The Right Way to Use Polymer Clay

When you were a kid in school, you learned that there was always one correct answer when you added a column of numbers. Two plus four is always six. There is only one way to spell “bookkeeping” and the Norman Invasion was always marked by the Battle of Hastings in 1066. These things are solid facts that aren’t really open to interpretation. But maybe when it comes to art and craft, things don’t need to be so rigid and absolute. And yet, I do notice a tendency for people to seek and want to find the One Right Way to use polymer clay.

Following the Rules

When you first learn a new hobby, you’re understandably interested in learning what the parameters are. You want to know what rules you have to take into consideration when using this new material. But it’s far too easy to expect there to be rules for every aspect of working with a new craft. It’s easy to assume that there’s a proper or correct way for things to be done. You have to be careful with that, though. Be careful that you don’t limit your creative side by giving yourself too many rules.

When I started working with polymer clay, I felt very strongly that using paint was cheating. I somehow had this idea that only polymer clay could be used, but then equally odd…I somehow believed that using metal leaf and mica powder was perfectly “legal”. I suppose I didn’t think things through very far.

But I also remember being hungry for patterns and designs that were the kinds of things that were “supposed” to be used with polymer clay. I looked for cookie cutters in new shapes because I was afraid to use a knife to cut my own shapes. I looked for formulas and tutorials to make things because I was afraid I would do it wrong otherwise.

I knew that there were certain techniques to follow and I had a lot of trouble thinking outside of my own self-imposed limitations. Because of this, when I got tired of making swirly beads and covering things in clay….I quit. For some reason I couldn’t allow myself to think of ways to use this medium beyond what I had specifically been shown to do. I had limited myself right out of my favorite creative hobby.

I didn’t stay away for long, though. I followed some neat people, like Céline Charuau, Silvia Ortiz de la Torre, and Ponsawan Sila on Flickr. I read Daily Art Muse and Polymer Clay Daily. They showed me work that was created without rules. I learned through them that polymer clay could be a material to be wielded and used as a tool , and not heeded as a comfortable set of steps, techniques, and shapes. And pretty soon my fingers itched to try clay again. But this time around I had a major shift in how I looked at the material of polymer clay. I no longer saw it as a hobby with rigid rules and projects. I began to see it as merely a material with which I could create art. It became a tool, rather than the goal. I no longer looked at this as polymer clay art, but rather art made with polymer clay.

So now I approach my creations by thinking of what I want to accomplish and then figuring out a way to use polymer clay to get it done. And that has led to some fascinating explorations of the material, such as its translucency, its ability to mimic other materials, and the way it can be distressed.

Learning from Others

I am still a huge fan of tutorials and books, though. We all love to learn new ways of doing things and new ways of seeing our art. Few of us live where we have access to other clayers to share and brainstorm with. So we look online and we look to each other to help us explore new ways that this medium and material can be used.

Tutorials are a great way to “try on” a technique and spend some time seeing through the eyes of another person (ie. the tutorial writer). You can learn tricks and techniques. And the really rewarding tutorials will also show you ways to expand on the techniques you learned. Optimally we are able to add these new ideas to our mental art toolkit and they will give us new ways for us to accomplish what we want to do with this material. We combine ideas we have with new ideas we gather from sharing with others, and we create entirely new ideas.

Tutorials are a great shortcut to learning a specific concept. Tutorials are a tool. But don’t fall into the trap of needing a tutorial for everything you do. Don’t use tutorials out of fear of doing it wrong without them. Kick your fears to the curb.

More Than One Way?

But be careful that you’re not looking at a tutorial or technique as The Only Way to get something done.  I sell a tutorial to make rustic beads (here’s mine). But so do Christi Uliczny, Staci Louise Smith, and Eugena Topina. And you know what? We all do it a different way. And I’m sure there are other ways to do it beyond that! There is undoubtedly more than one way to do just about everything in polymer clay.

This also holds true for the materials we use. I know that using acrylic paint on unbaked clay and then baking it creates a more stable finish. It allows the paint to bond to the clay better. But the first time I ever heard that, I thought the person telling me about it had lost her mind. And on Facebook groups I’ve read many people caution against it. But you know…once I tried it, I was hooked. How many other ideas have I dismissed without trying them? How many paths have I shut off before I ever went down them?

But What if I Fail?

Thing is, when you try new things you have to be prepared for failure. Yes, you’re going to fail. Get used to it. Do you have any idea how often I fail? Constantly! And when I pout and get disappointed, my husband always tells me, “That’s one thing you have learned that doesn’t work. Now you’re free to move on and find one that will.”

Try new things. They won’t all work. But a lot of them will, and you’ll learn a lot in the process. Go for it! Some of the best innovations were accomplished by ordinary people who tried something that hadn’t been done before. This holds true in life AND polymer clay!

