Can You Paint Air-Dry Clay Before It Dries?

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I’ve previously shared a guide on making a DIY wire sculpture with an air-dry clay base. You should paint that base, but can you do so before it dries?

You should not paint wet air-dry clay before it dries. You should only paint on air-dry clay after drying or before the sculpting and drying process. This ensures no excess moisture is introduced to the clay, which can cause deformities. 

Shaping and sculpting clay takes time and effort, and you don’t want to waste that just because you painted it before it dried. Keep reading to know more about when you should do the painting.   

Why Should You Not Paint Air-Dry Clay Before It Dries?

As I’ve said, painting air-dry clay while it’s wet or even just damp is a big no-no. But why so? 

When you work with air-dry clay, you add moisture to soften it. This would allow you to easily mold or join it to other pieces. 

However, when you add paint while it’s not yet dry, you add more moisture to the clay. Too much moisture can lead to cracking due to uneven drying, which can damage your piece.

Uneven drying leads to cracking because as an air-dry clay sculpture dries, it shrinks. If the moisture is even and adequate, cracking wouldn’t happen because shrinkage would be similar for all regions.

However, if there is excess and uneven moisture, one portion shrinks too much while the other doesn’t. This leads to large and visible cracks.   

Thus, you must paint the clay after it has dried

If you consider yourself a beginner clay artist, I recommend the full guide I’ve written for you, sharing the techniques that make it easier to use air-dry clay.

How Long Does It Take for Air-Dry Clay To Dry?

If you opt to paint your clay sculpture after you’ve wet and molded it, it will take quite some time before you can ensure it’s completely dry. 

It takes around two to three days or 48 to 72 hours for air-dry clay to dry. During that period, sculptures should be left as undisturbed as possible. Painting should not be done while the clay is drying to avoid cracking and other deformities. 

Air dry clay takes a long time to dry because such a process is natural. You should not attempt to speed-up the drying process by putting the piece in an oven or kiln. 

When you try to dry air dry clay using the oven, you heat it too much, which is not what it was designed for. This would lead to uneven shrinkage and eventual cracking. 

Although I don’t recommend it, you can bake your air dry clay, too. Learn how by reading the full guide.

How Do You Know if the Air-Dry Clay Is Dry?

These are signs that your air-dry sculpture is dry: 

  • The clay is cool. Try feeling the clay with your hands – the cooler it is, the drier the clay is.
  • The clay is hard when you press it. If you press it and it’s still moldable or giving it, it’s not yet fully dry. Be careful when poking or prodding the clay to avoid damaging the piece.   
  • Check based on type. There are tell-tale signs that a specific type of clay has dried. For instance, resin-based clays become darker and semitransparent when dried. 

Remember also that the larger and thicker your sculpture is, the longer it takes to dry. Thus, consider your piece’s size when considering how long it will take for it to dry.

How To Paint Air-Dry Clay

There are two ways for you to paint or add color to your air-dry clay. You can add the paint before molding or after the clay has dried. For the first one, you’re technically dyeing the clay rather than painting it. 

If you plan on painting or dyeing your air-dry clay, it’s best to use white clay. The colors will pop out better, and it’s easier to make designs. 

After Clay Has Dried

These are the steps for painting your air-dry clay sculpture after drying: 

  1. Make sure the sculpture is completely dry
  2. Select the kind of paint you want to use. This will depend on the type of clay you’ve used – for example, for Crayola air dry clay, you can use tempera, acrylic, or watercolor paints. 
  3. Prepare other materials like paintbrushes and newspapers (to avoid a mess). Make sure the brushes are of good quality. 
  4. Paint your sculpture. If you switch between colors, ensure the brush is clean and the previous colors have dried to avoid smearing. 
  5. Seal the paint. Check your air-dry clay’s label to see what kind of sealants are suitable. 

Make sure your hands are clean throughout the process. This is to avoid transferring any dirt on the sculpture. 

Watch this video for a visualization of painting your air dry clay sculpture: 

Before You Mold the Clay 

This is how you can dye clay before molding it: 

  1. Prepare your clay and paints or colorants. You can use acrylic, tempera, poster paint, oils, food coloring, or pastel chalk. 
  2. Set up your workplace and prepare other materials. It’s best to use gloves and cover the desk or surface with mats or paper. 
  3. Knead the clay. This will help the clay absorb the colors better
  4. Add the paint or colorant, then knead. A small dollop of color or a bit of pastel chalk is sufficient. You can add more if it’s not enough, but it’s always best to start with a small amount of color. 
  5. Sculpt the clay and then dry.  

Check out this video, which follows the exact steps I’ve shared, for better visualization: 

What Paints Can You Use for Air Dry Clay?

There are many kinds of paints, and most are compatible only with a select number of materials. Thus, you need to choose one suitable for air dry clay.

Here are some of the paints you can use for your air-dry clay: 

  • Tempera – most recommended
  • Acrylic – most recommended
  • Watercolor – recommended by Crayola but harder to control than acrylic or tempera. 
  • Oil paints – may be harder to clean. 
  • Food/Icing coloring – similar results to acrylic when used to dye clay 
  • Readymade colorants – limited and expensive 
  • Markers – acrylic, kids’, permanent, or watercolor 
  • Poster paint
  • Nail polish 

Wondering how to make your clay shiny? Read the full guide to see how you can achieve that effect.

Final Thoughts 

Painting your air-dry clay figure is usually the last step to sculpting. However, you have to do it right to make sure you won’t damage it or cause cracks. The right way is to not paint the figure while it’s wet. You can instead dye or paint the clay before molding it. 

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