It’s a Piece of Tempera Cake!

Do you think choosing the correct paint to is easy? I don’t! I wish choosing paint was a piece of cake, but I find it takes a lot of trial and error.

One art supply I have a love-hate relationship with is tempera cakes. The consistency is between tempera and watercolor. I have great success with watercolor paints in lessons and like having enough little palettes that student can each have their own.

When it comes to Tempera cakes, however, I have been experimenting with different brands to find my sweet spot, and I am still torn!

Round Tempera Cakes


I started out with the round tempera cakes. I order them in bulk and snap in a new cake whenever one runs out. I like this kind because they are slightly translucent, the trays are easy to use and store, and the colors look pretty good.


What I don’t like is the dull, chalky texture that is left after the paint drys. I prefer something with a bit more sheen. I also dislike how much water can pool in the bottom of the trays, making for some interesting paint spills.

Square “BIGGIE” Cakes


These come in square form in little plastic containers. A colleague suggested to clip off the plastic top and pop them into a 9×13 cake pan. It easily fits 12 colors. I like these paints because the color is very bold. They are creamier and seem to be thicker and cover better. Another plus is that, because they are separate, I can just take out the colors that we need. Or, if a student needs a certain color, they can take it out of the pan and put it right beside them so they can easily reach. This is super handy!


The cake pans are a little heavy for students, so they can’t really help with passing them out. For this reason, I would opt for plastic pans next time. Also, these colors are SO bold sometimes they cover Sharpie outlining and can get a little dark if students use too much.

The Verdict

In the end, I use these fairly interchangeably. Sometimes I’ll choose one over the other based on what other type of media we’re working with. Both types are an investment. However, I find once I buy them, I don’t need to replace them for at least a year or two. Plus, I can buy individual replacements for colors we go through more quickly.

So tell me, do you love tempera cakes or hate them? How do you use them in the classroom?

Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • Honestly – I RARELY use tempra cakes due to what you just said — they are either too light and are super chalky when they dry or they are far too bold and cover anything I wanted to keep. So, I either go with watercolors or tempra paint. If I need A LOT of one color to do a wash type – I just water down some tempra paint and call it good. I am, however, trying out liquid watercolors. Other art teachers in my district swear by them — I am still unsure of how to use them best and store them — but I got a set to give it a whirl.

    • kristi-d

      I try to use all types of paint in my room – and love tempera cakes for a lot of reasons.  I also really like the liquid watercolors.  I made trays for the liquid watercolors using pie pans, plaster of paris, and 3oz plastic cups.  Sink 7 plastic cups in the plaster- you may need to put something in them to weigh them down (I may have hot-glued them in temporarily, it’s been awhile since I made these).  Put another cup inside each cup so that you can easily pour the liquid watercolors back in to the container.  While it seems like a lot of work in the beginning, these lasted me for years and the kids can use the plaster to blot their brush saving on the paper towels, too.  

      • I am definitely ordering liquid watercolors for next year!! Thanks for the tips!

    • Akurzawski

      With liquid water color I find that old plastic ice cube trays are fantastic. I put a piece of color masking tape on each edge to mark the colors for the kids. Then I just let them air dry after the project. Next time I need them I spray them down with water from a spray bottle and they are back to new.

      • Gail Scuderi

        Plastic egg cartons are great for liquid watercolors. I have only used the liquid tempera paint but am going to give the cakes a try next year. Thanks for the discussion!

  • I got to use the Biggie Tempera cakes with my high schoolers during student teaching for the first time. I loved how opaque they were. The kids would experiment with color mixing right on the cake, which was an interesting discovery for them, and I would just wash away the mixtures by running them under some water. It was a bit wasteful, but we had SO MANY I wasn’t worried about it.

  • Karen Mason

    I love using the tempra cakes with kindergarten. I can limit the palette when needed. I use the squares and they rinse easily when colors get mixed on the cakes. They do last forever. We have started calling them bubble paint, because if you want good coverage you need to stir until you get bubbles. I store them by color snapped shut in gallon ice cream buckets.

  • I agree, It’s a love/ hate! I used them religiously years and years ago when I was “art on a cart” They do last forever and a day! I have been thinking about using them again just for the convenience. Thanks for the likes/dislikes! :)

  • I bring them out when I need a break. . . mostly I use liquid watercolor and tempera. Think “MARCH MADNESS” when I want to paint but there are no days off and endless testing. . . that’s when I’ll bust out the tempera cakes to make my life manageable if we want to paint:)

  • Janis

    Great article! I think of my tempera cakes as the “hidden gems” of the art room. I can’t believe how much use I get out of them! I use Sax cake refills, although I supplement with the peach and brown Biggie squares. The Sax are great, bright colors, and they can go on anywhere from transparent to almost opaque. I don’t notice them as being too chalky. But they are no substitute for learning how to use tempera paint, or the fine art of watercolor. We use them primarily for cray-pas resists.

  • I LOVE tempera cakes; I buy the square ones, and put them in their own little tubs. Much less waste that way, and the colors don’t get mixed up.

    laurie dyer

  • Laura

    I love them. I use the square, keep them in the packaging like you do, but use a plastic tray. I also cut a paper to fit in the bottom of the tray, and painted a square for each color, so we can easily see which colors are missing. I also laminate the tray liner before I put it in there. Love, love, love them!

