Testing: Coloring Translucent Premo

Several years ago (oh gee, time does fly), I wrote about tinting translucent polymer clay with alcohol inks. It’s a very effective way to make intensely colored polymer clay without losing translucency. It’s also a simple way of creating colors for faux glass effects. But is it the only way you can color translucent clay? As it turns out, no! You can use all sorts of pigments and paints and powders to color and tint translucent polymer clay. But do these all give the same results? Will they all be clear? No, they won’t. Here’s what happened when I tested 11 different art materials to explore coloring translucent Premo.

TLDR: You can use pretty much anything to color translucent polymer clay, including acrylic and oil paints. Large particles such as glitter or mica add visual effect, less intense color, and will impede translucency. Higher quality art materials give more intense color and preserve translucency. Dark colors block light transmission even when clear.

What Can You Use to Color Polymer Clay?

For some reason, there is much fear and confusion in the polymer clay world about the “compatibility” of various paints and art materials with polymer clay. Readers assume that something awful will happen if you mix acrylic paint or oil paint or chalks with polymer clay. You’ll even read where people will warn against it on forums and Facebook groups. But in practice, what can you use to color polymer clay? What works and what doesn’t?

How I Colored the Premo

Learn about coloring translucent Premo in this article by The Blue Bottle Tree

To find out, I started with a couple of bricks of Premo Translucent polymer clay, and I used the art materials that I have on hand in my studio. I chose the closest color I could get to cobalt or ultramarine blue, for each of these materials. I was trying to eliminate color as a variable so that any differences would be due to the material. I just conditioned and sheeted the Premo and then spread some of the pigment on the clay, then mixed it in. I then made a #7 sheet with the tinted clay and cut out a circle. I wanted to see how strong each color was, so I tested the tinting strength by diluting the tinted clay 50/50 with fresh clay and cutting another circle. I did this to create 7 dilutions of 11 art materials and compared all the baked circles.

Art Materials Tested

Here are the materials that I used to test coloring translucent Premo:

  1. Embossing Powder, Blue Pearl1
  2. Oil Paint, Ultramarine Blue1
  3. Alcohol Ink, Sapphire Blue1
  4. Premo Clay, Cobalt Blue
  5. Liquitex Acrylic Paint, Ultramarine Blue1
  6. Craftsmart Acrylic Paint, Mediterranean Blue1
  7. Pearl-Ex, True Blue1
  8. Glitter, dark cobalt blue1
  9. Chalk pastel, dark blue1
  10. Pan Pastel,Β Phthalo Blue1
  11. Staz-On Ink, Ultramarine1

Note. 1 Affiliate Link – learn more here.

Results: What Worked Best?

In short, everything worked well to color translucent Premo. Every one of the materials that I added to the polymer clay mixed in thoroughly and gave good, though quite different, results. Nothing was “incompatible” or caused any stickiness or degradation or chemical problems of any sort. Some products (such as glitter) didn’t really color the clay as much as act like an inclusion. Others, (such as paints) colored the clay quite well. You can see the results below.

Read about Coloring Translucent Premo with art materials at The Blue Bottle Tree.
Click to make it bigger. Refer to the key above to see what the numbers mean. Note how some materials are more translucent. Also note how some have poor tinting strength and are not very blue at lower dilutions.

What I Learned by Coloring Translucent Premo

Dyes vs Pigments

In art materials, colors are created by either dyes or pigments. I discussed this subject thoroughly in my article Pigments vs Dyes, What’s the Difference. To summarize here, though, pigments are particles of ground-up colors that you mix into clay. And dyes are molecules of color that bind with the clay. Because pigments can sometimes be made from fairly large particles which can block light transmission, it can mean that dyes are often better if you’re trying to keep the translucency when coloring translucent polymer clay. Notice how the large particles of the embossing powder, Pearl-Ex, and glitter seriously impede the translucency of the clay. You’ll also see how the pigments of the colored Premo, acrylic paint, and oil paint also reduced the translucency as compared to coloring with dyes. The surprise to me was how well the chalks colored the clay without blocking light transmission.

Quality Materials and Tinting Strength

When using paints, dyes, and other coloring agents, one of the most important factors is tinting strength. This refers to how strong a color is and how far you can dilute it. Cheap materials often have very low tinting strength, and it takes a lot of it to get deep colors. In the case of inexpensive paints, there are often lots of fillers that are chalky and opaque. You can see clearly that the Craftsmart acrylic paint (a $1 bottle of paint from Michaels) is chalky and it doesn’t stay very blue when diluted. You’ll also notice that the oil paint that I used has quite a low tinting strength. In general, if the color intensity is important, use the highest quality art materials that you can afford. Lower-quality materials will have more filler and less color.

Higher-quality artists’ materials usually have more finely ground pigment particles which allow more light to pass through the translucent clay. If you are using pigments to tint translucent polymer clay, opt for higher-quality colorants.

