The Muse

cluttered room

What NEXT?

It seems that when one falls in love with polymer clay, they start making things like an obsessed person, trying every technique they can find. This is great. I’m all for enthusiasm! But when you move onto the next technique before mastering it, the overall quality of your work doesn’t improve. You become a master of consuming techniques, not a master of crafting excellence.

I’ve watched it happen so many times that an enthusiastic newbie gets six months into a serious polymer clay habit and then looks at the boxes of mediocre projects with dismay and alarm. The question is asked, “What can I do with all this…um…learner-level stuff?”

Unless your beginner stuff was better than mine, don’t give it away. Nobody needs more amateur craft STUFF. Some pieces can be upgraded or used as the “core” for new art.

But the most important point here is what next? When you realize you have too much… it’s time to improve the quality of what you DO make. Take more time with it. Refine your skills and make better use of your resources. It’s a waste to keep churning out mediocre things. Don’t bake until it’s just the way you want.

I think one of the hallmarks of the intermediate stage is that you begin to yearn for excellence. Raise the bar on your own art.
reflection in a puddle in broken pavement


The reason beginning artists usually draw wonky portraits is that they draw what they THINK a face looks like, rather than drawing what they see. Remember, what we see is mostly our perception of what’s there. Our brains have a lot to do with it. Here’s a story that shows what I’m talking about.

“I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, ‘Look.’ I looked and all I saw was the water. And he said, ‘Look again,’ which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”

— James Baldwin

Do you really SEE your artwork? Do you see it the way that others see it? We all have filters on our perceptions that block how we experience what our eyes are telling us.

How can you change it? It’s not easy! But it starts by becoming aware that we do have control over what we see. On Friday, I’ll give you an exercise to try. See you back here then.

person holding crystal globe in front of brooklyn bridge

Observational Skills

On Friday, I posted a link to an article about tracing. The gist was that tracing isn’t cheating because it doesn’t give much of a head start. Good results come from drawing skills and observational skills.

I wanted to talk a bit about observational skills. It’s easy to assume that success with your artwork is down to skills. And when I have asked readers in my Polymer Clay Success group what they needed to be better at their artwork, the answer is usually some variation on “technical skills”.  This includes things like knowing how to make a cane, mix colors, build a sculpture, or paint neatly. And of course, those things are important. But far more important is the ability to SEE what you’re doing. No, not eyesight. I’m talking about perception. Observational skills.

Our eyes constantly gather a cacophony of visual data that would overwhelm us. So our brains process this data and allow us to perceive visual imagery. But a lot of what we see is down to training our perception. We’ve all seen optical illusions where once you see something you can’t unsee it. Artists must learn to train their brains to see…really SEE what we’re creating. That can be truly difficult and is a process. Do you put effort into honing your observational skills?

Color shifting nail polish from Holo Taco.


For Christmas, my daughter gave me the coolest color-shift chameleon nail polish (Missed Shift from Holo Taco), and I’ve been in love with it ever since. My nails are a completely different color depending on the angle of the light. When the perspective changes, the view changes.

When I was a child, I enjoyed lying with my head hanging over the edge of the couch, pretending that the ceiling was really the floor. Do that long enough, and you’re totally shocked when someone walks into the room, on the “ceiling”.

And yes, during the call on Monday, I got to hear another perspective (many of them, in fact). We can all get so wrapped up in our own little view of the world that we forget that things look very different from another view. Children can be frustrating because they don’t yet understand that others don’t share their viewpoint. Maturity, fortunately, brings empathy and the ability to see things from another person’s perspective.

Being able to “flip” your perspective is more than a cool trick of the imagination. It can help you with your artwork as well. Take something you made that you’re really proud of. Imagine what someone from 1850 would think of it. Really flesh it out. What would they say, how would they use it, what would they pay for it? Now try it with a person from a modern-day country that’s very different from your own. How do the evaluation and perspective change? Flip your mind to what a child would say. Would they be fascinated with the colors, the story, the magic? Try this with different perspectives, perhaps even your dog or a bug as he crawls over the surface. What do you learn about your art. About yourself?

Don’t stop there. Imagine me sitting here on my couch on a dreary Tuesday afternoon, my feet stuffed under a quilt as I write this on my laptop with its fan faintly humming. Imagine the other readers of The Muse who woke up to find this in their email and are likely reading this just as you are right now, a cup of coffee in hand. Imagine what your neighbors are doing in their homes directly next door to you.

I think we could all use a bit more perspective right now. Seeing how something looks from someone else’s viewpoint can give a tremendous amount of clarity and teach us a ton. Give it a try. What will you learn?

polymer clay softeners

Softening clay with oil

We’ve all had it happen. You get a clay block that’s hard, crumbly, and will not hold together no matter what you do. Make sure that you do try to condition it because many brands will soften right up with conditioning. But sometimes clay is just too dry.

This is because the PVC in the clay has absorbed all the plasticizer, making it dry in the same way that leftover pasta soaks up all the sauce. So you need to add “juice”.

Ask this question in an online group and you’ll read a whole bunch of people tell you to add “a few drops” of baby oil or another type of oil. They also recommend vaseline, hand lotion, vegetable oil. Will that work?

Sure! Polymer clay is a mixture that includes oil, so yes, any of these oils will work right into the clay to soften it. And if all you need is a few drops, go for it!

But if your clay is very dry and you need more than a few drops, you really should use one of the commercially available clay softeners. Why? Because the oil doesn’t become part of the polymer clay. If you add too much oil, you just get oily baked clay.

Commercially available clay softeners are made of plasticizers, which is the actual “juice” of polymer clay and makes the final result stronger.

