When my art teacher husband told me he had decided to add polymer clay to his high school 3D design class I was thrilled!

Naively I thought it would be pretty easy to help him write the curriculum for his 10th-12th grade students. It wasn’t until we actually got to work that I realized our biggest hurdle would be condensing the mountain of skills, techniques and information available to fit ten, 80-minute sessions. Onward!

We ordered required reading materials based on the Polymer Art Archive bibliography, poured over the internet and started sharing the pasta machine. Basic supplies were ordered and arrived within a week. So what’s next?

Well, we’d love to have your help!  Beyond conditioning, baking and basic studio safety, what four or five foundational polymer clay skills should be included in the lessons? Leave your comment here or write me directly at jibbyandjuna@comcast.net

guest post by Genevieve Williamson

  • reply Janet R ,

    Exciting news to give polymer clay a proper position in academia. Two of the basic skills you may want to consider are caning and Skinner blends. Both are building blocks for more complicated projects, whether the students are interested in jewelry or something else. Color mixing may be more straightforward with a rainbow of clay colors, it seems a valuable and fun way to teach art students about color.

    • reply Lindly Haunani ,

      I would add three skills to the list 1. Respect for all art materials and tools 2. Team building and 3. Color Mixing basics

      1. I have taught over 500 children 8-16 years old in a class room setting. We always used “real tools” = real blades, delicate Atlas Pasta machines and two large -hot- convection ovens. During the safety introduction I always made jokes about safety scissors vs. real blades that can cut the clay. The caveat, was one miss-step and the blades went into my purse and the entire class would be cutting their canes with a toothpick = 2 very minor cuts in five years. The blades we used were matt knife blades (the short versions with notches on the top), each blade was mounted on a magnet strip on a neon numbered square of card stock. If I called out “blade check” then all of the knives were held into the air on the magnets/cardstock and a count -off was held … #1 accounted for, #2 accounted for, #3 … until we reached sixteen.

      Smashing 3 inch piles of polymer through the pasta machine at the thinest setting = very tempting. Which I why I explain very carefully why and how the machines are to be used. Heavy duty C-clamps make the machines easier to use. If you have separate art stools- mounting the machines on these makes them more portable to adapt to the classroom flow and less likely to become unmoored.

      Hot pads and caution Very hot signs on the ovens serves as a reminder.

      Rainbow Skinner blends -using a yellow, red and blue are great starting points for projects and an opportunity to teach color mixing(especially if the different teams are using different primaries including fuchsia as a red) . I divide the kids into teams of four- a catcher, a stool stabilizer, a roller and a folder to make a rainbow blend that is divided into four portions for each child to use in their project.

      Molds and mold making are a great skill to introduce.

      Looking forward to seeing the class work.

      • reply Patricia Perrine ,

        Clay safety. Tools. Conditioning.
        Basics: snake, sheet, ball. Simple sculptures.
        Basic 2 color canes: layers, jelly roll, bulls-eye. Complex cane: kaleidoscope.
        Blending colors. Skinner blend. Mica shift.
        Textures. Veneers. Curing creations.
        Finishing: sanding, polishing, antiquing or highlighting, sealing.

        Use AV resources to show examples and explain how they were done.
        Have fun.

        • reply Diane McCauley ,

          I would suggest
          1. a simple color theory exercise to teach conditioning, mixing, maybe skinner blend
          2. concepts & considerations in designing with clay – i.e., if beads ways to create & embellish; if sculpture basic building block shapes; etc.- work on design concept
          3. simple caning, texturing
          4. Use tehcniques and design on independent project
          5. finishing – sanding, drilling, buffing, carving,

          • reply Linda ,

            Mokume Gane is a great technique

            • reply sandra grudzen ,

              Inclusions: Glitter, no hole beads, spices. Texture:rubber stamps,leaves,lace,items from the kitchen,rolls from adding machine paper. And an extruder. these are things I use all the time to add interest to my creations.

              • reply Zuda Gay Pease ,

                After the basic conditioning,safety, and tool use these are my suggestions:
                Basic sculpting techniques
                Color mixing and making blends
                Cane building
                Making a veneer and how to apply it

                • reply Karan Marie ,

                  My only suggestion is releasing your finished product to the general public!

                  • reply Gina Reilly ,

                    1. Color blending! My students always want to use the color right out of the pack before they start to understand the incredible variety of colors available to them through blending.

                    2. Basics of cane building. Most of my students want to know how immediately.

                    3. Surface treatments – impressions, inclusions, paint, powders.

                    4. Modeling – Building parts and adhering after baking, using foil to lighten the load, or using wire to strengthen, adding to baked pieces (ahh, the beauty of this trait to help construct complicated pieces!), and making molds and stamps out of polymer eraser clay.

                    Have time? Mica shift, Mokume Gane, Phototransfer have all gone over very well with my older students (grades 9-12).

                    • reply Randee M Ketzel ,

                      If it hasn’t already been covered, the question I get the most from my students is how to handle ‘ornery’ clay–dry crumbly clay that we all loathe. They are so thrilled when I demonstrate the various techniques you can use to condition difficult clay-determining by pinching whether the clay is likely to be difficult,- hammering it with a mallet while still in the package, rolling it slowly, changing directions each pass, or adding translucent in small amounts to increase the plasticizer. It’s the biggest stumbling block they encounter on their own–I’ve had a woman swear off clay forever based on one bad block–and if we can prevent that from ever happening again, that’s a great step forward.

                      • reply Randee M Ketzel ,

                        oh wait– I just looked more closely at the photo and realized you’re using Sculpey III for the class–never mind!!!

