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Clay Finishes and How To Paint Clay: Jen’s Easy 5 Step Technique for Realistic and Metallic Finishes

Black silver horse head sculpture "Silver Grace" - clay sculptures by clay artist Jen Pratt - how to paint clay

How To Paint Clay Sculptures To Look Like Metal

Horse Head Sculpture "Silver Grace" by Clay Equine Artist Jen Pratt - How To Paint Clay

How to paint clay: most of my sculptures are finished with paint rather than glaze for two reasons:

  • Many of my sculptures are fired in pieces and reassembled after being fired. Artworks that are to be glazed should be in one piece and have no breaks or cracks. Otherwise, the cracks will become obvious and the artwork may not be repairable.
  • While glazing does allow for an immense freedom in finishes, painting clay allows for more control over the finished product. If you work with one-of-a-kind artworks, each one having months of work already put into them, then problems such as over-firing and runny glaze can ruin an artwork and waste a lot of an artist’s time. However, when you truly learn glazing as it’s own craft, you can make some very unique and amazing finishes. I’m not there (yet!) in the art of glazing, so for now I stick to painting clay, and other clay finishes I can control more easily.

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How To Paint Clay In 5 Easy Steps:

  1. The first step I use is applying dark acrylic paints, then adding highlights (either paint or metallic pigments) to imitate either a realistic coat color of the animal or a metallic finish. The sculpture, no matter what the finished color will be, always starts with a coat of dark paint like this acrylic paint from Blick (a student quality paint is more than adequate for a base layer - Mars Black is my preference). The highlights are then brought out through many layers of color. This enhances the depth of the finish.
  2. If going for a more realistic look like "Spirited" below, I'll continue with more acrylics in whatever color is desired. If I'm going with a metallic finish, I love the Amaco Rub n' Buff Metallic Finishes. I typically use multiple metallic finishes on a single project. For example, "Silver Grace" above actually has two metallic finishes - Spanish Copper and Silver Leaf!
  3. After thoroughly drying, the sculpture is then coated completely with an acrylic or enamel matte finish to protect the painted finish - Krylon Low-Odor Clear Finish works great for this (the key is that you need something that is non-yellowing). Sometimes this step is done before the last coats of paint and then this spray is re-applied after the painting is finished.
  4. After thoroughly drying, the sculpture is then coated with a clear, glass-like glaze over the entire sculpture. This step makes the finish durable against scratches and adds a brilliant shine to the sculpture. Krylon Triple Thick Crystal Clear Glaze is my go-to for clay finishes!
  5. If a matte finish is desired, the sculpture is then coated again with the acrylic matte finish.
How To Paint Clay - Wildlife Elephant Sculpture "Spirited" by Clay Artist Jen Pratt

How To Paint Clay: Protective Layers

Learning how to paint clay is just the start, but protecting that finish is incredibly important! Krylon Triple Thick can be found in some specialty stores in brush-on form rather than spray form. If you intend to use it often, you'll get many more uses out of the brush-on form, but I've found no difference in quality between the two forms.  

How To Paint Clay: Other Finishing Options

There are many other options to choose from for clay finishes other than painting clay. There are different glazing options, such as regular kiln-fired glazes, raku glazes, metallic glaze accents, and so many other options. When working with raku, it's best to use raku clay as well as glazes to prevent breakage and temperature stress issues.

There's the option of using terra cotta clay and either covering it with a clear coat glaze or leaving it unfinished. Choose your clay based on your firing temperatures (do you want high fire glaze finishes? This will determine the firing temps of the clays you can use!) and other finishing options, like using a porcelain clay for it's translucent, delicate finish. Keep in mind that different clays have a different feel, and will take time to get used to - porcelain is beautiful, but is quite different from stoneware!

In the clays above, the woodfire stoneware is appropriate if you having a wood burning kiln, while raku clay is specifically for raku firing techniques. The speckled stoneware would be beautiful if you finished it with something that enhances, rather than covers, the clay's natural finish. Porcelain is very smooth and less plastic than clays with higher grog counts, and grog can be hard on your skin when throwing (but is great for a more rustic, textured finish). All of this, from the texture of the clay once it's finished to the firing temperatures they can endure, affect the finish drastically; painting clay with a high grog count will still show texture (i.e. you likely won't get a completely smooth surface).

Different painting techniques or using a ceramic stain before the first firing are great options for finishing your clay artworks if you don't want to glaze or do any specialty firing (woodfire, raku, etc.). This list is far from conclusive on finishing alternatives, but it's a good start, and many of these options can be sourced online - my favorite art shop being Blick Art Materials. Some local shops carry clays, clay finishes, and glazes as well, and that can be a great option - especially for saving money on shipping heavy clays!

Learning how to paint clay (or glaze, or any other finish!) is just as important as learning how to sculpt clay - the finish can make or break your finished artwork!

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