Choose from Sculpey Clay Softener/Thinner/Diluent (liquid) or Cernit Magic Mix (liquid), which are both liquids that are pure plasticizer and can mix or soak into the clay easily.

You can also use Fimo Mix Quick, Cernit Soft Mix, Sculpey Clay Softener (solid), which are solid clay softeners that will soften clay in a seemingly impossible way. Only use a tiny bit! Sculpey Mold Maker will do the same, if you have that on hand.

Another strategy is to use liquid clay, any brand.

You can use any softener with any brand of clay. Brands are totally mix-and-match.

Screw Rods

We’ve long known that common, ordinary things can make great textures with polymer clay. But this isn’t just motifs and pretty texture that we “steal” from shoe treads or silverware handles. Here’s a neat idea. Screw rods!

They’re like bolts, but without the tops. So just a threaded rod. You can find them in all sorts of sizes in the hardware store. I got this one on Ali Express. Here’s a listing with a ton of choices.

But what can you make with it? Roll it on clay to make fine, parallel lines. Then roll it the opposite direction and now you have a screen appearance. Use pastels to color the clay and the raised bits in the middle of each square and this is what you get. Nifty, simple, and a great effect! Here’s the veneer that I made with this threaded rod.


Tall Poppies

There’s a lot of talk in art/craft circles about fear. Fear of failure can paralyze us. That’s what’s often behind the “blank canvas syndrome”. We’re so afraid to waste materials or look stupid that we just don’t even bother.

But there’s a flip side to this, too. Some of us fear being too good.

There’s even a name for this. My Australian friends call this the “tallest poppy syndrome”. The idea is that poppies should all be the same height. Nobody wants to stick up above the others or someone will come along and lop your head off.

You might be familiar with the same concept in regard to crabs in a pot. Even when there’s no lid on a pot, no crab escapes because all the other crabs pull each other down.

Did you ever have a teacher chastise you for being too eager with the answer? Did anyone ever make a snarky comment: “You’re not as smart as you think you are!” I was raised with the term, “Don’t get too big for your britches.”

All these sayings are designed to make people fear success. That makes sense for a tribe living on limited resources. But nowadays? It’s ridiculous! Or so you’d think. Sadly, our society still puts up lots of judgment and greatly undervalues those who are trying to be good at something. Is there a part of you that holds back because of what people say if you’re good at it?

polymer clay tissue blades

Sharpening Tissue Blades

When working with polymer clay, it’s helpful to use a long, flat blade as a cutting, chopping, and scraping tool. Tissue blades, which are used in medical labs to slice tissue for examination, are often recommended. These thin blades are incredibly sharp, but they dull quickly. And a dull blade makes it difficult to slice canes, shave mica shift, or slice mokume gane. Can you sharpen these blades? Yes, you can. Some people use superfine sandpaper or even use a whetstone to remove nicks and hone a sharp edge.

But I want to suggest a different approach. Try keeping two blades on your workbench. One is a general-purpose blade that you’ll use for opening packages, chopping, cutting off chunks from a block, lifting a sheet from your work surface, and scraping paint off your tile. There’s no need for this blade to be razor-sharp, and that can even lead to accidental cuts.

Your second blade will be your precious tissue blade. Use it (only) for the particular times that you need a razor-sharp and ultra-thin blade. Then when you’re done, carefully clean the blade and put it away. Not only will it last longer, but there’s a distinct safety advantage to this approach.

I’ve used this approach for 20 years, and the only time I need a new tissue blade (or feel the need to sharpen one) is when I forget and start using the super sharp blade for general claying tasks. Then it dulls immediately!

What is Clutter?

Okay, we all know what clutter is. We all have it. Right now, I’m looking at a table piled with a business card and some receipts, a flosser, a partly burned incense stick, a coaster I hate, three unfinished books, a water bottle, and the remote for a window air-conditioner that is now in the shed. No matter how neat you are, you have places in your home like this.

And of course, our crafting areas are absolutely RIFE with clutter. For most of us, we walk in there and think, “I have too much stuff.”

Clutter is…TOO MUCH STUFF.

Or is it? If that’s true, then why do people who have TONS of stuff manage to have a clutter-free studio? Maybe that’s because clutter isn’t a problem with too much. I suggest that maybe, clutter is something else.


When I finished writing my Watercolor Agate tutorial, I had a bunch of small balls of mixed colors of clay. They’re perfectly useful, but I’m not sure what I’ll do with them yet. So they’ve been sitting on top a drawer unit, collecting dust. Cluttering up my studio. They are a decision unmade. I have not yet decided what to do with them. So I put them into a sandwich bag to protect them from dust. They’re still clutter.

They will continue to be clutter until I decide what to do with them. (Finally, I put the bag into my huge box of scrap clay. Now they are longer clutter.)

So, next time you have something you don’t know what to do with, try to make a decision about it. File it, discard it, use it, put it somewhere to live. It’s your choice (and yes, you are free to make your own choices.) But letting it live in limbo, undecided, lying in a pile on top of something, means that it becomes clutter.

(By the way…this probably applies to life stuff, too. Emotions, belongings, relationships, gardening.)

Remaining tight in the bud…

One of my favorite quotes is a classic from Anaïs Nin:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

We always assume that growth and change are far more uncomfortable than staying where you’re at. But being stuck is no walk in the park, either.

As we start a new year, it’s a traditional time to think of clean slates, new beginnings, and finally allowing yourself to blossom.

How will you bloom this year? And more to the point, what specific steps will you take so that blooming is a certainty?

Learn that technique. Build that website. Tackle that project.

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