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Painting Plaster with Acrylics

Iridescent Bright Gold

On the left, an uncoated hydrostone plaster object with 5% Acrylic Modifier for Plaster. On the right is the same object painted initially with High Flow Acrylics, then Fluid Iridescent Bright Gold (Fine).

Plaster has been decorated with paint since its earliest known usage back in 7500 B.C. Jordan. The rather simple mixture of lime powder, crushed limestone and water was used to achieve smooth walls for interior wall decoration. Ancient Egyptian builders employed calcined (heated) gypsum into their plaster, which improved the functional use. The duel use of form and function is evidenced by their opulent palaces and tombs, including the pyramids of Giza. The term “Plaster of Paris” originates from 15th century Montmartre, France – the source for its prized hemihydrated calcium sulfate. Of course other sources are now known, but this specific vein of gypsum was proven to be an extremely important component for mold-making and casting and the name is now synonymous with plaster. Traditionally shellac is used as a plaster sealer, but this article focuses on using waterborne acrylics for both sealing and painting.

ATE

Airbrush Transparent Extender is used to seal the surface of the cast plaster. The darker area has three thin layers applied.

Before painting plaster, it is important to allow the material to become fully dry. This process may take up to a month, so follow the plaster manufacturer’s recommendations on curing time. Ultimately, the plaster needs to be very dry in order for the initial priming layers to properly bond to the plaster surface. Drying rooms or low temperature ovens expedite the drying rate for objects.

Acrylics are alkaline in the wet state and adhere well to plaster. However, the surface of cast plaster is usually smooth and thicker paints often cannot penetrate deep enough to create a strong bond. Therefore, thin products are better suited as the initial coats. Uncoated plaster is extremely absorbent and allows thin products to penetrate deeply and seal the surface, thus paving the way for the next layer. This is the key to painting with acrylics onto plaster. Allow time for each layer to sufficiently dry. An indicator of this is the plaster darkens while wet, and then lightens as it dries. As each coat continues sealing the surface, the plaster remains a bit darker . Once the surface is sealed, thicker products such as Fluid Acrylics or Heavy Body Acrylics can be used.

GOLDEN High Flow Acrylics may be applied directly to unsealed plaster. These paints readily absorb into the plaster. The negative side effect is akin to staining raw wood; the color tends to be somewhat blotchy and uneven.

Lab Test

A Brookfield CP3 Texture Analyzer is preparing to test the durability of a plaster disc tinted with Fluid Indian Yellow Hue.

Woodworkers remedy this with a pre-stain conditioner. A ready to use, suitable conditioner for plaster is GOLDEN Airbrush Transparent Extender. This thin acrylic medium is applied directly to the plaster surface. Two or more coats create a less absorbent and more uniform paint layer. Certainly other products may be used (GAC 800 is an excellent coating for chalky surfaces), provided they are sufficiently thin enough to readily absorb into the plaster. High Flow Acrylics were compared to Fluid Acrylics on bare plaster and both absorbed readily with excellent adhesion. These paints are thin enough to not cover up casting details. GOLDEN Heavy Body Acrylics can be used on a properly sealed surface, but they will retain more brush and tool marks.

Acrylic paint may also be added into the plaster slurry to tint the cast object. This is a useful coloring method because, unlike surface painted plaster, chipped areas will not be as noticeable. Adding acrylic paints or medium may also improve the overall plaster strength because they form a network within the plaster. The concept of adding acrylic to strengthen plaster is not a new idea. GOLDEN Custom Product “Acrylic Modifier for Plaster” was developed around 1990 to improve the overall strength and chip-resistance of cast objects by integrating a matrix of acrylic polymers within the cast object. The liquid additive is mixed with water prior to adding the powdered plaster, usually between 3-10% of the weight of plaster used.  At a 10% level, our limited testing revealed that the Acrylic Modifier for Plaster increases the amount of force required to break ordinary Plaster of Paris by 50% and increases the amount of force required to break USG’s Hydrostone by 25% . Hydrostone is a stronger and more durable plaster to begin with, so this increase is noteworthy. Adding acrylic into the plaster also reduces absorbency, thereby reducing the number of sealing coats required prior to painting. However, acrylic additions will also slow the curing time down, which can be an issue for some applications.

