Alcohol Inks, which are dyes suspended in an alcohol base, are great fun as art materials. They’re used to create bright, colorful artwork on paper, glass, ceramic tile, plastic, and yes, polymer clay. (Learn about using alcohol ink on polymer clay in my article here.) Sealing alcohol ink artwork can be tricky since many solvents smear or dissolve the dyes. In 2022, Jacquard Products came out with a product to meet that need. Since many varnishes perform poorly on polymer clay, I wanted to specifically explore this product. Here’s my take on using Piñata Gloss Varnish on polymer clay.
Why a special varnish?
Because alcohol ink is easily dissolved by solvents, and many varnishes use solvent carriers, it can be tricky to coat these artworks without smearing the colors. Kamar Spray Varnish is commonly recommended to protect alcohol ink artwork, but you cannot use most spray varnishes on polymer clay (here’s why). Additionally, most brush-on varnishes slightly dissolve the dyes, making them a poor choice. These are reasons why a special alcohol ink-compatible varnish is of great interest to polymer clayers. But since many varnishes perform poorly on one or more brands of polymer clay (see my tests and explanations here), I wanted to evaluate Piñata Gloss Varnish on polymer clay and see if it performs well.
About Piñata Gloss Varnish
Piñata Gloss Varnish is made by Jacquard Products, which is the maker of Piñata Alcohol Inks and also Pearl Ex mica powders. The varnish is a liquid that comes in both a 4-ounce and 8-ounce bottle. It’s slightly amber-colored, thicker than water, and dries clear. It smells awful and I could never use it for this reason. (It’s not a solvent smell. It’s more like sulfur compounds.) You can see its texture (and listen to me gag from the smell) here:
What to Test?
Here are the things that I considered to be important to evaluate for this product.
- Does it get sticky on commonly used brands of polymer clay?
- Does it apply smoothly?
- Is it glossy?
- Does it cause alcohol inks to smear or run when they’re used on polymer clay?
- Does the varnish yellow when exposed to sunlight?
- The label states that it’s UV resistant, so does it protect fading of alcohol inks?
- What’s the feeling of the varnish? Do varnished pieces stick together?
- Does the dried varnish crack when flexed?
Piñata Gloss Varnish on Polymer Clay
I made white test tiles from the following brands of polymer clay:
I then used both Ranger and Piñata alcohol inks to make a colorful pattern on the surface of the baked tiles of white clay. I did try to make them roughly similar. After allowing the tiles to dry for 24 hours, I used a brush to apply two coats of Piñata Gloss Varnish to the polymer clay tiles, allowing the varnish to dry to the touch between coats.
I found that the varnish applied smoothly but bubbles did not pop on their own! The appearance was fairly similar to other varnish brands and the skill in application is an important part of getting results. It was quite glossy and appeared to dry well except for the bubbles. None of the alcohol ink appeared to smear or bleed. The colors DID change when the varnish was applied and appeared to darken and turn a bit duller. The varnish feels okay once dried. It’s not rubbery and makes a finish typical of other varnishes. However, the dried finish was brittle and readily cracked when I flexed the tile.
Uh-Oh! Stickiness Enters the Arena!
After several weeks, though, I started to notice a slight stickiness on all but Premo and CosClay. I think this slight stickiness would be easily missed if you weren’t looking for it. But it’s there. I think coating with a final layer of a clay-safe varnish would resolve this stickiness.
The Fading Test
Alcohol inks are dyes and they are not colorfast. They will absolutely fade if exposed to light. For this reason, polymer clayers have been keen to find a coating that will protect artwork from the harsh fading that UV light causes. While there was no way to evaluate this fading over time, I realized I could get a pretty good idea of fading by leaving test samples in full sun in July. Here’s what I found.
(This was part of a fading test on several varnishes. You can see the results of Brite Tone here.) Baked white tiles of Premo were dotted with Ranger and Piñata alcohol inks. Half of the tiles were baked again to heat set the ink (some people say it matters, more on that in another article.) Then part of each tile was coated with two coats of varnish. I took pictures of the tiles and then placed the tiles in full sun, in July, all day every day, for 10 days. (For reference, I live at 37° N latitude.)
The goal here was to evaluate if heating the tiles mattered, if the varnish protected against fading, and if the varnish, itself, yellowed.
While I knew that alcohol inks faded with time, I was completely surprised at how quickly it happened. As you can see in the image below, the alcohol inks faded terribly. This fading was noticeable after the very first DAY of being in the sun.
I’ve since learned that the UV protective additives in varnishes (and likely other products) are not there to block the UV light from transmitting. They are not sunscreen for your art. Rather, the UV protective agent is there to keep the varnish, itself from breaking down in the sun.
All colors of alcohol ink from both brands faded substantially in the sun. Having a coating of Piñata Gloss Varnish did not prevent the fading. Additionally, you can see how the Piñata Gloss Varnish (the upper 2/3 of each tile) did yellow slightly in that 10 days of sun exposure. I can only surmise that longer term UV light exposure would further deteriorate these colors and also make the varnish yellow further.
In short, we cannot assume that Piñata Gloss Varnish is intended or should be used to prevent fading of alcohol inks on polymer clay due to UV light exposure.
Suggested Use of Piñata Gloss Varnish on Polymer Clay
There’s no doubt that Piñata Gloss Varnish works in its intended capacity, and that is to coat alcohol ink with a uniform glossy surface that does not also smear, bleed, or otherwise deteriorate the colors. That fact alone makes it a valuable tool in a polymerista’s toolkit. I suggest you use a thin layer of Piñata Gloss Varnish as a barrier coat before using more appropriate and better-performing polymer clay-safe varnishes such as Varathane or Brite Tone. You could also use Piñata Gloss Varnish on polymer clay before you apply a coat of resin.
Piñata Gloss Varnish should not be used in full sun as I believe it will yellow with time.
While I do think this product would have use in specific situations (you know who you are), I don’t think this would make a good all-purpose varnish for polymer clay. If you can use other products, you will likely prefer them. This product is best for those times when you can’t use a regular varnish because of smearing and bleeding of your alcohol ink design.
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