Friday, June 01, 2007

Creating realistic miniature foods

Though by no means have I given up my interest in all the other beautiful and enjoyable applications for polymer clay, I have been focusing lately on making foods-- mostly miniatures, but the occasional life-size item comes up now and then. I'm even getting a few questions (through flickr, mostly) about how I make my miniatures, so I thought I'd write (for my own benefit, if nothing else) about some of the things I've learned so far about making realistic miniature foods. This is not to say that I consider myself to be some sort of expert. (g) Just that I've picked up a few hints and made up some of my own along the way, and these are things I've found the most useful, so far.

Tips for Making Realistic Miniatures

For the most realistic miniature foods, you need to hone your skills of observation. Pay close attention to every aspect of the food's appearance. If it helps you, take notes that you can refer to when you're working with the clay.

Unless you've seen a food so often that you can picture it clearly in your mind's eye-- and even then, actually-- you'll probably do well to locate a good, large photo of the food. It's best if the photo shows the food larger than life-size, as this enables you to notice things you might otherwise overlook. Cookbooks are wonderful resources. If you have a sample of the actual food, use it as a model. If all else fails, look on the Internet. (I use the "Images" feature at Google, myself.)

When translating food into clay miniatures, the following are some of the characteristics you'll want to be aware of:
  • Scale. If you're making dollhouse miniatures, you'll want to make them in the appropriate size. Dolls and dollhouses are made in a variety of scales, such as 1-inch-scale, in which one dollhouse inch corresponds to one foot in real-world measurements. If you're making miniatures that will be used for jewelry or other applications where they won't have to fit a specific scale, this is less important. However, you'll still want to consider something I'll call, for lack of a better term, "internal scale".
  • Internal Scale. Say you're making a miniature hamburger. To make it fairly realistic, you'll want to make each component (bun, burger, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion) in corresponding sizes-- as well as you can. You don't want a slice of cheese that's far too large for the burger, for instance. Unless you're purposely skewing the internal scale to give the piece a whimsical flare, try to keep the internal scale of your piece uniform.
  • Color. Getting just the right color can be tricky, but it's crucial to the creation of many realistic miniatures. From time to time, a color may be perfect right out of the package, but more often, it's not. Some people have more trouble than others with mixing colors. If you know you have problems in this area, I suggest a visit to Maggie Maggio's Smashing Color blog. There, you'll find tutorials to help you learn more about the principles of color-mixing with clay. Otherwise, I suggest lots and lots of practice. Start with small proportions of clay, so that if you end up with a color you hate, you haven't "wasted" much. (Also, remember that until it's been cured-- and sometimes not even then-- no clay should ever be considered "wasted". I'll write more about scrap clay sometime down the road, I hope.) Always mix tiny portions of dark, strong colors-- like red-- into lighter colors-- like white or yellow. It only takes a bit more of red to darken the mixture a little more, but it can take a great deal of white to lighten it back up. Keep records of colors you love or find useful. (Actually, I never do this myself, but I know I should. Instead, I usually try to reserve a bit of the color and mix to match it. This works, but it's more time consuming than if I just figured out the "recipe" and wrote it somewhere.)
  • Shading. Similar to color, shading is a vital part of realism-- particularly important for fruits, vegetables, and breads. Take a look at a photo of a peach, for example. The colors on one piece of fruit can vary widely from golden yellows to dusky rose. Few things created by nature (or baked in an oven, for that matter) come out in one uniform color, and so if you try to make a peach all in one color, it won't look realistic, no matter how perfectly you shape or texture it. Shading in clay can be accomplished in a few ways. The first is the Skinner blend. You can also apply powdered colors (such as mica powders, make-up, or chalk pastels) to uncured clay. (Uneven application of a range of shades usually provides the most authentic results.) Acrylic paint (either unaltered or thinned with water) or water-based finishes tinted with acrylic paints can also provide shading.
  • Shape. Obviously, if your miniature doesn't have the right basic shape, it won't look like the original. Getting that "right shape" can take some practice. Try making the shape with scrap clay until you perfect your technique. Experiment with different ways of doing it until you find one that works. Books, videos, and on-line tutorials can teach you some of the tricks of the trade. I suggest starting out with something that isn't too difficult to sculpt. For instance, a simple round cookie is an easier shape to master than a Thanksgiving turkey. Fortunately, because so much food is itself imperfect (each apple a slightly different shape and size, each taco a bit different from the next), your miniatures needn't be perfect, either. Shape can also be purposely exaggerated. For example, my mini cupcakes are a bit unrealistic in the hugeness of the cupcake tops.
  • Texture. It didn't take me long to realize that texture is one of the key elements in making realistic miniatures. If you don't get the texture right, your minis won't be at all convincing. The texture of foods can vary greatly, so it's important to note the textures you see in your example or photo. Is it almost perfectly smooth (like the skin of an apple)? Is it dimpled (like an orange)? Is it bumpy? And if so, are the bumps uniform or irregular? Once you've identified the texture(s) in your food, you can begin experimenting to find just the right way to replicate that texture. I suggest taking a lump of clay-- scrap or whatever-- and trying different textures. Put one next to the other to compare them. Layer one texture over another (by applying two or more tools to the same piece of clay). Build up your arsenal of texturizing tools. (I've written about this before.) Use brushes, crumpled paper and foil, stamps, texture sheets, needle tools, ball styluses, sandpaper-- whatever you see around you (that isn't to be used with food) that looks like it might make an interesting texture. You can also create texture by mixing things into the clay body. Semolina, spices, seeds, and partially cured (then crumbled) clay seem to be popular choices for bread and cake mixtures. To create softer clay (for whipped creams, etc.), clay is sometimes given a few drops of diluent, mineral oil, or liquid clay.
  • Shine. Can you imagine an apple without its shine? Many foods don't look quite right without a touch of shine. Sure, you can tell what they're supposed to be, but a little gloss can be the difference between "good" and "great". Notice whether your food needs some shine (based on the photo or real life sample you're using). Is it a high shine or just a bit of a sheen? PC-friendly finishes come in at least three sheens. Personally, I use just two-- high gloss for "very shiny" and matte for "kind of shiny". Of course, minis can also be buffed by hand or with a power tool, like other polymer clay items, but often they aren't a convenient shape for buffing. When adding shine to your miniature foods, be careful not to overdo it. Something that wouldn't normally be shiny in the real world probably shouldn't be shiny in the realm of miniatures, either. A controlled application is the key to success.

