01 October 2020

Mastering Silk Screening on Polymer Clay by Karen Woods

This month, pcPolzine is proud to present an article by polymer clay artist Karen Woods, who shares her techniques for silk screening on clay! 

Like chocolate, silk screens can be addictive. So many designs to choose from. So many inspirations by polymer artists around the world. How do you add silk screens to your other surface design tools and where do you start?

Most of today's silk screens aren't actually silk. They are a strong, tightly woven polyester fabric with an emulsion on top that is light reactive, allowing patterns to be burned into it, creating the negative spaces in the fabric for paints to penetrate through. Because polyester is so tough, they can even be used with etching paste on glass and bleach pens on fabric. Let's explore ways of using them with polymer clay.

If you have bought your first screen here are some basic tips on learning to use it with your clays. Lay it on a sheet of clay emulsion side (or shiny side) down so it sticks to the clay and doesn't shift. Use tube acrylic paints the consistency of toothpaste and apply about the amount you would put on your toothbrush to the edge of the screen, as a little paint can go a long way. Spread the paint with an old credit card across the screen at about a 30 degree angle, filling the negative spaces. Then, very gently, run it across again lifting off any excess paint. You can lift up half the screen to see if you have even coverage, laying it back down, and lifting the other side to check. I use my finger to spread paint where it might look a little thin. When you are satisfied, lift the screen off the sheet of clay and immediately immerse it in water to keep the paint from drying on the screen and ruining it. Rinse your screen under running water and let it dry before using it again.

Acrylic paint dries quickly on clay surfaceswithin 5 to 10 minutes. Some metallic paints take longer to dry. However, you can speed up the process by using a hair dryer. If you are unhappy with your results, you can take most clays to the sink and rinse off the paint and start again. Fimo is the exception since it begins dissolving in water. An alternative is to let the paint dry then rub it off the clay with your finger. Or, since acrylics are polymers too, you can just run the clay through your pasta machine and incorporate the paint into the clay.

Those are the basics, but now you want more screens to take this technique to another level and combine patterns into a finished piece. Here is an approach that might help you narrow down all the choices of clay colors, paint colors, and screen designs. 

First, I choose four or five colors of clay that I enjoy together, including some lighter and some darker, and maybe a metallic or two. I roll out a couple of 4" by 5" sheets of each color, keeping them the same thickness. Next, I pull out acrylic paints in those same colors. They may not match exactly, but they are in the range. Although I only have five colors of clay and five colors of paint, I potentially have 25 combinations, including same color (tone on tone) options. More than enough to choose from while keeping the colors in the same family, so I know they will go together.

When selecting my screens, I include one or two large design focal patterns, a couple of medium patterns or small repeat designs, and maybe a couple of linear graphic. I take a queue from the quilting world where a large image might be surrounded by medium and small prints that complement, but doesn't distract from the focus of the design. 

Now that the hard decisions about color and pattern have been made so much easier, I can begin to apply screens and paint to my sheets of clay. When all the sheets are screened the way I want, I can then begin the fun part of designing a collaged piece of jewelry, wall art, or journal cover!

Your personal design sense will tell you what is pleasing to your eye. I usually start by cutting out small sections of the focal design then surround it on either side with slices of small and medium patterns, usually separating them with small slivers of plain clay to break up the busyness. I try not to create a mirror image of the patterns on either side, instead mixing their positions to keep it more interesting.

When I am happy with the total composition, I lift it onto my blade and place it on a thicker sheet of backing clay that has been lightly dusted with cornstarch to allow the transferred pieces to be adjusted if needed. After they're placed, I do a final trim around the finished design. Once baked, the acrylic paint is so bonded to the clay that it is difficult to even scrape it off with your fingernail, so there is no need for any sealer.

Extra Credit Tips

Shadow Effect: Once you have your first design layer of paint on your clay sheet and your paint and screen are dry, try repositioning the sheet over the original spot, but just slightly off to the right or left. Add a new layer of color for a 3-D shadow effect. It can be dark over light or light over dark paint—both are dramatic!

Layers of Patterns: You can put one pattern on top of the other one for yet another dramatic effect. I usually start with a small repeat pattern, let it dry, and then add a focal design on top. However, it can be two focal designs for even more drama.

Storing Unused Sheets: You will find that you have leftover screened material that you can use another day. If you are working in flat designs, you can go back and use the leftovers months later for another project. The trick is to store them so they don't collect dust in the meantime. I use an office paper sorter by Bankers Box with eight flat compartments that I found at an office supply store.


I sell my silk screens on eBay under the seller name dotcalm1967. Etsy and Facebook also have silk screen sellers that are easy to find with the search option. 

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