Tempera, often called egg tempera, is an ancient type of paint and painting that pre-dated oil paint in popularity. Many ancient Egyptian and Western Medieval paintings were tempera, and the paintings of Michelangelo and Botticelli are tempera. Tempera was the most popular form of painting until the 1500s, when it was replaced by oil paint. Some artists today still paint in tempera. 20th century American Andrew Wyeth is the most famous modern egg tempera painter. The paint usually has the color pigment mixed in egg yolk, thus the name egg tempera.
Due to the distinct paint qualities, tempera has a look and feel much different to oil painting. Tempera paint is thin in consistency and dries very fast. This means the artist painstakingly paints in careful, thin brush strokes and slowly adds up the lines to create the overall detail. When you look closely at at a tempera, the graphics are usually made up of thin lines, often overlapping and cross hatching to build up color and detail. These lines mean the painting often closely resembles a color pencil drawing or pastel painting.
There are no big, bold brush strokes and thick globs of color as can appear on oil and acrylic paintings. Tempera paint is never thick on the canvas or board as with oil. Tempera paintings usually have a matte finish, whereas oil paintings tend to be glossy.
Tempera paintings tend to have overall brighter colors and with less contrast in the details. Notice the lack of contrast in the face of the Botticelli painting shown here. The shadows of her skin are lighter and more gradual than the stark dark to light that often appears in oil paintings. The lighter contrast is because the artist created the details and colors by carefully building them up thin overlapping line by thin overlapping line.