Evolution of a Design

I’ve often heard from clayers that they don’t like to make more than one of something. That once they make it, they lose interest in it and don’t want to do it again. I can understand that. But I also think that strategy means you can miss out on important steps in learning how to refine, revise, and evolve the design of your creations. I don’t know about you, but my first attempt (at anything) is usually pretty awful. That’s why I much prefer doing prototypes and multiple versions until I figure out exactly where I want to go with something.
Last week I was at a retreat and it’s traditional to exchange a swap item. The criteria was: “less than 3 inches, flat on one side, and nature-themed”. You might have seen the final result in my newsletter or on Polymer Clay Daily. I thought you might like to see how this piece evolved.
handful of finished pieces
Here are my completed swap items. Well, a handful of them. I made 28 of them, plus all the prototypes.
At first, I wanted to do a glow-in-the-dark mushroom. But I had to make 28 of these and sculpting 28 mushrooms would not have been a small undertaking. So my mind went to a mountain landscape. My husband has been after me to create his favorite logo in polymer…and that gave me an idea. Layers.
ozarks walkabout logo
Layered panel design that my husband made years ago. It inspired my current design.
So I found a photo that I took last year and realized that I could use this as my example.
original photo of a mountain scene
Here’s the original photo that I took last year. I used this to create the design for my swap piece.
I took the photo into photoshop and drew over each section to give separate color panels. Then I cropped it into an oval. You can see that this is pretty rough. I even missed a bit over on the right.
computer drawn image
This is the diagram that I quickly drew in Photoshop over the top of the actual photograph, distilling down the colors and shapes that created the image.
Here is my first prototype. At first, I was going to put trees on it, but they looked terrible. I put clouds in the sky but they just made it look cartoonish. Simple was better. The design was evolving. I also realized that I didn’t like the border. Also, the colors darkened with baking and wanted them lighter.
This is the first draft. It felt cartoonish with the trees and clouds. I didn’t like the border. And the colors baked up too dark. But I didn’t stop here. I kept going, learning as I went.
Next, I tried it without the trees, clouds, or border. I also wanted to go back to a broader oval. Colors are better. But it was a bit too big. Also…what about finish? Here, I sanded it down to look eroded. I didn’t like that.  I also tried antiquing it with some brown paint (not shown), but I really hated that. 
second draft
Now that the design was nailed down, what about finishing? I hated the sanded and antiqued finish that I tried.
Back to a clean, crisp, flat design. I realized that the sharp, distinct edges of the layers created an important part of the design. It reminded me of topographic maps that I love to explore when I hike in hilly areas. I also loved the way the various colors stacked up on the bottom of the piece, giving a stratified look that reminded me of the way you can see geologic strata in the rocks and cliff-sides.
side view of swap piece
Here is the side view of the swap piece, showing the layers reminiscent of a topographic map. You can also see the layered colors along the bottom edge, which was an intentional feature of the design.
I also wanted to have some variation in the sky and not be too obvious and distracting. So I figured a swirly blend was in order. It was then that I realized it needed stars in the sky. Glow-in-the-dark powders to the rescue! I mixed glow powders (I used these) with blue and white clay, then formed a skinner log (bullseye cane). Slices of this cane were stretched to become the sky layer. BTW, I used my Lucy Mini Slicer to cut the slices. It worked well.
blue to white bullseye cane
Here’s the blue-to-white skinner log (bullseye cane) that I used to create the sky. It contains glow powder so that it glows in the dark.

Even after the design was finalized, there was still some tweaking. Even though I was being careful with trapping bubbles between the layers, my first few pieces came out of the oven with a bad case of “polymer acne”. I found that switching to Cernit reduced the number of bubbles substantially. So yes, I had to remix all my colors!

air bubbles
Lots of air bubbles meant I needed to refine my process, which included switching brands of clay.

So here’s the final design and a video of the transition to night view. And the next time you’re not quite sure if you like your design, keep going. Keep working on it and refining it until you like it. And yes, that might mean you have to make several versions before you settle on one you like. That’s all part of the process!

swap pieces on table
Here are the completed items on the table, ready to swap with my retreat-mates.
night glow
Here’s the night view of the scene. I added just enough glow powder so that the particles would be separated and look like stars.


Graphic that reads, "Evolution of a Design"

13 thoughts on “Evolution of a Design”

  1. I love how you created the sky and with stars even makes it surreal! I’m a total novice but I made a landscape cuff I made inspired by a road trip through southern AZ when I moved to Denver years ago and wish I had your sky background. Would attach a pic of mine but don’t see how. Thanks for all of the info packed learnings you share.

  2. Deborah E Goodrow

    OMG. These are so elegant and beautiful. And stars at night? SQUEEE!!!! Thank you for sharing your mental and artistic travels to get to your great end point. I have to keep reminding myself to -keep going-.

  3. These are wonderful! I love the night view – it truly is reminiscent of the night sky in the mountains. I appreciate your sharing your process. It often takes several attempts to make something work out to my satisfaction. It’s nice to know you also do this. It makes me feel I’m doing something right!

  4. Thanks so much for sharing your process. It’s so important to be reminded that designs must evolve to match what you see in your mind. I know I appreciate it!

  5. Thank you for sharing that process. It helps newbies like me have hope for achieving professional and polished results like yours.

  6. I love to see the thought process that goes into a piece of work and how it is created. So creative. So pretty. So beneficial for a beginner

  7. I just love the crisp lines in the design! And the final piece is so very you. The glow in dark bit is a fab touch!

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