A Helpful Lesson in Layering: Polymer Clay Sculpture

Layering is the most important technique in polymer clay sculpture. This is especially the case when creating figurines and ornaments. In this article, I’ll go over a few solid examples of layering polymer clay from some of my past projects.

Layering a polymer clay face

Let’s start with layering a polymer clay face. We start out with a ball of polymer clay with whatever skin color you want. Cut the ball in half and you have the front of the face and the back of the head. I poke two holes for the eye sockets to give me an idea where the facial features will go. The first layer I add is the nose. I shape a separate layer of polymer clay the way I think it looks best and simply put it on the face. Smooth out any seams between the two pieces of clay with either your finger or the head of a wooden match stick.

In the next two pictures, you can see that I added several more layers including a chin, wrinkles in the forehead, eyebrows, and bags under the eyes. I also added eyeballs, iris, and pupils. Finally, in the fourth picture, I layered on lips and a tongue for the mouth along with a long white beard and mustache. As you can see, a little layering goes a long way. I definitely created something from nothing and you can too. For more on this particular project, check out my tutorials on how to make a face from polymer clay and polymer clay refrigerator magnets.

Layering a polymer clay face

Layering muscle and body structure

Muscles and body structure, in general, are all done with the layering technique. In figure 1, we have a muscular orc. Layers of polymer clay are easily layered in sections. The shoulders, biceps, and leg muscles are all added on separately with balls of polymer clay cut in half just like in the project we looked at first. For example, one appropriately sized ball of polymer clay split in two. Each half is meticulously layered on each shoulder. The same goes for the biceps and other muscles. By splitting the ball in two, you should have equally sized half’s in proportion to each other. The face is also layered on after it’s complete.

Figure 2 illustrates the dramatic and even exaggerated before and after pictures of layered muscles. The last photo in figure 2 shows the leg muscles and knee caps. This adds a lot of detail to the figure and really makes it pop. To summarize this example, one can see how layering is effectively used and why it’s vital to detail. It took me a while to figure out exactly how layering worked for my earlier figures, you can skip over my past mistakes and avoid repeating them. You can check out both these full tutorials. Here is the orc, and here is the action figure prototype.

Layering muscle and body structure

Layering a snowman Christmas ornament 

Creating a polymer clay snowman Christmas ornament is one of the easiest projects in polymer clay sculpture. Stack three balls of white polymer clay upon one another with the largest one of the bottom. The hat is then added. After the main body is finally created, the layering process begins. This is a great tutorial for those creating their first polymer clay project due to its ease while still being an extremely effective figurine. Layer the arms on the sides of the snowman. The hands (gloves) are separately added. Buttons, eyes, and a smile are next eventually leading to a carrot stick nose and scarf. You can see this entire tutorial here. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

Layering a polymer clay Christmas ornament

Making hands in polymer clay sculpture

Creating hands for a polymer clay figurine is easy if you do it the way I’ve found it to work out best. Simply roll a thin layer of polymer clay appropriately sized to your figurine. Cut four fingers and place them side by side. Then take another layer of the clay and cut a piece the length of the hand and enough room for a thumb. Smooth out the seams in the clay to make them look natural. Again, I’ve found a wooden match head works best for this. Finally, add some detail since the skin on hands doesn’t have a completely smooth texture. 

Once both hands are complete, layer them on the stub below the wrists of the figure. From there adjust the fingers to whichever way you want them. I choose to make fists since this falls along the line of an action figure prototype. The same process goes for feet. I usually go with boots or some other kind of footwear but I did need a pair of feet with long toes for my how to make a Yeti tutorial.

Making hands in polymer clay sculpture

Layering a polymer figure from start to finish 

This is the order layering is most effective from start to finish. The reason why it needs ordering is that layering one section too early may result in getting in the way of other body parts. If this happens you’ll need to go back and tweak details for a second time. This comes with experience but here’s what I suggest by using a polymer clay action figure prototype as an example. After the clay is added so that none of the tinfoil or craft wire is showing, start with the feet and work your way up the figure. 

The only exception to this is if your character’s feet are bare in which case you should add the toes last. From there I start working on the chest and back eventually working my way out to the arms and legs. I usually add the hands at this point although you can create the face before or after the hands. Nevertheless, I add the hands before I place the face on the body since you want to leave that part for last. The main reason you should add the face last after all layering is complete is to avoid damage to it. Trust me, simple tweaks in detail are less costly before adding the face.

Summary

The good thing about layering polymer clay is that it’s generally easy. You only have to see shapes in the clay to make details such as hands, limbs, faces, and more. Layering has a distinct advantage over the trimming technique in that any mistakes made shouldn’t completely ruin the project. Trimming away clay is far less forgiving and takes a lot of practice to master. Luckily, I find few situations that call for trimming with the kind of projects I do.

A Helpful Lesson in Layering: Polymer Clay Sculpture

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