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

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  • reply Shannon Best ,

    Genevieve, I think you can’t go past caning as a fundamental technique. It can be used to achieve so many different looks and as a building block to many other techniques. It sounds so exciting that polymer clay is being included in a school art curriculum, good on you and your husband! I’m sure it will be a resounding success and will probably even encourage some budding artists. How exciting!!

    • reply Debra Vallett ,

      Elements of design in jewelry( if that is the end product) Although I had that training in art, I discovered that I didn’t think of all aspects, thanks to a Loretta Lam “Design Bootcamp”. I realize it isn’t a technical skill
      A technique: adhering clay to clay- cured and uncured
      Finishing the back with a quality look
      Just my thoughts as a beginner

      • reply Loretta ,

        imagine my surprise at seeing this reference to my design class.
        Thanks sweetie! Don’t forget to send pics of new work!

      • reply Pippa ,

        Millefiori Technique! It can be as simple or as complex as you like. Once you have learnt the fundamental skills in creating a millefiori cane then the sky is the limit. Kaleidoscope caning is not that difficult and creates such a “Wow” factor when you first cut into the cane and reveal the pattern. It teaches about colour too and the importance of contrast. It can also be applied to so many different forms of art from sculpture to jewellery. How exciting to be involved in teaching this, please keep us informed with how it goes – pictures of the students work perhaps? That would be great!

        • reply Leen Casier ,

          Hi Genevieve,

          as a beginner and without any formal art training, colour compatibility and colour mixing was completely new terrritory for me and hard to wrap my head around.
          Moreover, as you make things, inevitably you end up with scrap clay, maybe you can do a lesson on it’s many uses.
          One other thing which i would find interesting is how to photograph the end results in a detailed way without having to buy an expensive camera.
          hope this helps
          kind regards
          Leen (pronounced “Lynne” in English 🙂 )

          • reply Cate van Alphen ,

            I was also going to say millefiori (can be basic designs such as jellyroll & bullseye) seeing the reduction is the main thing and thinking in “length”.
            Stroppel cane with the scraps (thinking sideways).
            Natasha bead (thinking inside out).
            Mokume gane
            Textures & stamps (also applies to mokume gane)

            • reply Kayleigh ,

              Skinner blends should maybe be in there somewhere? They’re oh so useful 🙂 Also, mica powders and maybe adding a patina?

              • reply Dorothy ,

                I agree with Kayleigh. From caning to making 3d objects skinner blends are essential. It gives you the ability to provide gradation in color, blends like painting.

            • reply Marian Saunders ,

              I was asked to take a Design & Technology class for a group of teenagers in a local school with a somewhat troubled reputation. I decided sharp blades might not be a good idea. My face fell somewhat as a large group of boys walked in and I wondered how interested they would be in jewellery. I pressed on regardless and they just loved it. The class even grew in size after break thanks presumably to texting absentee classmates to say that it was really fun.

              We made a very simple pendant or brooch based on the feathering technique – not sure of it’s proper name. You twist thin strands of different colours, flatten into a striped flat surface, then draw a pin across in both directions to create feathering. It is a simple technique with minimal tool requirements and can result in some very effective pieces of jewellery. A good thing to start with maybe?

              • reply Debra Vallett ,

                Mariam. I Love that story! As a teacher, i picture it. I dont know that technique. All of the above sound great’

              • reply Leen Casier ,

                • reply Mary Kaye Waterson ,

                  Elements of caning – Basic canes and then turning those into more complicated canes.

                  • reply Linda C ,

                    I suggest skinner blends and millefiori. Also, think beyond jewelry: magnets (for locker or fridge, belt buckles, pins for backpacks, zipper pull covers for laptop cases or cell phone charms, even bookmarks. Best Wishes!

                    • reply Debbie Halliday ,

                      I think that maybe a little colour theory along with learning Skinner blends just might hook some life-long clayers. Learning the technique made me motivation and creativity soar.

                      • reply Evelyn ,

                        Lucky kids! i wish i could have learned in high school. i’d suggest:

                        1. pasta machine techniques: skinner blend, creating sheets of patterned clay
                        2. building patterns: mokume gane (sp?), millefiore, kaleidescopes, stroppel (cuz it’s just so cool not to waste)
                        3. designing/shaping/decorating beads
                        4. sculpting figures or covering an item (eg. lightbulb, bottle) with clay to create decorative object
                        5. texturing soft clay with stamps & carving semi baked clay
                        6. surface painting clay with inks, paints, mica, etc
                        7. digital transfers & uses of translucent/liquid clay

                        have fun!

