For much of my early work I used plasticine (faces, hands, feet, shoes, any living or organic-looking surface). Later I have greatly enjoyed working with polymer “clays”, - that is to say, malleable polymer plastics. The most readily available of these in Norway is Fimo Soft. You may find others in hobby- or art supplies, but a couple of them make work very, very difficult and troublesome, due to bad texture, and really unattractive sculpting properties. - I will avoid naming it, but one very commonly sold such product will make most young and fledgling, enthusiastic artists go sour with frustration.
If you want to buy Fimo, ask for fresh and short-shelved packs, as this material is supposed to be exactly as SOFT as the name suggests, and it hardens during months of storage.
- Fimo comes in a number of colours, and I prefer the white one, but sometimes I also use the skin-colour variety.
The reason for this pitifully limited attitude to colour is that I often simply need to make a uniformly coloured maquette, in which case white is just right for me.
And if I make a human or semi- human character, only the head, hands and sometimes feet will need to be sculpted in Fimo, the rest of the character probably will have parts made from other materials. So skin colour will often be just right too, as a base for further skin-like paint- elaborations.
Besides, Fimo can be painted in any acrylic or latex colour, should you need to.
Any sculpture you make from polymer or other plastic "clay" materials should have an armature inside, since a piece bigger than a few cm. without something to hold it up, most likely will collapse before it is finished.
It is not difficult to make armatures from steel wire, with attached pieces of polystyrene.
- Use the very soft and porous, white type of polystyrene. In Norway it is marketed under the name of Styropor, and a couple of other brand names.
This white polystyrene will not make your piece crack upon heating in the oven, the harder lilac, blue or yellow ones will, since they take more time to shrink during heating than the polymer does.
But those somewhat harder polystyrenes can be very useful for other work, such as making backdrops for your creatures, or for quickly making lightweight elements like props, - or for cores for Das-Pronto objects (I come back to this later) and sculptures. So buy some to have in store for later.
Those materials are cheap.
For the polymer to stick to the polystyrene, you need to spread some two-component, quick-cure epoxy on the surface of the white chunks, this will also secure the volumes better to the metal wire.
Other hardening compounds may do the trick, but some chemicals destroy polystyrene very quickly. And if the one you try does not, you will still have to wait much longer for it to harden than with quick-cure epoxy.
Wait for the epoxy to harden, then sculpt.
Any such plastic clay piece must be heated in your kitchen oven to harden, and you should make a few needle size holes in the bigger volumes of the polymer, so the gas fumes can escape from the polystyrene during heating. This way you minimize the risk of bigger cracks. And you should slow down the cooling process by wrapping hot pieces in some cloth, like a towel, until they cool down.
Now, the Fimo factory pack text advocates a rather short heating period for hardening. But it is my experience that is much better to prolong this process. Fimo is supposed to be cooked for 20 minutes at 120 degrees C, in which case most sculpt sizes will come out hard, but really brittle and vulnerable to any little mishap. So keep it in the oven for an hour, or even ninety minutes!
The colour of the piece will yellow and darken to some degree, but the result will be much tougher and more durable. What you should avoid is using too high temperatures, as this may really destroy your work, and cause poisinous fumes etc.
- I once nearly caused a fire by forgetting to adjust the oven temperature, having first cooked a meal in there, before curing polymer.
- There is the issue of noxious fumes, however. I have no expert knowledge about the actual chemistry here, but the manufacturer does give a warning about overheating and heating for too long. So I ventilate well when curing my sculpts, - take this advice and do the same. Just in case!
One really great quality of polymer clay is that you can rework a piece by cutting away parts after hardening to put on new, soft material, and then harden the whole piece again. But notice: - Since polymer will darken during heating, and consequently any further additions of polymer will turn out lighter in shade than the first, this reworking may force you to paint the surface to make the sculpt uniform in colour. - But such a tiny price it is to pay for this extremely convenient flexibility, I think you may agree.
So, after the piece has been hardened, you may want to paint it. And in that case, it´s important that you make the surface ready for paint, as the polymer with your fingerpritns on it will have a slightly greasy surface that may repel paint to some degree.
Use a clean, old, white rag or some tissue paper, and scrub the polymer surface with industrial grade alcohol (isopropanol or other). - Avoid white spirits, or other members of that unfriendly, slow-drying family.
This washing will make any paint stick better to the surface.
Well, in addition to the scrubbing operation, you can sand the piece lightly with very fine sanding paper, but only if you think it will look good without the very finest details. Sanding should be done before washing with alcohol.
In many cases you actually need a smoother look to an object, and you can cut, file, sand and polish to your hearts content, this modeling material is extremely versatile.
Sanding will of course make paint stick even better to the plastic, and is really advisable in case your project will have to suffer any little wear. - I which case you should also put some varnish on top of the acrylic paint. Matt or shiny, the spray variety, or whatever you prefer.
I use thin rubber gloves when I handle enemy-category chemicals. And be careful to open the window before you work, get plenty of air in, avoid inhalation of fumes, and stay well clear of electrical charges or open flames during the operation, since alcohols, both liquid and fumes, are quite flammable.
I addition, do not forget to protect your lungs when sanding the object at hand, wear a mask! This will make it possible for you to keep breathing much longer after you reach middle- or old age, you will want that.
I never much liked working with other plastics than the "clay" variety, but I do turn to them in hours of dire need. And some of these compounds have changed since I first lost countless brain-cells, nose down in pots full of stinking, dangerous brew.
- Now you can actually get seemingly smell- and risk- free plastics for many purposes, but still my skepticism never completely evaporated. Because who knows what they will discover years from now? Perhaps tumors stealthily grow in the model-maker communities as we speak, - globally, lethally, tragically...
So I have learned to take these precautions with any chemical substance that does not naturally belong in my refrigerator or food storage. And I do all this as I hope to expand my lifespan.
Do the same, even if you may be young, youth is a condition that will soon pass.
So always be wary of chemicals that make you dizzy, I say.
- Larger works, sometimes demand other solutions than polymer clay.
The reason for this is partly the rather steep pricing of the plastic commodity, and even more the fact that polymer clay is difficult to heat and cure successfully in large chunks.
Very unpredictable, believe me, I´ve been there:
- It´s ´round midnight, I have in my hands a cracked, large polymer piece, still warm from the oven, and it´s only a few hours until planned delivery to my client.
Bad planning, bad material for the job.
And absolutey no fun.
So I have found Das Pronto, and a couple of other such paper-based products (Silkis, Paper Clay) to be excellent for many larger schemes .- Das P., as much as the other ones, is really a commercial, air-hardening, light grey papier-mache, but the "clay" name seems to have stuck even in this case.
- But notice, one disadvantage is that these other materials often force you to plan much further ahead, since they take considerably more time to harden, making them unsuitable for on-the-run activities.
Other of my materials include all the common, everyday stuff, such as cardboard, foam-board (Capa-board), metal wire, wood, balsawood, latex, white glue, superglue (big dashes make your head swim, so beware!), building- as well as two-component, casting formula silicones, and so forth.
My working procedures have evolved interestingly since I started in this field. One rather dramatic factor was that I, at long last, became certain that I could do my own photography well, - and I have lit and shot almost all of my own work ever since.
But Photoshop is what really, really changed everything. For the better, much better.
For many years my work was completely fingermade, that is to say without digital elements, but since around 2003- 04, I hardly do any project without some sort of computer-work, either throughout or in part.
Yes, that’s how slow I was in getting it, and that is how useful Photoshop has proven to be for me.
- Duhhhh…! you might utter.
- B-b-b-but how was I to know?! I´d be likely to stutter.