Should You Prime Air Dry Clay?

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Air-dry clay is the easiest clay to practice your pottery skills with. Even if you don’t plan on using traditional clay for your artwork, you can do so much with air-dry clay. While sculpting with this clay variant isn’t rocket science, there are a few things to keep in mind before you paint or decorate it. The most important question that comes into a crafter’s mind is whether air-dry clay should be primed. Once you have created your masterpiece, should you really prime it or start painting it right away? Let us learn more about this!

How Does Priming Help Your Sculpture?

Priming your air-dry clay sculpture has much more to do than just prepping the surface. It also helps seal the material and create a solid/stable exterior for the paint. Most artists tend to use gesso to prime their air-dry clay sculptures. It creates a surface that allows the paint to adhere while imparting strength to the piece you created.

Moreover, gesso is relatively cheaper as compared to other primers. It also comes in clear or black variants, depending on how you want your final output. If you wish to preserve the details, gesso can also be thinned using water (only in moderation). Gesso is perfect for sculptures that are kept outdoors as it isn’t affected by changing temperatures or weather conditions. Even if you mess up your artwork, it is forgiving in nature and can be easily wiped off.

Additionally, you can also use spray enamel primers. However, they aren’t as guarded to weather or temperature fluctuations as a gesso primer. Moreover, it also requires a long time to master applying enamel primers.

When looking for gesso, the consistency and quality can vary from one brand to another. A great option you can try is the Mont Marte Universal Primer Gesso which imparts a matte finish to your project.

You can also choose from student or artist-grade gesso. Let us check out how different they are!

Student-Grade GessoArtist-Grade Gesso
Cheaper Due To The Presence Of More FillersExpensive Due To High-Grade Purity
Fewer Pigments With Thin ConsistencyDense Pigments With Thicker Consistency
Slightly Less OpaqueCompletely Opaque With Premium Coverage
Only Available In White. However, It Can Be Tinted With Acrylic PaintAvailable In Various Shades, Including Black

So, now that you know what primer does and how it helps your sculpture, should you really be priming your air-dry clay at all? Well, the answer is yes!

Why Should You Primer Your Air-Dry Clay Sculpture?

There are several reasons for you to prime your air-dry clay sculpture. While some will say it is okay not to prime air-dry clay, it is a better choice for you to do that. Although it might seem like an extra step, this ensures longevity to your hard work. So, how does priming air-dry clay help? Read on to find out!

  • Seals Your Sculpture:

A primer acts as a barrier between the paint and the air-dry clay. Additionally, it also serves as a barrier between the clay and the outside world. Given that air-dry clay is water-based, there is always a chance it can soak in some moisture. Although it doesn’t really rehydrate, it tends to be highly sensitive to moisture when left unsealed.

If you use water-heavy paint like acrylic, the moisture can seep into the clay. Moreover, if you use oil paint on your sculpture, the oil present in the paint can be corrosive to the clay. So, priming the clay is an essential requirement.

  • Imparts Strength:

A primer acts as an additional layer that reinforces your air-dry clay sculpture. Unless your sculpture is made of stone or bronze, there is always a chance that it might break. Adding several layers of a primer can help ensure that your air-dry clay has a bit more strength to it.

  • Adhesion:

Apart from adding strength and sealing the artwork, gesso allows the paint to cling better to the surface. Given its texture, primers help the paint stay on the surface for a long time. In case your air-dry clay surface is way too smooth, the paint doesn’t adhere well and comes off easily. It can also peel off easily.

  • Imparts Uniformity:

Air-dry clay is water-based. Unlike cold porcelain or epoxy clay, its surface is very porous. So, the first few paint sprays will be soaked up by the sculpture like a sponge. This will create unevenness and flaking once the paint dries off and the moisture inside tries to escape. Priming helps ensure you can paint your air-dry clay uniformly.

How Can You Prime Your Air-Dry Clay Sculpture?

While simply painting your air-dry clay sculpture also works, priming helps your sculpture last longer. In most cases, a layer or two of the choice of your primer will work. However, depending on the brand, the results can vary. If you would want to preserve the original texture of the clay piece, make sure you apply just a few light layers. Additionally, allow each layer to cure for an hour minimum. This ensures that the adhesion is maximized.

If you aim for structure and durability, you can apply multiple layers. But, before you apply the primer, it is important that you sand down the sculpture to get rid of any imperfections. It is suggested that you can opt for 220-grit sandpaper to sand the surface to fix minor issues. If your sculpture has some major texture errors, you can also opt for 400-grit sandpaper. Wipe off the dust before you start applying the primer.

Once you have applied the final layer of primer, let your air-dry clay sculpture dry for a minimum of 24 hours before you start the decoration/painting.


Priming your air-dry clay is one of the unwritten rules in pottery. But do not shy away from experimenting and making that extra effort. After all, your artwork is a reflection of the amount of work you put in. So, ensure that you give it your best. Do not forget to test different types of primers on small test projects before you apply the best one to your final piece. Most of all, have fun as you unleash your creativity!

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