I get a lot of questions about coloring translucent polymer clay. For a color junkie like me, one of my favorite art materials is alcohol ink. Alcohol inks are an intensely concentrated dye dissolved in alcohol. They are permanent and once dried, are not water soluble. They come in dropper bottles in a wide range of colors from the most intense brights to the more subtle browns and grays and even black and white. Made popular and brought to general crafting awareness by the scrapbooking industry, alcohol inks have been around for a while. I bought my first set in 2002. Recently, however, there has been much interest in using them with polymer clay. You can use alcohol inks in a variety of ways with clay, but for today I’m going to focus in using them for tinting or coloring translucent polymer clay.
Why it works so well
Because polymer clay is also soluble in alcohol, the dyes in alcohol inks readily disperse into polymer clay making alcohol inks a perfect material for coloring translucent polymer clay. Translucent polymer clay doesn’t have pigment particles that block light transmission, that’s why it’s translucent. If you begin coloring translucent polymer clay with something that has pigment particles, such as oil paint, chalk, or colored polymer clay, at some point you are going to compromise translucency as you add more pigment and the intensity of the color increases. Alcohol inks, because they are dye based, do not have particles to obscure the light. You can therefore color the translucent clay quite intensely without reducing the clarity of the clay. There is a limit, however, and high amounts of alcohol ink will interfere with light transmission. Especially with the darker colors. Even so, coloring translucent clay with alcohol inks gives a richness of color that is unlike anything available with colored, opaque polymer clay.
What doesn’t work so well
There is a limit to how much alcohol ink that polymer clay can “hold”. It is a chemical additive and some clays, Kato Polyclay especially, can get quite sticky if you add a lot of alcohol ink. Also, some people have reported plaquing or mooning in the cured clay. Plaques are light areas within the clay, sort of like imperfections.
The dyes in alcohol ink travel thought the mass of clay quite easily by simple diffusion. In other words, the dye “bleeds”. If your mass of clay is all one color this poses no problem. However, two unbaked balls of clay tinted with two different colors of alcohol ink, if stuck side by side, will eventually mix together. Given long enough the color will diffuse from one to the other and mix completely. Always make sure that your tinted clay doesn’t touch any other color of clay when stored. Also keep this in mind when you use tinted clay in veneers and mokume gane stacks. This means you cannot use alcohol ink tinted clay in millefiori canes unless you are going to bake them right away. If you set aside your work for a while you will very likely come back to a homogeneous mess. Some colors bleed more quickly (due to the size of the dye molecule), so it’s more apparent. Others might not show a problem for weeks. I don’t see any signs of the colors bleeding in baked clay, though. So if this is a concern make sure you bake your project right away before the colors have a chance to bleed.
Another factor to be aware of is that the color on the bottle of ink, and the color that it creates on paper is not necessarily what you’re going to get. For instance, Ranger Purple Twilight is a nice grape purple in the bottle and on paper. But mixed with translucent polymer clay, it turns sort of a light plum color, or even a fuchsia. Piñata Passion Purple, on the other hand, appears nearly cobalt blue on paper but colors the clay a nice grape purple. Some colors may change even more when the tinted clay is baked. I don’t consider this a problem. It’s just one more challenge you face when learning about a new medium.
Brands of Alcohol Ink
There are two main brands of alcohol ink on the market. Tim Holtz® Adirondack® Alcohol Inks made by Ranger come in 48 colors that are grouped into Earthtones, Lights, and Brights. You will most likely see 3-packs of bottles in your local craft store. Ranger inks certainly come in a wide range of colors but vary in their intensity greatly from one to the next. The Bright range tends to be the most intensely colored.
Piñata Alcohol Inks by Jacquard come in a smaller range of 19 colors which includes black, white, silver and gold. I have found that Piñata inks are much more intensely colored and require much less ink to color the clay. On the other hand, they also seem to be more sticky and don’t dry as readily. Piñata inks are commonly available in your craft store in an “exciter pack” which has 6 colors, extender, and clean-up solution.
