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The 5 Best Types of Paint for Air Dry Clay

The best type of paint for air-dry clay is acrylic paint. Both artist and student-grade acrylic paint have a unique flexibility that, when dry, prevents cracks and peeling. This elasticity, paired with the quick drying time, makes it a staple when creating pieces with air-dry clay.

A woman painting air dry clay

1. Acrylic Paint 

Acrylic paint is the best paint you can use to decorate air-dry clay. Not only is acrylic paint affordable and readily available, but it also provides vibrant pigments and can be manipulated with water to give different effects.

Acrylic paint has a unique composition. Its elasticity expands and contracts with temperature changes, making it durable when painted on top of air dry clay.

To use acrylic paint on top of air dry clay, thin out the preferred colors with water to create a creamy, smooth texture. Spread the paint all over the clay piece or use a thin detail brush to create intricate designs and patterns. Make sure to allow each layer of paint to dry for at least 10 minutes.

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2. Tempra Paint 

Tempera paint is another good option to use to decorate air-dry clay. Tempera paint is the preferred paint for any form of arts and crafts with children. This is due to the paint’s non-toxic composition and the fact that it can easily be washed out with water.

If working with children, these should be your go-to paint. There’s no harm if they are it’s accidentally ingested, and they are extremely easy to clean off most surfaces.

Tempera paints are similar to acrylic paints in terms of elasticity and vibrancy, but they tend to dry down matte and fade over time. Tempera is reactivated with water, which is unsuitable for outdoor use in wet climates.

If you are not working with children and still considering using tempera paints, seal with a sealant such as epoxy resin to help maintain color vibrancy and add waterproofing.

3. Spray Paint 

Spray paint is an excellent option for air dry clay with a larger surface area to cover. Spray paint can be used as a base layer underneath a different paint, or you can use it to create a slight gradient effect.

When using spray paint, there is no need to seal or varnish the air dry clay piece. Spray paint is also permanent and can withstand different temperatures and climates. 

Using spray paint as your base color is a great technique to help save time when painting many air dry clay pieces. You can go in with acrylic, gouache, or tempera paint to add details and finishing to the piece.

When using spray paint, be careful handling the wet piece since your hands can leave fingerprints behind. 

4. Gouache

Gouache is another option that can be used on top of air-dry clay. It’s creamy and smooth like acrylic paint but dries down matte. Since gouache is reactivated with water, it’s not recommended for use with designs that require layering of colors. 


Here’s a helpful tip: gouache can go over acrylic paint, but acrylic paint will not do well on top of gouache.

5. Watercolor

Watercolor is the way to go if you want an understated, just-there look with your air dry clay pieces. Although the clay will absorb most of the pigment, what will remain is a beautiful soft wash of color. Watercolor is great for adding subtle hints of color to your piece. 

Try not to add too much watercolor on top or air-dry clay. The excess layering of water can weaken your clay piece and potentially cause it to crack and break down.

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Painting Tips for Air Dry Clay

Regardless of the type of paint you choose, here are some tips you should keep in mind when painting air dry clay:

  • Make sure your clay piece is thoroughly dry. Allow thicker pieces extra time to dry evenly. 
  • Sand your piece and fill in any spots and cracks before applying any paint onto your clay piece. 
  • The best time to fix imperfections in air dry clay is during the wet process. A gentle finger wet with water will quickly smooth out any rough areas and cracks. 
  • Remove any dust from your clay piece to avoid lumpy paint and allow for better adherence.
  • Apply thin, even layers of paint to avoid cracking. 
  • Use watercolor with care; water can weaken your clay piece and make it prone to breakage and cracks. 
  • Add a gloss varnish to help seal and protect your piece. 

Can You Paint Directly On Air Dry Clay?

You can directly paint on air-dry clay once you have ensured the piece is completely dry and prepped. Small pieces can take around 24 hours to dry, while larger ones can take up to 72 hours.

Assess your clay’s thickness and color shift to determine whether it is entirely dry. 

Do You Need to Prime Air Dry Clay For Paint? 

You don’t need to prime air-dry clay before painting. Although a white base allows for a brighter color payoff, the primer will interfere with how well your paint adheres to the surface of the clay piece.

However, the primer can help make your piece more durable.

How Do You Seal Paint on Air Dry Clay?

