Mokume Gane & Polymer Clay

By now, you probably know that one of my favorite polymer clay techniques is mokume gane. Using this technique, layers of clay (or other things) are laminated together, distorted and then sliced/carved/cut to reveal a pattern.

What you may not realize is that the term "mokume gane" was coined in Japan in the 17th century to describe a metalworking technique. Layers of different metals were laminated into a billet (that's just a fancy name for the stack), and manipulated into distinctive patterns. "Mokume gane" actually translates as "wood grain metal" – the traditional pattern of the metalwork. From samurai swords...

– "Drip Drop Mokume Gane Billet" by talented metalsmith, Juliet Love

To polymer clay. There are many artists who use the basic concept of mokume gane in their own clay way. Due to the properties of the material, a wide range of effects are possible. You can layer just clay, or leaf, or paint, or other inclusions. You can use translucent, opaque, or metallic clays. You can distort the billet from below, or texture from above, or use a ripple blade. Or all of the above. The possibilities really are endless. Lindly Haunani, Tory Hughes, Donna Kato, Barbara McGuire and Julie Picarello all have developed distinct, signature styles of mokume gane.

The endless possibilities (and the degree of uncertainty in the final design) are a big part of why I think this technique is so much fun. Part of my trick to mokume gane involves managing contrast, and it's a variant from an old school technique used in microscopy labs. Once upon a time, micrographs were shot on Polaroid instant film (on scanning electron microscopes) or electron sensitive film (on transmission electron microscopes), which would then have to be printed in a darkroom. Those dinosaur-powered microscopes didn't have much capability to add any annotation to the images, so we'd have to use dry transfer lettering (amazingly, still available here!). The letters were black with a white outline, so you could read them regardless of whether the background image was light or dark. Genius, right? So when I do mokume gane, my top "layer" is actually a very thin white-black-white sandwich – so the pattern will be visible regardless of the color of the clay beneath.

My favorite pattern is the one that we've dubbed "celestial." It's all circles and dots, all the time. (I seem to do a lot with circles and dots, don't I?) It can be fun & funky & bright, like in these cabochons:

– Polymer Clay Cabochon prototypes by ArtSci designs –

Or more elegant and sophisticated, like in this Gas Giant Maelstrom™ pendant:

– Gas Giant Maelstrom™ cuneus wedge by ArtSci designs –

And the grey end of that pendant? That's the same mokume gane variant that I use on our Fat Boy and Fat Boy Slim earrings:

– Fat Boy + Fat Boy Slims Earrings by ArtSci designs –

So, yep, this cool technique crops up a LOT in my work. That's mokume gane, my way.

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Hand-crafted jewelry by Terri Powell.

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