For a great cartoon on failure, visit “Be Friends with Failure” from Stephen McCranie. Here’s a frame from that cartoon:

Be Friends with Failure, from Doodle Alley.
Panel from the comic “Be Friends with Failure” from Stephen McCranie.

But aren’t there some rules?

There are some rules that you really need to heed, of course. When you fry eggs, you don’t really want to use an iron skillet on super high heat or they’ll stick and burn. Polymer clay has rules, too. In my opinion, there are really only two rules for working with polymer clay.

1. Don’t Burn It – Learn how temperature affects polymer clay so that you can keep from burning it. When it gets to 350°F (176°C), it burns and releases noxious and irritating gas.

2. Chemical Incompatibility – Polymer clay is plastic and as such is susceptible to being degraded and softened by some chemicals. Be aware that some chemicals can cause a problem. Also, many paints, varnishes, and sealers may never dry on polymer clay. Nail polish, spray paint (including most spray sealers), and styrene plastic (#6 recycling symbol) are some to watch out for.

So there are the rules, in black and white. Now…get out there and try new stuff. Make your own art, walk your own path, and explore new things. But most of all, have fun.

Did you know that I write polymer clay tutorials?

Yes, in addition to this website, I do also write tutorials. And my tutorials are technique-based rather than project-based. My goal in writing my tutorials is to teach you everything I know about creating that particular effect or technique. I give lots of tips, explanations, resources, and examples with the goal being to instruct and inspire you to create your own work that goes beyond what you learn from me. Read more about my tutorials here:

Organic Beads tutorial for polymer clay by Ginger Davis Allman of The Blue Bottle Tree.

32 thoughts on “The Right Way to Use Polymer Clay”

  1. Thank you! 🙂 I feel like you’ve given me permission to give myself permission to play around with it and explore and create without worrying as I tend to when trying something new.

  2. Fredrica Van Sant

    How refreshing…Thank you. Long ago when I was young and thin I was invited to leave a jewelry casting class because I did not follow directions. This memory has been both a negative and positive impact. Finally at a ripe old age, I realize that I am more a mad scientist both in the kitchen and the art room than I am an artist. I have ten of the leading books, tutorials on line, glued to the Glass Attic…thinking I will find the magic key. Alas! I end up straying from the directions and “doing it my way” resulting in more failures than can be counted. Your essay will keep me breathing polymer clay!

  3. Janice W. Armistead

    I have a very amateur question. It seems, after baked, the finished product is subject to dents like fingernail marks, etc. Do you surface glaze with anything to harden, in order to prevent this….. such as Ice Resin, Future or Pledge All-Purpose floor polish, etc., as some suggest?
    Thank you,
    Janice Armistead

    1. The surface of polymer clay isn’t actually quite that soft. You could gouge it with a knife, and some brands (like Souffle) are soft enough that you might make a slice if you really worked at it with super tough nails. But in general you will find that it’s tougher than that. You can glaze the surface to create a shine or to protect surface treatments like mica powder. But a varnish or sealer won’t make it stronger or prevent breakage. Resin, however, is a very thick, durable coating that will make things stronger. It’s more of a thick plastic coating than a varnish.

  4. I like to start with a tutorial. I have a bit of trouble with focus, and a tut helps that. As I work with the tutorial, I work myself away from it. Some of the techniques stick, some don’t. I’m always looking for one of ‘my ways’ to go. I retired from mechanical engineering and always look for a path to get where I want to go. When I teach, I like to give a start, and see where it goes. They can follow what I have done, or they can go where it takes them. Most choose the latter-My favorite. So, I don’t write tutorials. I would stop half way through. I learn as much as they do. Hugs, Boni

  5. This is like a breath of fresh air! It has always been hard for me to think outside the box but this is certainly a start. Ginger, I have found you to always be so giving of your talents and knowledge in the short time I have been following the clay scene. You are appreciated very much. Also, I have your rustic tutorial and loved it too! Thank you!

    1. Oh thank you so much Robin. It does take practice to think out of the box, doesn’t it? Some people can do it easily (do they know how lucky they are) but I suppose they are frustrated at the people who are able to follow rules easily. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the rustic tutorial. It’s certainly one of my favorite things to do.

  6. I found myself shaking my head a lot reading this, Ginger. lol Great article! When I first started with clay I would hardly pick up a piece of clay without a tutorial playing in front of me to get it “right”. Being the rebel I am, that lasted about a week before I began doing my thing and watching tutorials simply for new inspiration.

    One thing I wonder about. As many times as I’ve ‘heard’ you say not to use nail polish, I hear Lisa Pavelka saying clear polish, top coat, is one of her main staples when claying. Are you talking about the same thing? Is clear different than colored polish? I didn’t think so. Is there a big disagreement in the clay community on this sealer? I love your sensible advice and would really like to hear your opinion.