Interesting Points

  • Colorants with large particles reduce translucency
  • Muddy paints create muddy clay colors
  • Higher-quality materials give clearer, more intense clay colors
  • In general, dyes (alcohol ink and Staz-On) are more intense and translucent
  • It’s a misnomer that paints must dry first before being mixed in. Often they never dry anyway. And I never saw a problem with it.
  • Mixing wet paint or inks into polymer clay can be messy, so wear gloves if it matters to you
  • Chalky paint caused small air bubbles or plaques in the clay. Better acrylic paint did not have this.
  • Deep, dark, intense colors are less translucent, even when using a dye
  • Some dyes and pigments are not colorfast and may fade in the sun
  • Dyes will bleed through raw polymer clay, and the color will bleed to other blocks if they’re left touching. Always separate (wrap) colors during storage.
  • Mica, glitter, and embossing powder add interesting qualities other than color, such as sparkle, shimmer, or bubbles.
  • Pan Pastels and high-end pastels give rich color. But cheap pastels and those not finely ground will not color evenly. They will look like colored sand in your translucent clay.
  • You can tint translucent polymer clay with regular-colored polymer clay, but adding too much will affect the translucency.

Coloring Premo with Oil Paints

Yes, you can color translucent clay with oil paints, but the colors are muddy.

It is a misconception (I believed it too!) that oil paints will degrade polymer clay. They will not. (This belief comes from the fact that some paints and sealers remain sticky on polymer clay.) Regular artists’ oil paints are completely safe to be mixed in with polymer clay. However, that does not mean they’re the best material for making colored clay. The added oil of the paint can make your clay quite sticky…a bit like adding too much clay softener. Also, artists’ oil paints are expensive. You are far better off, financially, using alcohol inks to color translucent polymer clay than using oil paints. The tinting strength is higher with inks, and they’re cheaper. Plus, the colors of oil paint sets don’t seem to have good primary colors that mix to form clean secondary colors. See what happens when I mixed the red, yellow, and blue paints into polymer clay. They looked pretty good. But when I mixed the primaries together, the secondary colors (orange, purple, and green) weren’t very nice. The green in the center of this image is mixed with the Viridian Green paint included in the paint set. As you can see, these are not yummy colors for clay! Also, note the red has almost no translucency. Alcohol inks or even acrylic paints would be a far better option as they’re inexpensive enough to get one in every color and not have to mix all your colors from primaries that might be muddy.

Oil paints are a good option for painting on the surface of polymer clay, but they are not the best things to get complete, smooth, flat coverage. Oil paints are an excellent medium for creating layered glazes and washes on polymer clay. Donna Greenberg and Doreen Kassel are two well-known artists who use oil paints on the surface of polymer clay with great results. Do be aware, however, that they will take a few days to dry.

Color ON vs IN Polymer Clay

Chalk on the surface of polymer clay looks much different than chalk mixed into polymer clay.

Rather than mixing these art materials and colors in with polymer clay, what happens when you apply them to the surface of the clay? In all cases, it is going to give you a very different effect. For example, here is what happened when I compared Pan Pastel (Affiliate Link – learn more here) applied to the surface of raw Premo vs mixed into Premo. See how the color mixed in is more intense, is easier to control the intensity (by dilution), and is more translucent. But also notice how the chalk applied to the surface of raw Premo gives a shaded look. They are totally different effects and will have very different purposes in your art.

Some materials only work on raw clay and will not stick to baked clay without adding glue or a carrier of some sort. Pearl-Ex (Affiliate Link – learn more here) is an example of this. Every new material you use with polymer clay will affect it differently, and you will have to do some experiments to learn the best way to get the effects you want.

Be mindful when asking questions or giving advice in groups and forums about how to use these materials. For instance, a common question is “How do you use chalk with polymer clay?” One person may be thinking of using a fine dusting of red chalk to create rosy cheeks on an elf. Another person might be thinking of mixing the chalk in with the clay to get an intensely red translucent clay. Both are legitimate uses, but I have read people say that no, you can’t mix it in with the clay. Yes, you can!

Do You Need to Seal DIY Colored Clay?

So…you’ve used art materials to color your polymer clay. Do you need to seal it? If you have mixed something INTO polymer clay and then baked it, that color never needs to be sealed. You may choose to add a glossy varnish if you’d like, but it’s not necessary, and you do not need to protect the surface in any way. In most cases, if you apply a color ONTO the surface of raw polymer clay, it does not need to be sealed, either. Most materials bond quite well to clay during the curing process. But for glitters, embossing powder, mica powder, and chalks, you may want to apply a varnish or sealer for increased durability if the item is to be worn or used. Most paints do not need to be sealed. The exception to this is when paints scrape off easily. If your paint is scraping off, you do need to seal it. Here’s more information about Do You Need to Seal Polymer Clay.

Can You Buy Colored Translucent Polymer Clay?

