Managing Color Contrast In Your Polymer Clay Cane Designs

Polymer Clay Cane Color Contrast

“The Colors Looked Fine When I Started… But then they Reduced Down to This!”

A big mistake many people make when learning about polymer clay canes, is not using colors with enough contrast. Today’s photo shows one of my early canes that illustrates this point very well. It was supposed to be used as a petal in a larger sunflower shape. But when reduced, the two colors blended together visually, to almost become one. Not the desired effect I was going for.

Has this ever happened to you? You take two lovely colors that look good together and plan them into your cane design. You want your cane to be natural looking, and not garish, so you pick shades that are equal in tone. They seem to be different enough to create interest, but once they are next to each other and reduced in size, they merge into one color and the pattern disappears.

It can be very disappointing for a beginner to go to all the work of creating a polymer clay cane, only to have the design fade away into an uninteresting image.

This need for contrast in colors in your polymer clay canes, is especially important if you are reducing your designs to be used for Fimo Nail Art applications. This is where the pattern becomes tiny enough to place slices of the cane onto your fingernails as decorative elements.

If you look at these tiny nail art canes, you’ll see that even though they are only a 1/4 inch across, and the designs are fairly detailed, you can still see the cane images very clearly. This is because of contrast.

Black and white are obvious choices for high contrast, but other colors can work well too. The trick is to be more extreme with your initial color shades than you would think is necessary. In other words, if your colors seem to look fine together during the initial planning stages, that is when you need to lighten your light colors by 2 or 3 more shades.

In my sunflower petal cane above, I could have added white or Ecru to my light yellow to give it more contrast.

Since colors tends to darken and concentrate as they are reduced, I feel it’s easier to “manage” contrast by lightening your lights as opposed to darkening the darks.

Another method for managing contrast is to shift the hue. With my sunflower petal cane, I could have added more red to the darker shade to make it less yellow, and therefore give more contrast to the yellow. But still maintain that orangey feel.

So if you ever end up in a situation where your cane colors don’t seem to be reducing properly, remember that contrast is key.

If you have questions about this article or any other polymer clay cane making topic, I’m here to help. Use the comment section below.

Cindy Lietz SignaturePolymer Clay Tutor

  1. PLaneFancies, 17 July, 2009

    I often have the problem of not enough contrast. A trick I learned from a friend is to use a peephole like the one that may be in your front door. If you look at your cane or your colors through the wrong end, you can see pretty much how it will look when reduced. That can give you a better idea whether or not you have enough contrast. You can get a peephole at in the hardware section of many store. The fun thing is that you can cover the barrel with polymer clay to make it beautiful as well as useful.

  2. Jocelyn, 17 July, 2009

    Great tip, cannot wait to try that!

  3. Cindy Lietz, 18 July, 2009

    I agree, sounds so cool! I have also heard of people getting the same effect by looking through binoculars backwards. I like your idea of making the peep hole decorative with clay. Would be a nice tool to have on your clay bench!

  4. Silverleaf, 19 July, 2009

    I had the same problem with a red flower cane I made using two different shades of red. The colours looked great until I reduced it, and even worse when baked.

    Thanks for the tips!

  5. Melanie, 26 July, 2009

    I have another silly question..

    Is it possible to get colors as you see them on a computer screen? Like, bright vibrant colors?

    Also, do you have a section on your page where we can suggest and ask for color recipes?

    I have four colors that I need right now, but I’m not quite sure how to get a neon color out of them.. there’s so much information on polymer clays.. it’s very easy to get lost!

  6. Ken H., 27 July, 2009

    Cindy, I wasn’t sure where to post this question, so I went to the Color Recipies section and used the most current posting. I am in the middle of an experiment in Faux Jade, so far I have been successful on several of the natural colors that jade comes in, I tried to formulate for red jade by adding two 11mm balls of Aliz. Crim. to a full package of Premo Trans., I came up with something that looks more like Cab. Ruby (while useful itself, not what I was trying for) than red jade. Red jade spans the color range from rusty thru red ocher(sp) to fresh blood, how do I move this recipe from the raspberry color I got to more of the blood color of red jade? Once this formula work is finished I will share my formulas with everyone along with photos of the beads and hopefully sucessful roses (I will of course show the failures in the roses I already have).
    Thanks a millon.

