Thursday, September 10, 2020

Polymer Surface Design: The new "Discovery Series" from Stories They Tell

I haven't posted on this blog in a while but today I have a really big announcement! I've decided that it's time for me to get the contents of my design notebooks (about 15 in all) out into the world. I love teaching in person but with the current situation in our society, I have no certainty that this will be an option any time soon. I've considered the idea of a book for years but with today's cutting edge-technology, I'd rather put the content directly into the hands of the consumer, as it's more immediate and easy to update. So over the next months, I'll be publishing my techniques as a series of PDF files available in my Etsy shop as stand-alone tutorials. 

I'm calling this the Polymer Surface Design "Discovery Series" and I'll be covering all the various surface design techniques that I've discovered and used for my work since about 2010. Some of the tutorials will be strictly technique-based, some will include construction and design details. ALL of them will involve using color and texture in bold and unusual ways! 

We'll take our maiden voyage together with a technique that I've been using for a few years, utilizing the Distress® Oxides® from Tim Holtz and Ranger Industries, a combination of dye and pigment that oxidizes when water is added, creating a matte, hazy bloom that enhances textures very well. They blend beautifully when wet and when a new color is applied to a dry surface, the colors layer without producing 'mud'. I had to tinker quite a bit to make sure the Oxides® adhered to polymer clay and dried completely but fortunately, my art school experience finally lead me to the solution, which I'm pleased to be able to pass on to lovers of this amazing medium!

"Byzantine" - polymer clay, Distress® Oxides®

The tutorial is posted in my Etsy shop today:, under "Tutorials". I'll also be setting up a private Facebook page -- "Polymer Distress®Oxides® Community"-- for posts by anyone using the technique from the tutorial and with tips, additional information for variations on the technique and maybe some videos. (I have a very high standard for myself and there's a lot to learn about video production before I'm willing to post any).

Why use PDF files instead of video? Well, I'm kind of old-school and, as much as I appreciate videos and the kind of learning they provide, I still would rather have a more 'book' like, non-electronic, visual record of my life's work. I've designed the pages so they can be put in a plastic sleeve and into a notebook so they're accessible to you wherever you're working with your polymer.

Here's a gallery of some of the pieces I've done using the Distress® Oxides®. I love Tim Holtz's color palette, it's right up my alley!

"September Twilight" - Distress® Oxides® Aged Mahogany, 
Mustard Seed, Walnut Stain, Antique Linen

"Fallen Leaves" - Distress®Oxides® colors Crackling Campfire, Mustard Seed, 
Scattered Straw, Fossilized Amber

"Creation" - Tim Holtz Alloys®

"Inner Circle" - polymer, Distress® Oxides® colors Seedless Preserves, 
Crackling Campfire, Milled Lavender


"Field and Stream"

"Double Exposure"

"Guinevere" earrings

"Turnabout" - Double-sided beads made from test shards

"Turnabout" - flip side

"Kyoto II"

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

An Idea is Born

As an artist, something I’m frequently asked is “where do your ideas come from?” Neil Gaiman, a writer I enjoy, says he tells people that you get ideas from daydreaming or bring bored, that you get ideas all the time and the only difference between artists and other people is that artists notice when they’re doing it. Now, I know from experience that if I don’t write these ideas or musings down, they’re gone, they’re ephemeral and forgettable. Also, it’s useful to know the progression in the development of an idea and if you keep a dated notebook, you’ve got those details.

