can prepare tempera to be used by hands.

How To Make Finger Paint From Tempera Paint

While tempera paint could be used for finger painting, it’s a lot of fun to create your own finger paints by using just a few drops of tempera paint.

Chances are, kids will want to help mix them up, so break out the step stools and aprons, and let’s get started.

1. Pick Your Colors

Decide in advance how many colors you’d like to make, as this recipe (adapted from Preschool Express) can be either halved or doubled easily based on how much you need.

2. Combine Flour and Water

Mix 1 cup of flour with 2 cups of water, and heat for a few minutes in the microwave or on the stove until thickened. Stir every 30 seconds or so.

3. Add Tempera Paint

Separate your flour mixture into smaller containers – one for each color you’d like to make. Add a few drops of tempera paint to each cup, and stir well.

Add more color drop by drop until the desired shade is reached.


  • For some extra fun, try getting fluorescent or glow-in-the-dark colors.
  • Buy enough small jars or cups so that each painter has a container of each color.
  • Pick up some disposable water cups and hand towels for rinsing off their fingers for different colors.
  • You may also want to get some cheap clothing or aprons so there are less things to wash the paint out of later. 
  • Prepare your painting area before getting started. Covering the work table with newspaper will make cleanup a breeze.
  • Paint away!

Related Questions:

Is Poster Paint the Same as Tempera? 

Poster paint and tempera have different ingredients, and tempera paint tends to be higher quality, though many people dislike it because it flakes.

Both are meant to be used for poster-like art, however.

Can You Use Finger Paint With Brushes? 

Finger paint can be used with a variety of brushes if so desired. In fact, many finger paint sets come with foam brushes as well as shaped sponges, stamps, rollers with cute shapes or designs, and dragging tools like rakes for exploratory play.


Both tempera and finger paints are nontoxic, washable, and recommended for children, but technically, finger paint can be any colorful mush you decide to smear around with your hands, while tempera paint is exactly what the name says.

Overall, tempera is a generally nontoxic medium for less permanent projects and perfect for slightly older children, while finger paints, especially homemade, are the safest medium and the perfect paints for a small child’s first few painting experiences.








Last update on 2024-05-26 at 14:00 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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I am a writer and an artist taking opportunities every day to transform my dreams into reality. I love learning new things and am always creating and innovating. I worked as an Art Instructor, teaching painting and art techniques to artists of all levels and ages. I have hosted countless paint parties and taught children’s art classes both in my home as well as an art teacher at a Montessori school.