How to Add Color to Clay – Best Approaches, Do’s and Don’ts

Hi all, in this post we’re going to look at how to color your clay, including and especially polymer. Yes, it’s true that polymer clay comes in lots of awesome colors (and pearlescent  too, for good measure, like Sculpey Premo) but let’s just say you are trying to achieve special color transitions or effects on your projects, like jewelry parts.

✅ If you’re just curious or in a hurry… this is my go-to product for coloring clay.

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Knowing how to add color effectively, and which products to use, as well as how much, can help you to create some truly spectacular pieces of work! In this post I’ll also go over good and not as good ways to color your clay, so you can have the straight dope on both.

tempera pigmentsWhat’s the BEST Way to Color Clay?

First and foremost I think powders are the best way to go. This includes mica powder, chalk pastels, and powdered pigments such as that with temperas. The reason powders are the best option is because they don’t introduce trapped moisture into the raw clay, which can produce steam in the oven and possibly hamper the quality of the project, making it more prone to breakage.

As you know polymer clay is oil based and as you learned in science class, oil and water do not mix! Another thing that’s really cool about powdered pigments is that you can combine like colors, like blue and green, and get eye-catching mottled effects, rather than just one color.

Mixing Mica Powder Into Polymer Clay

Mica powder is a great product to use as a color or texture enhancer.  Mica powder is used for lots of crafts, including soap, candles, and kids’ homemade slime too. One reason it is so popular is because it has a beautiful glittery sheen to it that can really “wow” the look of your projects.

Using Chalk Pastels

This is another great way to create interesting color transitions and blends. I’ve written a post about it and I must say it’s a great way to get those special effects into your clay components, whether you are looking to make beads, and jewelry parts like pendants or necklaces,

All you need, in addition to the chalks, is a good knife and some white clay. Experiment with a few colors – it’s best to start with a few (like 2-3) so you won’t have muddy looking results.

clay beads with chalk color added

Here are some of my beads, notice the subtle color transitions from a little bit of purple and blue in equal amounts.

Coloring Translucent Clay

I have always been drawn to the look of semi-transparent natural gemstones, like rose quartz – so I experimented with some translucent Sculpey to see what kinds of effects I would end up with. I was not disappointed – they do kind of have the look of quartz. On the left is an example of chalk-colored beads I made from pure white Sculpey (Souffle), and on the right, are the translucent beads:

how to dye sculpey clay

Now, on to the liquid products and compare them to see how well they stack up!

Alcohol Inks

Now we’ll look at alcohol inks. These are excellent, even though they are a liquid – as alcohol will evaporate from raw clay much faster than water as long as you let it set out for a little while before baking. Start with a few drops and knead as you normally would; then check the resulting shade and see if it passes muster before adding a little more.

Before baking, I would give it about 3-5 hours. To check to see if it has fully evaporated, touch it to see if it has reached room temperature yet – a sure sign. If it’s still cool to the touch, leave it be and let it set out a little longer.

Many clay artists recommend alcohol inks. For translucent clay that you want to give a tinted effect to, kind of like the way suncatchers or stained glass look, the use of alcohol inks are highly recommended.

Although alcohol ink sets don’t come cheap….(really good ones, anyway…)

👉 This set is not only highly rated but a great price too that comes out to a little less than a dollar per bottle. And the colors are beautiful,too.

…Prefer to make your own ink instead? Read on…

rit dye color polymerCan You DIY Alcohol Ink For Clay?

Are you claying on a shoestring? No problem! You could also DIY your own alcohol inks using something like Rit dye (most retailers carry this – the laundry products aisle is where you’ll usually find these – I got mine at the Ingles supermarket; it’s not as easy to find prior to covid.) and some high volume rubbing alcohol like you’ll find in the health/first aid section of most stores.

Try to get 91% if you can. Rubbing alcohol tends to have different concentrations, like 30, 50, 70, etc. If you can only locate a lower volume of  alcohol, you could use it too, just that it may affect the level of color saturation.