I know that I get ideas from looking at lots of sites, mostly not polymer ones, since ideas from those are mostly derivative. Instead I browse Pinterest, Instagram, Colossal, Designboom, Remodelista, Iron Orchid Design, etc-- and then speculate “what if?” as in, “what if I made those shapes with translucent polymer clay and a metallic clay edging” when I see a layered evening gown on the runway in an article on Paris Fashion Week. During my work as an academic advisor at UC Berkeley, I learned some very valuable lessons about source material for ideas. Plagiarism is of great concern in academic circles and I could tell you a few interesting stories based on my experiences. But that's not my purpose here. I learned that, when doing research, go to the oldest, most original source material that you can find-- original documents, a skeleton that was dug up out of the earth, the actual writings of the person that you want to investigate-- you get the idea. Stay clear of interpretations by others. If you're doing a paper on George Washington, don't read a fictional bodice-ripper vaguely based on the Revolutionary War and then extrapolate about our first President's motivation for his battle strategies. Go to his journals for his actual thoughts while on campaign.

Similarly, as visual artists we should seek out original sources for our inspiration. With the mind-numbing array of social media sites available, we are constantly bombarded with the interpretations of others. Who among us has not spent hours on Pinterest? But did you realize that Pinterest is really just a collection of curated galleries? You are viewing images chosen by individuals out of all the available content out there. You are being herded, your ideas are being influenced by people whose values and experience you don't know anything about. You should wonder-- what's being left out? Why were these particular images chosen? Are they better or simply more “promoted”? One suggestion is that you create a short list of blogs to visit on a regular basis to see what artists that you choose are doing. Don't just pick the easy way and let someone else determine what you're seeing.

When I first started making jewelry, I participated in the monthly online jewelry challenge over at the Art Bead Scene Studio in which our pieces were intended to be based on historical 2-dimensional works of art, mostly paintings. This was a very stimulating exercise and I developed a nice body of work, which I had never done previously. But the exercise was still based on a particular artist’s interpretation of life, on their colors, their choice of subject matter, their philosophy. Not an original source, as it would be if I, myself, were drawing in the moment from nature or a person or a bowl of fruit.

In my classes I sometimes suggest that students find a greeting card or a scrap of material to help them with their color choices. When confronted with an array of paints, crayons and pots of color in class, sometimes overwhelm sets in and having these aids can help to define your palette. But these are not original sources and you need to eventually wean yourself from them. A color wheel is an original source but isn't something found in nature and is not stimulating to the imagination, at least not to mine. Pick some fresh flowers, buy a blooming potted plant, hang out at a zoo. Anyone who has a pet has probably spent hours looking at the subtle blend of colors that make up their hair coat-- it's endlessly fascinating.

So, whenever possible, go straight to the original source-- Nature. I live in a place that has four true seasons-- each one offers possibilities for color in wonderfully different ways. I embrace winter because the colors are so different from those of spring or summer—more subtle and therefore challenging. They shake up my color preferences and design ideas. Here are some wintry-colored pieces from years past. Thanks for reading!

"Storm" - Work on paper, acrylic medium, alcohol ink, acrylic

"Stone of Remembrance" - Polymer clay, acrylic, Pan Pastels, sterling silver

"Where the Rivers Flow North" - Polymer clay, acrylic, embossing powder

"Landscape" pendant - Polymer clay, acrylic, Pan Pastels

"Late Winter" earrings - Polymer clay, mokume gane technique, embossing powder

"Labyrinth" earrings - Polymer clay, acrylic 

"Aurora Borealis" pendant - Polymer clay, acrylic, Pan Pastels, embossing powder

Monday, January 14, 2019

On Making Art

Making art is really about problem-solving.

Your thoughts/emotions are the starting point.

You come up with an idea, you have a feeling you want to express, you see a scene you want to capture, a color or texture that takes your fancy, you have a 'what-if?' moment.

Now problem-solving comes into play.

How do I capture that light? How do I blend that unique color? How can I get my brain to tell my hand how to express what I see and how I feel?

And now it's about technique.

And technique is about practice, it's about honing skills and about trial-and-error and repetition. There are no short cuts. Mixing the exact color, capturing a particular expression, translating motion to a static image-- all these take the exercise of skill, skill that's constantly upgraded and expanded by doing the artistic task over and over, of practicing all the steps that lead up to the final smooth application of the technique that solves the problem, that captures the moment-- in the sketch, the necklace, the lyric, the collage, the watercolor, the embroidery, the symphony.