                        • reply Sue Castle ,

                          Some simple caning, as often canes are used for decorating other things. One thing I would definitely change, though, would be to not use Sculpey for the clay, it is so brittle and will be disappointing for the students when their “masterpieces” break apart. I would also stress that in sculpting you can use very simple tools. Although I have lots of tools at my disposal, recently on a trip to visit relatives I got bored and went to Michaels, for clay, and made several sculptures using only an acrylic roller, cutting blade, knitting needle, and toothpicks. They came out just as good as the ones using the fancier tools. Color mixing is also an important art as well as polymer clay skill and you can get by with just the basic primary and perhaps secondary colors and mix your own tertiary and beyond colors, as well as how white and black or “mud” change a color/hues/saturation etc. Skinner blends and just how that works would be a great lesson, to explain how time saving it is, as well as how it automatically adds some shading to the item. Other than that, it’s up to what you want the students to actually do/make with their clay. Oh, and perhaps stress the many uses Polymer Clay can be used for: jewelry, sculptures, mosiac, “painting”, home decor, and more, it is very versatile, as you know. Oh, and signing their work is important and simple. I hope my suggestions have helped. Have fun. Smiles

                          • reply iris mishly ,

                            I love teaching children!
                            I would also take a moment to teach the basics of reducing a round/square/triangle cane (assuming you will teach some canes), I also do not let my students cut with real blades, I use simple aluminum pieces wrapped with cellotape on one side and that is the tool they use for non-accurate slicing, for the canes slices I help them with my own sharp blade.
                            I think that the most imporant thing about children (and some times adults too!) is making a final product every class, it is much better than techniques alone. combine them both is the ideal thing. Teenages tend to have less patience.

                            good luck!! 🙂

                            • reply Mitzi J. Bartlett ,

                              My focus is on the sculptural, so I would include at least one full session on sculptural techniques: basic shapes, the use of forms and/or armatures, and the importance of structural support.

                              From there, you could then show how the techniques can be combined with jewelry and cane work, from sculptural jewelry (ala Friesen) to cane veneers on sculpture.

                              • reply Tammy Dye ,

                                My high school Art II classes have been doing a polymer clay project for a few years and we have been lucky enough to have nearby Leslie Blackford teach a couple of sculpture workshops with the students. On my own, we have done some simple mokume gane, extrusions, faux stones and texture techniques. The biggest obstacle in teaching was managing blades. I usually keep the blades with me and supevise their use, sort of a blade “station”. I have found that the less tools needed, the easlier it is on the teacher. Plan how you will store their unfinished work beforehand, I am still finding scraps of mokume gane wrapped in plastic in the nooks and crannies of my classroom from last year! The students enjoy making things that they can wear or give as gifts.

                                • reply Gina LaMonte ,

                                  Mixing colors to create a unique palette
                                  Skinner blends
                                  Basic caning and reducing – bullseye/jelly roll/stripes/checks
                                  Mokume gane
                                  Creating one’s own texture sheet out of polymer clay, curing it, then using it to stamp or texture a unique piece

                                  • reply PJ ,

                                    Yes! All of the above, then make a simple kaleidescope cane with the basic canes. Once I learned the Skinner Blend, my work just took off!

                                  • reply Loretta ,

                                    A while back I was asked to be “artist in residence” for a day at our local high school.
                                    The art teacher was doing a segment with clay and wanted to show her classes what you could achieve with polymer. It was a great experience and I wish you all the best.
                                    As Marian said, I too worried about all the boys in the class. But found them to be very engaged in object-making. This teacher had them make usable objects – pens, switch plates, key chain fobs and bookmarks. But I thought what about something more open-ended and sculptural! If you can get around all the hormones, it should be a great class.

                                    • reply genevieve ,

                                      Wow – this is excellent feedback! Thanks so much!

                                      To answer Sue Castle…Kyle has to order supplies from specific catalogs that come through the school so he didn’t have a full range of clay brands to chose from (I think it was just Sculpey or Fimo). He is, however, going to encourage students to purchase and bring their own clay to class in addition to what he can provide and he has recommended Premo.

                                      • reply Lupe meter ,

                                        I think color and color mixing (Skinner Blend) is important, cane production and reduction, finishing (sanding, buffing, sealing), techniques (Mokume gane, faux techniques, etc.), and elements of design. That is awesome that polymer clay will be included in a curriculum for high schoolers…way to go!

