Vera Lightstone - Artist, Sculptor & Certified PMC, SilverClay & Ceramic Instructor in NYC
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Biography - About the Artist...
The PMC & Silver Clay Adventure in Creativity!
Feature Article - Weave your own 'Straw' into Silver & Gold...

"Mask," 3½ inche (approximately 9 centimeters) in height, silver paste, applied over greenware, fired to 1600°F (871°C).


Metal clays can be coil built to form small vessels.


The syringe can be used to trail fine lines on glazed ware or as very delicate filigree.

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Silver paste can be brushed over greenware or other objects, such as this leaf.

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"O'Keeffe," 2? inches (approximately 6 centimeters) in diameter, joined silver clay slabs; worn as a pin.

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"Totem II," 71/4 inches(approximately 18 centimeters) in height, slab-built silver clay, ired and strung on a sterling silver tube.

Who Needs Rumpelstiltskin?
by Vera Lightstone

Clay that transforms into silver or gold? Alchemy? No, just modern technology. Metal clays based on precious metals (pure silver, gold and platinum) were developed in Japan several years ago. One such product, for example, is made from silver particles recycled from jewelry and dentistry; it is fired for ten minutes at 1600°F (871 °C), and shrinkage is 12%, the same as my stoneware body.

There has been a good bit written about the use of metal clay in jewelry circles, but for me, the operative word is clay. Working with hard metal, as traditional sculpture or jewelry making demands, is not suited to my temperament, but anyone with clay skills can make a piece of jewelry or sculpture from a precious metal clay with ease.

The silver clay I use comes in three forms: as a clay, as a sliplike paste in a jar, or in a syringe that comes with tips in varying sizes. The clay can be modeled, coiled, or rolled as a slab. The paste can be used just like clay slip - for joining, for brush decoration, or even for layering thickly onto a leaf or folded paper to make a replica of that leaf or folded paper. The syringe can be used for trailing fine lines, either on a slab or as very delicate filigree.

I work on a plastic sheet - usually a notebook sheet protector - so that waste can be easily scraped off the plastic and recycled. Any scraps and leftover bits are allowed to dry, then dropped into the paste jar. I also grind up any piece I've decided not to fire, and put the dried bits back into the paste. A precious metal clay piece can be reworked and added to at any point in its development - wet, dry or even after it has been fired.

The clear plastic has another use. A drawing or a photograph can be put under the plastic sheet as a guide - this is especially useful for syringe drawing.

Once fired, the silver clay has a white oxidized surface, which is polished off with a wire brush or in a tumbler. The surface can be left highly polished, though adding a patina will add depth and character. I use a solution of hot water and a pea-sized piece of Liver of Sulfur, and dip or paint wherever I want patina color. After the solution is applied, the surface of the silver slowly goes from gold to copper to blue to maroon to brown to black. The speed of that change can be controlled by the heat of the water and the strength of the solution. I can watch the color evolve and stop the process at any point by washing the solution off. And if I don't like the results, I can remove all or any part of the patina with silver polish and start over. All these options make working with silver clay very liberating creatively, as mistakes in the process are correctable on the spot.

Silver clay paste can also be applied to greenware or bisqueware, and on both matte and shiny glazed surfaces. It becomes somewhat more durable with many coats of paste, but even one or two decorative coats will adhere well and take a patina beautifully. The paste can be used to fire previously finished silver clay elements onto glazed stoneware pieces as well.

I also have used the silver clay syringe to draw on glazed stoneware. While it can work well on gloss surfaces, it does not adhere well to matte surfaces. Even on a shiny surface, the syringed line must encircle the pot and come back on itself to be permanently secure.

Other materials can be incorporated into silver, gold or platinum clays. Laboratory-grown gemstones can be pressed into a soft slab or a circle of syringe-trailed clay. It is important to secure the edges of the stone with small strips, balls or syringed clay - here's where your imagination comes into play. And clay people need to know what every jeweler knows - a hole behind the stone lets in light for sparkle.

Natural stones, even diamonds, are chancy, as any undetected flaw in the stone would not withstand the heat of the kiln. The best way to find out is to fire the stone alone to test it; that is, if you can afford to take the risk. The same is true of any other material you might want to try. I can tell you that shells won't make it, but some rocks can be quite pretty; enamel powders can work; and fused glass cabochons can be gorgeous. Copper turns black, brass ends up like itself and is very effective as a golden wire mesh.

The temperature and timing of the firing need to be precise. I use a small, inexpensive electric kiln, which has a computer controller that does all my thinking for me.

Although metal clays seem expensive (especially for clayworkers used to very inexpensive material), there are tremendous saving graces, such as the speed of operations and the incredible control over the work, plus the prices for which the work can be sold. And the scale of the work, smaller and more delicate than what I have previously done with clay, adds a new dimension to working creatively that is especially challenging.

I live and work in an Upper West Side studio in Manhattan NYC, and sometimes add weekend workshops in silver clay to my studio schedule. Around noon of the first day, the students' first pieces come out of the kiln - remember, the firing takes only ten minutes. These pieces are subsequently quenched, cooled and ready for polishing.

There follows a dawning awareness of the possibilities of this amazing medium, then usually outright glee as the workshop participants plan new work. The intense silence in the classroom in the afternoon is the best reward a teacher can have. Everyone goes home having been stretched creatively and full of ideas for future work.

The miller's daughter needed Rumpelstiltskin to help her turn straw into gold, but with metal clays, all the artist needs is a small electric kiln.

The author of this article is potter/sculptor Vera Lightstone. She currently works in New York City.

PS: The article was originally published in Ceramics Monthly [February 2002].

Copyright (c) 2004 Silverclay.com / Vera Lightstone