Every masterpiece-- no matter how small-- starts with a problem that is solved with innovative thought, combined with a gigantic leap of faith and then completed with skill and technique. 

"The Many Sides of Me" - pendant-- Polymer clay 
veneer scraps, surface colored and pieced

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Art on the Farm - Spring 2017 Workshop Announcement

“Repeat Motifs – Unique Finishes”
A 3-Day Intensive for Polymer Clay Surface Design
June 21-23, 2017
Join me this June for the 5th year of Art on the Farm, at my home studio in Braintree, Vermont, in the heart of rural New England. Our topic for the 3-day intensive workshop is "Repeat Motifs - Unique Finishes".
We'll start class by creating a simple signature motif, then learn how to use textures, paints, pastels, acrylic mediums, alcohol inks, crayons and much, much more to color and enhance these polymer elements with custom surfaces.
Since there are so many possibilities for surface embellishment, limiting ourselves to one unique shape will help us refine our technique and we’ll experiment with layered forms, changing the proportions of our shapes and abstracting these motifs into multiple elements to use for jewelry and mixed media projects.
Students have access to my extensive collection of texture sheets, molds and stencils, as well as to all the paints, mediums, inks and pastels in my studio. Believe me, I have tons of interesting things to play with! Try out the newest Tim Holtz/Ranger® line of Distress and Distress Oxide paints using my techniques for making these finishes work even on non-porous polymer clay surfaces.
As one of the earliest adopters of surface techniques for polymer clay, I have years of experience using paints, watercolors, pastels, inks and other surface design media on opaque and translucent polymer clay. If you’ve ever wanted to delve into the amazing world of coloring the surface of polymer, this is the workshop for you! Small class size means lots of one-on-one time with the instructor. Beginners to polymer as well as those experienced in the medium are welcome, as these are not techniques that you'll find in books or online, so everyone starts at the same point. You'll go back to your home studio with all the information necessary to continue your own experiments in color and texture and stock up on the supplies you really want, after trying them out at the workshop.
If you're interested in the upcoming June workshop or the one later this Fall, October 4-6, 2017 leave a message on my website at with your e-mail address to check for spaces in class and for more information on tuition, lodging, etc.
Here are some examples of surfaces we'll learn how to do in class. Enjoy the eye candy!
Pan Pastels, acrylic paint, embedded wire
Pan Pastels, acrylic paint, graphite paint
Ranger Distress Paints, acrylic medium, alcohol inks
Ranger Distress Paints, acrylic paint, alcohol ink
"Colors of the Canyon" -  Pan Pastels, micaceous iron oxide
Pan Pastels, acrylic paint
Acrylic paint, alcohol ink
"Homage to Tuscon" - Micaceous iron oxide, acrylic paint
"Kaleidescope" pendant - acrylic paint, Pan Pastels
"Landscape" earrings - Acrylic paint, Pan Pastels
"Molokai" earrings - Acrylic paint, Pan Pastels
Acrylic paint, handmade texture plates
"Oracle" earrings - Overlapped, repeating shapes;
Acrylic paint, Pan Pastels
Acrylic paint, layered shapes
Layered shapes, acrylic paint
Handmade texture plates; repeating, overlapping shapes, acrylic paint, Pan Pastels
"Samurai" pendant - Acrylic paint
"Sargasso" pendant - Handmade textures,
acrylic paint, Pan Pastels
"Sedona" pin/pendant - Acrylic paints, Pan Pastels
"Stone Circle" pendant - Pieced, sliced polymer with metallic paints and Pan Pastels
"Trojan" earrings - Layered and stacked forms,
acrylic paints, Pan Pastels
"Turquoise Landscape" pin/pendant - Pan Pastels
"Wabi Sabi" - pendant - Translucent liquid polymer, micaceous iron oxide, Pan Pastels, acrylic paint

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Embracing a New Paradigm

Some earthshaking discoveries in science sneak into the public consciousness slowly, and many are never even widely known. The same thing happens in the science of the art world from time to time. Unless you work in a certain medium, you may never be aware of significant changes in the things artists have available for creative expression.

