Thank you to Alison, the hostess with the mostess, for putting on the affair and keeping us all in line!
If you missed the event, visit www.craftcast.com.
From Julie Picarello
The All Important ToolBox
When it comes to tools, a Chinese proverb states it best…”If the axe is not sharp, it will not matter how hard the wood is”. Our tools play an important and integral part in our work, and we spend time finding (or making) the right ones to help us implement our artistic visions. One of the most important tools of a polymer artist is the clay itself, as different brands will exhibit different properties. Through experimentation, I’ve found that the two I prefer are Premo and Kato Polyclay. Kato is firmer, takes longer to condition, and delivers a crisp, sharp pattern. Premo is softer, easier to condition and imparts a smooth fusion between layers of clay when it is sliced. Premo also offers a range of colors that I find ideal for mixing the soothing, muted tones that I prefer.
Because my technique relies heavily on tools that will pattern or “imprint” the clay, I have a toolbox overflowing with odds and ends. Metal tubes of various shapes and sizes, hors d’oeuvre forks, computer heat sinks, seashells, leather stamps, dental tools…if it has a sharp edge, I’m interested in it! But I don’t overlook the promise of tools with thicker, blunt edges, as they can be combined with sharp-edged tools for great impact. Take apart an everyday pen and you’ll find a wonderful, thick-walled circle perfect for imprinting.
When I can’t seem to find just the right tool for a specific pattern I’m envisioning, I’ll make it myself. One of my favorite tools is quite simple – an aluminum bracelet blank that is bent around a mandrel to form a winding, sinuous path in the clay. The hunt for unusual imprint tools is an enjoyable challenge, and using them will allow you to create completely unique designs.
Metal accents can be embedded, stacked, or riveted to polymer to add a unique look to your work…and there is a wealth of opportunity when it comes to finding sources. Your local hardware store can be searched for washers that may be hammered for texture and domed for shape. Plaster washers look like they’ve been hole-punched all over and lock washers have unique star shapes. Brass and copper washers can be hit with the torch for a color-shifting patina, and all washers can be painted or dabbed with inks for an even bigger color splash.
A scrapbooking store yielded a package of bronze and pewter colored decorative snaps, which are excellent as embedded accents. Hobby stores carry miniature parts that lend themselves to your design. A favorite find was a set of miniature disc brakes, already pierced and with great fluted edges.
You can also find copper, brass, sterling etc. tubing in a wide variety of sizes, which can be curved and used as a decorative bail, cut into connectors, or hammered, textured and used as spines for riveting other components.
Sandra McCaw shared some of her faves with us:
I’ve been a fan of Fimo® brand polymer clay from the start.
When I first began working with polymer clay in 1994, there were fewer choices than those available today. At that time, Fimo Classic was touted as the best for cane work, which became my focus. Much to my frustration, the formula for Fimo Classic has changed over the years resulting in a softer version of the original. I continue to use Fimo brand polymer clay, partly due to being a creature of habit, but primarily because I find that Fimo Classic still provides the results in terms of its ability to maintain a crisp, clean pattern within a cane. I also prefer the resulting surface finish after baking.
The conversation about which clay is best for what application is a complex and lengthy one and I encourage anyone interested in working with polymer clay to take time to experiment to determine which brand of clay suits their purposes and work style best.
I use an Atlas pasta machine for its durability. I replaced the first one after 13 years of working almost full time.
I use acrylic rollers of varying sizes, and a variety of dental tools and cutting blades.
I work on a piece of graph paper covered with translucent deli wrap for quick and easy measuring and balancing of designs.
I often work on an acrylic disc (4” diameter) covered with deli wrap. This allows me to rotate the piece as I work without having to remove it from the work surface, thereby reducing the risk of distortion.
I bake in a small, portable Farberware convection oven.
At times it is hard to see the irony in our lives and I am no exception. I often tell my students that you really only need four tools to work with polymer clay: a large white work surface, a sharp cutting blade, a good pasta machine and most importantly, a magical sense of possibility.
Except that I have eight running feet of five foot high drawers full of tools! This I compare to watching a show on a foodie TV network – “Budget Meals for your Family”- where once I priced out the equipment the chef was using ($400 sauce pan, a $300 Chef’s knife, a $400 stand mixer, all in front of a $4,000 stove) – I got a great laugh out of that realization.
There are four less common tools that other artists have introduced me to that I use often in my studio.
Large offset cheese knife
Mine was a gift from Judith Skinner and I use it to handily cut large bricks of clay with much less strain than using a small blade.
Eight inch long headless hat pin
Margaret Regan introduced me to this tool. Not only does it make an excellent mandrel for forming small tube beads, it is the exact same size as the headpins used to make earrings.
Rounded bottom Espresso Tamper
The perfect, weighty tool to burnish polymer clay with when laminating sheets or impressing small textures into the clay. The first person I saw using this tool was Nan Roche.
Polymer Clay Cutter Stand
I kept loosing parts of my small cutter sets; inadvertently while traveling or somewhere in the clutter of my work area. Kathy Johnston showed me how to fashion a stand out of polymer clay to hold the cutters upright and since them I haven’t had to replace any cutter sets due to missing pieces.
Important consideration: Knives and blades are meant to be periodically sharpened. Knowing how to re-sharpen your tools will save a lot of time and aggravation.
Small rivet hammer – I don’t usually hammer the clay, but I use this hammer often to “dress”the edges of metal that I use with the polymer clay.
Back in the day (1995’ish), I was called “Sculpey Girl” by a few friends. “Was I some polymer super hero?” you might ask. Well, no. Not a super hero by any stretch, but I did use Sculpey® – ALL the time. The moniker came, not as a result of the amount of polymer I was using, rather because I was able to cane with Sculpey–something many found challenging (at the time).
