Painting on Air Dry Clay – Best Practices


Are you seeking advice about painting your air dry clay sculptures? Great! You’ve come to the right place. Your artwork once you’ve chosen a beautiful array of colors , will look really wow after it’s finished. Of course, if you’re working with the kind of clay that’s got the terra cotta color you may have a certain motif you’re trying to preserve (as I did, sometimes like the Southwestern look)

Conversely if your clay is just a basic color like white or light gray there’s nothing like a great paint job to make your work stand out. And then there is the issue of protecting your masterpiece, too.

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how to paint on air dry clay

The good part is that painting an object made from air dry clay is not that different from the approach for its polymer cousin, it is just that there are some important pointers to keep in mind before you proceed.

Protect It Beforehand

Make certain your sculpture has had ample time to cure…since air dry clay takes at least 24 hours to cure, depending on the thickness and volume of the project….it’s best to wait a few more days to be sure. You can tell at what rate it’s drying if you see dark spots (which are signs there’s still aways to go)  but before you do anything it needs to be thoroughly dry.

First things first…is the moisture issue. Because air dry clay is water based, it also responds to moisture and it must be properly sealed at all costs. Polymer clay is not water soluble so there is a little less prep work involved.

prime before you paintI recommend taking the time to apply a protective coat beforehand of white primer, gesso or a PVA glue/water mixture (I have a recipe here for that…it’s kind of like faux Mod Podge) It will not only create a protective layer on your object but it will also help make your resulting top coat go on much better too and prevent flaws from showing.

Gesso from an art supply store usually comes in white, black or clear. You could also apply my own white primer coat formula too, having that white base coat will result in a top notch looking top coat!

I Would Use Acrylics

Secondly, I’m a big fan of acrylics, but you want to be a little discriminating about your choice of them. I personally like Liquitex Heavy Body as it has rich pigments and great coverage. If you can find a brand of similar formula I would use that too.  I would also use a brush, or a few brushes.

I do like spray paint, but with smaller objects with details I think it’s unnecessary. Besides, it can leave unsightly “drippies” if you don’t control the can a certain way.  If your object is a little larger and doesn’t have lots of detail you could but you might want to have a method of masking certain areas that you want left unpainted.

painting a sculpture
painting a sculpture

Also if you plan on your sculpture being outdoors, there are some good acrylic brands that are formulated to hold up well against the elements.


painting on clay

Applying the Top Coat

You can, and should. varnish your finished sculpture, I think a clear acrylic sealant is the best way to go, I have used Mod Podge on some of my clay projects before and it can work well but in the case of humid conditions it may leave a sticky finish behind, so I would go with polyurethane sealant instead. It protects your work and doesn’t leave stickiness behind. I use Krylon spray on approach.

An epoxy resin can also be used to create a hard, tough finish.

Well that is the long and the short (I know, mostly the former?) of painting your finished air dry sculptures. Have you tried this before? Hopefully this article will give you a good blueprint to follow.

4 thoughts on “Painting on Air Dry Clay – Best Practices”


    HI Jennifer i made a peacock on a wine bottle using air dry clay and painted it with acrylic paint but i di use some metallic paint as a high light and now after its dry its tacky can you tell me why and is there some way to fix this

  2. Do you remember what brand of metallic paint you used? Also do you live in an area with a lot of humidity? I do and it can cause a few of my projects to turn out sticky. I’ve seen this with Sculpey as well. It’s mostly stuff like that Art Deco “all purpose” type of acrylic paint, that tends to be the most likely to become tacky, in my opinion. Nevertheless, I’ll bet this was a fun project!

  3. Hi Jennifer! I was wondering, how long should I wait after applying acrylic paint on air dry clay before I can put the varnish? Also if I were to put an undercoat of gesso, how long would I have to wait before the acrylic paint? Thanks 😊!

  4. I would wait at least 24 hours, 48 if longer. It’s important to make sure the clay has fully hardened which can depend on the size and thickness of your piece, and also you can tell for sure by checking the finished piece on all sides to make sure there are no spots that are darker than others, as it lightens as it dries. As far as the gesso is concerned, as long as it is dry to the touch. Good luck to you!

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