Air dry clay is an excellent non-toxic material for crafting and art projects.
It’s easy to work with and requires no special tools or equipment for kids and adults.
But the only drawback of this sculpting and crafting material is it’s not fired to cure – it is air dried.
Since air-dry clay isn’t cured in a kiln or an oven, it can crack and break if not properly cared for. This also means you should NEVER apply paint to wet, air-drying clay.
If you do, the paint will eventually chip and crack as the clay shrinks while drying.
So, does this mean you cannot paint or color the air-dry clay pottery you have made at home? No, I don’t mean that!
You can, but you must be strategic and follow specific instructions to do that successfully.
In this detailed step-by-step guide, I will walk you through various aspects of painting your clay pottery, including how to apply the color, the types of paints that are best for air-dry clay, and much more…
How Do I Paint Air Dry Clay Pottery?
Making pottery with air-drying clay is fun. You can use these decorative pieces as vases, planters, ornaments, and so on.
But to make them look attractive, you will have to give them a pop of color.
Now the big question is – how can you paint air-dry clay pottery?
It’s easy peasy!
You can do that in two ways…
- First, apply the paint to the outside of the clay pottery after it has dried completely.
- And second, by adding colored pigments to the air-dry clay mixture before sculpting or molding the pottery.
Let me explain both methods in detail so you can choose the one that best suits your needs.
Method 1: Painting Air-Dry Clay Pottery After It Has Dried Completely
This is the most common and probably the easiest method of painting air-dry clay pottery.
As the name suggests, in this method, you will have to paint the clay pottery after it has dried completely.
Here are the steps you need to follow…
Step 1. Dry and clean
Start by preparing the clay pottery. Make sure it is clean and dry (for at least 24-72 hours) before painting.
If dirt, fingerprints, or rough spots are present on the surface, gently sand them off with fine-grit sandpaper.
Step 2. Apply paint to clay pottery
Once the surface is smooth, add a thin layer of color to your clay pottery using a soft bristle brush or sponge.
Since the air-drying clay is porous, you don’t need to put a primer before painting.
Use any type of paint – acrylic, watercolor, or oil-based paint, and it will adhere and stay.
But I think acrylic is the paint you should choose for air dry clay as it’s suitable for use on clay and ceramic.
Put up the first coat of paint; after it has dried, put up 1 or 2 additional coats based on the finish and the desired color strength you need to achieve.
Step 3. Seal the air-dry clay pottery
Finally, seal the acrylic paint on pottery with a clear varnish sealant (preferably the water-based acrylic sealer) to protect the color from fading.
If you want to create a high-gloss finish, epoxy resin can also be a suitable sealant for air-dry clay pottery projects.
Allow it to dry for at least 24 hours before using or displaying it as a decorative piece.
Method 2: Adding Color to Air-Dry Clay Before Sculpting or Molding
If you want to add color to your clay pottery before sculpting or molding it, you can do that too.
This is a great way to add some pizzazz to your pottery without having to paint it after it has dried.
Here’s how you can do that…
- Start by mixing the air-dry clay with water in a bowl.
- Add the desired amount of paint pigments to the clay and mix it well until the color is evenly distributed.
- Now, you can use this colored clay to sculpt or mold your colored pottery.
- Let the colored clay pottery air dry completely before handling it.
In this method, the color is mixed in the porous clay very well – so it will not fade away, peel or distort even if you don’t seal it with a clear coat.
How Can I Test Air-Dry Clay’s Dryness before Painting?
Testing the dryness of clay is essential before painting it because if the clay is not dry enough, the paint will not adhere to the surface properly, and your finished work can even result in cracks.
The best way to test air-dry clay’s dryness before painting is by doing a touch test.
Press your finger lightly against the surface of the clay. If the indentation remains, it means the clay is still wet and not ready to be painted.
But if the surface pops back into its original shape, the clay is somewhat dry and not completely wet.
