Thursday

Flexible Fairydragon Ear Cuff Tutorial

My flexible fairydragon ear cuff line has been very popular and inspired the extreme reactions of either love or hate from most people who have seen them.  While I have enjoyed making them, they take a very long time to make and most people do not want to pay me enough money to make the creation profitable.  I am looking at the various things I create for sale with a critical eye towards the goal of working on art full time, and in order to do so I need to make more dollars per hour (ie: over $2) than the flexible dragons allow.  As a result, I will be raising their commission price, and creating them very rarely when whimsy strikes me.

Since I will be making them less often, I think it is finally time to release a tutorial so that other artists can make their own for personal use if they so choose.  That being said, they are difficult and sometimes frustrating to create and not recommended for beginners.  You should already have intermediate polymer sculpting and painting skills if you want to follow this tutorial.   

The dragon starts out with a wire armature carefully bent from jewelry wire.  I use Darice brand 20 gauge wire in the silver color from Jo Ann Fabrics.  I shape the skeleton flat from one long piece of wire, and then carefully bend it with smooth pliers and my fingers to fit the shape of my ear.  Yes, it is difficult every single time, best of luck to you!


The skeleton should fit your ear comfortably, but be a bit loose since it will be thicker once clay has been added.  The flexible clay does not like to be bent too dramatically, so it is best if the dragon can be sculpted as close as possible to the finished shape.  All those limbs make that difficult, so I bend them out with my fingers just a bit once the desired shape is achieved. 

These are the clay tools I could not create these guys without!  Tissue and x-acto blades, several sizes of ball stylus, a needle bent in strategic places by candle flame and pliers, and most importantly, knitting needles and a small filbert paintbrush.


Condition and roll out a thin sheet of Sculpey "Bake & Bend" clay in the color of your choice.  (I normally mix the colors together to make them less dramatic, also the colors will change after baking.)  Cut a thin strip with a craft knife.  Very carefully apply the clay over all the wires in a thin coat.  (I prefer knitting needles and a filbert paintbrush for this job.)  Take care to make sure the clay is tight to the wire, with no air bubbles.  If you are having trouble you can cover the wires with a thin coat of craft glue before adding clay, the clay should stick more easily to the glue.  I normally leave a bare wire space for attaching the wings, and on the head which will be filled in later.  This clay is very squishy and sticky, try to use tools as much as possible rather than fingers, and don't touch an area once it is finished.  That is harder than it sounds.  


I hang my skeletons from their heads by hooks and bake them for the full recommended time.  I use two oven thermometers to make sure the temperature is correct before baking.

Now is the time to add wings.  I make my wings from fantasy film, wire, and craft glue.  I won't include a wing tutorial here because lots of other artists have them available for free and the internet does not need another fairy wing tutorial.  The important part is to not finish them completely.  I coat both sides of my wings with craft glue so that they can survive being baked in the oven, and don't varnish them until the dragon is completely finished!  


I leave a long tail of Fun Wire on the base of the wings which are used to attach them firmly to the skeleton by wrapping strategically and crimping with pliers.  Fun Wire rocks because it is covered with colored plastic, and polymer clay bonds to the plastic in the oven making a stronger piece that is a touch easier to sculpt.  If Fun Wire is so awesome why don't I make the whole armature out of it and save myself some grief you ask?  Because all the Fun Wire I have had the fortune to come across is not a thick enough gauge to make a tough enough armature, if they come out with a 20 gauge wire I would love to try it!


Now the skeleton is ready to become a body!  Condition and roll out more Sculpey "Bake & Bend" clay (I use about 1.5 mm thick) in the approximate color you want your dragon to be, and cut a thin strip off with a tissue blade or craft knife.  The thin strips make it easier to get an even amount of clay on each limb!  When you choose your color keep in mind that it will change when you bake it.  If that frustrates you, test bake a small piece to make sure you like the finished color.  


Carefully add the clay over the body, making sure to secure the wings in place and leave no air bubbles.  I like to "roll" it on with a knitting needle.


Leave the neck and tail for now so they don't get squished.  I often end up holding the unfinished parts at odd angles to get my tools in where I need them.


Add details to the body, and then add the arms and legs.  


Detail the arms and legs, and add toenails if you'd like.  The toenails don't need to bend, so it is okay to make them out of a more resilient and/or translucent clay.  Be wary that the other clay might scorch in the oven, since you have to bake the whole thing at the hottest temperature of the mixed clays, and for the longest period of time between the mixed clays, to ensure that the clay cures properly.


Once the body and limbs are ready, try very hard to not squish them, while adding clay to cover the tail.  It is very important to do as much of the sculpture as possible in one attempt.  The Bake & Bend clay will not bend properly at seams from multiple bakes, it will crack, I learned this the hard way.  Any area that might need to bend needs to be sculpted once, and without air bubbles.  Resist the temptation of multiple bakes, even though you might squish completed areas and have to redo them.  Check frequently for squishing, because it will probably happen.


Add spikes or other embellishments if you wish.  Once the tail is detailed, add clay to cover the neck.  At this point the only safe areas to hold onto the sculpture are the exposed wire head, and if you hold very carefully so as not to damage their base, the wings.  When the neck is complete you have a choice.  Hold the wings and glob some clay over the head wires to form the head's core, or leave the skeleton blank.  I prefer to leave the skeleton blank, and form my head's core from epoxy after the body is finished.   Now is a good time to add pearl ex powdered pigments, chalk, pastels, or other powdered pigment before baking the body.  The powders make acrylic paint stick better, they add color, and once the body is powdered new dust will not stick!  Take that stupid dust!  Try to remember which colors you used for later.