Polymer clay was this sort of ‘earthshaking’ discovery. Most people outside the art world have no idea what it is or that it even exists. It’s a synthetic clay that never dries out, takes color from many different sources and in any hue you desire, cures at a very low temperature, holds its form while curing with very little support, can be formed into very thin sheets without breakage, and is stable for millennia, as far as we can predict. All things that traditional earth clays do not. I think it’s a hoot that what I use to make jewelry is the same material, engineered into pipes, that carries bathroom waste and water through our homes out to the sewer, or in my case, out to my septic field. I often wonder what Leonardo Da Vinci would have made with PVC in the form of polymer clay?

"Apocalypto" extruded beads, placed in Bead Dreams competition

One of my earliest polymer mixed media pieces - mokume gane polymer disk,
steel, brass, textured polymer donut

"Little Bumble Beads" - shown in a tutorial published in Stringing Magazine

Soon after I began working in polymer, tired of my inability to control the interaction of colors in the extrusions and mokume gane I was blending, I started texturing the clay and applying color to the surface of it, rather than blending factory-supplied colors. At first, the only medium I knew about that could be used to color clay was heat-set oil paints. My go-to technique was to apply color deeply into the texture and then sand it back so that the texture was highlighted and there was space to add more color. I happily worked like this and taught this technique for years in my classes.

'Ruffle' beads, colored with Genesis Heat-Set Oil Paints

"Tuareg" - Translucent Premo and Genesis heat-set oil paint - published in Designer Showcase article in Belle Armoire Jewelry, Sept/Oct 2011

The Emperor's Nightingale" - Mixed media piece - polymer, wire, acrylic paint, handmade textures - private collection

"Everglades" necklace - polymer clay, heat-set oil paint - private collection
Well, I’ve been called a ‘mad scientist’ since any and all mediums are fodder for my experimentation when coloring polymer clay. In my artistic life I’ve dabbled in most crafts, from pottery to fiber, rughooking, knitting, professional dressmaking, papermaking, furniture painting, etc. My brain seems to enjoy asking ‘what if?’ a lot and I never reject an artistic idea, no matter how loony it sounds at the time! Having a background in many craft processes, I can see how unusual combinations of things might be serendipitous artistically. This is how innovation happens.
The medium that most mimics polymer for me is handmade paper. In its liquid state, it is infinitely shapeable, taking the form of any mold into which it’s poured. I loved the work I did with this medium when I lived in Berkeley, CA back in the 80s and took classes at Fiberworks with Nance O’Banion. So it doesn’t surprise me that I have lately been exploring the marriage of polymer and paper in my work. The new Distress Oxide paints that I’ve been exploring from Ranger really love paper, were made for it but all the coloring media that work on polymer also work on paper.

Paper clay donuts - Ranger Distress Paints
"Clovis" - Paper, Distress Oxides Paint
"Kali" - Watercolor paper, acrylics, pen
"Can-can" - Watercolor paper, crayon, pens, Distress Paints
I’ve never been a polymer purist, thinking of myself as more of a ‘mixed media artist working in polymer’. All the common wisdom of the artistic (and art-as-a-business) community says I should stick with one idea and squeeze every ounce of creative and financial juice out of it before moving on. I say, listen to The Muse and let your intuition steer you out onto the vast waters of the creative sea. Shift your paradigm and see what shows up.

"Purple Study" - Paper, Scratch Foam, Distress Oxide Paints, pen, acrylic
"Emergent" series - Paper, polymer, acrylic, alcohol inks, pen, Distress Oxide Paint