While I love sculpting with polymer clay, the process of mixing and conditioning clay can become quite tedious and sometimes painful. This is especially true when conditioning clay for sculptures rather than miniatures for a number of reasons:
- The process of conditioning a few ounces of clay by hand, or even a pasta machine, is VERY laborious and time-consuming.
- Light/flesh colored clay has a tendency to attract anything and everything of color, from lint to dust to clothing fibers. (the longer it takes, the more crap becomes embedded in the clay)
- While a pasta machine is faster than mixing by hand, it gets really messy and sticky if you try to soften the clay with a liquid sculpey or other softener.
I’ve discovered that working with softer clay is easier when it comes to the fine detailing as is required for the face of a fairy or baby. Since the pasta machine gets too messy I wound up doing this part by hand. This is less than fun when dealing with hand injuries or arthritis. (I injured my thumb while on military deployment)
Since the old process is still useful, let me give you a quick comparison to help you appreciate my new discovery.
The Old Process For Mixing Clay
I chose random clay colors for the purpose of this demo.
- Select the clay that will form your newly mixed color combination
- Slightly condition each individual color and cut/shape into flat sheets to fit the pasta machine.
- Condition the individual colors by running through the pasta machine again and again till you get a smooth and minimally cracked sheet.
- Stack sheets of different colors to run through the pasta machine
- Run the stacked colors through the pasta machine again and again
till you have a single uniform sheet with no streaks or individual colors visible
If doing this by hand, simply substitute ‘mix by hand’ for the pasta machine. I also recommend rolling into snakes and twisting the colors rather than working simply with ‘sheets’.
Overall, this process is simple, straight-forward, and ideal for mixing small pieces of clay. However, this can take the better part of an afternoon when mixing clay for a larger sculpture like my 3-inch bunny (images to follow)
Old vs New Method For Mixing Clay
Enter the Food Processor
I’ve heard a number of sculptors mention using a food processor for mixing clay and finally decided to treat myself. I purchased the Proctor Silex 1-1/2-Cup Food Chopper on Amazon (affiliate link) for under $20.
While the capacity is just 1 – 1.5 cups, it’s enough for the volume of clay required for my ‘large’ sculptures. My magical creatures are usually just a few inches tall in total.
Does It Measure Up?
I decided to break in the food processor with camera in hand. Here are the results of my very first experiment:
Preparing The Clay Recipe:
Since I’m planning to sculpt a July Fairy Baby I chose a mix of Sculpey Living Doll, Premo Translucent, and some TLS (traslucent liquid sculpey) for a super-soft mix.
I broke the clay into medium size pieces and dropped them into the food processor.
Power On… WOW!!
Let’s just say that my mind is 100% blown. I’m watching these chunks of clay get smaller and smaller, and so well mixed. While the clay isn’t fully conditioned or blended together, having tiny chunks of distributed color will be so much easier to condition bit by bit as the sculpture comes along.
I added a few drops of TLS and mixed some more. I’m glad I added this at the end because the resulting mixture looks really sticky. I suspect the clay would not have broken down as easily if I added the TLS at first.
And the Very Best Part:
Total Preparation + Mixing Time = TWO MINUTES
Level of Pain To My Injured Hand = ZERO
Now in case you’re wondering ‘but the clay isn’t conditioned, it’s only mixed’ that’s fine. Even when I prepare a large batch of mixed clay for a sculpture, I still condition every bit by hand right when I’m about to use it. However, conditioning a piece of clay the size of a small bug is pretty simple compared to clay the size of a small bird.
So instead of cutting small chunks off a large mixed block, I plan to simply scoop up a small handful of mini-chunks, squeeze between my fingers for a few seconds, and go!
The most important and obvious benefit to this method is TIME. This saves me AT LEAST an hour in the sculpture preparation process. Reduction in time also reduces the amount of dust, dirt, lint, fibers… that will get embedded in the clay.
A personal plus is the reduction of pain. The food processor takes the strain off my hand which allows me to sculpt for a longer period of time without aggravating my injury.
At first I considered also storing the clay in the processor since it comes with a lid. However, in reply to a helpful blog comment I now realize that the clay will corrode the processor. And so I quickly transfer the clay from processor to dedicated Pyrex container and clean up with baby wipes.
I suspect the plastic will discolor easily, and so, while I am in love with my new toy, I am dedicating the processor to mixing only light/flesh color clay. I use strong colored clay like reds (most staining) in smaller quantities and will stick to the pasta machine for mixing those. Who knows, maybe I’ll splurge on a second one and dedicate to colors.
Do you have any other fun tricks to help reduce time/pain in the sculpting process? If so I’d love to read about it in the comments below.