AMP

GOLDEN Acrylic Modifier for Plaster and water ready to be added into DAP Plaster of Paris.

Once the plaster objects have been painted, they may be top-coated with a variety of materials, including GOLDEN Polymer Varnish, MSA Varnish or Archival Spray Varnish for decorative and artistic needs. Commercial topcoats should be used for more demanding functional requirements. Exterior use demands the use of waterproof coatings such as two-part automotive urethanes.

As always, if you have any questions about this application, please contact the Material Specialists in our Technical Support Department.

43 Responses to Painting Plaster with Acrylics

  1. Hugh S. Myers May 17, 2016 at 12:08 pm #

    Excellent article! I’m now surprisingly (well not too) inclined to begin work on plaster. I’m thinking of plaster sheets formed by pouring a 1/2 inch or so in a rectangular mold. The increase in strength may make this a practical idea—time and experience will tell. I’ll start small and work up and at some point add plastic screening at a mid point or perhaps sculpture grade plaster bandaging. Many possibilities come to mind, even polychrome sculpture beyond bas-relief.

  2. Yamin November 8, 2016 at 6:38 pm #

    Thanks for the great information! I have another question: Can I apply GOLDEN Polymer Varnish, MSA Varnish or Archival Spray Varnish directly to plaster as sealant if the plaster is not primed or painted first? Thank you!

    • Michael Townsend December 13, 2016 at 3:16 pm #

      Hello Yamin,
      Thank you for contacting us with your questions. The varnishes may be applied directly, but they will readily absorb into the plaster surface. With gloss products this isn’t a big concern because they help seal the surface for subsequent coats, but satin and matte varnishes absorb in but leave the matting solids on the surface. In turn, this creates a frosted appearance (as seen in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hvobUjgPdQ ). On unpainted plaster you may not notice it, but it can obscure colors a bit. ALso realize that absorbed varnish layers are not removable.

  3. Jemma November 20, 2016 at 8:17 am #

    Hugh, that last idea sounds cool.
    Thanks for the article Michael. I gave my flat surface plaster piece a light spray of varnish and did image transfer on it with a medium but it rubbed off more than another method I’d tried.

  4. Daniel February 19, 2017 at 7:52 am #

    Great article!
    I want to join two fairly large hemispheres (40cm) together and am considering a sealant to seal the plaster before I apply any resins. Is my reasoning sound or am I missing a step?

    • Michael Townsend February 20, 2017 at 7:40 am #

      Thank you Daniel.
      I have never tried to join two casts together but it seems as if it might be better to not pre-seal the pieces to better allow the resin to penetrate into the plaster. I think it would be wise to do a test to see which method has better adhesion using “strips” of cast plaster that resemble the rim edges. What type of sealant are you investigating?
      – Mike Townsend

  5. Aubreigh April 12, 2017 at 6:10 pm #

    I was wondering what kind of outcome I would have if I mixed plaster of paris with the paint and layered it like one would with oil paint; for a textured look on a wood panel. What are your thoughts?

    • Michael Townsend April 25, 2017 at 8:50 am #

      Hello Aubreigh,
      Thank you for your comments. I do not forsee any issues with what you are describing, but I would greatly suggest making test panels to assure you have proper adhesion between layers and there are no signs of cracking in the dried applications. – Mike Townsend

  6. Dawn Smith August 20, 2017 at 5:02 pm #

    Hi, I have a large (what I think is plaster) elephant statue that was once a coffee table(but just sat stored in the basement, painted an ugly green colour) well, I painted it with acrylic paint (gray colours to look more natural) and I want to put outside in my garden for summer weather, bring it in during winter months (I live in London, Ontario Canada). Now my question is “what would be the best type of sealant to use?”…..thanks for your time

    • Michael Townsend August 28, 2017 at 8:38 am #

      Hello Dawn,
      Thank you for your questions. I do not know how well it will hold up in an exterior setting even with a topcoat. Plaster degrades quite quickly when exposed to moisture and if it’s acid rain like we have here in the north (we are in upstate New York) the plaster might also dissolve quicker.