Here are a few more tips for making miniature foods with polymer clay:

  • Use liquid clay. Sometimes liquid clay is just what you need to make a convincing miniature. Liquid clay makes excellent syrups, sauces, and gravies. I recommend buying a translucent liquid clay, because you can always tint the translucent clay to whatever color or opacity you need, but if you have opaque liquid clay, you can't make it translucent. In addition to the liquid clay, you'll want something to tint it with. Oil paints mixed into translucent liquid clay makes it opaque. (I use a cheap set my husband bought years ago and never used. So far, they're working great, despite their cheapness.) For translucent color, I like alcohol ink. Powders (powdered pigments, artists' chalk pastels, mica powders) can also be used to tint liquid clay. Keep in mind that if you use shimmery powders to tint your liquid clay, the clay will also take on a shimmer. This can be used to your advantage in some applications.
  • Be open to trying different brands of clay. This isn't something I've done much myself, as of yet, but it is something I'd suggest for your consideration. Each brand of clay has its own unique properties. For instance, some are softer than others. Generally speaking, the softest clays are not as strong as the firmer ones. (This may not be an issue if you're making decorative miniatures that won't be put under stress. ) The softer clays are easier to condition (and whip into frosting-like consistency), but this also means that they don't hold patterns for caning as well as firmer mixtures do (and they may distort when sliced). Keep these differences in mind. You may find that one brand of clay works well for one project, while another brand is better for the next.
  • Use clay softeners. As I mentioned earlier, a few drops of clay softener (or my personal favorite-- mineral oil) allows you to whip regular clay (of whatever color you want) into different stages of softness. It's messy-- no denying that-- but it makes an excellent frosting.
  • Bake in stages. I've learned this from experience-- and since read it, too. Baking things in stages makes miniature-making much more enjoyable. Not everything needs to be cured in stages, but don't be afraid to try it if you think it'll make things easier for you. I cure things in stages primarily when I find that trying to do everything in one step leads to unwanted fingerprints in my clay. I don't like wearing gloves, but neither do I want fingerprints all over the place in my miniatures. Sometimes I can put the miniature down on my baking surface and leave it there while I work on it, but other projects require more handling. In those cases, I pre-bake one part of the project, let it cool, then hold onto the hardened portion while I work on the rest of the miniature. Also, sometimes it's just more convenient to pre-bake little bits and pieces (such as candy sprinkles) that I'll be applying to raw clay. (Applying soft clay to soft clay requires more care-- so that I won't squish something or leave unwanted texture-- than applying hard clay to soft clay.) When adhering raw clay to cured clay, it's a good idea to use a tiny bit of liquid clay or diluent as "glue" to help strengthen the bond between the two.
  • Pay attention to opacity. This refers back to the part about finding the right color and shading. ("Opacity" refers to the degree of light that shines through something. A closed book is completely opaque, meaning that no light shines through it. Now, if you were to open the book and hold just one page up to the light, you would see light through it. A single page of paper has less opacity-- and therefore more translucence-- than a whole book full of papers.) Many foods, you'll find with close observation, are not completely opaque. The maple syrup I use on my mini waffles is translucent. It has a brown color, but you can still see through it somewhat, down to the little squares of the waffle. If I were to use an opaque brown mixture for the syrup, it would no longer resemble maple syrup. Instead, it would look like chocolate sauce-- an interesting alternative, but not the one I want. Keep opacity and translucence in mind when making miniature foods. Try using different amounts of translucence in your miniatures-- not only with liquid clay, but also with solid clay. Tinted mixtures consisting largely of translucent clay usually cure to more vivid colors than they appear before curing, so you may want to bake small pieces of a color before committing to it.

