5 Tips for Acrylic Painting on Clay

A guest post by Victoria Rose Martin

Have you ever glazed or painted a work of art only to have it not look so pretty? Or are you without resources to glaze fire your ceramic artwork? Recently I received an email from a lovely person named Mary asking about cold processes on clay. And if you’re not familiar with the terminology, cold processes it’s a really fancy way of saying paint. I also call cold processes “room temperature glazes.” Luckily one of my first artistic influences and mentors was Christine Federighi. Chris was a brilliant artist and painter and most importantly, she was not a purest. She painted her ceramic sculpture with acrylic and oil paint and not ceramic glazes. And for a long time yours truly did the same exact thing.


Ceramic Sculpture by Christine Federighi

Ceramic Sculpture by Christine Federighi

This month I want to discuss decorating ceramics with acrylic paint. Here are 5 guidelines to help you achieve great results.

1. To save a lot of paint be sure to prime your ceramic pieces with spray paint first. Fired ceramic ware is EXTREMELY porous. Want to test this fact? If you have a bisque fired cup (without glaze) fill it with water. Let it set over night preferably in your kitchen sink. What you’ll discover is the water will leach through from inside to the outside. It’s permeable like an aquifer. Knowing this you’ll understand the need for priming. I recommend using flat spray paint or gesso. This primer coat will help seal the surface and stop the paint from being absorbed so quickly. If you make a mistake or don’t like the results simply re-­spray and try again.

Bisque-fired sculpture spray-painted white

Bisque-fired sculpture spray-painted white

2. Acrylic are quick drying, versatile paints that can be applied in thin washes like watercolors or used straight from the tube like oils. Unlike watercolors when acrylics dry they are permanent and you can paint over them without disturbing existing washes. And unlike oil paint, they clean up with water and dry very quickly. You can keep acrylic paints workable by keeping them wet.

A variety of acrylic paint and brushes

A variety of acrylic paint and brushes and a reference photo for skin tone.

I generally use a white plate as a palette. And if I am at work teaching painting class I use paper plates because you can simply throw them away when you’re done. Ceramic plates can be re-wet if your paint dries up and the paint will slide right off a glazed surface. Want to keep your paint longer? Simply spritz the paint with water put it into a zip lock bag and place it in the refrigerator. As long as the paint stays damp you won’t waste material.

3. When you start painting don’t lob pounds of paint and water onto your brush. Instead be miserly. Tap the brush onto a cloth or paper towel before touching it to your work. Don’t add water unless your brush gets so dry that nothing is moving. Until you get the feel for your brush and paint more paint and water will create more problems like drips and blotches.

Practice skin tones by mixing paint and applying to a magazine photo.

Practice skin tones by mixing paint and applying to a magazine photo.

4. Want a good way to practice painting skin tones? Grab an old magazine and find an image of a person. Mix color on your palette and do your best to match the tone to the one in seen in the ad. Apply dabs of paint to the page and see how close you can get to the actual local color. Most skin tones can be achieved by mixing a combination of white, red, yellow and brown. Tints are created when you add white to a color and shades are created when black is added. The Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir knew that no shadow is black, all shadows have color. Rather than reaching for that tube of black why not mix complementary colors (opposites on the color wheel) together instead. Or one of my favorites for a rich blackish tone is mixing Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue together. Get into the habit of mixing colors and try to avoid using paint straight from a tube.


Practice mixing: start with two colors and pull colors toward each other.

Practice mixing: start with two colors and pull colors toward each other.

5. And finally experiment. Want to get better at mixing colors? Practice! The way anyone gets better at any task is by doing it. Grab those magazines and try to match colors like mentioned above. Or better yet get a sketchbook and fill the pages with notes and color experiments. Paint over your old sketches and see if it inspires anything new.

A good way to practice mixing colors is put a dab of one color on the left side of a page, and place a second dab on the right side of the same page. Using your brush pull the color on the left to the right, and the color on the right to the left until you achieve a nice blend of the 2 colors. Remember to have fun while you’re doing it.

As you work back and forth between the two colors you'll achieve a smooth mix.

As you work back and forth between the two colors you’ll achieve a smooth mix.

And if you have any questions you want answered, don’t be afraid to ask. If I don’t have the answer I probably know somebody who does. Happy painting.


Martin Victoria Rose 160Victoria Rose Martin is an artist and designer currently living in South Florida. She is the Department Chair for Fine Art and Graphic Design at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Florida. You can visit her website at: VictoriaRoseMartin.com.







Z6067_InspiredRemnants_CoverMech.inddFor more ideas about creating and painting with clay, check out Inspired Remnants, Curious Dreams by Kerin Gale.

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