Polymer clay is almost as easy to work as Play-Doh™, and when you are done you can bake your creation in the oven to harden it like ceramic. Sculpey III™ and FIMO™ are popular brands. You'll find a rainbow of colors at your local craft store or at online sources such as Dick Blick.com.
The first step is to warm up the clay by working it with your hands until it's soft. You could also condition the clay by running it through a pasta machine (clean it carefully afterward, or use a garage sale find just for this purpose). With several kids rolling and squashing the clay, you'll have your different colors ready to go in no time. Seal extra clay with plastic wrap and put into a zip-top bag for airtight storage.
I'm sure you can imagine all sorts of critters to create. But to get started, I'm going to show you how to make a ladybug on a leaf that will hang over the edge of a plant pot. You'll need red, green, and a bit of black polymer clay. You'll also need a pencil or toothpick to add detail, aluminum foil, a baking sheet, and access to an oven or a toaster oven. It wouldn't hurt to put down an old plastic tablecloth, although I usually work directly on my laminate countertop or kitchen table.
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Roll a big ball of red clay, about an inch in diameter. Gently flatten onto your work surface to make an oval disc, perhaps 2 inches long. Don't get it too flat; your ladybug will look better with a domed shape. With a toothpick, press a shallow line down the center of her back, between her wings.
Ladybugs need spots, of course! Roll small balls of black clay and press them gently onto her back. Use your toothpick to make tiny dents so you can position the spots where you want them to go. A real ladybug has the same set of spots on both wings, in mirror image, but your ladybug can have any pattern of spots you want to give her.
Now make her head from a ball of black polymer clay. Depending on how big her body turned out, you'll probably need a ball about half an inch in diameter. Tiny balls of green clay can be flattened onto either side of her head for eyes, and a teeny rolled snake of red clay will give her a mouth.
You can either gently press the head directly onto the front of the body, or you can put another smaller ball of black clay in between to give your ladybug a neck. Antennae are optional, but I thought my ladybug needed them, so I rolled a couple of tiny clay snakes and stuck them into little holes I made with my toothpick. I also made feet by rolling 3 snakes of black clay and putting them under her body so they stuck out on each side.
Your ladybug is done! At this point, you could stop and bake your bug in the oven. When it's hardened, just glue it to a wooden skewer or a chopstick for a great pot sticker ornament.
We are going to take this one step further and make a decoration to hang on the side of a plant pot.
Press or roll green clay into a flattened pancake , at least 1/8 inch thick. Your ladybug will sit on this leaf, and then the leaf will curve over the edge of the pot, so it needs to be at a good bit larger than your ladybug. Pinch your pancake into a leaf shape, or cut out a serrated leaf shape with a knife or with your toothpick. Gently press your ladybug into position near one edge of the leaf.
Find a pot like the one you want to decorate with your critter. Put a piece of aluminum foil over the rim, and curve your leaf into position. You want enough leaf to go over the edge and down inside the pot to balance the weight of the ladybug. Play with it until it hangs the way you want it. Then scrunch up another piece of aluminum foil so it's about like the rim of your pot, put it on the baking sheet, and gently transfer your "Ladybug on Leaf" creation to it. It's even easier if your pot (not plastic!) fits into the oven or if you have a clay or ceramic saucer with a similar edge. Just position your clay critter on the rim, with a piece of aluminum foil underneath, and it's ready for the oven.
Bake your ladybug according to the directions on your polymer clay, usually for about 25 minutes at 274°F. Let it cool, then peel off the aluminum foil backing and hang it from your favorite pot! Don't panic if any pieces fall off, just glue them back on. For a shiny finish, paint with clear nail polish or spray with polyurethane. You can put all sorts of different bugs and butterflies on leaf hangers like this. You can also make great wiggly shapes of snakes and caterpillars that will hang from the edge of a pot. Once you see how cute your ladybug looks, you'll want to make a whole troop of clay critters for your pots!
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Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus
A special thank you to my friends Annabelle and Todd, who do snow day crafts with me.