Fading of Alcohol Inks on Baked Polymer Clay

One of my favorite things about my work is that I get to spend time exploring the edges of what we know about polymer clay and the products we use with it. Most of the time this leads to great news, helping makers feel more comfortable using interesting materials to create lovely art. But sometimes, the information I uncover isn’t something we want to hear. Unfortunately, today’s topic is one that has ruffled some feathers. It would be easier for me to just skip this topic and write about easier things. But we all must take the bad with the good. So here goes.

Alcohol Inks fade in light. Period. The end.

Does this mean your project is ruined? Not necessarily. Do all colors fade at an equal rate? No. Should you stop using alcohol inks entirely? Nope. But knowledge is power and I want you to know what I’ve found so you can adjust accordingly.

Tray containing samples of polymer clay coated with alcohol ink to test if they would fade in the sunlight

What are Alcohol Inks?

Alcohol inks are brightly colored dyes that have been dissolved in an alcohol solvent. Sometimes mica, metal powder, or pigments are included in the mix, making pearlescent or metallic ink colors. Alcohol inks are used to create art on a variety of materials such as paper, plastic, and glass. Once dried, alcohol inks are not very soluble in water. Because of the physics of polarity and surface tension, wet alcohol inks tend to interact and blend in fascinating ways, making them particularly fun when making abstract, intense, freeform designs. Alcohol-based inks are also used to fill solvent or alcohol markers such a Copic, Chameleon, and ProMarker markers.

We can also use them with polymer clay. They can be applied to the surface of baked or unbaked polymer clay or they can be mixed into unbaked clay. You can learn more about them in the article here.

About That Dye Though

Dyes work by chemically binding to (ie. staining) the thing they’re dying. Sometimes the dye binds tightly (such as most fabric dyes) and other times the dye binds quite loosely (such as temporary hair dye). It depends on the chemistry involved. The chemistry of the dye matters as well as the chemistry of the thing that’s being dyed.

As it turns out, plastic is hard to dye. You have to use the right dye to match the chemistry of the plastic. Food coloring, Easter egg dye, and regular fabric dyes cannot dye (stain) polymer clay. These water-soluble dyes won’t stain plastic. (This is why you can’t dye polyester t-shirts with typical tye-dye kits.) There are only a few classes of dye that will stain plastic.

Alcohol ink uses something called a Basic Dye. (Basic as in acid/base, not basic as in simple, btw.) Basic dyes are soluble in alcohol and methylated spirits (but not water) and will stain plastic. These dyes also stain a lot of other things, too, making them really useful as marking pens (markers). But unfortunately, the entire category of Basic Dyes fades quite readily in sunlight. In other words, they have very poor lightfastness.

Fading and Poor Lightfastness of Alcohol Ink

Light seems kind of, well, there. We take it for granted. But it’s really quite a powerful kind of radiation. Plants use light energy to make sugar. But that same energy can also turn your hair blond or red in the summer and fade furniture and fabrics near sun-facing windows. Light changes things!

The ability for a dye (or pigment) to maintain its color strength when exposed to light is called lightfastness. Dyes generally have poor lightfastness, fading readily in light. (Pigments are better, unless they’re lake pigments, which are really dyes. This is a huge rabbit hole, way beyond what you want to know today. I’m really struggling to keep this article simple.)

Not all Basic Dyes have the same lightfastness. There are many, many basic dyes and some fade super fast and others hold their color better and longer. But none of them are indefinitely lightfast. Given enough time, light, and exposure, alcohol inks will fade. Makers of alcohol inks, alcohol markers, and other dye-based art materials have long sought dyes that are more lightfast and often use language such as “selected only the most lightfast dyes” that might lead you to assume that the lightfastness issue has been solved. Lightfastness will always be a concern with Basic Dyes. That’s just the way it is. It’s science.

A Bit of History (a digression)

Did you know that these dyes are a recent invention, first being synthesized in the mid 1800’s? The old masters didn’t have these bright, clear colors. Starting in the mid 20th century, changes in reproduction technology changed the process by which graphic designers and advertising artists worked. Alcohol markers, also known as “layout markers” became the dominant medium that designers used. Because the original artwork was not lightfast, these “layouts” were then reproduced by printers (using pigmented ink) and the original was archived or discarded. It’s only been very, very recently that alcohol ink began to be used by hobbyists.

Back to Alcohol Ink…

So, alcohol ink fades. What does this mean for us? How fast are we talking here? Minutes? Days? Weeks? Years? Oh gee, you’re not going to like me for saying this, but IT DEPENDS. I don’t have a solid answer for you. But I can tell you what I’ve learned. First, here’s what I’ve seen and tested with my own hands and eyes.

Fading Tests

In the summer of 2022, I did my first, simple alcohol ink fade tests. I wanted to see if heat setting alcohol ink dots and/or coating them with varnish did anything to change the rates at which they faded when exposed to full sun. I put dots of Ranger and Piñata alcohol inks on baked white Premo tiles. Half were baked again to heat set. Half of each of those tiles were coated with various varnishes. Then the tiles were put outside, in direct full sun, for 10 days. Below is an example of what I found. You can read the entire article here.

In short, varnish and liquid clay do nothing to protect alcohol ink from fading in the sun. Heat setting doesn’t prevent fading, either, and tended to cause color shifts and blurring.

But I also learned something else. While all colors faded and/or shifted, the dots that had more ink held their color better. Density matters! I also noticed that red and yellow held their color better while blue, pink, and purple were much more fleeting. So that was the beginning of my next alcohol ink fade tests!