So…what If you don’t want to make your own colored clay. Can you buy translucent polymer clay that’s already been colored? Yes, you can. Fimo, Cernit, Pardo, and PVClay all have a line of colored translucent clay. Read about (and see examples) of them here in my article Colored Translucent Polymer Clay. You can see a few of the intensely colored Cernit translucent colors in my Review of Cernit. In general, if you’re going to be using a large amount of colored translucent clay, it is far more convenient to purchase pre-colored translucent brands such as these. But for smaller amounts and for convenience, you may prefer to color your own.

Can You Color White Polymer Clay?

Can you use these art materials to create colored clay from white polymer clay? It does seem to be an elegant solution. Just buy white clay and create all the colors you want. The problem is that white clay is…white. So no matter what pigment or dye you use, you’re always dealing with a mass of clay that has white pigment in it. So you will always have a pastel. (Red + White = Pink.) It takes a lot of paint or dye to get a very dark color of clay, and that gets expensive. It also changes the clay’s working quality, often making it sticky to work with and far too brittle after baking. Stick with buying pigmented clay, if possible. You can learn more in my article here about coloring white clay.

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31 thoughts on “Testing: Coloring Translucent Premo”

  1. Really enjoyed your article, informative,creative and interesting. Appreciate your hard work and sharing.

  2. I really admire all the time and effort you put into researching and then testing all the many, many art forms and then taking the time to write about them and then to correspond and let us all benefit from your genius. THANK YOU

    I love the humor you add now and again. You are so caring and generous and I know many people feel the way I do.

    Thank you Ginger …. you are the best.

    Many, many thanks, Donna Elliott

  3. Thank you so much Ginger πŸ™‚ it’s nice to know that my artist oil paints can be used for my clay work as well. With so many hobbies under my belt it’s nice to find so many of them can be crossed over in so many ways πŸ˜€
    I love the Premo translucent clays and with my large range of oil paints that have died in the tubes I am able to use them in my clay πŸ˜€ takes time for the paint to lose the lumps when blending but with a lot of rolling pastmachine work they do mix in and disappier with time πŸ™‚ I like the fact I now don’t have anything in my artist box of paints that is considered wasted now that they have dried out, it’s not normal for quality oil paints to dry out like this but when I ran the numbers on how old all my paints are I am now not i am not as surprised at it lol some of them I have had for over 30 years in the paint box πŸ˜€ and theynhave travield around the world with me so not bad at all πŸ™‚ now to save up for the Lucy clay rolling machine and this will make mixing so much easier πŸ˜€

    Thank you for the indepth report πŸ™‚ your the bomb when it comes to writing reports that’s for sure:-)

  4. Excellent article. You always figure out the questions to answer. Thanks again Ginger.

  5. Jo Roseborough

    Great information as always. Thank you for your research and sharing all your knowledge. So appreciated.

  6. What a thorough article Ginger – thankyou. Do you think Pardo Translucent would produce similar results ? Im about to start playing with Pardo and wonder if it the options for adding color are as broad as with Sculpey ?

  7. I always love reading about your thorough experiments and findings… making your site a go-to reference place for what works and what doesn’t with polymer. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us!

  8. Wow! Thank you Ginger for sharing your hard work so freely. Your articles are so well-written and informative. You are an inspiration!

  9. Thanks for the great article, Ginger. I just received a large block (1 lb.) so,will be experimenting with it and my pan pastels this weekend. Can’t wait to see the results!

  10. As always, great job Ginger! I shared on both FB & Twitter:)
    I have been noticing that there is a bit of buzz about using transparent glass paints for applications other than glass painting…. I’ve seen it used on canvas (which I have always done myself), and even used in a mokume recipe… now I am curious to know how it will work with translucent clay. I’ll let y’all know results if i can get to it soon…. or maybe another clayer here has tried it? Personally I use alcohol ink or pastels, but my pastel use was always on the surface after baking…. knowing that it can be mixed in opens up a whole new door… like making a very subtle skinner blend for a bead? C ya!!

  11. Excellent coverage of the topic. I agree with all of the positive comments above. You are a superb resource – a real go-to pool of knowledge. The polymer clay community really appreciates all your research.

  12. Terrific article! It had never occurred to me to mix chalk INTO the clay, I can’t wait to try it! I have a question: is it viable to use water based inks with polymer clay rather than alcohol?

  13. Great timing, as I have been tinting translucent liquid clay with both alcohol inks and chalk pastels this week. Fun stuff! Thanks for the info on the oil paints. I’ve read they weren’t compatible but you proved they are!

  14. What a wonderful resources,written for the avenger joe (Ken).Will now go out and buy some chalk and go from there..thanks and keep it coming

    1. I think they will if it’s low quality chalks. But Pan Pastels and higher-end artists pastel sticks are more pigment than chalk. So I think it gave better results than lower-end chalks would give.

  15. As always, another super article. Do you know anything about using oil pastels? An artist friend just gave me some but I don’t know if they are compatible with polymer. I figured Ginger knows all!

    1. Oil pastels are a bit like chalk pastels suspended in sort of thick chap stick. So if you can make the pieces small enough, you can mix them into polymer clay. But you will end up with chunks. Which actually could have quite a neat effect. Certainly one for experimenting with! I say get out the clay and have fun.

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