      We’d advise against trying to place this figure – made with unknown materials – out into an exterior environment.
      – Mike

      • Linda January 22, 2019 at 11:53 am #

        I just repaired a small figure with a mixture of plaster of Paris and joint compound. I have done necessary sanding and painted with acrylic craft paint to match original finish. The finish on the piece is a satin finish. It will be stored and used inside. Any suggestion on what to use to seal newly painted areas? Thanks so much for your help.

        • Michael Townsend January 28, 2019 at 10:51 am #

          Hi Linda.
          Thank you for contacting us with your questions.
          The first thing I would suggest is to apply thin acrylic medium layers that can readily penetrate into the plaster repair work. High Flow Medium would work well, or use a thinned medium like Fluid Matte Medium, GAC 100, etc. Once the dry surface begins to look sealed, then you may move onto paint mixtures, and then you can try to unify the sheen to your liking. IF the rest of the piece is able to be coated, you might want to give an all over varnish application (such as the Polymer Varnish Satin or the Archival Spray Varnish Satin) to further unifity and hide the repair work. Let me know if you have any other questions!
          – Mike Townsend

  7. Scott September 10, 2017 at 2:01 pm #

    Thanks for the article. What about using oil paint on top of plaster, does the plaster need to be sealed in any way, perhaps with a few layers of thinned GAC, or will the oil soak into it and form a solid substrate for further painting?

    • Michael Townsend September 18, 2017 at 9:08 am #

      Hi Scott.
      Thank you for your questions. I do not know if oil will harm plaster but being so highly absorbent it would be a good idea to seal the surface prior to using the oil paints. Seal with GAC 100 (diluted as necessary). After 2-3 coats of the GAC 100 you might want to use the Fluid Matte Medium as a transparent gesso layer before beginning applying the oil paints. You could also use acrylic gesso if you are not opposed to working with an opaque layer. Thin the products to retain the cast surface as best as possible.
      – Mike

  8. Susan September 18, 2017 at 11:40 am #

    It seems as though I can touch up a plaster garden statue using a few layers of gesso, first, then paint with my acrylics. Yes? OR do I really need to spray on some varnish (before & after?) like I use on my hardboard signs?

    • Michael Townsend October 3, 2017 at 4:40 pm #

      Hello, Susan.
      Thank you for your questions.
      If you want to repaint exterior plaster statues, you’d be best to use exterior plaster or masonry primers instead of using artist gesso. There are stucco repair products such as Ready Patch and primers. Then, the acrylic paints may be used over them for the coloration, and a varnish such as the MSA Varnish can be applied at the end. Please contact us at help@goldenpaints.com if you have any further questions!
      Regards,
      – Mike Townsend

  9. rabbit September 21, 2017 at 7:19 pm #

    hi! i have a question.

    i am planning to paint on gypsona. the gympsum bandaids you get from a pharmacy for casts. i layer 2-3 strips together with water till it dries and becomes a solid surface. now i would like to paint on this textured surface with golden acrylic paints. should i layer it with acrylic medium gel? as a binder? please let me know how this surface can be made archival!

    thank you so muc.

