The Ombré Look: How to Create Smooth Color Blends with Colored Clay


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The “Ombré” trend is pretty huge right now. Search the term on Pinterest and you’ll find everything from ombré cakes to ombré hair color. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, it refers to color graduated from light to dark.

In today’s post, Chris Campbell explains an easy way to create smooth ombré-like color blends (or Skinner Blends) with colored clay. There’s no reason we clay artists can’t be up on all the trends and get the ombre look with colored clay. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


 Layering Colored Clay to Create Seamless Color Transitions

by Chris Campbell

I’ve been working with colored clay since 1990 and teaching workshops on the topic for more than ten years, so I can vouch for the fact that producing beautiful color blends can be a slow and labor-intensive process. Even after years of experiments, I still wasn’t able to find a way to blend colors without visible lines between hues. As I searched for alternate methods of coloring clays, I noted the color blends in polymer clay pieces flowed smoothly from one to the other. So I narrowed my hunt and quickly found the answer—Skinner blends.

What’s a Skinner blend? In 1996 Judith Skinner, a former NASA software programmer and polymer clay artist invented a technique to quickly create graduated or continuous color blends. Her process is so simple that she did not give much thought to its importance at the time, but as others saw her work, they rapidly adopted her process. The polymer clay world has so completely incorporated it that you’ll seldom find a contemporary piece created without using a Skinner blend.

I decided to try this technique with pottery clays. The how-to directions for Skinner blends use a pasta machine to mix the colors. These are just small slab rollers, so I used my large one for the first test run and achieved amazing results. Thus began an intense period of experimenting with every combination of colors in every placement I could think of. They all produced amazing blends. Keeping the basic principles in mind, I easily adapted the process using a rolling pin between two slats, so you don’t even need a slab roller.


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Skinner Blend Basics

The colored clays are all made using the same white clay as a base, so there’s no incompatibility with shrinkage when drying. Colors can be wedged into a ball of clay, or added to dry mix or dry trimmings and slaked down. The basic, continuous Skinner blend template is shown in figure 1. It consists of two isosceles triangles of colored clay laid down over a matching amount of white clay. There are no limits to the number of ways you can combine colors and the triangles don’t have to be of equal size. You can add other colors in the middle or diagonally. For intense colors, use less white clay. You can also blend a single color with white to get a slow change of hue from dark to light. To see more examples, do a Google search for “Skinner blend.”


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For a continuous blend, feed the clay through the slab roller so that the short ends of the rectangle is parallel to the roller (figure 2). It helps to moisten the canvas or lightly spray the clay as the repeated rolling dries it out. Set your rollers so they will compress the clay to about half of its original thickness.

An alternate method is to roll the clay between two slats (figure 3). Slats control the width of the clay slab since it tends to spread sideways. Each roll should stretch the clay to be at least twice the length.

After every pass through the slab roller, fold the clay over with the open ends facing the rollers (figure 4). If you’re using a rolling pin, fold the clay with the open ends facing you. Adjust the slats at any point to control the width you want. Repeat this process 18–20 times misting the clay or canvas occasionally to keep the slab supple.


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During the process the colored slabs look discouraging (figure 5), but suddenly a beautiful blend emerges. Keep rolling until you like the resulting colors. That’s it! The whole process takes about 15 minutes from start to finish with the slab roller and only a bit longer when you do it manually (figure 6).

Before using the sheets, number them and cut off a small sliver to test fire to cone 06 and verify the color results. If you wet this fired test sample, it reveals the cone 6 color. If the colors are too dark, you can lighten the hues by layering a sheet of white clay and rolling again until it blends in.

**First published in June 2013.
Comments
  • Chris, I want to thank you for your suggestion to use the clear Zinc Free Glaze. I am doing the extruder and canes but have an issue with the pieces messing to each other when the piece is in the greenware stage – they develop cracks between the pieces. I have spend hours getting the caned pieces cut and formed into a slad but end with cracks between the little caned pieces. Are you letting your blocks and canes sit and settle for days, weeks before you design the slab or mesh the cubes together in a pattern?

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