Polymer clay: A dive into unlimited artistic possibilities

Polymer clay: A dive into unlimited artistic possibilities

Polymer clay can be molded, shaped, and baked to form everything.
  Polymer clay has officially taken off and became popular among hobbyists. Photo: Lemlem Hussein

By Lemlem Hussien

In recent years, the crafting community has seen a surge in amateur polymer clay artists.

The rise can mainly be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, where more people delved into artistic crafts to maintain their mental health, pass the time and turn their hobbies and side hustles into profitable small businesses.

Polymer clay has officially taken off and became popular among hobbyists and prominent artists, with an increase in creativity due to the power of social media in boosting knowledge sharing, inspirations, and online sales.

It has also gained traction due to its durability, affordability, and lightweight features, which let a maker dive into the world of unlimited artistic endeavours.

What is polymer clay?

It is a modeling material made from the synthetic polymer polyvinyl chloride (PVC). This type of clay can be molded, shaped, and baked to form just about everything.

By everything, I mean anything your imagination can take, ranging from wearables like jewelry, beads, and buttons; creatures and people like cute little figurines and complex lifelike sculptures of people you love; decorations like glasses, vases, wall art, plant pots, etc.; the possibilities are just endless.

Polymer clay was first discovered by a German doll maker, Käthe Kruse, in the late 1930s as a by-product of oil production. Photo: Lemlem Hussein

Polymer clay comes in a various colours, which are bright and fun. They don’t require any specialised tools. You can jumpstart with most household tools, and they can be successfully worked on by people of all ages and skill levels for various artistic expressions.

Humble beginnings

Originally, polymer clay did not enjoy such broad recognition and popularity, and it actually took decades to make its impact in the art world.

The material was first discovered by a well-known German doll maker, Käthe Kruse, in the late 1930s as a by-product of oil production.

She had experimented with the strange new compound in hopes of finding something new for her doll creations, but it was set aside as she didn’t find it suited her needs.

A few years later, Kruse’s daughter, Sofie Rehbinder, rediscovered the discarded substance and began to re-examine its properties by adding both plasticiser and colour.

She eventually developed a workable modeling compound. She created the brand name "Fimoik," combining her nickname ‘Fifi’ with modeling and mosaic words.

Sculpey was created in 1967 for use in arts and crafts, mainly as a kid’s white modeling material. Photo: Lemlem Hussein

The product was initially sold in toy shops but was acquired by a company in 1964, introduced as ‘FIMO’ and later absorbed by Staedtler in 1978.

FIMO has now become a well-known generic term to designate a kind of polymer clay.

Moreover, this new art material was also independently developed elsewhere in the US, as is often seen in the world of art and invention.

A chemist at a US company came up with the idea to use the clay as a thermal transfer compound that would conduct heat away from the cores of electrical transformers. However, its usage turned out to be unsuccessful and its artistic potential unrecognised.

Until one day, the director’s daughter, who was visiting the lab, ended up finding the material and sculpting an elephant from it.

Eventually, Sculpey was created in 1967 for use in arts and crafts, mainly as a kid’s white modeling material.

Polymer clay is an easy to manipulate, malleable material that doesn’t require many tools to get started. Photo: Lemlem Hussein

Moreover, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that artistic individuals started to recognise the potential of the medium as a fine art material.

Why choose polymer clay?

In my personal experience, I was introduced to polymer clay as a medium for jewelry making two years ago. However, I realised I had come across it during my girlhood days.

A memory was unlocked where I used to bring some blocks of polymer clay home from school to play and sculpt different animals and objects.

As such, I remembered the stains of their colours on my white uniform pockets and my hands didn’t forget the feeling of it.

Polymer clay is an easy to manipulate, malleable material that doesn’t require many tools to get started.

The start-up cost is low, unlike traditional pottery, which requires high-temperature kilns; polymer clay requires low-temperature ovens found at home.

You can start exploring polymer clay after purchasing a block or two of it from nearby craft stores or online stores, coupled with available kitchen items like acrylic rolling pins, cookie cutters, pasta machine, plastic wrap, paintbrushes, sculpting tools, ceramic tiles, any kinds of thin blades, peelers, and alike.

Any curious soul, children and adults, can create and cure with whatever oven is on hand and can make wearable jewelry in their first sitting with a rewarding level of success.

An eager crafter can reach a new level of artistry through exploration, with new skill sets sparking endless creative possibilities.

And with today’s technology, you can attain and learn new methods and skills related to polymer clay creations on YouTube and numerous blogs online.

Environmental impact

I love working with polymer clay, but unfortunately, like every synthetic material, it poses some safety and environmental risk factors.

Since PVC, a plastic mixed with various fillers, pigments, and additives, is its main ingredient, it consumes non-renewable natural resources during its production.

As a result, there are concerns about its carbon footprint. On the other hand, PVC is a very durable and adoptable material that can be reused many times, and when used in polymer clay, it allows for almost zero-waste production.

In a way, polymer clay can be considered a green tool if used and disposed of properly.

Moreover, while curing polymer clay, it requires extremely little energy; it can harden in just 20 minutes in the oven into an almost permanent archival piece of art. Finished pieces can also be passed down to others rather than ending up in the trash.

Further, polymer clay is not biodegradable, but scraps made from polymer clay can be recycled to make new things (stuffed beneath, painted with acrylic, or even made into mosaic pieces) without harming the environment.

If you happen to burn polymer clay, ventilate your environment, and thoroughly clean your oven, it releases volatile chemical molecules that are harmful to your health. This is another downside. However, if you follow the label directions and curing temperature, this may never happen.

Both adults and children can safely use polymer clay because it is considered non-toxic. However, it is always recommended to read the labels and safety instructions before using any craft materials.

In general, compared to other craft materials such as plastic or metal, it has a relatively low environmental impact. That’s why polymer clay is the perfect choice if you’re looking for an eco-friendly, durable, and versatile creative medium.

Africa’s expanding market

As the medium is at its climax elsewhere in the world, it’s fairly unknown in many parts of Africa. However, the opportunities for crafters and entrepreneurs alike are myriad.

Sculpey was created in 1967 for use in arts and crafts, mainly as a kid’s white modeling material. Photo: Lemlem Hussein

Drawing inspiration from vibrant and intricate African patterns, polymer clay’s chameleon abilities can emulate any material an artist wants to represent in their work, offering eye-catching handmade creations.

A unique range of possibilities are available to African artisans who want to modify their works with imitation effects, including semi-precious stones, glass, precious metals, wood, and other organic materials.

Quilters can use polymer clay for dimensional accents; knitters can use it to make personalised buttons; metalsmiths can use it as a cheaper alternative to stones; and woodworkers, gourd artists, basket weavers, book artists, scrap bookers, and paper artists can use it for Inlay and accents.

Numerous doll artists, sculptors, illustrators, mosaic artists, decorative artists, and jewelry designers can also use it as their main source of inspiration.

In addition, there’s great opportunity for polymer clay manufacturers and distributors, as the demand for handmade products is on the rise and consumer appetite for fashion and costume jewelry is appearing more voracious than ever.

Today, polymer clay is the go-to medium for imitation jewelry makers. It fulfils demands for attractive jewelers at relatively low cost.

The author, Lemlem Hussien, is an Eritrean pharmacist by trade and an artist at heart. She’s also a freelance writer and an entrepreneur.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.

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