    • Michael Townsend October 2, 2017 at 10:05 am #

      Hello Rabia,
      Thank you for your questions.
      I do not know enough about the Gypsona plaster materials to be able to discern if they are or can be made archival in regards to an artist application. However, they have been used by artists such as George Segal for use in lifecasting projects. I would assume that with proper sealing and protection via acrylic products and varnishes they should fare well in an interior setting. I recommend researching conservation efforts previously done on artworks where this product was the main material and see if the conservators mention the issues faced during restoration.
      – Mike Townsend

  10. mary chegwe October 2, 2017 at 5:36 am #

    Can I use white glue as a sealant on my plaster of Paris cast before painting

    • Michael Townsend October 2, 2017 at 9:22 am #

      Hello Mary,

      PVA (white glue) is water sensitive, so when you start painting with water-based acrylic paints over it, you may resolubilize the glue. Swelling glue could cause the paint layers to crack. Testing this application is highly recommended. Preferably the use of a thin or diluted acrylic medium would be a better choice as acrylics are not water sensitive once allowed to cure sufficiently.
      – Mike Townsend

  11. ERIK October 21, 2017 at 4:38 am #

    Excellent write up guys!
    Is it possible to use POP to make pots/planters?
    It’s a heavily moisture prone application, so will any type/amount of sealing will help me achieve this? I’m planning to use the methods suggested here to fill pores first with thin material and paint with acrylic paints and then seal with varnish. Any help is appreciated.

    • Michael Townsend October 25, 2017 at 10:21 am #

      Thanks, Erik.
      Plaster of Paris usually doesn’t fare well in exterior situations. Even high humidity can cause it to soften. Hydrostone and other plasters are probably better choices, or use resins from companies such as Smooth On.
      Mike

  12. claireb January 31, 2018 at 9:29 am #

    Could you advise me please! I’m making plaster casts of flowers by making impressions of them in clay then casting with crystacal R. It dries really white and I want to maintain this finish, but I’m not sure what to use to seal it plaster. I want to keep a matt finish and not alter the colour.
    Many thanks for any advice.

    • Michael Townsend February 8, 2018 at 6:35 pm #

      Hello Claire.
      Thanks for contacting us with your questions.
      If you are making pieces to be displayed inside, you can try the GOLDEN Archival Spray Varnish. Start with gloss varnish to seal the absorbency, allow the layers to dry and then switch to Matte. This may seem counterintuitive, but it reduces the chance of frosting that can occur when you directly apply a matte varnish onto a highly absorbent surface.
      – Mike Townsend

  13. Gavin Foster May 28, 2018 at 2:00 am #

    I really never thought of working with plaster but article like yours are really motivating. There’s been a room in my house that needs it’s walls to get fixed I am definitely going to try out your methods. However, can you suggest me some way I can create different patterns on the walls?

    • Michael Townsend June 18, 2018 at 3:35 pm #

      Hello Gavin.
      I’m glad I was able to inspire you. What are the kinds of patterns you would like to do on your walls? 3-D relief plaster work or more decorative with just thin paint layers?
      – Mike Townsend

  14. Steve Urwin December 16, 2018 at 6:22 am #

    A very useful and practical issue.
    Having embarked on some plaster of paris with acrylic inks etc I have lened some new ways of application and means of added strength
    Thank you

    • Michael Townsend January 3, 2019 at 11:42 am #

      You are very welcome Steve.

      Thank you for your remarks.

      – Mike Townsend

  15. plasterers Auckland January 3, 2019 at 12:53 am #

    We are looking for the painting in the plasters of our building. It is really a useful technique for the painting plasters. Thanks for sharing this post.

    • Michael Townsend January 3, 2019 at 11:41 am #

      Thank you for your comment!
      – Mike Townsend

  16. Cheryl A West February 22, 2019 at 7:49 pm #

    New to plaster. Using “Perfect Cast” to experiment with making some coasters. I plant to dot or mandala paint with acrylic. Do I need to bake them to set the paint and, what should I finish with to make them durable as coasters? Thank you so much for all of the information above. Really excited about this new project.

