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Painting Clay Pots

Add a touch of style to a classic container with this simple technique

Fine Gardening - Issue 86
painted clay pots
Photo: 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.

prepping clay pots for 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.

thinning paint with water on a plate painting base coat on clay pot painting inside top of clay pot

Begin the decorating

Celestial pot

clay pot painted with small stars
Photo: Scott Phillips

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.

painting small gold stars onto a clay pot

Antique gold pot

clay pot painted gold
Photo: Scott Phillips

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.

painting gold squares onto clay pot

Rich black pot

clay pot painted black
Photo: Scott Phillips

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.

painting clay pot black and scratching some paint off with a wire brush

Finally, 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 water-based 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.

spraying clay pot with sealant

clay pot with silver color wash

A pot with character in five minutes

Applying a thin color wash is about the quickest way to dress up a pot. The wash (half paint and half water) allows the terra-cotta to show through.

The effect is subtle but pleasing.

Michelle Gervais is Fine Gardening’s technical editor. She gardens with her husband on
a half-acre in New Milford, Connecticut.

Photos except where noted: Wendy Bowes

Previous: Pick the Perfect Pot Next: Learn How to Make a Concrete-Leaf Planter
View Comments


  1. kathykrizonwarner 01/25/2015

    I heard that when painting terra cotta pots you should seal the inside of the pots with a few layers of Modge Podge. This way when putting in a plant the water won't soak through the pot and get under the paint and cause it to bubble. What are your thoughts on this idea?

    1. user-7007423 03/10/2015

      Personally, I would be hesitant about putting anything on the inside the pot. I don't know much about gardening or plants but I do know that the terracotta pot absorbs the moisture which is a good thing for certain plants if they are over watered. I'm thinking putting Mod Podge on the inside will keep the water from leaking through to the paint but it might also interfere with the drainage of the soil. Just a thought? Hopefully someone with more experience can clear this up. :)

      1. user-7008342 01/19/2017

        And the interior sealant could leach into the soil and be absorbed by the plants.

        1. adorablegs 07/02/2017

          Paint the sealant on the exterior, either before paint, then sand or after the paint (albeit soil staining is possible) and finish it off with a sealant as a topcoat.

    2. chrisiburgess 11/24/2017


  2. bc_vc 03/08/2015

    Awesome! Can't wait to try it! Thanks. Is there a particular brand of acrylic paint that you use?

    1. user-7007791 08/27/2015

      Hi ~

      I've been painting clay with acrylic paints for many years. I think 'Americana' is the best acylic for this. It's water based, so if you make a mistake before it dries, you can just wipe or rinse it off. It is sold at places like Wal-mart, Michaels etc; but you can buy it online for bigger bottles and hundreds of colors. Hope this helps. Here's the link:

  3. user-7008573 05/18/2017

    The acrylic colors in pots don't wash off with water when you water plants?

    1. User avater
      Midnight_Tiger 05/30/2018

      Acrylic paints should be waterproof once they're dry. The acrylic spray sealant coating should help protect the paints from water as well.

  4. PatsyAnn59 11/05/2017

    I have painted terra cotta for years. Usually it is with a can of spray paint and in the summer. It lasts forever before it fades. My pots are about 10 yrs old and although not as bright, still have very good color. Even the hand painted design is still nice. I wouldn't put anything on the inside. I did for these pots because I didn't know better. Everything still grows fine. Oh, and the pots are outside from Spring to Fall in full sun.

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