Pigments vs. Dyes — What Is the Difference?

If you’re like the crafters at Sculpey®, you love experimenting with different mediums. Crafters have so many mediums to choose from, like watercolors, fabric dyes, markers, polymer clay and more.

You’ve likely seen two vocabulary words thrown around in the craft world — pigments and dyes. They’re often used interchangeably to describe a medium that’s colored, but they’re two completely different methods of coloring. Here, we’ll talk about what the difference is between pigments and dyes, and how that understanding can help you better use your medium.

Pigments vs. Dyes

Pigments are finely ground particles held in a substance, like oil or water. Comparatively, dyes are chemicals that combine with a substance to create a single product.

Think about the difference between sand and sugar when mixed with water. As you mix sand with water, it will briefly combine into one mixture and separate once settled. If you mix sugar with water, the sugar will permanently combine with the water via a chemical reaction. This is similar to the difference between pigments and dyes.

Origins of Pigments and Dyes

Humans have used pigments and dyes for many, many years. We see pigments and dyes in many works, like in the fabrics of clothing or in the oil paintings in museums. 

There’s no clear beginning of pigments and dyes, but we know that dyeing started thousands of years ago as mediums for cave paintings. Berries, for example, were smashed for dyeing. Ocher, which is a mixture of ferric oxide, sand and clay, was used as a pigment, creating a light brownish-yellow hue. Things got more sophisticated with the ancient Egyptians and the Chinese, who created more vibrant and consistent colorings like bold red and Egyptian blue.

Dyes and pigments continued to advance through the Renaissance and modern age. After 1860, synthetic dyes became widely popular. Now, we have a dramatically wide range of pigments and dyes to choose from and express ourselves creatively. 

Examples of Pigments and Dyes

Pigments and dyes work differently on surfaces. As an example, say you’re working with a permanent marker and acrylic paint on a piece of paper. The permanent marker, a dye, will soak into the fibers on the paper. Acrylic paint, a pigment, will form a layer on top of the paper.


First, it’s worth noting that dyes can be synthetic or natural. We touched on it briefly earlier, but let’s get into a little more detail. Synthetic dyes are man-made, usually with chemicals, while natural dyes occur naturally in the environment.

The types of dyes used in crafting vary depending on what you’re trying to dye. As an example, you aren’t going to dye wood the same way you dye a shirt. Some examples of dye mediums are:

  • Fabric dyes: The yellow shirt in your closet was colored by a yellow dye. The process is self-explanatory — the cloth was dipped into the dye, and the dye turned the fabric permanently yellow. Dyes can fade, but quality dyes will keep their color for a long time.
  • Permanent markers: Markers can use either pigments or dyes, but permanent markers use dyes. They hold their dye in a sponge-like stick, which protrudes out slightly from the marker’s opening — this is the tip of the marker.
  • Stamp pads: Stamps pads are fibrous pads that hold dye. When you stamp a stamp into the stamp pad, the ink coats the head of the stamp and dyes the surface it touches, most often a piece of paper.

Dyes are generally more permanent than pigments. If your mediums don’t require mixing or don’t separate over time, then it’s likely a dye.


Pigments can be natural or inorganic. Most pigments nowadays are inorganic because they better combine with a binding substance and result in a more pigmented color. Some examples of pigment mediums are:

  • Oil paints: Oil paints are made by combining powdered pigments with a drying oil, like linseed oil. Other ingredients are also added to prevent the oil paint from cracking after drying.
  • Colored pencils: Colored pencils are another oil-based medium. Pigments are mixed in with a hardening oil and encased in a wood casing, giving it the pencil shape that we know and love.
  • Watercolors: Watercolors are mixed with a binder and activated using water. When the watercolor paint hits the paper, the water will evaporate and leave the pigment behind.

You can buy pigments to make or upgrade your own medium, too. For example, many crafters enjoy adding shine to their paints using glitter or mica powder.

Pigments vs. Dyes — How to Color Your Polymer Clay

You can use both pigments and dyes to color polymer clay. But, it’s more common for crafters to use pigments because alcohol-based dyes can affect the curing process when baking. Additionally, it’s more common to color your polymer clay crafts after they’ve been baked.

Some ways you can color your polymer clay is with:

  • Mica powder: To use, apply the mica powder directly onto your unbaked clay. The mica powder will adhere to the slightly sticky surface and secure when baked.
  • Alcohol inks: You can use alcohol dyes, like inks, to mix with your clay before baking. When adding alcohol inks, remember that the dye will work with the color of your clay and may not look like the original dye color. For best results, mix with translucent or white clay.
  • Stamps: Stamps are common items that many crafters have in their collection. You can use stamps on your polymer crafts after baking, either in ink or paint form.
  • Acrylic paints: Acrylic paints have multiple uses, including coloring polymer clay. You can use acrylic paint before you bake your clay or after. The option you choose will depend on the effect you’re going for. If you use acrylic paint after baking, you might want to heat set the paint to increase its durability.
  • Oil paints: You can also use oil paints to add beautiful final touches to your polymer clay projects. Oil paints do behave differently on polymer clay than acrylics, though, so there are specific methods to follow to ensure you get the results you want. 

Coloring your clay crafts allows you to be more self-expressive. At Sculpey®, we offer many clay colors, but we encourage you to use these other pigments and dyes to personalize your projects even more.

Shop High-Quality and Colorful Polymer Clay at Sculpey®

Are you looking for more ways to enjoy working with clay? Our crafters at Sculpey® love the creative freedom they get when creating with polymer clay. Visit our product page and browse our wide selection of polymer clays. Looking for inspiration? Be sure to browse our how-to page as well!

Back to blog