    • Michael Townsend February 25, 2019 at 8:58 am #

      Hi Cheryl.
      Thanks for your questions. No, you do not need to heat set the artist acrylic paints as they “coalesce” from evaporation of water and other additives. However, these are flexible, soft acrylic resins so they won’t crack and peel when flexed (such as on canvas paintings), therefore a clear topcoat should be applied to reduce the tackiness and make them easier to clean. A waterborne polyurethane, or acrylic/polyurethane blend (such as “MinWax PolyCrylic”) is always a good idea when using acrylics on functional objects. Waxes may also be used. We suggest the Renaissance Wax that is very easy to apply. – Mike

  17. David Corigliano August 19, 2019 at 5:07 pm #

    Michael,
    I have a carved wood sculpture figure that the head and hair are made of plaster. I have painted the plaster with acrylic paint. This sculpture is to be mounted outside on a tree stump. How best do I waterproof the painted plaster and varnish the cherry wood figure. Thank you for your help.

    • Michael Townsend August 27, 2019 at 3:41 pm #

      Hello David.

      Thanks for your comments and questions. If the plaster is already painted it will make it difficult to saturate the plaster with something to reduce water absorbency, which can really cause issues. Therefore, you need to seal the painted plaster with a very tight coating. A 2-part automotive urethane would be a good choice, but be sure to coat the entire piece well and not leave any areas uncoated, as that is where moisture will enter. If you do not want to have the gloss look, you can additionally apply the GOLDEN Archival Spray Varnish which is available in Gloss, Semi-Gloss, Satin and Matte. The cherry wood could be also coated with the urethane, but you could also coat with a Spar Marine Varnish if you don’t mind the color changes to the wood.

  18. Dave M August 27, 2019 at 3:31 pm #

    Hi. Great article. I’ve been using Crystacal R for approx 2 years making test casts from moulds. I’ve been trying out various methods prior to using crystacal for a project im due to start shortly where I plan to sell figurines etc. I’ve been using acrylic paint and never seen a reason as to using any primer to begin with. All you need to do is apply 2-3 layers of good acrylic paint then varnish. Why do you recommend primer when some of the best plaster is white anyway and the fact plaster is porous means it will absorb the paint far easier so isn’t going to crack if say compared to using something alternative like resin. Plaster will always be prone to scratching so if scratched this will remove the paint and plaster…not just paint so applying a decent varnish makes it a little less prone to surface scuffs/light sratches.

    My question to yoy is you mention that plaster can take up to a month to cure. I am looking to make personalised sculptures for clients whereby I have approx 7-10 day turnaround. I’ve done various tests where I’ve made a cast from a mold same day and painted it that evening. Applied the varnish the following day and so far my tests have never deteriorated or had issues. I just wanted to know your thoughts as to how people are supposed to make casts and paint within a given time frame. Waiting a month is completely impractical but I completely understand that plaster has a drying out time. Would leaving a small area unvarnished in a certain place allow the air to get to the plaster so as to allow it to dry better let’s say if I was working on a 3 day turnaround? I want to start selling my sculptures soon but the only concern is the issue of when a sculpture is ready to send out. As previously said, all my tests have never had any issues so far when painting and vanishing shortly after casting but just want to know if there is anything I’ve missed before I commence selling to the public.

    • Michael Townsend August 27, 2019 at 4:21 pm #

      Thanks, Dave for your comments and questions. Plasters have a range of curing times, and the slowest drying ones may take up to a month to fully cure.

      Crystacal R is a formulated hemihydrate plaster used in the manufacture of glass-reinforced gypsum structures, decorative plasterwork, giftware, and dental models. It is designed to set up quickly, so there would be no need for a month-long full-curing time before painting. It would still be wise to allow the cast to cure for a week, but this doesn’t mean you have to wait a week before painting with acrylics. If you are shipping in as little as three days, that’s certainly your prerogative but I would suggest careful packing as you would be shipping when the object is still a bit fragile. The curing isn’t dependant on oxygen as it’s a chemical reaction between the water and gypsum.
      I agree with you that priming the plaster with gesso isn’t a necessity, but the first layers of mediums or paint need to be thin enough to readily penetrate into the plaster.