                        • reply klinkydinky ,

                          Something about the value of creativity and spontanity and care of the Muse, which everyone possesses.

                          • reply Susan O'Neill ,

                            Very exciting to get young people aware of polymer clay, and help to strike down the “play dough” myths!

                            Basic mokume gane is so easy (stack sheets, roll, stack again, etc., deform, compress to cube, slice) and the visual rewards are so amazing with even the simplest color scheme. They could then cover pens, and be the envy of their class mates!

                            • reply Wade Watson ,

                              While this isn’t about basic techniques, I think it’s worth considering. Most polymer clay projects available in books and manufacturer’s marketing is aimed primarily toward the female market. That is jewelry, home decor, dollhouse items and so on. If you want to interest males in polymer clay work you need to look around a bit more. I got into p-clay after reading cartoon maquette sculptor David Kracov’s book Modeling with Polymer Clay. Also, many model builders and “garage kit” sculptors use it. Some artisans have incorporated millefiori mosaics into their wood furniture pieces. A few artists use if for fine art relief sculpture. There are also some artist that basically use p-clay in place of paint for more textural 2D painting-like works. As an art medium it’s potential has barely been explored, I think, and it’s a unfortunate that it has something of an amateur “arts and crafts” reputation.

                              Anyway, please keep this in mind and make sure the students realize polymer clay isn’t just for ladies.

                              • reply Allyson Daniels ,

                                I sent you a longer email. I teach 3 levels of 3D Design using Polymer Clay as the main medium, and I would love to share even more ideas. Here are a few- Basic Color Theory, Skinner Blends, Texture Making and Antiquing, Basic Cane Making, Beginning Sculpture, and box making using slabs.

                                • reply Carol Ann Minor ,

                                  Having taught sculpture to all grades as a volunteer and also paid to teach special education kids; to my surprise, the less finished work you show them the more creative they will be!
                                  Don’t predispose them to jewelry, sculptures etc. Just give them the information you just
                                  mentioned. I taught one hour classes, and one student who never participated in anything came up with two super hero characters of his own! Another came up with a bike with spkes etc., another came up with a whole herd of dinosaurs and trees after sitting and thinking for 3/4 of an hour! Some did flowers etc.

                                  Perhaps after you see how they are doing, you can include blending, color theory, design principals, or even later on, transfer techniques.

                                  Bring tools such as bottle caps, squares, ovals if you have them. Also, plastic spoons, forks and knives are terrific!

                                  Don’t tell anyone their project is better or worst than any other project! That will only promote everyone trying to copy them.

                                  Good luck and have fun finding out how creative your students are!

                                  • reply LaLa ,

                                    This topic is very interesting and timely for me personally. I have been asked to teach some workshops at a local gallery that will welcome all levels and all age groups. I have been feeling very challenged with the broad range of levels, interests, and age groups. It’s just tough to narrow polymer down like that. It’s such a versatile medium.

                                    I plan an starting with basics, conditioning, minimal tools, and safety. Then I will do some simple techniques with textures, color mixing, and basic canework.

                                    I Love the other suggestions and comments! Thank you all for sharing!

                                    • reply LaLa ,

                                      • reply HEIDI B MCCULLOUGH ,

                                        I know this is ANCIENT but I’m just perusing old PCP posts….and I popped over to see your cookie cutter cane…. But OMG your life would be so much easier if you just cut out a star from a circle of black, replaced it with a white star, and made a careful stack of black circles with white stars in the center. Even without perfect alignment, there’s little chance of hitting a wonky spot while slicing. You might have figured this out LONG ago, but there’s no place to comment in your blog. 😉

                                    • reply Janette Walters ,

                                      I taught some younger kids and started out with color blending. I think it will be useful for older kids and someday, when I start teaching again I’ll include it in adult classes as well.
                                      Here’s what I did:
                                      – Have kids pick two primaries to blend into secondaries
                                      – divide the secondary into four sections (3 larger and 1 small)
                                      – Add white 1:1 to one of the larger sections; Add one primary to another at 1:1; Add the other primary to the third section at 1:1; Keep the fourth, small bit as a sample.
                                      – Divide the new blends in half.
                                      – Keep adding white, and the primaries to the sections to see how the colors change. Keep samples of all the new colors.
                                      – Have examples of primaries that blend into bright secondaries (e.g. cobalt blue & zinc yellow if possible) and those that make muddy secondaries (e.g. ultramarine blue and cadmium yellow) so that no one will be negatively surprised by muddy greens or purples.
                                      – Have them experiment with making muds, desaturating bright primaries or secondaries with ecru, etc.
                                      (Not as complex as Maggie Maggio’s work but kind of adapted from her ideas!)
                                      – Write up your curriculum for possible future publication! 🙂

                                      • reply Tina ,

                                        I agree with a lot of the the technique suggestions, especially about the safety and sanding and finishing and how much difference the finishing can make to a piece. I have noticed no one mentioned mica shift, though, which is an interesting scientific learning experience as well as artistic. I’d also like to agree with the fact that many of the books, videos out there are geared more females than males, so maybe you or your husband can do up some sculpture models showing how those same techniques can be used for “guy stuff” like a skinner blend flames on a car model or action hero costume or a dragon with canework scales, or a marquetry style box.

                                        • reply Melody ,

                                          Make sure they understand there is no such thing as clay in the trash! My students were always wanting to throw away mistakes. They were pretty amazed at some of the georgeous colors you cna make using “ruined” or scrap clay.

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