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 suited for air-dry clay, and much more…
Paints for 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 – what paint or color to use on air-dry clay pottery?
1- Acrylic Paint
Artist-grade acrylic paint is one of the greatest choices for painting air-dry clay pottery. It comprises water-based pigments that are very 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- Oil-Based Paint
Oil-based paints are more suitable for a durable finish. It produces a beautiful, glossy finish but may contain VOCs which could be troublesome for allergic people while painting.
Glazes come in many colors and can be glossy or matte. You can 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.
Tempera is a water-soluble dye, that can be bought 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 or food colorings won’t adhere to a glazed clay surface and is relatively less durable.
Guache is an opaque watercolor paint that dries to a beautiful matte finish. It’s 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.
6- Ink, Markers, and Pens
Using liquid ink, acrylic markers, and calligraphy pens on air-dry clay potteries are mainly used to add detailed designs and fine patterns like letters, words, names, numbers, flowers, leaves, etc.
When picking ink, colored pencils, or drawing gel pens, ensure that these 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.
Test for the Clay Pottery Dryness
Testing the dryness of clay pottery is essential before painting because if the clay is not dry enough, the paint will not adhere to the surface properly, and your finished work can result in getting cracks.
The best way to test air-dry clay’s dryness is by doing a touch test.
- Press your finger lightly against the surface of the clay pottery.
- 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.
How Do I 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 the Clay Pottery After it Has Dried
This is the most common and probably the easiest method of painting air-dry clay pottery where you will have to paint the pottery after it has dried.
Here are the steps you need to follow…
Step 1. Dry and clean
Start by preparing the clay pottery before painting. This means, if dirt, fingerprints, or rough spots are present on the surface, gently sand them off with fine-grit sandpaper and then wipe the pottery with a clean cloth.
If it’s old clay pottery or cookware you want to clean before painting, you can deep clean it by soaking the pot in vinegar/water solution for about half an hour. Then rinse thoroughly with clean water.
Step 2. Apply paint to clay pottery
Once the surface is smooth, add a thin layer of acrylic, watercolor, or oil-based paint 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. Just apply the paint – it will adhere and stay.
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 Liquitex 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.
Whichever sealant you choose, allow the pottery 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, 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.
- Use this colored clay to sculpt or mold your colored pottery.
- Let the colored clay pottery air dry completely before using them for decoration.
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.
Jana Storm in her video (below) has also shared a great tip where she combined air dry clay with coffee to give beautiful color and texture to her pottery.
I think it’s an excellent video to look at if you want to try natural coffee painting on your air-dry clay project.
Can I Use Painted Air-Dry Clay Pottery in the Kitchen – Is It Safe?
Remember that while it is non-toxic, air-dry clay is not food safe.
This means any air-dry clay pottery or project you make is only meant for display and decoration purposes. It’s not suitable for actual functional use in the kitchen as a vessel to hold or serve liquids and food.
If you still 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 and apply them to the pottery following the instructions on the packaging. However, remember that these sealants are not tested for safety by FDA standards, so I would not recommend using them for extended periods.
The bottom line
Air-dry clay is different from ceramic clays (including earthenware, stoneware, ceramic, and porcelain) that require a kiln to cure.
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 or sealants to use. Have fun with the 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 over a decade serving customers in areas such as Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Beaufort, and Georgetown, SC (South Carolina). Today in his free time, he likes to read and write about the newer techniques implemented in his profession. You may read more about him here or get in touch with him here.