Rainy Day Crafting: Polymer Clay ButterfliesBy Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologist)
August 25, 2011
Many butterfly wings have large "eye spots," which serve to confuse predators. So when I learned a technique for making rings of color in a bulls-eye pattern, I thought of butterflies right away! The results may not be exactly photo-realistic, but they're as eye-catching as some of the patterns on "real" butterfly wings. If you've never worked with polymer clay before, you might want to try a simple project like this ladybug pot critter, just to get a feel for it.
You can use as many colors and layers as you like later on, but let's keep this first butterfly simple. Pick out three colors and break off a chunk (1/4 block or less is fine). "Condition" the clay by rolling it in your hands to warm and soften it. Just keep squashing and rolling until it's easy to work. You'll need one ball of each color, roughly ¾ of an inch across. I'm using red, yellow, and green for mine, but you could use a more subtle combination.
Decide which color you want to use for the center of your butterfly's wings. Pinch off about a quarter of that ball and pat the rest into a flat pancake about 3 inches long. Pat your other two clay balls into slightly larger oblongs, also about 3 inches long. You can use a dowel or small rolling pin to make your clay layers smooth and even. Once your pancakes are stacked, you can roll up several layers at once. Alternatively, you can make a snake from your central color and roll the other layers around it, one by one, making an increasingly fat clay cylinder. Roll gently back and forth until the clay layers meld into a solid-feeling cylinder. Trim away any excess clay.
Now you have a fat clay snake with three rings of color inside. We'll only use half of it to make the wings for your butterfly, but don't worry, we won't let the rest go to waste. You could use a thin-bladed knife to cut your snake, but I think a section of lid from a plastic container makes a great (and kid-safe) straight cutter for clay. Trim off one end of your tri-color snake, cutting straight down, and you'll see the bulls-eye pattern inside. Cut off four bulls-eye discs, two no more than half an inch thick and two a little smaller. These will be the wings of your butterfly.
Take each bulls-eye disc in turn, and squash it with your thumb to make it thinner and larger. Now pinch one side to make a teardrop shape. You should end up with four wing shapes, two larger ones for the lower wings and two slightly smaller ones for the upper wings of your butterfly. If one of the wings just isn't turning out the way you'd like it, just cut another disc from your snake and try it again. Put any clay scraps aside to use later.
The last ball of clay is used to give your butterfly a head and body. Roll the clay into a snake about twice the length of your butterfly. Arrange the wings on the bottom half, then fold the snake over and lay it down the center of your butterfly. As you fold it over, make a loop at the top. This will serve as a hanging loop for your pendant and will also form the butterfly's head. You might want to put toothpick or piece of a chopstick through the head when you bake your butterfly, to make sure the loop doesn't close up.
What can you do with the rest of the clay you've rolled together after you've cut your butterfly wings? Here's the really cool thing about layering colors into a fat snake of clay. If you have a fat snake with a colored pattern inside, you can roll it into a skinnier snake and the pattern will stay the same.
If you roll your snake until it's maybe half the diameter you started with, you can cut 8 additional discs to make butterfly earrings that match your pendant exactly. Or roll your snake smaller yet and cut it into sections to make bulls-eye beads. Don't forget to poke holes through your beads with a toothpick before baking the clay!
At some point, you'll have cut off all the "good" patterned discs you can. Take your remaining clay, including any scraps or slices that didn't quite turn out right, and roll it all up into a big multi-colored wad. Fold and roll and twist the clay together, until you get wonderful swirls of color. Pinch off pieces to make into marble-patterned beads of various shapes. Rolling the clay into a snake and cutting pieces of equal length makes it easy to create beads in symmetrical pairs.
The more colors you layer onto your clay snake before cutting the wing discs, the more intricate your butterfly will look. You can mix colors by kneading them together, so you're not limited to using only the exact colors you purchased. I like to have some white clay on hand to mix in for lighter shades.
Put all your butterflies and beads on a baking sheet, checking each one as you go to be sure it has a hole for stringing. You can use pieces of crumpled foil to support fancy shapes or keep beads from rolling around. Fire your pieces in the oven, according to the directions on the package of polymer clay. For the brand I use (Sculpey™), 15 minutes in a 275 degree oven generally does the trick, although thicker pieces will need a little longer.
After the pieces have hardened and cooled, you can give them a coat of glossy polyurethane or clear nail polish to add some shine. String your butterfly pendant and beads onto a colorful cord for a necklace, or assemble them into keychain danglers or zipper pulls. It's easy to get hooked on this simple technique. Before you know it, you'll have a whole flock of bright beauties!
A special "thank you!" to my creative and "crafty" nieces, Julianna and Jackie. From polymer clay creations to inventive snow cone potions, you two just dive right into everything. I had a blast during our week together!
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus. Mouse over images and links for additional information.