Air-dry clay is a very convenient sculpting tool, in my opinion. It does not require an oven or a kiln to cure it, and you can use it at home to create great projects. However, any air-dry clay project is not yet over as long as the little sculpture is not yet painted. I will discuss how to paint air-dry clay and answer the question, can you paint air-dry clay before it dries, and more.
Can You Paint Air-Dry Clay Before it Dries?
The short answer to this question is no. Before you begin to mold a lump of air-dry clay, you moisten it first just enough to get it soft. After you mold it, you leave it be to dry and harden. But when you try to paint it before it dries, you are introducing more moisture to it. This can lead to the clay not drying and hardening correctly.
What Happens if Air-Dry Clay Does NOT Dry Correctly?
When air-dry clay does not dry evenly (some parts dry faster than others), it will cause visible and large cracks. Cracking is a norm in air-dry clay. It’s caused by shrinkage when the water evaporates from the clay. The more water you use, the more the clay will crack.
The more water you use, the higher the chance of the clay not drying evenly. A general rule you should follow is to keep the clay moist as you work with it but not overly saturated. However, you should not expose it to moisture again after forming the sculpture as it can become too wet.
When you paint the clay while it is drying, you are exposing it to moisture once more. That moisture can seep through the surface of the clay, making it too wet. Little do you know that you have already ruined your sculpture because it will not dry properly.
So, then, how should you paint air-dry clay?
How to Paint Air-Dry Clay?
I’ll give you a few tips that will help you put the icing on the cake of your art. In this analogy, the icing is the paint, and the cake is the sculpture.
Wait for the Air-Dry Clay to Dry
You have probably picked up on this already, based on the details discussed above. But you should wait for the air-dry clay to dry completely before you paint it. The drying period dramatically varies depending on the size of the sculpture. But I say give the clay 24 hours before testing its dryness.
How to Test Air-Dry Clay’s Dryness
I use two methods to test the clay’s dryness. The first method is just to feel its temperature because air-dry clay cools as it dries. The cooler the clay is, the drier it is.
The second method is pressing the clay gently. If you can feel a lot of giving, it’s not yet dry because it will be hard if it is. Use the front of your fingers when pressing. If you use your nails or the sharp point of your fingers, you are focusing too much pressure on so small an area. This little mistake may ruin the sculpture’s form.
Use the Best Kind of Paints
In my opinion, the best type of paint to use on dried air-dry clay is acrylic paint. It gives a very vivid and solid color. Plus, its fluidity is thick, meaning it has less water. And lastly, tempera paint can act as a sealant, so that’s a big plus.
Tempera paint also works nicely, but it does not have the same vividity of acrylic. If that does not bother you and can work with tempera paint to produce excellent results, then go for it. Just keep in mind that tempera paint is not lightfast nor permanent. Sooner or later, its color will fade.
Other painting options are poster paint or nail polish. Oil paints also work, but they are hard to work with on an air-dry clay sculpture. Oil paints easily smudge and are a headache to clean. If you want to use oil paints, you have to be skilled and make as few mistakes as possible.
Lastly, watercolor is not out of the question for painting air-dry clay. But you have to ensure that the clay is completely dry because you will ruin it if it is not.
Seal Your Work
It’s good practice to seal your work when the paint dries. A seal ensures that water does not seep through the permeable surface of the clay and ruin it. The seal can also keep the paint’s color from fading for as long as possible.
So, what did we learn? First and foremost, can you paint air-dry clay before it dries? No; air-dry clay tends to crack when exposed to too much water. Therefore, you have to wait for it to dry utterly before coloring it. And when coloring it, choose the types of mediums that work well with it. And lastly, seal your work to preserve its vibrant beauty for as long as possible.