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Painting Clay Pots

Add a touch of style to a classic container

Photo/Illustration: Scott Phillips

I love terra-cotta, but I think too much of it can be monotonous. To vary the look of terra-cotta pots, I sometimes age them by spraying them with a buttermilk and moss solution to stimulate moss growth (a time-consuming affair), or if I want instant gratification I paint them. I started painting clay pots years ago while working in a craft store and nursery. It is an easy and inexpensive way to dress up the garden as well as a thoughtful way to personalize a plant gift.

The best part of painting pots for me is coming up with the designs. I’ve drawn inspiration for my pots from people, objects, and places around me, and I’ve established a few design guidelines for myself over the years. For example, I usually avoid the color green unless I have a particular look in mind when the pot is combined with a plant. I’ve found that a green pot usually either clashes with or distracts from the foliage of a plant. Also, very small, intricate designs will be lost on a pot used for a floor plant or large container planting. I reserve those designs for a pot that will be seen at eye level.

One of my favorite designs is based on the night sky. It’s mysterious, intriguing, and a good foil for almost any plant. Another design I like is inspired by old gold-leaf picture frames. I love the look of the overlapping layers of gold with the red base color showing through. For variety, I sometimes use a top coat of black paint instead of gold and scratch off a bit of the top layer to expose the red beneath. When I want a very simple treatment, a thin wash of color that lets the terra-cotta show through is all it takes to make a pot shine.

When it comes to painting pots, the design possibilities are endless. The pots hold up well for years with only minimal fading, even outdoors. They won’t survive freezing, though, so bring them in when it gets cold.

Supplies you'll need

• Clean terra-cotta pots
• Acrylic craft paints in assorted colors
• Small or medium foam brushes
• Plastic plates
• Cotton swabs
• Small artist’s paint brush
• Wire brush 
• Clear spray acrylic

Start by prepping the pot
Remove price tags and stickers from the pot by soaking it in a tub of warm water for up to an hour, then scrubbing it with a stiff brush. Allow the pot to dry completely before painting.

Next, apply the base coat
Put the paint for the base coat on a plastic plate and adjust the color with other shades if desired. Thin the paint with a small amount of water to make it easier to coat the pot evenly. Apply the paint with a foam brush, working around the pot in broad sweeps. Extend the paint an inch or so down into the top of the pot, but do not cover the bottom, which should be left clear for optimal drainage. The pot will absorb a lot of paint. Apply additional coats if you’d like, allowing the pot to dry between coats, until the desired color depth is achieved.

Soak the pot in a tub of warm water for up to an hour, then scrub it with a stiff brush. Soak the pot in a tub of warm water for up to an hour, then scrub it with a stiff brush.
Put the paint for the base coat on a plastic plate and thin it with a small amount of water. Put the paint for the base coat on a plastic plate and thin it with a small amount of water.
Apply the paint with a foam brush.  Apply the paint with a foam brush. 
Apply additional coats until the desired color depth is achieved. Apply additional coats until the desired color depth is achieved.

Celestial Pot

After the blue base coat has dried completely, choose a color for the stars. (I like to use gold, silver, or pearlescent white.) With a cotton swab, apply a liberal dot of the paint onto the side of the pot.

Using a small artist’s paint brush, draw the paint out from the middle to create the star-burst effect. Start with the longest rays and finish with the shortest to ensure that you will have enough paint for each. I like to end each ray with a tiny dot of paint to make the stars seem to sparkle.

Make more stars at random spots on the pot until you have as many as you want.

Choose a color for the stars. Choose a color for the stars.
Draw the paint out from the middle to create the star-burst effect. Draw the paint out from the middle to create the star-burst effect.
Make more stars at random spots on the pot. Make more stars at random spots on the pot.

Antique gold pot

After the red base coat is dry, use a wide foam brush to apply staggered patches of a muted antique gold shade. Do not dilute the gold paint in this step. The undiluted paint will go on unevenly, leaving streaks that will allow the base color to show through, emulating gold leaf.

After the first set of patches is dry, overlap them with additional patches to cover the entire pot.

After the red base coat is dry, apply patches of a gold shade. After the red base coat is dry, apply patches of a gold shade.
After the first set of patches is dry, overlap them with additional patches. After the first set of patches is dry, overlap them with additional patches.

Rich black pot

After the red base coat has dried completely, apply a thick coat of undiluted black paint, completely covering the base color on the outside surface of the pot.

Before the black coat dries completely, use a stiff wire brush in broad, light sweeps around the pot, scratching off just enough of the top coat to reveal the red color below.

After the red base coat has dried, apply coat of black paint. After the red base coat has dried, apply coat of black paint.
Before the black coat dries, scratch off the top coat to reveal the red color below.

Before the black coat dries, scratch off the top coat to reveal the red color below.

Apply two coats of spray acrylic to seal the paint. Apply two coats of spray acrylic to seal the paint.

After the finished pot has dried completely (this may take several days, as the drops of paint on the celestial pot are much thicker than a coat of paint), apply two coats of a clear waterbased spray acrylic to seal the paint and protect the design from scratches. This layer also makes cleaning soil from the outside of the pot a little easier. I recommend a matte finish, which is less distracting than a shiny finish and tends to intensify the colors of the pot.

Photos except where noted: Wendy Bowes.

From Fine Gardening 86 , pp. 41-43

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Companion Content

VIDEO Painting Clay PotsAdd a touch of style to a classic container