I hang the finished body from the exposed head wires, and bake for the full recommended time.  This is an oven safe bowl with a wire armature I created for hanging polymer sculptures.  I use a thick aluminum cover to keep my oven free of polymer residue since I do not have a dedicated polymer oven, I use the same one that I make food in.


If you didn't use polymer clay to cover the head's skeleton that should be fixed next.  Mix up some epoxy, carefully cover those exposed head wires with a good lumpy shape, and wait for it to dry.  The bumpy shape helps the clay to adhere firmly to the core and not develop air bubbles.  (I was actually out of epoxy when making this dragon, so this guy is getting a paper-clay core.  It will be lighter weight, and if it works out well I just might switch!)  The head does not need to bend, so it can be made from other types of clay, which means more detail is possible with less squishing! 


Note how the wings changed color after baking?  (It is actually hard to tell in these photos, but trust me, they changed.)  Covering the fantasy film with glue protects it from destruction in the oven, but heating always changes the color.  If that frustrates you, and why wouldn't it, some of the films change color dramatically, do test samples first to make sure your wings will match your dragon's chosen color. Even though this happens I still prefer to have the wings firmly attached to the armature and baked on; they are not coming off, and having them there as potential handholds really helps when sculpting, powdering, and painting!

Now is finally the fun part!  Sculpt a nice head for your dragon!  Add beads for eyes, or make your own, or add glass eyes, or sculpt them as you go.  Use the same powder on the dragon's head that you used on his body.


Now to bake I carefully lay the sculpture on a tissue which is placed over a bed of stuffing.  The stuffing cushions the body so that it doesn't get flat spots on the bottom while baking, and the tissue keeps the stuffing from sticking to the body.  Bake for the recommended time of the clay you used.


And now the really fun part starts!  Paint the dragon!  I layer washes of artist grade acrylic paint over the whole dragon and add details. Take care when painting to not melt your wings, getting the craft glue wet can make it run.  (You can paint over it if you are careful, just don't let it get too wet.)  If you used beads for eyes paint them last, since the paint may scrape off if you touch it with your fingers.  Once painted to your satisfaction make sure to let the whole thing dry at least 24 hours.


The dragon now needs "skin" to keep the paint and powder on the dragon, and off of you, while being handled and worn.  I use runny liquid sculpey applied with a paint brush in a very thin almost invisible (you can tell it is there because it will be shinny before cured) coat over the entire sculpted dragon, except the wings.  I hold on to the wings during this process, taking care to make sure every bit of the the dragon is covered, and using a small detail brush I remove excess liquid clay from crevasses such as eyelids and joints.

It is very important to use a thin layer of liquid clay.  If your liquid clay is too thick it can crack and peel when you bend the finished piece.  If the liquid looks white or milky, then it is too thick.  I don't recommend liquid fimo because it tends to drip and pool when curing.  I have not yet tried liquid kato.  The liquid sculpey will also change your colors just a touch, but it works quite nice and is available in many craft stores.  If your bottle of liquid clay is too thick it can be thinned with sculpey clay softener. 

Once the whole thing is covered, I use a wooden clothespin and parchment paper to hold the dragon suspended in midair while it bakes.



After the dragon has cooled the wings can be finished!  I apply outdoor varnish to the wings using several coats with at least half an hour drying time between each coat.  You want to make sure they are covered completely so that the wings do not melt if they get rained on.  I do not advocate leaving these sculptures outside, but it often rains at Ren Faire and dragons do love the Faire!  I also add outdoor gloss varnish to the eyes, and often the horns.  


I normally varnish all areas at the same time while holding the dragon very carefully by the unvarnished areas and hang to dry by the tail.


After the gloss is dry you can bend the dragon into his final shape so that he is ready to be worn!  Gently bend the wings into a pleasing shape, and the body until it fits just right.  
If you make one please feel free to put a link in the comments, or send me an email, I would love to see pictures!

10 comments:

  1. "My flexible fairydragon ear cuff line has been very popular and inspired the extreme reactions of either love or hate from most people who have seen them."

    Hate? How on earth would people possible hate them? They are things of beauty!

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! I rather like them myself, but yes, some people have taken the time to let me know that they loathe them. It seems quite simple to me, if you don't like it, don't buy one, but some people like to be mean.

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  2. It is beautiful, such a great idea.

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  3. They have Fun Wire in up to 18 gauge...Look at TonerCrafts.com. It doesn't look like they have a wide variety of colors at that size, but the gun metal grey they have is cool looking.

    LOVE the tutorial!

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    1. WOW! 18 gauge? That might be a bit thicker than I would like, but that is better than too thin, I will have to order some later and try it to see, thank you for the tip!

      Happy sculpting :)

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  4. I was just browsing various constructions of dragons from polyclay, and found this.

    Now I'm totally side-tracked and want to go to the store to get Bake and Bend. I had been trying to figure out some crafty decor/jewelry to wear with my hearing aids - something removable, since obviously i can't bake a $2k+ piece of technology, and safe on the aid as well as my skin.

    Thin armature with bake and bend should make whatever design I come up with no more harmful to me or the aid than my glasses - probably *less* so.

    Also, the dragon is damned cute. It made my sister gush. My sister does not gush.

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    1. Aw, thanks! I'm glad I inspired you to create cool stuff! Have lots of fun :)

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  5. I hope you still read this because it's november already, but your dragon is a real beauty and if you don't like it don't look at it .Greatings from the Netherlands, Ria

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  6. wow! I love this little guy! what an awesome idea! It does seem time consuming but I can see a lot of love for each creation goes into the making of it and you should be charging an appropriate price for it because they are just that awesome! thank you for making a tutorial on it! It was interesting to see how you create your dragons!

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