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Navigating the Choices – Translucent Polymer Clays

Different brands of translucent polymer clayI wanted to do this little article, because some of our newer members have asked me questions about translucent polymer clays and ways to use it.  There is no quick answer to the question, because there’s a lot of variation between the brands, as well as so many different uses.

Translucent polymer clay is a wonderful “color” that sits out separate from all other clay colors, no matter the brand.  It is basically polymer clay with no added pigment.  There are many uses for translucent clay, but in general, you use it when you want a color that is less than opaque.  Translucent means just that…NOT transparent.  For instance, our skin is translucent, not transparent.  If it were transparent, we would see the blood in our veins, but being translucent intead, the red color is diffused to the surface and lends a pink color to the surface.

Having said it’s not transparent, there are a few techniques, that utilize translucent clay, where it nearly transparent.  It also is a kind of golden ring many polymer clay artists reach for:  being able to make something that looks glass-like and transparency is needed for this.

The first thing you need to know about the translucents is they are not all created equal.  You can’t expect the same results from each brand.  Different kinds of translucent clays will have different specific characteristics, that fall into three basic categories:

  • Color-  Cured color will range from leaning towards amber-yellow to white.
  • Plaques- This is where little half moon circles form all through the cured clay.  The little half moons look like fingernail tips..The plaquing can increase from moisture, usually introduced from hands, while working it.  It may be desireable or not, depending on what your application is.
  • Transparency- While none are transparent, there is a high variation between brands/types of how see-through they are, when cured at identical thickness.

Now, let’s talk about the different brands/manufacturers that make translucent polymer clays and how their clays fit into the above.  Here is a synopsis, by brand and then variations within the brand:

Cernit- Not really prone to plaquing, its color is milky white and is probably the least transparent brand.

Fimo – Their translucent has a lot of white milkiness to it, when cured.  They used to have two different kinds and over the years it’s been called transparent, white transparent and came in either the Classic or the Soft.  Currently, however, they only have one and it is called Translucent and belongs to their Effects line (a third group, separate from Classic and Soft Fimo).  Fimo has always been known to have the most plaquing.  It is also much less transparent than Premo, after curing.

Sculpey III- Made by Polyform (as is Premo),  Sculpey III currently has a color called “Translucent”.    It will plaque to a moderate degree and it cures with a definite amber tint.  Slightly more transparent than Fimo, but much less so than Premo, Kato or Cernit.

Kato-Does not plaque and has a good color when cured, but not as see-through as Premo’s top-of-the-line translucent, but more transparent than Fimo.

Premo – You will find, depending on where you shop, no less than three Translucents, under the Premo brand.  They used to have their regular Translucent, in the small block packs, but you could also buy what was call “Bleached Translucent” (a.k.a Frost)  in one pound blocks through mail order.  The regular Translucent was fairly clear after curing, but had a distinct amber tint and a small tendency to plaquing.  You may still find this out there, in the old stock, in the old Premo packaging, especially from the large craft stores.  It has now been replaced, in the 2 oz  packages by White Translucent, which is the exact same as their famous Bleached/Frost translucent.  For a time, Polyform renamed the Bleached Translucent to Translucent Frost – no change in formula, just in name.  This is the translucent that has held the number one spot for both good non-amber color and most transparency until now.

Pardo – The new kid on the block, their first version of translucent clay was called Agate and wasn’t very transparent at all, when cured, even though it had good color.  However, very recently, they introduced a new line into their clays called Pardo Art Clay (the orignal is call Jewelry Clay, to differentiate it), with a new one, called Transparent.  Word on the street says it’s the best one yet, for both color and transparency.  The only problem is, that it can be hard to find and is expensive, compared to the Frost queen (aka White Translucent).  I do plan to order some soon and do some worthy comparison tests, which I’ll post here when it’s done.

How Do You Use Translucent Polymer Clays?

There are many different ways to use it and below is a short list that will give you some idea of the variety of applications.  One way I have heard reported recently, that I highly disagree with, is to add it to EVERY color recipe you mix.  I am not sure where this one came from, but this is why I would never do this.  In order to get the most out of translucent clay, i.e. the most transparency, you have to avoid adding opaque clays as much as possible.  The transparency of it dwindles rapidly, the thicker it is.  The more opaque clay colors you add to it, the more the essence of the translucent nature gets overtaken.  For this reason, I no longer  color my translucent work with other clays and only use alcohol inks, which are transparent colors.  An exception to this would be if I actually needed to make it a little more opaque to try to duplicate the actual transclucency of, meat or fruit, in making miniature foods or other object I was creating.

Here is the short list of how tranlucent clay can:

  • Making faux semi-precious gems.  It is great for jade, opal, cinnabar, amber, abalone, ivory, bone, etc. etc. Some plaquing can help mimic natural inclusions.
  • Human sculptures – Because our skin is translucent, you need to add translucent to opaque clays for proper skin tones . Fortunately, there are many pre-mixed clays for sculpting now, however, many sculptors still add a little more translucent to those.
  • Used on the outside of canes, as a filler for crannies,  to hold a certain shape, while reducing the cane.  When the canes are sliced thin and cured on a background, the translucent becomes almost transparent.
  • Miniature foods – From fruits and vegetables, to raw meats, to eggs,  if you want to make these out  of clay, you’d better have lots of tranlucent on hand.
  • Layering – Many stunning effects are derived from doing many layers of translucent, with differing surface effects on each, and cured for each layer.
  • Creating see-through designs for the outside of votive candle holders, glassware, etc.
  • Mixing mica powers in (and other sparkly stuff), for your own metallic or pearlized clay mix.
  • Mixing in pepper, spices, herbs, sand or even some dirt, to get various mineral and rock looks.  Do it natural or color, optional.

There is a lot of information out there on how to do any number of things.  Go get some (I recommend the new Premo White Trans), play with it, make something fun and and bring it to a meeting for show and tell!  If you can’t think of anything, start with fruit…that is always easy.  Add color to it with your opaque clay just a tiny smidgen at a time.  You’ll soon get the feel of how much to mix before the tranlucency starts to disappear.

The two most important things for a beginner to remember with translucent clay:

Your piece will gain more translucency after baking – how much depends on how thick it is (ball versus sheet).

Be very careful to not bake it too hot!  Really watch your temp, because almost all the brands will start to turn amber-yellow at very little over the recommended temp.

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