More Fading Tests

This time I use selected colors of Cernit, Piñata, and Ranger alcohol inks. I applied each color of ink to two circles of baked white Premo with a swab, taking care to ensure the same amount of ink was applied to both. I put one set of circles in a dark closet and put the other set outside in the full sun. They were exposed for 10 full days of sun, in August, at 39°N latitude.

I saw noticeable fading of some of the colors after the second day.

Circles of polymer clay coated with alcohol ink, showing before and after sun exposure.
Here’s an array of alcohol inks applied to baked white Premo. This demonstrates visible fading after a mere two days in the sun. There are a variety of brands here.

And here are the samples that showed fading after a full 10 days in the sun.

Polymer clay samples, coated with alcohol ink, showing the fading after 10 days in the sun.
These sample pairs were the ones that faded the most after 10 days in the sun.

Not all colors faded equally. Here are some samples that showed only mild fading after 10 days in the sun. Other colors (not shown) didn’t fade at all.

What Affects Fading?

Based on what I’ve seen after testing all these various colors of alcohol ink, here’s what I have noticed.

Not All Colors Fade the Same

  • Pinks, purples, and blues seem to fade very rapidly.
  • Warm reds, warm blues, and dark greens tend to hold their colors much better.
  • Black doesn’t seem to fade at all, at least not in 10 days.

Color Density Matters

  • Some colors of alcohol ink contain a lot of dye, making a fairly dense color on your clay. Others are more dilute. Deeply colored inks tend to fade more slowly.
  • The more ink applied to the clay, the less rapidly the color will fade. Color always fades first where it’s applied more thinly.
  • Dark colors seem to shade themselves, perhaps preventing deeper penetration of the light, and tend to fade more slowly.

Brand Doesn’t Matter

  • I saw no brand-based pattern among the brands I tested.
  • Some colors in every brand fade rapidly, others don’t. It’s the color that matters, not the brand.
  • It’s incorrect to say that “Ranger fades” or “Cernit doesn’t fade”. To an extent, and in some circumstances, they all do.

Colors are Mixtures

While some colors are undoubtedly a single dye, others are mixtures. When one of the dyes in the mixture fades more rapidly than the others, the result is a color shift. For example, if a green dye contains yellow and blue but the blue fades, the green dye would turn yellow as it fades.

Is Fading Specific to Polymer Clay?

No, it’s not. Alcohol inks (and Basic Dyes in general)will fade in sunlight when used on other media as well. Polymer clay projects have a tendency, however, to be left outside, worn as jewelry, or perhaps left in a windowsill. Because of this, we’ll see fading with alcohol ink on polymer clay much more readily than we’d see if the inks were used on paper that is kept in a drawer.

Additionally, so far we’ve been talking about fading when applied to BAKED polymer clay. In that case, the dye doesn’t drive very deep into the clay and is right on the surface where the sun can reach it. Applying alcohol inks to the surface of RAW polymer clay may very well be another matter. I have not tested this specifically, but anecdotal evidence has shown that fading is not a significant issue, given enough dye is applied.

Pigments, mica, and powders are magical

Don’t be intimidated by those little jars and packets of colorful powders. Learn to use them effectively in your projects.

But Why Does Fading Matter?

Do you wear polymer clay jewelry to an event in the summer, maybe a baseball game or to a picnic? Or more importantly, do you ever sell your creations at an outdoor market where they will be exposed to sunlight? If so, you will not want to use alcohol inks on the surface of your polymer clay creations. The color will fade or shift and that’s not something you want to happen!

Does Alcohol Ink Mixed Into Clay Also Fade?

You know, that’s a really good question. I did not test that. In my experience, some of the same rules apply. Deeply colored clay that’s been colored with an intense color of alcohol ink does not seem to fade readily. But I have had lightly colored projects fade over time. I don’t have enough evidence to give a recommendation on this. I do know, however, that you can use regular colored clay or colored translucent clay to tint plain translucent. Alcohol is not necessary to achieve a clear colored translucent effect.

What About Heat Setting and Souffle?

Heat setting drives the color a wee bit more deep into the clay, allowing it to perhaps (maybe maybe) stain a bit better. It’s one of the things I tested previously here. But baking alcohol ink can also cause the color to shift and the image to blur.

Souffle users have noted that alcohol inks don’t fade for them. Well, that’s a bit on an absolute statement. As you can see above, some colors fade super readily, period. I can’t see where Souffle would be able to prevent that. However, Souffle is a special kind of clay in that it contains microbeads and the surface of the baked clay has tiny pits. Those tiny pits will grab onto and hold more alcohol ink, ensuring that more ink is present in the first place. I think, therefore, that Souffle would likely show less fading than a regular clay like Premo. But I’ve not tested this and it’s only a guess.

Recommendations about Alcohol Ink on Polymer Clay

I love alcohol ink. I do. But I don’t think it should be used to “paint” on the surface of polymer clay. It fades far too readily. If you sell polymer clay jewelry, I recommend that you do not use alcohol ink on the surface of baked clay at all. Your customers will be disappointed when their jewelry fades after a week of vacation in the sun. This also holds true if you sell your creations in outdoor markets.

If you do have a process that applies the ink to the surface of your clay, take care to make sure the item is stored in the dark and certainly away from sunny windows.

Applying alcohol ink to RAW polymer clay will undoubtedly work better because the dye is driven deeper into the clay. Be aware that the alcohol will dry out the clay and cause it to crack, as well. But this is the basis for some really wonderful techniques. I’ve never had any trouble with this process fading. Give it a try!

Should you get rid of your alcohol inks? Nope! They’re useful and fun. But you should be aware of the danger that they will fade when the sun has access to them.

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