    1. I hadn’t heard that Lisa recommends it. I wouldn’t say there’s huge disagreement in the community. I think there’s just difference in experience. There are hundreds of brands and formulas of clear nail polish, and when you extend this to include other countries the list could easily grow to thousands. There is no standardization in the formulations. There are some formulations of clear nail polish which work, otherwise people wouldn’t be saying that they have no problems with it. But there are also plenty of people who have had terrible results with it. Because of that, I can’t recommend it. For every person who says they have no trouble, I will have another person write me upset, looking for a suitable sealer, because nail polish ruined their work. I’ve tried to find out the difference…maybe some are “nail lacquer” and others are “nail polish”. Maybe the term “top coat” means something specific. But since I can’t identify a specific brand or style or type that works, I just can’t recommend it. You’re better off going with something that you know will work, such as epoxy resin, Varathane, Darwi Vernis, or many others. Does that help answer that?

  7. Ginger, what a wonderful article! Thank you so much. My experience with PC worked the other way around. I had no idea anybody else worked with it other than kids in Germany and some people there, for one season, making little pins (which I did not like very much). So, during a visit, I bought Fimo for DM 1000 (had no idea it was sold here) and started creating with it, without ever having any instructions, seeing a book, video, tutorial, absolutely nothing. And I was so creative!! Hardly got any sleep, spent every minute happily making, what I think now, beautiful jewelry, vases, etc., until I got a computer and googled Fimo, than Polymer Clay. I was so shocked seeing all the beautiful things which were being created with this wonderful medium, I stopped working with it for almost a year, hated my own things. Threw some away, gave the rest away. Thank God I made photographs. Can’t believe how creative I was then. Of course, I started again, but never, never was as creative as during those first years in the early Nineties. Now there are so many, many techniques and things to try, I get confused and have trouble starting, because I want to do everything at the same time, winding up doing nothing or something I don’t like. So, your article is very relevant in getting me back to just listening to my inner voice and doing something which comes naturally, without trying too hard. Sorry for my long mail! Last but not least, I would like to compliment you on the wonderful work you do your this incredibly sharing wonderful Polymer Clay Community. Happy Claying!

    1. What a great story, Christl, thank you for sharing! I think that in some ways we were more creative when we didn’t have the ever-present (and oh so intimidating) internet to make us doubt ourselves. I have the same problem, I want to do it all at the same time. I think it’s because my mental skills for thinking far surpass my artistic skills of bringing things into being. And thank you for the kind words. Definitely, very happy claying to you as well!

      1. Thank you, Ginger! I am glad to hear this happens to you too! You put it so perfectly “my mental skills for thinking far surpass my artistic skills” , I agree 100%, it’s really frustrating sometimes. But, regardless, what fun we have with our wonderful medium! Looking forward to your next posting!

  8. For a long time, I was not allowed myself to put paint on clay, but clay is just a medium, like paper, so putting paints on clay should not be limitation.
    Thank you, Ginger, it is nice to know that many can ger inspired by my works, that is why I share.

    1. So glad you stopped in, Ponsawan. Your constant stream of new ideas is so very inspiring. And I’m really glad you got over that paint on clay thing. 😉

  9. Thanks Ginger. I just love reading your teachings and advice, it’s really helped me in starting to work in Polymer … I think I’m in love with it at the moment 😉

    1. Oh and polymer clay is so very easy to fall in love with, too. It’s got something for everyone, something for every mood, and is always up for playing whether you’ve got 15 minutes for a skinner blend or 15 days for a super big project. I’m so glad that you’re enjoying working with it.

  10. Karen Lee Price Luda

    If all your tips and experiments and recommendations, etc., were put together in a book, I would certainly buy it! I’d love to get tutorials and such, but I suffer a serious bandwidth problem here in my very rural little village in Germany. We have to use a landline for the phone, even, as only ONE cell provider can even give us coverage and we have to use a satellite for internet, which doesn’t connect when there’s medium rainfall. I can’t watch videos online. We should have broadband cable by 2018, I’m told (!!) so most of my learning is through books and a few workshops I’ve been able to attend. I’d love to have a book by you.

  11. As always a very useful and interesting posting. Yes I have learnt that clay gives freedom and love your attached cartoon( please may I post it on my FB page?)
    I have purchased 1 or 2 of your tutorials and must say of the many tutorials I have purchased, yours are very easy to follow and they do inspire.
    thanks again for this posting

  12. I’m sending a link to this post to a friend who is new to polymer. I think this will help her to get off on the right foot, knowing there’s more than one way to skin the polymer cat! Thanks, Ginger.

    1. Oh please do! Thank you! Yes, there’s always more than one way. And beyond that, really, there’s even more ways to THINK about things, too.

  13. Frederique Castiglione

    Love this article. I love the way you think, maybe because your articles generally show me how I could grow. It’s inspiring. Thank you so much!

    1. Thank you Frederique. Never stop growing. Whether it’s our art or minds or our skills, there’s just so much more we can be. It’s really kind of amazing.

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