If you feel that it’s not pressing and you need to apply more pressure with your fingers, most likely, the clay is dry and ready for painting.
While touching it, you can also feel the temperature of the clay. Since air-dry clay will cool as it dries, the cooler you feel the clay is, the drier it is.
You can also test the clay’s dryness with a moisture meter.
Just insert the probes of the moisture meter into the air-dry clay. If the reading is above 20%, it means the clay is too wet and not ready to be painted.
What Types of Paints Work Best on My Air-Dry Clay Pottery?
Now that you know how to paint air-dry clay pottery, the next question is – which type of paint should you use on your clay pottery?
As I mentioned, you can use any type of paint you want – artist-grade acrylic, watercolor, or oil-based paint. Just make sure it is suitable for use on ceramic or glass.
1- Acrylic Paint
Artist-grade acrylic paint is a great choice for painting air-dry clay pottery. It comprises water-based pigments, so it is easy to clean up.
And it dries quickly (within an hour), so you don’t have to wait long before adding another layer of color.
2- Watercolor Paint
Watercolor paint is another good option for painting air-dry clay pottery. It produces a beautiful, translucent effect. And it is also easy to clean up.
3- Oil-Based Paint
Oil-based paint is also a good choice if you want a durable finish. It is more difficult to clean up than water-based paint, but it produces a beautiful, glossy finish.
If you are still unsure about which paint to use, here are a few more recommendations…
Tempera is a water-soluble dye, so it is easy to clean up. You can buy it in powder form or liquid tubes and bottles.
Food coloring in place of Tempera can also be used if you want. But unlike acrylics, Tempera and food colorings won’t adhere to a glazed clay surface and is relatively less durable.
You can, however, use them for method 2 I have discussed above, and it will work well.
Glazes come in many colors and can be glossy or matte. You can also buy them in powder form or in liquid bottles.
To apply a glaze, first brush on a layer of clear glaze, then paint over it with your color of choice. The glaze will dry to a hard, glossy finish.
Guache is an opaque watercolor paint that dries to a matte finish. It is similar to acrylic paint in that it is easy to clean up and can be used on a glazed surface.
However, guache is not as durable as acrylic paint and can fade over time on air-dry clay potteries.
7- Ink, Markers, and Pens
Using liquid ink, acrylic markers, and calligraphy pens on air-dry clay potteries is a fabulous way to add detailed designs and fine patterns like letters, words, names, numbers, flowers, leaves, etc.
Ensure that the ink, colored pencils, or drawing gel pens you use are waterproof and won’t fade over time.
Do not use Sharpies and traditional markers designed for children drawing on paper. They can bleed and are not waterproof.
Can I Use Painted Air-Dry Clay Pottery in the Kitchen – Is It Safe?
Air dry clay is not food safe. Any air-dry clay project you make is meant for display only (like sculptures) and not for actual functional use.
So, if you plan to use your air-dry clay pottery in the kitchen as mugs, bowls, or plates – make sure to use a food-safe coating such as clear polyurethane or polyacrylic sealer.
You can buy these coatings online or at your local craft store. Just make sure to follow the instructions on the packaging.
However, remember that these are not tested for safety FDA standards, so I would not recommend using them for extended periods.
The bottom line
If you are looking for a fun, creative activity with your kids at home, consider painting air-dry clay pottery this weekend.
This guide provides all the information you need to get started, including tips on painting your pieces and what paints and brushes to use.
Have fun with this project and create some beautiful pieces of pottery that can be displayed in your home or given as gifts.
Jack Luis is a semi-retired painter who loved painting his clients’ ideas on their walls.
He had worked as a painter for more than a decade to serve the customers in areas such as Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Beaufort, Georgetown, SC (South Carolina). Today in his free time, he likes to read and write about the newer techniques that are being implemented in his profession. You may read more about him here or get in touch with him here.
Just in case you want to hire pro painters in your local area, you can click here. We can instantly send you free quotes from trusted painters based on your specific requirement.