Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tutorial: Polyclay

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on Polyclay. Nor am I going to pretend to be an expert with sculpture. I'm far from being either of these things, that I assure you. What I am is simply a person, a crafty person, that has taught herself with patience and lots of Google searches, how to do a number of things. One of those things is making polyclay trinkets and sculptures.

There are several things that makes polyclay a fantastic craft medium. The selection of colors is wide and nearly endless, there are no concerns over drying out while in storage, and the ability to make your creations timeless with only 20 minutes in the household oven are just skimming the surface when it comes to this clay's magic. The biggest problem I've ever had with this clay is trying to narrow down the list of possibilities and actually make something. Even now as I type out this tutorial, I struggle to pick just one of the wonderful little sculptures I could make to demonstrate the basics. Have no fear, though, I'll come up with something.

The Clay
Polymer Clay (otherwise known as polyclay) is a polymer compound that is fact not actually clay. Polymer is a man-made material which has similar features to clay, which is what allows it to be used as such. It never dries out, which makes storage simple, and comes in a large variety of colors. Blending colors with polyclay is as simple as blending colors with paint. Creating swirls and patterns with these colors is just as simple. The only cautions that come with polyclay are that it can dye fabric or other porous materials, and due to it's plastic base compounds, you should never use polylcay items with food - fired or not.

For storage, make sure you keep your clay in some sort of container with the colors separated. I use a Tupperware that fits all my clay and tools, so I don't have to go digging around for everything when I want to work. Also, make sure that you keep your clay someplace that's room temperature as it can be ruined if exposed to heat or ultraviolet lighting.

The Tools
The tools for shaping or sculpting polyclay aren't exactly required. You can start using polyclay with just your hands and buy tools as you come across the need, but that might not be the easiest solution. Using the picture above as a reference, here are tools that I use, from left to right.
  • PolyBlade - Blades are used for making clean slices through your clay, either when cutting from a roll or just getting a chunk off the starting block to work with. I use a Flexible blade for all my slicing, as I like the ability to curve it into my required shape. Make sure you're always putting the right side of the blade into your clay - these things are sharp!
  • Wooden Shaping tools - These wooden tools are fantastic for carving out details or helping you shape specific areas. I'm sure there's a break down of what each tool is for, but I'm sure you can figure it out. The really important thing to remember with these tools is that because they're porous, they'll absorb color from the polyclay. Make sure you always clean your tools between colors, otherwise you'll end up with some tie-dyed looking sculptures.
  • Mini Wire Carving tools - Also referred to as ribbon tools, these metal loops are fantastic for carving out small details into your work. You can also use them to carve ribbons or strips from a block of clay.
  • Bead Hole Maker - I'm not sure that's the correct name for it.. but you'll find this tool in the jewelry section of most craft stores. Similar to one of the wooden shaping tools, I find this metal one is more precise for making small marks, engravings or lines in my clay. Also, because it's metal I don't need to worry about it dulling as quickly or dying if I don't wash it immediately.
  • PolyRoller - This is pretty much a cylinder that you use as a rolling pin. It's great for conditioning your clay, rolling flat sheets, smoothing out your clay, or rolling out sugar cookies for a snack. Just make sure you wash it between colors, or cookie batches.

The Work Surface
First thing's first, you need a flat and clean surface for working. Because polyclay dyes materials so easily, I also recommend you do all your work on either parchment paper, a cookie sheet, foil, or maybe a vinyl placement that you don't care about. Chances are your work surface is going to get a little bit of color on it by the time you're done.. and it's always easier to clean up when you don't need to scrub that color out.

The Conditioning
Polyclay doesn't dry out like normal clay, but it does get a little hard if you leave it unworked for a long period of time. This is easily reversed with a little bit of conditioning, so never fear. To condition your clay, take the amount you'll need for your project and simply roll it flat, fold it up onto itself, roll it flat again. Repeat this process until the clay is malleable and giving you the amount of resistance that you want. This isn't really an exact science, there's no little button that will pop out of the clay and tell you it's ready - it's all up to you to decide if your clay is soft effort for you to start working with it.