                                        • reply Kit Lockwood ,

                                          Skinner blend, obviously…how much will this class already know about color, color mixing, and choosing a palette? Surface techniques: mica shift, stamping, mokume gane, acrylic paint patina, cane veneers. Simple caning, at least and an intro to more complex caning. For 3D design you could do a simple faux design – a faux jade or turquoise or even rusted steel.

                                          • reply Janelle ,

                                            Mold-making and texture; finishing techniques–sanding, polishing, sealers; Natasha beads. This sounds like such fun!

                                            • reply Dorothy ,

                                              I guess this is more a bit of helpful info rather than a technique to learn but when it comes to 3D in polymer clay one of the best things about it is the ability to layer, cure and recure. Many of my pieces are in and out of the oven several times before they are complete. Maybe that feature can be emphasized in a lesson? just an idea

                                              • reply Pat Hart ,

                                                Hi Genevieve,

                                                As a retired art teacher, I’d go along with previous comments concerning:
                                                1. basic canes and their uses: millefiori, kaleidoscope and tessellations (if time); sheeting
                                                2. Skinner blends
                                                3. mokume gane and mica shift
                                                4. simple boxes and jewelry using the above
                                                5. techniques using scrapclay: swirl and Natasha beads plus Stroppel cane
                                                6. if time permits, intro to modelling techniques

                                                Design and colour theory can be incorporated along the way. Bet this is voted most popular class! Wish polymer had been around when I was teaching school.

                                                • reply Pamela ,

                                                  I would suggest caning, specifically the ikat and Klimt techniques because they are quick(ish) and easy. And, the Skinner blend, of course, but using the “teardrop” technique because of the quick and easy nature of it. [Unfortunately I cannot remember the name of the person who developed that idea to give her credit!] Even though you have ten 80-minute sessions (how marvelous!) it could be really time consuming to get each person to attempt the techniques. I know when I teach large groups, I am surprised at how long it takes them to finish something.

                                                  • reply Pam ,

                                                    Cindy Leitz.

                                                    • reply Linda Kropp ,

                                                      Cindy Lietz developed the Teardrop method of doing a Skinner Blend.

                                                      • reply Dorothy~~~MN ,

                                                        Cindy LIetz is the originator of the “tear drop blend”.

                                                        • reply Pam ,

                                                          Did no one see my answer??? :/

                                                      • reply Alexsandra Tsell ,

                                                        I recommend to combine lessons. As in first lesson you could make part’s of the flower cane – petal, middle one and leaf, and use slices to decorate focal bead. And in second lesson use the canes for millefiori.
                                                        Also, texture’s, stamps and mould’s is really beginners friendly techniques. If you don’t like the result, you can just roll over clay and start again.
                                                        Do you plan to bake after lesson? And that about varnish?
                                                        And now I remembered my favourite! Not sure how they called in English, it then you roll bead in sugar or salt, bake and wash. They easy and fun, looks nice in simple colours, with simple canes (spiral is my favourite) or could be made from skinner blend.
                                                        Good lack!

                                                        • reply Kathleen Anderson ,

                                                          Glad to hear that another educator is bringing polymer clay into the classroom. Just reading the first few comments below, I agree with each suggestion. I would add: teach the Skinner blend. Use all of the elements, bulleseye, jelly roll with solid colors and with Skinner blend, checks/stripes and combine to make a use what you have millifiore cane.

                                                          On another note, the photo in the blog post shows Sculpy III, this is a disappointing product when creating canes. Sculpy III is too mushy and will not hold pattern. This could be frustrating to students.

                                                          Good luck!

                                                          • reply Trina Williams ,

                                                            All of the comments are right on but I would add some basic sculptural techniques. When I was working as a school nurse in a Jr. High School, the art teacher was a clay student of mine. She asked me to do a project with her 7th graders. We did bugs and it was great fun for all. The morning announcements said in effect:” please don’t get sick or injured during 1st period this week, the nurse is teaching art!”

                                                            • reply Debi Scott ,

                                                              cane making with reducing lessons !!

                                                              • reply Keila Hernandez ,

                                                                Skinner blend is a must have! It opens the door for so many different techniques.

                                                                • reply Beth Schwartz ,

                                                                  —-Skinner blends, caning, mokume gane, mica shift. A little color theory for mixing custom colors wouldn’t hurt.
                                                                  Can

                                                                  • reply Maezeppa ,

                                                                    Sorry to be so picky, but “poured over the internet ” should be “pored over the internet”. The word “pore” means to read closely.