You can use an acrylic spray varnish or epoxy resin to seal your air-dry clay pieces. An acrylic spray varnish is a quick way to seal multiple pieces without altering the finish of your piece. An epoxy resin varnish will give you a glossy, transparent finish, adding more finesse to detail work. 

Acrylic Spray Varnish 

If you’re in a time crunch, acrylic spray varnish is the way to go. Both readily available and easy to use, this varnish is fast drying and can cover intricate pieces in no time. Spray varnish can be applied in several coats, leaving time between each to dry.

Several colors of acrylic spray varnish

Before applying:

  1. Make sure you didn’t use ink or alcohol-based pens or markers on the piece since varnish can make them bleed.
  2. Apply the varnish in layers in a well-ventilated space.
  3. For optimal results, keep each layer thin, as a thicker layer can cause drop marks to appear. 

Epoxy Resin

Epoxy resin provides a beautiful, glossy, transparent finish for intricate pieces such as jewelry or decorative vases. Unlike acrylic spray varnish, epoxy resin requires time to both apply and dry. If you are using resin for the first time, test out the process on a test piece of dry clay. 

Epoxy resin can be applied in one of two ways. In the first method, you can use a brush to thinly coat your clay piece. This method allows for more control since you can add as many layers as your finished product requires.

The second method is best suited for larger pieces like vases. In this method, you simply submerge your clay piece in the epoxy resin mixture. Allow the excess resin to drip off, leaving an even layer behind. This method requires a longer drying time.

If you don’t have any of the previous sealants on hand and have a small piece to seal, try nail polish! Transparent nail polish acts the same way on top of paint on air-dry clay as would liquid varnish. The fast drying time and similar finish make clear nail polish great for sealing small pieces such as jewelry.

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Why Is My Paint Peeling Off My Air Dry Clay?

Paint will peel off air-dry clay pieces if the piece is not properly dry when painted, the wrong type of paint was used, or the piece’s surface is too smooth.

The paint will peel in if the clay piece is still wet when applying the paint. This is because paint such as acrylic dries faster than air dry clay.

The drying process of the clay will cause slight changes in the piece’s structure, and the clay molecules will contract. The paint on top, however, will already be dry, and the contraction of the clay will cause the paint to crack and eventually peel. 

In the second case, if a paint such as oil color is used on air dry clay, it will not dry properly and end up cracking. If a paint such as acrylic is applied in uneven, thick layers, the paint will dry unevenly and peel. 

Lastly, if the surface of your clay piece is too smooth, the paint will not adhere properly, causing cracks and peels. A rough, gritty surface allows for better paint adhesion. 

Can You Use Pens or Markers on Air Dry Clay?

Gel pens, acrylic markers, colored pencils, and soft pastels can be used on air-dry clay. Gel pens are great for creating intricate patterns, while acrylic markers are great for abstract designs. Colored pencils and soft pastels can be used on air dry clay to add shadows and depth. 

Avoid using alcohol-based markers and pens on top of air dry clay. Markers such as sharpies don’t pair well under varnish and end up bleeding. On the other hand, these fine-line detail markers dry out constantly when used on top of air dry clay. 

If you want to use drawing tools such as pens, pencils, and markers on air dry clay, don’t press too hard with the drawing tool to avoid cracking and chipping your piece. Always test out your pencil or pen on a test piece of clay with the varnish you plan on using. 

Can You Color Air Dry Clay Without Using Paint? 

Air-dry clay can be colored without the use of paint by using mica powders, food coloring, and fabric paint.

Mica Powder

Mica powders such as chalk pastel dust and pigment powders can be incorporated into air-dry clay during the kneading process. Since this product is dry, it will not alter the drying time of the clay itself. Powder pigments can add a slight touch of color to the piece, and some may even add a shimmer or glitter effect. 

Food Color

Using food color to change the color of air dry is clay is a unique but doable approach.

Suppose you’re short on time or spontaneously decided to use leftover air-dry clay with your kids on a Saturday afternoon. In that case, food color is a great option to substitute paint. Simply add a couple of drops of food color into the clay while kneading it until you reach the desired opacity. 

Fabric Paint

Lastly, fabric paint can also help color air-dry clay. Add dollops into the clay while kneading and make sure not to add too much paint since it could mess up your drying time.

Fabric paint can create vibrant colors and is usually very affordable.

For more, check out The 7 Best Ways To Remove Ink From Paper.