I know of one fellow blogger who said that Rit dye in clay is not a good idea…she didn’t say exactly why, though….so I may do a small test experimentation before it’s over just to see what happens.

If you could mix a dab of Rit dye alone into the clay, I wonder if you could try that instead? Since powders are more preferable – I’ve worked with fabric dye before and I know a little goes a long way; it is pretty potent stuff.

UPDATE: I tried it…I didn’t think about it, but thought I might experiment a little….DON’T mix Rit into clay…It does not blend and you notice how the dye crystals just bead up on the slab..It might however work for a terrazzo or textured effect if you’re into that.

coloring clay with rit dye attempt
Fabric dye is no bueno for clay….

Also, you may be familiar with alcohol ink based markers, trouble is you’d have to be able to locate a refiller or similar to make this work. However, I’ve heard that this is the best way to extract the ink. You can actually use good old permanent Sharpie markers for this – if you can succeed in eviscerating the inner color filter from the rest of the barrel, which may require the use of pliers.

Just out of curiosity I had a look at some of my markers…how you actually open them?  You may have to cut the actual plastic barrel to do this. Don’t worry, you don’t have to disembowel your brand new markers this way; you can actually use older ones as there will still be ink present, even if its not as much!

alcohol ink

 

Then drop the color filler tube into a small jar filled with some high volume alcohol (about 1/3 of a cup would be a good amount to start with) and let it sit for awhile, soon you will have the makings of alcohol ink for pennies on the dollar!

The longer it sits, the more vibrant the color – about thirty minutes to an hour check it to see how the colors have developed.  You can use something like a medicine dropper to apply it to your clay. Be sure to wear gloves and protect your workspace, as this stuff WILL stain. Work it into the clay incrementally, until you reach the level of color you’re seeking – it will be a uniform look. Be sure to let the project evaporate awhile before baking, as mentioned earlier.

If you can locate some dispenser bottles, these will be the cherry on top for your homemade inks!

Acrylics

Personally, I think acrylic paints are best saved for the finished project, due to the issue with water and moisture that can get trapped in the raw clay. I believe the alcohol inks are a better way to go. If you insist on doing it this way, be prepared to leave it out a day or two to be sure the moisture has fully evaporated from the clay using the test above.

can you color polymer clay with food coloringCan You Color Polymer Clay with Food Coloring?

I wouldn’t, if I were you I’d save that for your homemade clays instead, I did this once and it worked out okay. If you stick to experimenting with your own household ingredient recipes, you’ll be fine.

I would not use it in polymer clay, though, due to the makeup of water and sweet fillers like glycerin, propylene glycol, as the chemical composition of both can hinder the baking process. So my advice is, save the food colorants for your homemade clays or those scrumptious confectionaries instead!

Conclusion

So there you have it….Dry tempera pigments, mica powders, chalk pastel shavings….excellent choices and the best option. Alcohol inks, also great as long as you let it evaporate from the kneaded clay in a timely manner. Acrylic paints and other water based dyes,, not such a good idea.

Mica Powder 20 Colors Shimmery Pigment PowderMica Powder 20 Colors Shimmery Pigment PowderMica Powder 20 Colors Shimmery Pigment PowderRanger Adirondack Brights Alcohol Ink 1/2-Ounce 3/PkgRanger Adirondack Brights Alcohol Ink 1/2-Ounce 3/PkgRanger Adirondack Brights Alcohol Ink 1/2-Ounce 3/PkgLOONENG Chalk, Soft Chalk Pastel Sticks Set of 12 ColorsLOONENG Chalk, Soft Chalk Pastel Sticks Set of 12 ColorsLOONENG Chalk, Soft Chalk Pastel Sticks Set of 12 Colors

Hope this helps…do you have any experience mixing colors in raw clay, and if you did, how did it go? Let me know in the comments.

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