  19. dave morris September 8, 2019 at 6:40 am #

    Many thanks for your detailed reply. I am still learning the ropes with using plaster and have tried a number of different plasters but feel Crystacal R is best suited for my requirements.

    Is there any way to stop plaster scratching when painted? All the varnished I have tried using work fine as a sealer either gloss or Matt and give a nice finish but they don’t exactly stop light scratches. If you run a finger nail down the paint it removes and also takes a slight bit of the underplaster leaving a small white area. This isn’t great if I’m looking to sell to customers and sculptures take a few knocks and scratches.

    Because I work from home and in a relatively small enclosed space I have been using water based polyurethane varnishes which are non toxic and fine to use indoors however there must be some kind of better sealer that leaves a harder finish so say for example a finger nail can’t leave the kind of indentation I’m currently getting.

    If you could please advise.

    • Michael Townsend September 12, 2019 at 3:41 pm #

      You are most welcome Dave.
      This is why tinting the plaster with an appropriate base colorant can help at least hide the scratches and minor chips. If the color isn’t deep enough, the next step is to do a dip stain with acrylic paints (for example High Flow Acrylics with a bit of water or Airbrush Medium). This is a quick process and you can put the pieces in a wire basket and dunk them into a bath of the color stain. You might also want to try tinting the polyurethane. Bear in mind that most of the commercial polys are actually a blend of acrylic and polyurethane, such as Minwax PolyAcrylic. Take a look at the products sold at Target Coatings and General Finishes, both companies make some great waterbased products.

      – Mike Townsend

  20. David Morris September 8, 2019 at 6:41 am #

    Many thanks for your detailed reply. I am still learning the ropes with using plaster and have tried a number of different plasters but feel Crystacal R is best suited for my requirements.

    Is there any way to stop plaster scratching when painted? All the varnished I have tried using work fine as a sealer either gloss or Matt and give a nice finish but they don’t exactly stop light scratches. If you run a finger nail down the paint it removes and also takes a slight bit of the underplaster leaving a small white area. This isn’t great if I’m looking to sell to customers and sculptures take a few knocks and scratches.

    Because I work from home and in a relatively small enclosed space I have been using water based polyurethane varnishes which are non toxic and fine to use indoors however there must be some kind of better sealer that leaves a harder finish so say for example a finger nail can’t leave the kind of indentation I’m currently getting.

    If you could please advise.

    • Michael Townsend November 5, 2019 at 11:54 am #

      Hello David,
      Thanks for your comments and questions.
      The type of plaster used has much to do with the resistance to scratching. Make sure the sealing coats saturate the plaster long enough to penetrate into the plaster to create a thicker “shell” to increase durability. Of course the pitfall of doing this is that some plasters are more water sensitive than others. Hydrostone is pricy, but by far it’s much stronger than plaster of paris.

  21. David Morris September 16, 2019 at 6:55 am #

    Many thanks again.

    One final question which if you could answer would definitely save me some money and time. Ive seen online that some people have recommended applying gesso or an acrylic modelling paste to plaster. Either would be applied onto the plaster then painted and this would leave a harder coating underneath.

    I’ve never tried but could either be successful or something alternative whereby there was a harder coating between the plaster and paint then finished with a varnish sealer over the top so if scratched would not actually scratch the surface of plaster?

    • Michael Townsend September 26, 2019 at 5:28 pm #

      Hi David. My concern with applying thicker products like Gesso and Molding Paste is that it’s going to cover over the casting details, which seems to be counterintuitive to making casts out of plaster. Additionally, it would be another step that isn’t necessary as thin acrylic paint layers will absorb and adhere perfectly fine without the use of a primer. Thin, washy stains will penetrate into the plaster and tint it as well. However, this is why in the article I explain why adding color into the slurry mixture to tint it before casting helps hide chips later on.
      – Mike Townsend

  22. Barry E. Holland October 18, 2019 at 9:08 am #

    Nice Blog!! The content you have shared is very elaborative and informative. Thanks a lot for sharing such a great piece of knowledge with us.

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