                                                                    • reply Marcia Simpson ,

                                                                      I used Polymer clay daily for a homework assignment, asked… the who, what, where questions. They did a research paper and in the manner of their favorite artist that worked in polymer. I enjoy working with the students because I love the medium so much. They appreciated me more as an artist and as their teacher!

                                                                      • reply caren ,

                                                                        This has been mentioned already, but Natasha beads have the wow factor/instant gratification going for it, and it’s a great use of scraps and makes an instant pendant or bead. Saving and using scraps is an important aspect of working in polymer.

                                                                        I guess what I’d think about is having simple finished projects in mind utilizing the techniques taught. Like a mokume gane stack is great but have a plan for it, such as wrapping a mokume gane slice around a bead form made from scrap clay.

                                                                        • reply carolpazos ,

                                                                          What a great idea, your students will be happy, I think we give a basis for them to explore on the est polymer very interesting. My ideas:
                                                                          basic millefiori on the basis of a skinner blend (two things in one)
                                                                          textures used on an everyday utility (soles of shoes, textiles, legos and toys for children) techniques such surface textures using paints, pastels, oils …..
                                                                          with these two already have for good 90 minutes of the course.
                                                                          modeling and sculpture I think they know it well.

                                                                        • reply Jean Anderson ,

                                                                          I would say:
                                                                          Basic colour mixing
                                                                          Skinner Blend
                                                                          Millefiori caning
                                                                          Mokume Gane
                                                                          Lentil swirl

                                                                          My 2c 🙂

                                                                          • reply Louise ,

                                                                            I would add inclusion because what you find around the house can be wonderful to play with to make faux and textures making your own and designing with it. Using cookie cutters or making molds. In 60 to 90 minutes time is of the essence to make a finish product.

                                                                            • reply Janice Sears ,

                                                                              I would suggest a project that incorporates a lot of different techniques. One of my most successful jewelry pieces has been a series of natasha bead hearts framed in gold or silver Premo, using a mica shift technique for the back of the pendant and an extruded and then twisted border with a matching bail. Here is a link to it on my Picasaweb album:
                                                                              https://picasaweb.google.com/104144120871430010564/PolymerClayGallery2010#. This same design could easily convert to a keyring, although I would recommend a metal bail for those, since they may encounter a lot of stress from the weight of the keys and bouncing around in someone’s purse. For the mica shift, it is possible to sand down to the smooth finish instead of trying to reach that level with a blade and of course, that would be a lot safer for students. I think that it is very exciting that you are doing this class. I sold jewelry that I made from stacked and glued plywood shapelets and adjustable ring bases during high school and would have jumped at the chance to take your class.

                                                                              • reply Lyn ,

                                                                                Wow! What a great response and load of information! I would add that they should be encouraged to have FUN with it. Maybe give them a list of websites that are organized by ALL the things they can do with it. I’ve learned 90% from the internet and 10% from books. When I’ve needed more detail I go to Youtube for a video tutorial. The possibilities with polymer clay are absolutely endless. Good luck and I hope they enjoy every second of your class!

                                                                                • reply Vickie ,

                                                                                  You have many more suggestions than you will have time for. What wealth!

                                                                                  A suggestion for your millefiori lessons: consider using the parts nature of a cane to your advantage. You could:

                                                                                  1. Break the class into three-student teams. Have one make the blend and the petal, one make the blend and leaf, and one make the flower center (for example). Then they assemble the cane and split it into three pieces for filling and reduction.

                                                                                  Or.

                                                                                  2. Have the students make the petal. You have enough leaf and flower center components available to let them use for the assembly of their flower.

                                                                                  Or.

                                                                                  3. Have the first cane lesson be very simple canes: blend in a circle (and outlined), spiral cane, blend end-to-end. In the next lesson, these simple canes become the flower components. If students cannot finish all 3 pieces in the first lesson (likely), they should make slightly larger ones and then share their components as in #1 above.

                                                                                  Hope you find this helpful! Have great fun!!!!

                                                                                  • reply Jan Gonder ,

                                                                                    I’m wondering if the lists submitted so far are a little too ambitious for a 10-session class. High-school students seem to prefer hearing they’ll learn about making insects, or ornaments, or flowers rather than caning, Skinner blending , or other techniques. It’s just a matter of context, not material. They’d end up with the same lessons in the end, but the emphasis would be on the finished product. You can always stress the versatility of the techniques as students become familiar with them.

                                                                                    • reply Karen Preston ,

                                                                                      Definitely the Skinner blend should be included. It’s easy to learn and a skill that’s widely used.