As we shared our experiences via the aol bulletin boards and through swap after swap, the question remained, how was I able to cane with Sculpey and why I chose to use it over Fimo® and Cernit (the only other clays available at the time). The answer was simply Sculpey was most readily available, came in a wide array of colors and worked well right out of the package. The latter is what made it ideal for me as I had a limited amount of time to “clay.”
As time went on and my experience and knowledge grew, and products became more accessible, I branched out and tried other polymer brands. I established which clay worked best for each of the different applications I was working on, and amassed quite a collection of tools along the way.
I’m thankful for the progress we have made in our niche and that information is now so much more accessible. The questions still remain for many of us though – “why do you use a particular clay and what are your favorite tools.”
When gathering information for “Polymer Clay Master Class,” we asked each artist to share their answers to these questions and over the next few posts we will share this information with you.
To start things off, Cynthia TInapple shares her favorite tools:
I continually remind myself that tools don’t make art, the artist does. That being said, my tools of choice include:
I attach the extruder to a variable speed drill to save wear and tear on my hands and joints.
As we all sit around the tree, opening gifts today and spending time with our families, Tam and I want to take the time to say what a gift it is to have each of these artists in our lives and how grateful we are that they were willing to give of their time and talents to make this book, and our lives, so enriched and wonderful.
A heartfelt thank you goes out to all of you who have followed along on this blog. We will continue to write, filling you in on other observations from the week, people whose work inspires us, our favorite tools and hopefully some of your impressions of the book when it ships in January. So, please stay in touch with us.
In this season of giving, we would also like to thank all of the companies who sent product for our week together. As we opened box after box of clay and tools that we requested we also found new materials that allowed the artists the freedom to experiment when they were working on their collaborations.
Our thanks go to:
Here’s a staged silly picture of us “fighting” over all the loot!
When first discussing the book with Random House, the best way to describe what we hoped to convey on the pages of the book was a way to allow the reader to be a fly on the wall during dinner. That was a pretty simplistic vision, but best describes what Tam and I kept in our heads as the book progressed. How could we let the reader feel as though they were there with us?
One of the ways we decided to convey that vision was to have Jeff Dever prompt specific topics of conversation after we finished dinner. One of the areas that we discussed was how the group felt about the terminology we used as polymer artists and how that effected how the art world at large viewed us.
For example, one topic was using the word baked vs. cured. Using the word “baked” to define what we do to harden the material felt much more culinary, and linked it directly to a kitchen oven. Using the word “cured” felt more like the process that occurs on a molecular level and made the medium feel more in step with our goal of presenting more than just a “how-to” book.
We also discussed at length one evening removing the word “clay” when describing the medium. How different would the book feel if instead of referring to it as “polymer clay,” we just used the word “polymer.” In theory, it seemed like it would be easy – just take out the word clay: “Roll the polymer through the pasta machine at a medium-thin setting.” (Now if we could just have a tool that didn’t have the word “pasta” in it!) We broached the topic with the publisher and suggested that, to make sure those who happen upon the book and may not be as familiar with polymer, we leave it in the title and remove it from the text within the book as the word could then be assumed.
To help with that assumption, we turned to, Rachel Carren, an art historian who has been charged with the documentation research archive for PolymerArtArchive.com, the site created by Elise Winters and her husband Woody Rudin. Their mission in creating the site was to elevate discussion about and enhance the image of polymer clay in the art and fine-craft community. Rachel contributed a wonderful piece for the book entitled “What to Call It?” Rachel brought the history to light, made it clear how we wound up with the phrase in the first place and substantiated why it should evolve again.
Our dinners were not always filled with such deep conversations. Our first dinner was filled with laughter and silliness. Robert came with a suitcase filled with fun! We were all captivated by bubbles that didn’t break. We were able to pile the bubbles into sculptures (no masterpieces but still fun!), wear them in our hair, on our noses and our fingers. We laughed and laughed and we thank you again, Robert as it was all great fun!
And for your holiday cooking pleasure: Warm Chocolate Sauce – a great topping for anything on those cold winter days.
Sarah Shriver, like Dayle her collaborator for this book, sites textiles as a large influence in her work in polymer. She wrote for this book amazing words that ended up on “the cutting room floor,” that describe her process:
Many of my influences are related to textiles; both the way the work is done through lengthy process, thread by thread, and the way that those threads interconnect one by one to make something that is cultural and spiritual as well as practical. The images and patterns I’ve found in older textiles where weavers have used primary design elements to convey themes of balance, rhythm, and interconnection, have also been a major source of inspiration. I try to incorporate similar themes in my designs and let them develop and emerge as I combine the canes in infinite variations based on regular pattern.
I am interested in how these infinite variations can form a sort of language based on ancient ideas of number as symbol. Since nature is the source of all number systems, I feel I can describe small facets of the connection between man and nature in a way that people, not necessarily consciously, understand.
Sarah has worked in textiles and other artistic media, but it was not until she found polymer that she felt an intuitive understanding of what to do next. Her signature technique is intricate kaleidoscope caning. She has taught internationally to eager students for over 20 years. This mirroring over and over, like a kaleidoscope, brings out complex and interlocking patterns. This then becomes her conversation with the work which, as she put it, “at its best, is engrossing and enlightening, and daily, a gift to be thankful for.”
Sarah was happy to have the week at the beach to continue her exploration using larger, lightweight forms as a base for her wonderful canework. Now, she has added these larger forms to her repertoire of workshops. Sarah, herself is both engrossing and enlightening and she is a gift to our community… we are thankful!