I think that should do for now. ;o) If you have a tip you'd like to share, please leave a comment. :o)


marcella aka milo said...

very interesting and useful! and btw, thanks for the link. You're on my blogroll :o)

Michael said...

You're very welcome (for the link), and thank you, too! :o)

Hany Von Gillern said...

Very informative, thank you for sharing, do you mind if I add you on my bloglist?

aku adalah said...


Thank you for your tips. We have same hobby.

Michael said...

Hany, I'm glad you found it useful. :o) Sure, I'd be happy to be added to your bloglist! I'll add you to mine, as well. :o)

Aku Adalah-- Glad you liked them. :o) Thanks for commenting! I'm always interested in seeing new blogs about polymer clay miniatuares. :o)

Unknown said...

Hi mossy owl! your work is excellent!
i´ve been experimenting on softening clay with mineral oil, but it doesn´t work well because after i bake it, it seems to crack and it doesn´t stay hard enough as the normal soft clay.
There is no liquid clay where i live, what am i doing wrong?? is there any solution for this???

Michael said...

Hi, Marcela!
Thanks! :o)

Hm. I've only had a problem once with cracks showing up in clay softened with mineral oil. I had also added some scent to that clay, so I think the fault may have been with *that*. In other words, I haven't had that problem, so far, and I'm not sure what to advise.

I don't know what brand clay you're starting with, but it may be that mineral oil works better with some brands than others. I use primarily Premo.

It could be that you're adding too much mineral oil. (How much is "too much", I'm not really sure!) Maybe do a test (with a little clay) using the least amount of mineral oil possible to achieve the effect you want. I'll keep my fingers crossed that it works! ;o)

Another idea-- Can you find "Clay Softener" (sometimes known as "diluent") in a local craft store? This product is different from liquid clay. It's made specifically for softening clay, so it should be less likely to cause problems.

If you can't find liquid clay or clay softener locally, maybe you can buy it online and have it shipped to you. (Probably not cheap, but it might be worth it, if nothing else works.)

The only other tip I can think of is to start with the softest brand of clay you can find. Here, Sculpey III is usually pretty soft right out of the package. I've heard that if you warm up a very soft clay (heat it with your body heat, condition it a lot), you can whip it up to a frosting-like consistency. However, those brands that start off very soft are often not as strong when cured, so keep that in mind.

Good luck finding a solution that works for you!

Alice Cooper said...

I have used most of your tips, and they work out like a shine on an apple! Thanx LOADS! ;O)