"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.
Silver paste can be brushed
over greenware or other objects, such as this leaf.
"O'Keeffe," 2? inches
(approximately 6 centimeters) in diameter, joined silver clay slabs; worn
as a pin.
"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
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
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
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
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].