  • I love them.  They are the best for the younger age groups.  Less clean up, easy brush washing, and bright colors.  Plus, less color mixing when you are in a lesson hurry!!

  • Elizabeth A.

    I use tempra cakes occasionally in part because it gives the students some color choices with out wasting so much liquid tempra. Unfortunately, they can be very chalky. Does anyone have an idea on how to get them shiny? Is there a spray or a sealant that I can use to give them their shine back?

  • I just started using the tempera cakes for middle school instead of watercolor. Mostly becuase they are larger and they last longer than watercolors! My 1st set of cakes lasted 2 years! I also like having white and most watercolors do not. I make my kiddos mix to teach color theory so I like the simple 6 color try. The drawback of the chalky colors does bother me, but there is so much gain! On a side note, the best regualar tempera I have found is SAX versatemp. Excellent colors, long lasting, economical, and great color mixing. I won’t use anything else!

    • Heidi

      Do you have them mix on a separate tray, or directly on the paper? I have found it hard to do that with the tempera cakes, especially with little kids because theres so much process involved.
      a.) clean and dry the brush(to make sure all paint is out)
      b.) wet the brush and mix around in the paint – for a long long time, to get enough liquid paint on your brush.
      c.) transfer to another tray or palette
      d.) clean and dry brush to completely remove paint
      e.) wet brush
      f.) get more paint – rubbing brush around for another longish time.

      how do you do it?

  • Heidi

    I have used the biggie square cakes in sets of 12. Its not a replacement for using luscious liquid – good quality tempera paint. Its ok. Im interested in how you teach kids to thoroughly rinse their brush before they get a new color. These paints have so much dye in them, it takes quite a bit of scrub-scrub-scrub. And they HAVE to also Dab-Dab-Dab on paper towels. Despite my training them to do this, the cakes regularly get other colors on them, requiring me to wait for them to dry and then washing each one with a wet wash rag. Its been a lot of work setting up and cleaning up. I have large classes – 30 students, and use them for 1st-8th grade. I must say I am exhausted after a day of using these (or any other paints).

    What type of water container do you use? I am using cans, and they are way too small. Im worried about a larger can or container tipping over.

    Thanks, Heidi

    • Loudblonde

      I have very young kiddos but I turn cleaning brushes are into a game ” give it a bath… Then a towel dry”- meaning swish into the water then wipe to make sure it clean. Sometimes I add a little more. ” yellow is tattletale” because if the brush is not clean lighter colors give away laziness! Kiddos LOVE to repeat these rules back to me

    • Heart4Art

      I have a little mantra for changing colors. First of all whenever we paint, my elementary students have their work on what I call a ‘cover sheet’, which is a large heavy manila drawing paper that covers the table under their work with room to wipe brushes on and/or paint over the edge of their painting paper. Students repeat as I say and demo this mantra:
      Use it up, Wipe it off, then…
      Dip, don’t swish, wipe it on the cover sheet,
      Dip, don’t swish, wipe it on the cover sheet,
      Dip, don’t swish, wipe it on the cover sheet,
      Swish and get your next color.
      You’ll be amazed how clean their colors stay, AND, how clean the water bowl (Cool Whip/butter tub) stays!!! …a little cloudy, that’s all. If one kid swishes and ruins the whole bowl, they tell him what for and what part of the process he didn’t do! Sometimes students forget that they should wipe in a dry spot, including the area under their paper. So to help them remember, instead of cover sheet we say, ‘Dip, don’t swish, wipe it on a dry spot’. Just the other day a former student whom I hadn’t seen in years stopped by to say hello, and told me she was at a friend’s house who was painting and humming a little tune. This student said to her, “Are you humming the ‘Dip, don’t swish saying’? Talk about making my day!!! Catchy mantras help all kids to remember things, just like commercials do to us! Good luck

      • Alecia Eggers

        That is lovely! Thank you for sharing!!

      • thanks for that tip!

  • Pam

    I love them too, but I’ve had trouble getting them out of the plastic tray when I want to replace a “cake” that just has paint around the edge. Does anyone have any tips for getting them out?

    • Lucy

      I take a pair of scissors and hack away at it. I think a screwdriver would work better tho.

    • Alexa G

      I put a little bit of water in that color alone and let it soak. About an hour and you can pull the remaining “donut” out. Wait too long and it crumbles, which works too. I take the remainder and sort it into a plastic ornament tray to make giant pucks. I just mash them together while still wet.

    • Loudblonde

      Use paper/foil cupcake liners

  • Jordan Fields

    I’m scared of my tempera cakes. This is my first year teaching at the elementary level and I haven’t used mine yet. I just look at them and wonder what are you good for?

    • Loudblonde

      Never be afraid of art!!

  • Loudblonde

    I love them for kinder and first. But I am art-on-a-cart and expected to walk in a room then be completely done ( and everyone clean) in 45 min. Before That, I used to use them with tempera varnish- it makes them shine.