  7. Cindy Lietz, 27 July, 2009

    @Silverleaf: You’re welcome! Getting colors to work together can be tricky. It takes time and experimentation to get what you really want.

    @Melanie: You may need to work with a brand like Kato to get those really bright clear colors. Her line has color concentrates that may help in intensifying colors. As far as neon’s go, Fimo and Premo do have a few florescent colors in their lines you could try mixing colors with. You may also want to experiment with adding glow-in-the-dark clay to your colors and see if it bumps the intensity up. I haven’t worked very much in the really bright colors, so my advice is just guessing at this point. Maybe someone else here has advice for you?

    @Ken: This is a perfect place for posting color questions! I just looked at some red jade photos online and I’m thinking if you add Cadmium Red to your mix of Translucent and Alizarin Crimson you may just end up with the right shade. Cad Red is more yellow based and Alizarin is more blue based. Together they make a deep rich color with a lot of depth. Cad Red is weaker than Alizarin though, so you may need more of it to get the color you want. Can’t wait to see the recipes you come up with!

  8. Ken H., 27 July, 2009

    Well there are six natural colors of jade, green yellow, red, lavender, white and black. I will have seven. Med. Green, Light green and yellow are finished, White and Black should be a breeze, I “think” I have the right purple to make lavender, and the red has been the only problem, if al goes well they should be coming very soon.

  9. Jocelyn, 27 July, 2009

    @ Ken

    Love jade and cannot wait to see the color combinations you come up with. Will you Spotlight them? I sure hope so.


    And old trick I remember from years ago was to add some bright white clay to your color…which does perk it up. I love Cindy’s suggestion of using neon colors too, bet that would be wonderful.

    Also, Cindy suggesting bleaching beads once they have baked, here is the link to the blog article and comments/pics: Dirty and Discolored Beads

    As I mentioned in the comments there, I was amazed at how much pop and white I got out of just letting old beads soak overnite in a bleach solution.

    Think there are a few more bleach comments throughout the blog, just go up to the search facility and enter “bleach.”

    Hope this helps a little.

  10. Ken H., 27 July, 2009

    @ Jocelyn

    I sure will, my mother loves jade and I can’t afford too many geniune pieces (once a year if that :o) ), so this will be my way of making up for that. I hope with her permission, to include a photo of her geniune pieces for comparison.

  11. Ken H., 28 July, 2009

    Cindy, I must thank you, the tip with the reds worked out perfectly, one of the ones I thought would be easy didn’t turn out so I’m going to try just translucent for the white jade and see how they come out, will the pink tint to the trans. disapear if used by itself?

  12. Cindy Lietz, 28 July, 2009

    Usually whatever tint the translucent starts with, gets slightly darker when baked.

  13. Dora, 05 August, 2009

    Excellent suggestions, Cindy !!! You are absolutely right about the need for high contrast in cane designs. Over the years I would watch my intricate cane designs reduce to a barely distinguishable pattern. Finally, after accumulating piles of muddy scrap and ‘reject canes’ I have learned to use the principle of contrast. I have also learned to compensate for the tendency of clay to darken after baking by adding white to the darker colors. I still make my share of rejects, but not nearly as many !

  14. Cindy Lietz, 09 August, 2009

    Thanks for the comment Dora! I love your cane work. You put so much thought and effort into your intricate cane designs. I bet you have learned many tricks over the years. Adding white to dark colors is a very good suggestion. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Jocelyn, 09 August, 2009

    OMG! What a picture on the front of your blog!

    Dora you are the master of shading and contrast. If I die, I want my casket scattered with all those cane patterns right up to the brim!!! I lust to be able to create such beautiful cane work. You must be a very methodical and patient person to be able to get them to reduce so perfectly.