                                                                                      • reply Kathryn Corbin ,

                                                                                        I sent you a list, but as I’ve thought a bit more, I think that polymer would be the ideal opportunity to take basic principles of color mixing, color theory and composition in a different direction than that which the students might have experienced in a painting class.
                                                                                        I also think that polymer could be used to explore pattern, and possibly include links to art history or the history of decorative arts. (think arabic or chinese pattern, byzantine mosaics, etc.)
                                                                                        In other words, use the medium for its own sake, but also to illuminate and build on already acquired knowledge form other curriculum.

                                                                                        • reply Brenda Urquhart ,

                                                                                          Ciao Genevieve
                                                                                          Many years ago when they cutout the Arts programs in the schools here in San Diego and before they cut after school programs…I volunteered to teach middle school kids Basic Polymer techniques…as a guide and reference I used Nan Roch’s “The New Clay”(the Polymer Bible) and Syndee Holt’s( “Polymer Clay for the first time”)…I found these 2 books excellent introductions to anyone interested in learning this medium…in addition the illustrations and how the instructions are written make them very easy to follow. Once the students had grasped the basics we ventured into others(mostly) Donna Kato’s books for more advanced techniques…unlike then…now there is a wealth of info on the internet to pool from…
                                                                                          Hope this is helpful…
                                                                                          Brenda

                                                                                          • reply Barbara Handy ,

                                                                                            I read with interest all the great answers. I will begin my teaching career in January at my local Community College. Most of my students will be retired, but still very with it, women. I will be part of the Leisure Studies Program. Great ideas everyone, I can’t think of anything to add. I hope your students have great fun. I’m sure most will.

                                                                                            • reply Barbara Handy ,

                                                                                              I just had another thought. Things in school colors would keep them interested. Covering pens and key chains for the boys. Jewelry of course for the girls It is always nice to take away something you can use and show.

                                                                                              • reply Terry ,

                                                                                                I’d do:
                                                                                                Skinner blend
                                                                                                Complex cane
                                                                                                Something with textures
                                                                                                Maybe layering (with translucents) or something with mixed media
                                                                                                MIght also be interesting to experiment with something I’ve been thinking about: Creating a large “solar oven” with window panes on a sunny day (I suppose a car could work as well…if it’s close to summertime).

                                                                                                • reply Leone ,

                                                                                                  My suggestions would be:
                                                                                                  A skinner blend because they teach conditioning, use of the pasta machine, colour theory and at the end they look good.
                                                                                                  A cane – I would recommend a kaleidoscope because there is never a bad looking one, and it uses a lot of other basic canes to get there.
                                                                                                  A small sculpture – I would recommend a Christi Friesen style thing – steam punk to pearls which makes it great for a mixed class – as this teaches them construction and structure of small parts but is quick and easy
                                                                                                  And perhaps, making a card or book cover or something like that that will use the canes etc they’ve made but can be a mixed media project with stamps, textures, inclusions etc. Either that or creating a household object, something useful using the same techniques.
                                                                                                  Just a few ideas, good luck with the project, it sounds huge.

                                                                                                  • reply Barbara McGFuire ,

                                                                                                    Another polymer ‘essential’ – finishing. The sanding and buffing.
                                                                                                    All the Best!
                                                                                                    Barbara

                                                                                                    • reply Shellee ,

                                                                                                      Genevieve, I taught a whole unit on pc in my HS class when I was teaching art in the public school a few years ago. I may still have some of the resources, a power point presentation and some lesson plans if you are interested. I did 5 projects that incorporated a variety of techniques and design lessons. The projects were a key fob of a 3-D animal or object of choosing, a caned pen, immitation stone hemp jewelry, an accordian book with pc covers incorporating found objects, and a sock doll with polymer sculpted head, arms, feet and other fashion design embelishments. All the kids loved the projects and the end products were quite impressive! The kids were also thrilled with the fact that they did not need a special oven or expensive tools to create some awesome art and fine craft! It will be a hit!
                                                                                                      Good Luck, Shellee

                                                                                                      • reply Susan ,

                                                                                                        Much to my surprise, the main thing my beginner clayers wanted to learn was transfers. I thought image transfer would be too complex for beginners, but they all, even an eight year old, loved the transfer process and it’s possibilities. Who knew?

                                                                                                        • reply june pegram ,

                                                                                                          No matter what you make if it is not finished properly it is never completely done.. I suggest techniques in buffing, sanding, clear gloss, and or any other options for finishing a piece should be covered. Just a thought.

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