Polymer clay is, generally, a pretty nice material to work with. It is similar to plasticine but of a more malleable consistancy. It hardens by baking it in a regular oven, it isn't messy or sticky, it accepts great detail, it comes in different colours and it can be painted or even sanded. It offers a great deal of possibilities. All my original, one of a kind pieces have been made almost entirely with polymer clay. Its biggest disadvantage though has to be its fragility, but this can be sorted by making a good armature, thinking ahead about your design, by cooking your piece properly or by using the adequate clay. There are many brands available nowadays and each sculptor will have a different personal preference. Personally, I am loyal to Super Sculpey Firm and Original, although since it was released a few months ago, I also use Cosclay now. If you would like to give polymer clay a try, I would advice to get your hands on little samples of the main brands, so you can figure out which one suits you better. Either if you have already tried polymer clay or if you would like to, here you will find 10 tips I wish I knew when I started working with it. They are applicable to any brand of clay and they will probably make the process more enjoyable and interesting, and a little bit less frustrating. Here they come:
1) You can mix different kinds of polymer clay, knowing their properties will combine too.
You can mix different kinds of polymer clay -either from the same brand or different ones- to achieve the firmness and malleability you feel most comfotable working with. In my case, my favourite clay to work with is Scuper Sculpey Firm. However, it is too hard for me. Due to a chronic tendinitis in my right hand, I have trouble conditioning the clay, so in order to achieve a consistency that works for me, I usually mix it with Scuper Sculpey Original or, recently, with my new favorite for the mixture: Cosclay Doll. The ratio of my mixture is aproximately 75% Sculpey Firm and 25% Cosclay. You can create your very own mixture with two or more clays, but you need to bear in mind that their properties will also combine. For example, Firm is harder but it is also thougher and admits very subtle details. Cosclay Doll instead is rather soft, it also accepts detail and it is elastic. Combined with Firm, the final mixture will be strong but slightly softer, it will have the thoughness of Firm, but it won't be elastic. Once baked, Cosclay will lose its elasticity, having been mixed with an inflexible clay.
2) You can (should!) bake your piece more than once.
I am a self-taught artist and it took me too long to discover that I could bake a piece as many times as I wanted to. I wish I knew this earlier, as it was a game changer for me and the way I sculpt my pieces.
Always take good notice of the baking time and temperature of your clay -they are specified in the clay's packaging- and respect both of them. It is very important to do so in order for your sculpture not to be too fragile and break down while you're handling it. If you're using only one kind of clay, bake it at the temperature adviced. If you're baking your own mixture, bake it at the lowest temperature indicated on the clays you're using and, in both cases, always bake your piece more than once. It will make your piece sturdy. It will also help you work more comfortably! For example, I usually make the base shape of my character's body first, with no details at all. I bake it, I let it cool down and then I add more clay on top to start working on details. I bake my pieces at least 5 times, sometimes even more.
3) There are different techniques to paint polymer clay.
Basically, you can use these three techniques:
- you can use coloured clay.
- you can paint your pieces with acrylic paint once the sculpture is finished and baked.
- you can use soft pastels. You can file some pastel dust and use it to colour your clay with the help of a brush. In order for this to work, the clay needs to be unbaked, so the pastel dust sticks to the clay and stays in it once you bake it. You'll achieve a very professional finish! You can also file some more pastel dust and, instead of using it to paint with a brush, you can knead it with some clay and mix them together. The clay will be dyed in the colour of your pastel.
4) Use baby oil to condition your clay,
There are many brands of polymer clay that also release their own oils to condition your clay once it is too dry and hard to work with. These oils usually come in tiny bottles (about 25-30ml) and are pretty expensive for what they offer. Use baby oil instead! It will serve you to fulfill the exact same purpose but it will cost you way less and, instead, you'll have a bottle (usually about 500ml) that will last you for all eternity.
Equally, you don't need to buy a varnish the same brand as your clay. Any generic varnish for models or plastics should do. I use the ones by Vallejo.
5) Clean the dust off your clay with baby wipes (invest in biodegradable ones!).
Occasionally, when working with polymer clay, dust particles will stick to it, making it look slightly dirty. Small particles will burn when you bake your piece and they won't be noticeable, but if you have larger particles in your clay, you can always clean them while the piece is still unbaked with baby wipes. Use some of the money you saved in the oil softener and invest in biodegradable wipes :) The planet will be grateful!
6) Use baking paper instead of tin foil to bake your pieces.
Make sure to put baking paper instead of tin foil in your oven's tray. If your piece is leaning in tin foil, the part touching it may get more baked than the rest of the piece. It could even burn that surface.
7) Use a pasta machine to help you condition clay.
If you have trouble conditioning your clay with your hands or with the help of a roll, you can always use a pasta machine. It will not only easily mix your clay, it will also make it thin an even, which can be interesting and useful for some of your projects. You can even set the thinkness desired, as these machines usually offer different options.
8) Be patient and let your piece cool down.
My impatience has ruined many pieces! Every time you bake a piece, either if it is the first time you're baking it or the tenth, let it cool down completely before you take it out from the oven. The wait is always hard but... be strong! When the piece is still hot, it is at its most fragile. If you carried on sculpting it at that point, you'd compromise its resistance and it would probably break down while you're handling it. Letting it cool down complely after each bake is essential for your clay to reach its highest point of toughness.
9) Use an oven thermometer.
The temperature settings in your oven are probably all but precise. You usually turn the temperature wheel to more or less the temperature you need and that's it. On the other hand, the temperature indicated on your clay's packaging will be very specific indeed. In order to make sure you don't overbake your sculpture - or that you don't bake it enough-, you can get yourself an oven thermometer. You put it inside your oven along with your piece and, this way, you'll be able to check the real temperature at which it is being baked. There are many affordable oven themometers and I find them to be very worth it, being baking the trickiest part of working with polymer clays.
10) Always start with a good armature.
This last advice could probably apply to other sculpting techniques, but it is definitely fundamental when it comes to polymer clay. Making a good armature for your piece will save you clay, it will make your sculpture stronger, it will determine its posture and it will increase its stability. You can build your armature with wire -for solidity- and tin foil -for volume-. You can also cover the wire and tin foil with painters tape so the clay sticks to it easily. Devote some time to make a good armature - mistakes that are already in the base, will show in the final sculpture and won't be easy to correct. Conversely, a good armature will make the subsequent work easier.
I hope you'll find these tips useful. Remember that the most important part is enjoying the process! If something isn't working as you expected, put it on hold and try again tomorrow. Don't go hazy, accept mistakes as part of your learning and... start over! :)
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(Little disclaimer :) : English is not my first language. This is the best translation I could come up with of my original entry, writen in Spanish. Thank you for understanding.)