A selection of most of the presently available brands of polymer clay.

Photo courtesy of Sage Bray.

Imagine walking into a studio and seeing a worktable equipped with a pasta machine, a toaster oven, cookie cutters, a food processor, a roll of plastic wrap, a vegetable peeler, and acrylic rolling pins alongside paintbrushes, sculpting tools, stamps, all kinds of thin blades, and ceramic tiles.

You might wonder if you are meant to bake a pie, or perhaps a small child raided the kitchen and studio alike.

Although these tools may seem to be unrelated, they are all part of the arsenal of a polymer artist and illustrate the primary reasons people are initially drawn to the material – it’s easy and inexpensive to get into. Any curious soul can start exploring polymer clay with a block or two of clay and a few kitchen and craft implements they probably already have. Children and adults alike can create and cure, in whatever oven is on hand, a finished sculpture or wearable piece of jewelry at their first sitting with a rewarding level of success. If they take a moment to investigate all the many things polymer clay can do, the exploration can easily transform into an ardent passion that can pay off with a fulfilling new set of skills and inspiring new design possibilities.

What Is Polymer Clay?

All brands of oven-cured polymer clay are a PVC-based malleable material manufactured in a huge range of colors and finishes. Unlike most crafts, it requires no specialized tools, can be successfully worked by people of all ages and skill levels, and is an inexpensive primary or alternative material for a variety of artistic expression.

Wooden bowl with polymer inlay by polymer artist and creator of the Polymer Clay Daily blog, Cynthia Tinapple, and her husband and woodturner Blair Davis.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Tinapple.

What really ends up fascinating creative individuals about the material, however, is its chameleon abilities. Polymer clay can emulate practically any material an artist might want to have represented in their work.

From semi-precious stones to glass to precious metals to wood and other organic materials, faux effects present unique options for crafters looking to customize their designs. Polymer clay is used by quilters for dimensional accents, knitters to create custom buttons, metalsmiths as alternatives to expensive stones, as well as inlay and accents for wood workers, gourd artists, basket weavers, book artists, scrap bookers, and paper artists. It is also the primary material for many doll artists, sculptors, illustrators, mosaic artists, decorative artists, and jewelry designers.

The History of Polymer Clay

Polymer did not initially enjoy such broad recognition and popularity. In fact, it took decades to carve its place in the art world.

The material, although developed on and off since the 1930s, remained untapped until it found its way into the hands of the daughter of a famous doll maker around 1939. Sophie “Fifi” Kruse continued to use the material beyond childhood, developing it into a modeling material she called FIMOIK, a combination of her nickname and the German word “mosaic,” for her love of mosaics. She started selling sets of it in 1954. Ten years later, she sold her concept to the pencil company, Eberhardt-Faber, who put it on the market as a child’s modeling material called Fimo in 1966. Fimo has since developed into one of the top brands for professional artists today.

As is often seen in the world of invention and in the world of art, this new art material was independently developed elsewhere as well. In the United States in the 1960s, a chemist at Zenith accidently created polymer clay and tried it out as a thermal transfer compound for electrical transformers. Its artistic possibilities went unrecognized until the owner’s daughter sculpted an elephant from a lump of it she found while visiting his office.

Eventually the material and a new company, Polyform, were developed from that discovery and in 1967, a kid’s white modeling material called Sculpey was created. It wasn’t until 1984 that they developed Sculpey into a line of colored clay. Sculpey, and other varieties of polymer clay, are still manufactured by Polyform, including the professional Premo line.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that artistic individuals began to recognize the potential of polymer clay as a fine art material. At first, techniques and artistic uses were heavily explored by just a handful of artists. However, after the first English language polymer clay book, The New Clay, was published in 1991 by Nan Roche, polymer clay as a craft medium really began to spread and grow in popularity.

Polymer elements sewn onto a collaboratively designed quilt by Ellen Prophater and Libby Mills. 

Photo by Randy Prophater.

A Misunderstood Material

From that point on, however, it was an uphill struggle for polymer artists. They battled the image of polymer clay as a kid’s modeling material, not to mention that it emerged around the same time that the global reputation of plastics as an environmental hazard were being highlighted.

Polymer artists had a difficult time being taken seriously; they struggled to have their artwork valued enough to sell at career-sustaining prices.

That started to change around 2010 when a group of polymer art pioneers convinced a number of prestigious museums to collect and exhibit polymer art alongside esteemed and long-established mediums.

Polymer’s image was further boosted by education efforts in publications like The Polymer Arts magazine and on various polymer-centric blogs regarding its environmental impact. The material, although a plastic, allows for virtually waste-free production since all uncured clay can be reused. It also has very low energy demands, taking as little as 20 minutes in a toaster oven to cure into a nearly indestructible, archival piece of art. With most professional-level brands priced at around $1.50 per ounce or less, these characteristics make polymer clay not just an environmentally sensible material, but a cost effective one as well.

Sage Bray’s Colorado studio.

Photo courtesy of Sage Bray.

Polymer clay publications.

Photo courtesy of Sage Bray.

Polymer’s Place in Any Craft Studio

It doesn’t take much to get started in polymer clay. Blocks of clay can be purchased at nearly any general art or craft supply store. Instructions for everything from the most basic techniques to advanced surface design can be found online, many of them through free resources.

To understand the range of work created in polymer, search online or treat yourself to a beautiful printed book such at the book series Polymer Journeys or Lark Books’ 400 Polymer Clay Designs, or browse the influential polymer blogs, Polymer Clay Daily and The Weekly Polymer Arts Blog.

If you would like to start exploring general techniques, faux looks, and surface effects, Marie Segal’s The Polymer Clay Artist’s Guide or Sue Heaser’s classic The Polymer Clay Techniques Book both offer ways to learn the material’s possible uses by sampling techniques and building skills in a hands-on manner. However, just jumping in and playing based on where the clay and your own whims take you has been a tried and true path to a love of polymer clay for many craft artists.