The Basic Shapes
Polyclay is most commonly used for making beads or small trinkets such as stitch markers or jewelry. Pieces over an inch thick won't fire correctly, so it's always good to make sure you don't exceed that thickness with your sculptures. With that said, let's get started on the basics.

Just like in drawing, every sculpture is made up of basic shapes that are combined and warped to give you the final product. When you first start sculpting, I recommend you sketch out what you're making and look for those basic shapes. Circles, ovals, squares, rectangles, ovals, cones, etc. Everything you'll ever make will derive from basic shapes and understanding which ones you'll need to make is key.

Take a look at Mario's red hat and notice the shapes that it would take to make it. His hat is essentially a flatish circle or oval, with a little dip in the middle. Add a line below it for the edge and a quarter moon for the brim and you have yourself a Mario hat. Put the white circle above the brim, add the 'M', and your miniature Mario can forever hide that bald spot.

Even the most complicated of pieces are just a sum of a bunch of basic shapes. Once you figure out which shapes are the starting points, you're golden.

Start with something basic, like a matching Mario hat, Mario Star, or Pacman pieces. Stitch markers, charms and earrings are great for practicing basic shapes. Sketch them if you need help figuring out what basic shapes make them up.

The Advanced Shapes
If you want to make something that's bigger then the the basics, you'll need to sculpt the clay around some sort of structure, such as wire or tin foil. For this demo, I'm going to build something around foil.

First sculpt the basic shapes you'll need with foil. This pretty much means just wad up some foil into the general basic shape you're going for, making sure that it's as compressed as you can get it. For me that meant four cylinders for the limbs and an oval for the torso. I also made a ball for the head, but then decided I didn't want to give him a head.

Second, condition the clay you're going to be using for the main section of the creature. I wasn't really sure what I was going to be making, aside from the fact that I wanted him to be a lil' bit monster and a lotta bits cute. Once you've conditioned the clay, roll out a sheet that's about 1/8th of an inch thick. A little thick is fine, but you don't want to go thinner then that.

Third, cut strips out of the sheet and use them to cover the foil shapes. Use your fingers or tools to smooth all the seams closed. If you're making a mummy, cut the strips thinner and don't smooth them together.

Once you've got all the foil shapes covered so that the pieces are smooth and no foil is showing through, assemble.

The Putting it Together
After you've got all your basic shapes, no matter how big or small, it's time to put them together. Feel free to use more clay to make sure that everything sticks together. Also feel free to use more clay on the basic shapes to add more thickness, texture, or details. It's typically easier to add more clay then to take it away. If you're adding a hook to make the piece into a charm or stitch marker, do it now and make sure that it's secured. I like to put a bend in the hook so it's not possible to pull straight out once the piece is fired. When you've got everything put together and smoothed out to your liking, it's time to add the details.

Some details you can add after you've fired the piece, but I like to add as much as I can to the piece before I fire it. Little things like textures, lines, and even dots can really add to a piece. It takes practice to learn what makes or breaks a piece, so feel to experiment and find out what works for you. The great thing about this clay is that if you mess up, not all hope is lost, especially if you're just working with one color.

The Firing
The fact that you can fire most all polyclay projects in a standard oven is one of the best things about it. Most clays require 275 degrees F and 15 minutes for every 1/4 inch of thickness. I would be sure to read the directions for whichever brand you're using as it does vary. The packaging says to not over bake, but I've never had an issue with over doing it for a couple of minutes or so. Our Zombie friend pictured above spent about 40 minutes in the oven.

The End?
 I sincerely hope this isn't the end. As I've said a couple of times in this tutorial, sculpting polyclay isn't an exact science. There is definitely some technique to it and then there's a lot of bits of creativity. I encourage you to just practice and play with the clay. Don't worry if it's exact, just make sure it makes you happy. As Ms. Frizzle always said, get dirty, make mistakes. This tutorial is only meant to be a beginning when it comes to what you can do with polyclay. There are several different kinds of polyclay to experiment with, as well as numerous different ways to manipulate it.