Mastering the Medium

This series of essays was originally published in my weekly emails. If you’re into creating magic with polymer clay, this newsletter is helpful and informative. You can sign up to get the free emails here: Get Ginger’s emails!

When we first start using a new medium, such as polymer clay, we’re eager to learn all about it. This energy makes us seek out articles and tutorials that help us understand the “rules of the road” so that we can create. This is fabulous!

But it’s only a part of the process of mastering a medium. I have found that there are several aspects of our growth process and we need to explore all of them to gain ease with the creative process. Often, when we neglect one, we find ourselves blocked or frustrated due to the uneven growth.

Here are the areas that I see contributing to our overall creative growth:

  1. Technical Agility – While technical knowledge is important and certainly necessary for mastering a medium, too much focus on this part can lead to an over-reliance on technique rather than design or message.
  2. Physical Agility – We aren’t born knowing how to use our hands. We had to learn how to write, type, and even gently press the brake pedal without slamming the car to a stop. Your physical body has to learn how to work with polymer, too!
  3. Conceptual Agility – Have you mastered the ability to design something? Do you know how to design something that’s pleasing to the eye and effectively communicates your message?
  4. Creative Agility – Just because we can think of something doesn’t mean we have mastered the ability to break it down into a construction process that our hands can do. Getting something from our heads to our hands is also a skill.
  5. Personal Agility – Sometimes the personal battle is the biggest one. How do your confidence, maturity, and the development of your personal voice come into play?

1. Technical Agility

Let’s say that you want to learn how to play tennis. You get a new racquet and some balls. You learn the rules of the game and how to keep score. You learn how to hold the racquet and serve the ball. After all, you have to know what in the heck you’re doing, right?

This is the most visible and the most fun stage of learning how to work with a new medium. In the case of polymer clay, this is where you learn the basic skills of baking, conditioning, and handling. Polymer clay tends to be a very technique-based medium, so there is much to learn and you can spend a long time in this stage.

One way to indulge in this stage is to dive into the unknown and start experimenting. Teach yourself and figure things out. But you can also fast-track by indulging in tutorials. You can compound your technical agility by learning from others who teach what they know.

Luckily, there are tremendous resources for this. You’re already familiar with the hundreds of free articles and comprehensive tutorials for sale on The Blue Bottle Tree. No matter what you like to make, there are experienced teachers who can help you learn the technical side of making.

I will say, however, to be careful that you distinguish between learning from others and merely being entertained by them. Consider your source. Not all makers are teachers. (There, I said it.)

2. Physical Agility

Did you take piano lessons when you were a kid? Do you remember doing your “exercises”? I sure do. There were scales, of course, but there were also the dreaded books of “technics”. These exercises seemed to be written by an evil genius. The equivalent of boring tongue twisters, they trained your fingers to work gracefully and skillfully up and down the keyboard. Athletes also work hard to train themselves to gracefully execute specialized movements.

It’s easy to assume that a craft like polymer clay doesn’t need physical agility, but that’s not true. Holding a sculpting tool without jiggling, rolling a snake evenly, making round beads, and manipulating pieces without leaving fingerprints are all skills that “live” in the space of the mind-body connection that we call physical agility. Do you actively work to develop these skills?

Recently, during our Studio Drop-Ins with Blue Bottle Insiders, I have started making pinch pots with my hands while we’re talking on zoom. It teaches me so much about the way that clay moves. But it also helps to develop my hand-to-clay “sense” and my brain and hands are learning to handle the clay better and better. I recommend doing this while you watch TV or videos.

Now make a Skinner blend. Can you make the blend wider and then smaller just by using the pasta machine and your hands? Try rolling perfectly round balls of even sizes. Even if you’re not a beadmaker, this kind of physical skill will lead to an improvement in all of your clay handling. Other skills to practice are cane reduction, lifting and transferring cut-out pieces, and smoothing messed-up areas before baking. These things don’t have a “trick” and you learn how to do them by…well…doing them. Because you need to train your body to do these things, practice truly does make perfect. Do your exercises!

3. Conceptual Agility

Humans are creative machines. We naturally solve complex problems and can imagine intricate constructions in our heads. As any parent or teacher knows, even tiny children can conceptualize imaginary friends and build stories. We spend our lives constructing realities that make our lives more comfortable. It’s part of who we are and it’s what makes us human.

But even though we’re naturally creative, the wild imagination of childhood needs to be refined and constrained so we can give our concepts shape. The skills of formulating ideas, seeing the whole picture, perceiving patterns, and designing solutions are necessary for the development of our artwork. Do you actively work to improve these skills?

