October 09, 2020

Not Just Paint: Why You Should Prime Air Dry Clay Sculptures

Not Just Paint: Why You Should Prime Air Dry Clay Sculptures

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Creating air dry clay sculptures involves a unique blend of experimentation and time-tested artistic techniques. If you plan to paint your masterpiece, it's essential to prepare your surface with priming. Like any DIY project, priming isn't just about sealing the material—it's about creating a stable exterior for your paint. In this case, your ideal primer is gesso.

Gesso Me This

Gesso is a combination of materials mixed into an acrylic base that provides a toothy surface for easy paint adherence. It's traditionally white, but also comes in black or clear and can be tinted with acrylic paint. Gesso is cost-effective, easily thinned with water, and doesn't require specific temperature or weather conditions for application. Plus, it's forgiving and mostly removable if you make a mistake and get it on something other than your art, making it a practical choice for artists at any skill level.

Alternative Primers: Proceed with Caution

Yes officer, I confess, I've used spray can primers from the hardware store. Guilty, as charged. While it may be tempting to use enamel spray primers or house paint, these alternatives have drawbacks. They can be sensitive to temperature or weather fluctuations, difficult to apply in thin layers, and less cost-effective (plus, spray painting is a b***h).

House paint latex

Another one I have considered is house paint. It sounds like a good idea, especially since most of us have at least a couple of half-used cans kicking around. Sadly, the life expectancy of emulsion paint (often called latex paint in North America) is not great. Have you ever noticed that painted walls have a tendency to peel or slough off as a few years? Have you ever washed a painted wall and some paint invariably ends up on your sponge?

House paint has a shorter life expectancy and is susceptible to humidity, peeling, and discoloration. Considering the time and effort you put into your sculptures, it's worth investing in gesso to ensure their longevity.

Why Prime Air Dry Clay?

1. Uniformity: Air dry clays like Creative Paperclay (CPC) are water-based. Unlike epoxy clay or cold porcelain, the surface of CPC is porous. When you lay down the first layer of paint onto CPC, it soaks it up like a sponge and gesso will help you apply paint in a more uniform way.

Additionally, if you're using mixed media on your sculpture, for example your horse mane is made of a different material than the body, then priming will result in a more cohesive final piece that showcases your artistic vision.

2. Sealing: Gesso creates a moisture barrier between the clay and paint, protecting your sculpture from humidity and potential damage from water-heavy paints or corrosive oil paints. This ensures that your artwork remains in excellent condition for years to come.

Note on oil paint: Remember that oil is corrosive over time, and you should lay down at least 3 layers of gesso to create a thick enough barrier to protect your clay.

3. Adhesion: Gesso's slightly textured surface promotes better paint adhesion, reducing the risk of peeling or flaking. This is particularly important for smooth clay bodies like epoxy clay, where paint may struggle to adhere without a textured base.

4. Strength: This last one should not be underestimated. A layer of gesso adds a touch of reinforcement to your fragile sculpture. Though it may not seem like much, every bit of added strength counts when it comes to preserving your delicate artwork.

Prime gesso air dry clay horse sculpture

Use gesso to unify mixed media elements

On Priming Ceramics

While paint will never be as resilient as a glaze on a ceramic sculpture, Applying gesso to ceramic sculptures ensures your cold finish* lasts as long as possible, offering similar benefits as with air dry clay. By using gesso as a primer, you'll be giving your painted ceramic artwork the best chance at a long and vibrant life.

*Cold finish: a term to describe adding paint and other decorations to already fired ceramics that will not be put in the kiln again.

Prime Time Tips

While a painter easily layers gesso on a flat surface, sculptors have the added challenge of curves and edges. For those of us who hate to brush a 3D surface, you can purchase spray gesso. I have used spray gesso with success, however, due to my current studio set-up, painting it on is more accessible. Also, you will likely need to touch up nooks and crannies with a brush afterwards.

My Gesso Top Picks

1. Liquitex Basic Gesso - affordable and gets the job done.

2. Golden White Gesso - I love everything these guys make. I find the texture super silky.

3. Golden Black Gesso - perfect for when you want to start with a dark base layer.

4. Kylon Spray-On Gesso - the only spray-on gesso I use.

Air dry clay sculpture painting
Tinted gesso primed sculptures above and then painted below

Gesso Application Technique for Air Dry Clay Sculpture

Brushing gesso onto a 3D surface may be challenging, but spray gesso is a convenient alternative. Whichever method you choose, apply two light coats of gesso and allow at least an hour between applications for optimal adhesion. Let the gesso cure for 24 hours before painting. 

Need a smooth surface? You can sand gesso between coats for an ultra-smooth finish. However, the gesso must be a) completely dry, and b) use fine sandpaper. I suggest 220 grit on the first/second pass, and then move up to 400 on the later layers for super smoothness. This method requires at least 3 layers and often more, but if smoothness is your aim, this produces great results.  Remember to wipe down your sculpture after sanding to remove any dust.

Note: Gesso is quite thin (consistency of a runny yogurt), so ensure the surface of your sculpture is as smooth as possible before you prime to save on layers of gesso and time spent sanding.


In conclusion, priming is a crucial step in creating air dry clay sculptures that stand the test of time. Don't hesitate to incorporate traditional artistic methods into your sculpting process—you'll be amazed by the results! Embrace your inner mad scientist and bring your creativity to life with the confidence that your work will last for years to come.


What's Next?

What is Creative Paperclay?

Learn about sculpting thin areas with mixed media