The art of frustration

AKA metal clay woes

>>>The art of frustration

Necessity may give birth to invention, but the mother of art is frustration. If you want to build a strong vocabulary in an artistic medium, you must achieve frustration. Fail at it. Badly. Repeatedly.

If my current frustration level with metal clay is any indication, I’m about to become the DaVinci of PMC.

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Here’s what I’m telling myself: This is fine. If I succeeded on every try, if every piece came out of the kiln in perfect shape, what would I learn? Zippo. Nada. Nothing.

All that wasted time, materials, effort, ruined designs? Pure knowledge, baby. The more I fail, the more determined I am to beat this annoying, sticky stuff, and the more I learn.

Experiments with Aussie base metals clay. The medallion in the middle is silver clay and what the three shapes are SUPPOSED to look like (it’s Shelby’s Christmas present, of her horse JJ). The five plain ovals are test tiles. All fired together…and obviously, the whiter metals have a lower firing range that the manufacturer forgot to mention. Sigh.

When I get it right…the heavens burst forth with artly song.

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You’d think, after making art all my life, I’d understand this process. I’ve been failing in my chosen medium, glass, for more than 20 years. Every crumbled mold, unexpected color reaction, thermal shock breakapart, explosion (yep, explosion), distorted shape, crunchy blob on the hotshop floor is yet another phrase in the language of glass.

20 years in, I speak glass pretty well, even fluently sometimes. I no longer think about how to say it in glass, I just say it, and know it will work. I can concentrate on the art in my vision instead of arguing with the material.

Peapod necklace in process (detail)

Now I’m arguing with metal clay. We don’t trust each other yet. I’m still following directions but occasionally getting a blobby mess where I expected a pristine sculpture. I can’t speak its language without help.

Correction: I THINK I’m following directions when stuff fails. Sometimes the experts writing those directions assume that everyone knows THAT, and leave out important little details. Nothing slams you into the frustration zone faster than missing steps in your instruction sheet.

I’ve gotten so used to glass fluency that I’d forgotten this. Forgotten that manufacturers of art materials frequently use “easy,” “simple,” and “beginner.” If you’re completely new to the sport, though, “easy” is a long way away.

Sigh. All those disappointed glassist newbies holding out their broken bowls to me for diagnosis when it was sooooo “obvious.” I’m shuddering at my visible impatience now that the shoe’s on the other foot. I hope I’ve learned my lesson.

Peapod necklace

Certainly the metal clay world is being patient with MY frustration zone. People who work in this medium are every bit as wonderful as those in the glass world, maybe even more because it’s so new. I can post my woes on Facebook and receive 10-12 useful responses within 24 hours.

Even better, I’m discovering friends who turn out to be certified metal clay instructors, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, silversmiths. Immensely helpful.

Big issue right now: I can’t fire (so far) anything that isn’t silver. I haltingly speak the language of silver clay, but I’m totally mute when it comes to bronze, copper, steel, and brass.

Not one single base metal test tile, sculpture, pendant, vessel, etc., has come out of my kiln in usable shape. Not ONE.

So for the time being I’m practicing in silver at $1.60/gram to bronze clay’s 24 cents/gram, because I can at least get something out of the kiln intact for gifts or testing concepts. Obviously, unless I suddenly inherit a fortune this can’t continue.

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Besides, my ultimate goal is to sculpt in colored alloys of bronze, copper, and steel, making small-scale vessel frameworks to combine with my pate de verre sculpture. I love silver, but it’s too expensive and monochromatic to use for these projects.

I’ve posted my failures on Facebook and gotten marvelous help. My last pieces were recognizably bronze and copper, but still unacceptable.

“What kind of charcoal are you using?”

“Uhm…the stuff I found on Amazon: Activated charcoal for aquarium filters.”

“No, no, NO: That isn’t the RIGHT charcoal. You need to use coconut-shell carbon, or MAGIC carbon, or one of the charcoals made especially for firing.”

So… buying more charcoal, readying test tiles. We’ll see if that solves the problem. If it doesn’t, I’ve got a whole list of other stuff to try from my online metalhead friends.

With any luck, I’ll have some really nice pieces I can use with my OTHER new medium: Enameling.

Oh dear.



  1. Melissa March 9, 2017 at 10:12 am - Reply

    I enjoyed your blog–I found it because I, too, am failing in an epic way with copper and bronze. I spent an entire day on a copper piece, which I was sure was going to be perfect, but when I sifted it out of the carbon, it immediately crumbled into blackened bits–much like your creations above. What’s most frustrating is that I have had a few successes. There just doesn’t seem to be any consistency. To borrow your language metaphor: it’s like learning a language, where the vocabulary changes almost as quickly as you master it! And of course, you can’t do any of this stuff fast. Four hours in the kiln is a long time to wait to discover your work is black powder. And like you, I find the instructions confusing–and every online article tells you a different way to do things! Good luck to you. I hope you master this soon! I hope I do, too! 🙂

  2. HAVIVA ZEMACH February 4, 2017 at 5:04 am - Reply

    Thanks for your sharing Cynthia, chapeau for your efforts. As said above, sure you are going to have great results

  3. KaCe Whitacre February 3, 2017 at 2:26 am - Reply

    What is your reference to charcoal? How is it used? Why is it used?

    • cynthia February 3, 2017 at 11:32 am - Reply

      Charcoal? Well, to be specific, ACTIVATED charcoal. When you fire base metal clay (and some sterling silver clays, for that matter), oxygen is a problem: It combines with the copper in the clay to form an oxide that basically eats up total volume and winds up on the surface as icky black flakes. (top photo is a good example). I’m beginning to liken it to devit–really bad devit–although it’s not really the same process.

      If you place your clay pieces in a bed of carbon, then cover them with more carbon, you restrict the amount of oxygen getting to the piece and therefore limit the amount of oxidation that can take place. That (supposedly) gets your piece through a prolonged heat cycle with much less surface guck. Hasn’t worked for me so far, but I just got the new carbon a couple of days ago. We’ll see how it works this weekend.

  4. ellen abbott February 2, 2017 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    yay Cynthia. still you.

    • cynthia February 2, 2017 at 1:51 pm - Reply

      I’ve been trying to be somebody else for, oh, centuries. Never seems to work. 😉

  5. Diana tillotson February 2, 2017 at 7:15 am - Reply

    When it first came out I used the silver and had fun with it, but have never tried the other metal clays. Keep on keeping on, the silver you’ve done is beautiful. With your leg the way it is right now sitting to do this is probably a lot easier on your body. Leave it to us to just switch mediums for a while and just keep being artsy, best of luck.

  6. sunnystrappsunny February 2, 2017 at 5:56 am - Reply

    “Necessity may be invention’s child.” No dear, its inventions mom. :O) Hey! Really like the bamboo piece. Let’s see, if in 20 years your metal clay is nearly as great as your glass. Good luck. Ya ever try casting alu? If precious metals are of no import, considering all the work you’re doing, it could be something, and its a lot cheaper to goof up on. And you already know how to make molds. A side plus is: Get rid of all those ole beer cans… The temps are in your ball park too. Don’t abandon your glass. Hugs from N. Africa. sunny

    • cynthia February 2, 2017 at 8:05 am - Reply

      Well, blush. I changed the lead at the last minute…Just put it back. Thanks for the catch. Haven’t tried casting aluminum but I’ve seen it done. Looks like fun.

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