As alcohol inks are merely a dye which is dissolved in alcohol, there are people who make their own. I have read of combining Rit clothing dye with regular drugstore Isopropyl Alcohol to produce an ink that rivals the commercially available products. I’ve not tried this, but I did check out the price of Rit dye. Unless you’re going through large quantities of alcohol ink or already have the Rit dye on hand, it’s more cost effective to buy the commercially packaged alcohol inks.
Another fantastic source of alcohol inks are the alcohol ink marker refils. Copic and Spectrum Noir are both good ones to try. You usually have to order the refils by mail order as they’re not usually found in your local store. But it does increase the color range that you can choose from. Keep in mind that with markers, lighter colors are just more dilute, so for our purpose with polymer clay they would just be duplicated, less concentrated colors.
Working with Alcohol Ink
Alcohol ink can be very messy. It’s a dye and it doesn’t wash out. Make sure you’re wearing old clothes (ask me how I know) and that your work surface is able to get messy. Even better, use a non-porous work surface like a glass cutting board or a ceramic tile. Why? Because even though alcohol ink is waterproof and permanent, it’s very easy to clean up. It’s soluble in alcohol! Just use regular rubbing alcohol (we have this in the US), or go to the pharmacist (chemist) and ask for Isopropanol. It sounds scary but unless you’re drinking it (don’t!!), and in the small quantities you’ll use, it’s harmless. (Alcohol inks have limited solubility in vodka, though. I just checked it. I think you need a higher concentration.)
Coloring Translucent Polymer Clay with Alcohol Ink
Here’s how I use alcohol ink to tint or color translucent polymer clay.
1. Make a thin sheet of translucent polymer clay. The more surface area you have, the better. The alcohol ink will dry faster if it’s spread out more.
2. Squeeze drops of alcohol ink onto the translucent polymer clay. The more you use, the more intensely colored the resulting clay will be. Don’t add more than 4-6 drops for a 4 x 4″ (10 x 10cm) square at first. It takes too long to dry. You can always add more later.
3. Spread the alcohol ink over the surface of the sheet of clay. I use a palette knife for this because it doesn’t soak up any of the ink like a Q-tip or paintbrush does. And I can clean my knife with alcohol between colors.
4. Let dry. Yes, this is the hard part. You really should let the ink dry completely because traces of alcohol mixed in with the clay are not a good thing. It can cause it to get sticky or have spots. That being said, I tend to be awfully impatient and often try to mix it up before it’s dried, leading to ink covered hands and a messy pasta machine. Sigh. I am so ME.
5. Mix the clay until the color is evenly distributed. If you’re not happy with the intensity of color at this point, it’s easy to roll out the clay to a thin sheet and add more color. Repeat as needed to get the color you’d like. Not sure what color it will be when baked? Here’s a quick tip. Pinch off a tiny bit of clay, lay on a separate ceramic tile or heat-proof surface, and “cook” it with your heat gun. This doesn’t cure the clay completely (and often singes it slightly if you’re not careful) but it does give you an idea of how the clay will look once baked. Keep testing as you add more color to your unbaked clay until you get a color you’re happy with.
When you use alcohol ink to tint translucent polymer clay, the result is rich and intense. You can create color effects that are impossible with regular opaque polymer clay colors. Here are a few things I’ve created recently. I particularly like to use Translucent Pardo Art Clay because it is so much more clear than the other brands that I have tried. It is so clear, in fact, that you can easily read through thin sheets of it. If you’re excited about what you can create with translucent polymer clay, you can get more inspiration on my Pinterest site. I have a Pinboard specifically for creations made with Translucent Pardo Art Clay.
Are you looking for projects that you can create using translucent clay tinted with alcohol ink? My Graduated Colors Tutorial shows you how to make these lovely Rainbow Disc Bracelets and this Translucent Blue to Clear Lozenge Bead Necklace. And if you love working with alcohol inks and translucent polymer clay, check out my Faux Glass Effects Tutorial for making faux Czech glass, sea glass, and Roman glass.
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