Painting Terra Cotta & Clay Pots

Preparation Tips For Long Lasting Results

Painting on terra cotta or clay doesn’t really require any special treatment if your garden art object is brand new. 9-times-out-of-10 it’ll be clean enough and you’ll be able to apply the base coat from the get-go.

Obviously, if your terra cotta or clay object has already been used outside, you’ll want to wash it to ensure your painting efforts aren’t wasted because you started with a dirty working surface. Why have your finish peel off on-up-the-road?

SIDENOTE: People tend to use “terra cotta” and “clay” interchangeably. What’s the technical difference between these two terms? Very simply, terra cotta is a clay “mud” that is fired at a lower temperature than the harder “stoneware”. So, “clay” is really not a technically correct way to refer to garden flower pots and planters.

If it’s a pot that’s been previously planted in … then do indeed wash it! Here are some good steps to follow:

  • Soak the clay or terra cotta pot in a solution of 1 part bleach and 9 parts water. (The longer you soak pots, the easier they’ll be to clean. Many crafters will soak their pots for 24 hours.)
  • Remove all dirt or fertilizer “salt” reside — that’s the “white stuff” you probably see caked up around the rim and possibly leeched through on the sides of the pot. A wire brush or knife work well to scrape and remove any built-up deposits.
  • Once your pot is thoroughly cleaned, soak it for apprx. 15 minutes in clear water to thoroughly remove any remaining bleach.
  • Allow it to dry thoroughly.

Alright, now you’ve got a clean pot. On to the next step …

A Base Coat Is A Very Good Idea

Your Painted Finish Will Last Much Longer If You Apply A Base Coat

It’s up to you, but I always apply a white, beige-ish or black base coat before painting either terra cotta or clay. (The base color depends on the color palette I’m using.) This covers up the pot’s color which allows my chosen colors to “read” truer.

And, terra cotta/clay is porous. A base coat also serves as a sealer. I use either a “cheap” generic brand spray paint — spraying is so quick and easy — or I’ll brush on the base coat. It just depends on the project and my mood!

If the object is a garden pot, I spray 2 coats of a clear urethane sealer on the inside to help it retain more water/moisture in the soil AND to help prolong the life of the exterior’s painted finish. (Moisture working its way from the inside of the pot to the outside could cause the exterior finish to bubble or start peeling.)

Because terra cotta is fired at lower temperatures, it is quite porous. It continually wicks water from the soil which causes your painted finish to peel. As I mentioned, painting the inside of the pot is an important step. Make sure to do it!

Following these simple steps will really insure a nice, long lasting finish on all your garden pottery for years to come.

Happy Painting 🙂


  1. I bought a clay pot that is glazed on the outside, do I need to seal the inside?

  2. Claudia Brownlie says:

    Hi Tammy:
    Not necessarily – the outer glaze will certainly help with water retention. But if you wish you can also apply at least 2 spray coats of something like Krylon (clear color) to the inside which would help to protect the clay a little more. But remember: if you are in a climate where you get freezes and thaws, then do bring your pot into a sheltered spot during the winter temps. Those freeze/thaws wreck havoc on pots over time, even if glazed or sealed.

  3. Do I need to wash new terracotta pots before applying a sealer?

  4. Claudia Brownlie says:

    Hi Sharon: Yes you should, especially if the pot is dirty. Think about it – you want the paint or sealer to adhere and stay there for (hopefully) many years, so the better you prep any surface before painting or sealing, the better the paint can adhere. Here are some articles about this subject, along with a few others about painting terra cotta, that you could have found using the search box on my website: Hope this helps. Have fun with your project. 🙂

  5. If the terracotta pot is being used indoors, is it necessary to use a sealer on the inside/outside of the pot when using acrylic paint? Will the acrylic bubble up over time or flake if used without a primer/sealer?

  6. Claudia Brownlie says:

    Hi: I would highly suggest at least using sealer on the INSIDE of your pot to prevent moisture from the soil seeping through the clay pot and possibly adversely affecting the outside painted surface in time-to-come. And, it’s very hard to provide a 100% accurate answer to “will it bubble over time?” Too many variables are at play, but with all the years under my belt of painting terra cotta pots I’d say yes, over time you will very likely start to see the paint layer degrading, and especially so if no sealer was used (inside or outside the pot).

  7. Hi Claudia,
    my pots have been planted for a long time and now they are starting to get really ugly and peeling. Can I now, with the plant and soil in the pot paint the outside to make them a look a little better or is it too late and just let them fall apart?

  8. Claudia Brownlie says:

    Hi Linda: No – it is definitely NOT recommended, in your situation, to paint a pot with the soil and plant still in it, because you want the terra cotta to be completely dry and cleaned of all the peeling paint, dirt, etc. before applying paint to the exterior.

  9. Gail Kandel says:

    I have life size terra cotta warriors that need retouching the exterior finish. What should I use?

Speak Your Mind


What is 14 + 24 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is:
IMPORTANT! To be able to proceed, you need to solve the following simple math (so we know that you are a human) :-)