  16. Dora, 09 August, 2009

    Thanks,Cindy and Jocelyn, for the compliments ! I’ve been making canes a long time, almost 13 years. My early cane efforts were quite pathetic, LOL ! But I just kept practicing and experimenting, and over time, I got better. My color choices are certainly better thought out and more deliberate than they were in the past. I think that skill in reduction comes mainly from practice and getting a good ‘feel’ for the clay. It really helps to watch others who are good at reducing canes, although the techniques vary…some people like to start reducing from the ends of the cane, while others ‘choke’ the cane in the middle and work towards the ends. It might take time to discover what will work best for you. The softness and consistency of the clay, and and the shape of the cane also affect reduction. The variables go on and on…

  17. Jocelyn, 09 August, 2009

    Thanks for the encouraging words, love your tutorials at the site as well. Your picture clarity is excellent, and really shows the detail of the process.

    Someday, we’ll be able to download a process into our brains that will automatically allow us to both understand and use our physical abilities to automatically recreate beautiful work like yours. Unfortunately, don’t think I’ll make that one, lol.

    Going to give it a real bang this winter though, and I eagerly await the process. Struggle is part of mastery and if I come close, you and Cindy and most of the others here will be the reason.

    Thank you for sharing.

  18. Silverleaf, 10 August, 2009

    Hi Dora, just wanted to say you’ve inspired me to make some more k’scope canes since yours are so awesome!

    Mine aren’t perfect but I like them anyway. :) Time to practice I think!

  19. Dora, 13 August, 2009

    Thanks, Silverleaf ! I’m glad my blog inspired you to try out some kaleidoscope canes. With kaleidoscope canes, even the ‘imperfect’ ones usually look good, as long as you use contrasting colors, and the pattern isn’t reduced too small.

  20. Silverleaf, 13 August, 2009

    The problem I had was that I made the canes too small, I think. I couldn’t quite get the component cane reduced perfectly evenly , so when I combined it the patterns didn’t match up exactly. Less than a mm out, but since I didn’t reduce the final cane very much i can tell it’s not perfect.

    Of course, someone else probably wouldn’t notice!

  21. Cindy Lietz, 19 August, 2009

    @Jocelyn: Dora is amazing with the canes isn’t she! You can sure see her experience just by looking at them. You’ll get good at making them too. It just takes a little practice.

    @Dora: It is so nice to hear your story and your experiences in making polymer clay canes. Sometimes people who are beginning don’t understand how important trial and error plus practice goes into getting good at any technique. Just because something seems hard at first, doesn’t mean it can’t be learned over time. Thank you for sharing your cane knowledge with everyone here. I very much appreciate that!

    @Silverleaf: There is a bit of a trick to knowing what size works best for you when making canes. I find if I start out fairly small there is less distortion by the time it is reduced. You do have a point about starting too small however. When you start really small, it doesn’t take much for the alignment to be off. It is easy to get a design element off kilter a bit when you work small. You are also probably right about no one else being able to notice! :-)

  22. Sandra, 15 November, 2010

    Just a quick question, does anyone know what to do with large quantities of grey clay?

  23. Sue F, 15 November, 2010

    Hi Sandra,

    I’d probably either use it for bead cores so that I didn’t have to use up so much of my “good” clay, or to make texture sheets.

    For bead cores, most of the time I roll a log of scrap clay, wrap that log with whatever design I want on the outside of my beads, and then cut it into even-sized pieces which I form into the final bead shapes (e.g. pinch the ends in to cover the scrap clay, then roll into a round and/or form into the final shape).

    For texture sheets, you can either press designs into sheeted clay (this works well for making negatives of existing texture sheets too), or carve them into the sheeted clay using linoleum cutters or similar tools (this is great for sharp/deep designs). Cindy recently published a video on Making Texture Plates Using Sculpey MoldMaker, but you can use ordinary clay too (I’ve only ever done them that way, actually).

    I’m sure you’ll get plenty of other good ideas from other members here. These are just where most of my scrap clay goes. (I never have enough scrap clay!)

    One other quick thought… you can make a really handy moveable “bumper” to narrow the opening on your pasta machine, for example to prevent skinner blends from becoming too wide. Have a look here:

    Have fun!


  24. Sandra, 15 November, 2010

    Thanks Sue, I’ll give those ideas a try.

Copyright © Polymer Clay Tutor Bead and Jewelry Making Tutorials