Seeing

Observational skills help us learn to see our artwork as it is, rather than how we think it looks. This helps us solve complex design problems. Practice seeing what’s really there. See…really see the world around you, both near and far. I recommend the book “The Art of Noticing” by Rob Walker.

Sketching

Most of us assume that we can’t draw and so we don’t sketch our ideas. But try it anyway. Not because you’re creating art with your pencil. But because you are trying out many ideas with an easily-erased line of graphite. And sketching doesn’t have to be done with a pencil. Try sketching with clay. Yes, try things out. You can always wad it up and start over. The act of forming ideas with clay in your hands is freeing.

Improving

Here’s a game to play. Next time you’re eating in a restaurant, examine the decor or the wall art and contemplate how you would make it better. Would you use more black? Make the flowers more subtle? Create a focal point? Add contrast? Does your dentist’s waiting room need a do-over? How would you change it? Build this in your mind as you’re waiting.

This type of imagination doesn’t cost anything but time (and it’s better than your smartphone). And it trains your mind to see problems and design solutions. This helps exercise the same “muscles” that your brain uses when creating artwork. Have fun!

4. Creative Agility

I firmly believe that human beings are naturally creative. It’s our superpower! We are able to dream up wonderful ideas and we are able to build them into reality. But the connection between the idea in our heads and what our hands can actually create is a skill that we must develop. People who assume they’re not creative don’t lack ideas (everyone has sparks of ideas). They lack success in translating the ideas into reality. Luckily, this is a skill that can be improved. Creative agility is something we can develop!

Define the Idea

Not everyone is a sketcher. Some people flesh out their ideas by using words, others by talking it out. Try telling your idea to a friend. Describe it. And if the idea is still mushy and unformed, switch to a different method and see if it’s more clear. Brains are funny, and sometimes it takes a bit of “massaging” an idea to get a solid picture of it. The more you do it, the better you get.

Break it Down

How can you bring this idea to life? What are the general construction steps? If you were to explain to a child how to make it, what would you say? Often we get stuck because we think this part should just come naturally, but it most certainly doesn’t. Think it through. Make lists, rearrange the steps, do this then that. Try making boxes with arrows lining out the steps. Planning the process means that you form a logical flow so that the actual making process doesn’t run into any glaring roadblocks.

Concept Before Details

Start larger then go smaller. It’s really easy to get “caught in the weeds” of the details before you’ve even figured out the gist of what you’re making. And related to this idea is the old gem “don’t put the cart before the horse.” If you don’t need to worry about part of it yet, don’t!

And Finally…DO!

Far too many of us try to plan the entire process to the last detail before ever getting started. Get out of your head and into your hands. The best way to become good at making is to, well, make. That’s where the magic happens!

5. Personal Agility

And finally, we come to the hardest part of this Mastering the Medium series. It’s easy to talk about things we can DO to improve the mastery of our artwork. But no matter what we do in life, it always comes down to the part we really hate dealing with. Ourselves. Even if you don’t “do” the gushy stuff, emotions and thinking patterns can still affect your creative process. As the old adage says, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Personally, I’m far more comfortable with rationalizing my emotions, so here are some things to think about. These things come up time and again when my students and readers share their thoughts with me. How do these factors influence you?

Your Voice

You don’t find your voice. You already have it. It’s like your personality in creating, and it can be “found” by becoming more practiced at making what YOU like, your way, to please yourself. (There is a series of articles and a great discussion about Voice in Blue Bottle Insiders.)

Permission

Are you holding back until you’re “good enough”? Do you avoid taking risks because you’re not a “real artist”? Where does that come from? You do not need anyone’s permission to be fabulous! You don’t need a license to create.

External Validation

I think most of us have stopped trying to please a specific person in our lives. But we often hold space for “them” or “others” or even “society”. Pay careful attention to who you are trying to please with your art. There’s nothing wrong with making others happy. But I’m talking about the judgey voice that we create in our heads. The one that’s very concerned with what we’re “supposed” to do/be/make.

Fear of Failure

Not exactly a fear, it’s more a dread. And I think it’s more that we don’t want to waste our time, materials, and hopes on something that might not be any good. So we make up lots of “reasons” as we wait for the right idea. This can also be a problem if you made something wonderful and are afraid you can’t do it again. This is also called the “paralysis of analysis”. And it’s closely related to…

Perfectionism

Nobody’s perfect. Every mistake teaches you something. Growth is always a process of being less than perfect. Don’t hold back waiting for perfect.

 


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Insiders is a supportive polymer clay learning community with live discussions, monthly discovery challenges, and a private community forum. Join us!

we are your people!

Ready to level up?

Join blue bottle insiders

Insiders is a supportive polymer clay learning community with live discussions, monthly discovery challenges, and a private community forum. Join us!

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