Let me say up front that I am not the world’s foremost expert in the polymer clay arts. Where clay is concerned, I may, in fact, be the world’s hindmost ignoramus – but that’s not altogether bad, because at the back of the line, we do things quick and dirty! This project requires no special tools, no experience, and absolutely no expertise, so grab some clay, and let’s go!
Last year around this time, I was doing exactly what I’m doing right now: Thinking about Halloween, which I love. I love it for the skulls that suddenly show up everywhere, the monsters, the dismembered fingers. I love it for the neighbors who go crazy with the glow-in-the-dark spider webs and the cackling animatronic witches that cost as much as a car payment. I don’t love spending money, though, so I try to make my decorations myself. This project is my first for this year: A nifty clay brain under a glass dome, perfect for the dining room table, the kitchen, or a last-ditch effort to save yourself from the zombie apocalypse.
To make this project, you’ll need:
- A package of gray Sculpey (I used Sculpey iii in Elephant Gray)
- Aluminum foil
- A reference image of a brain from the internet or a book
- Black acrylic paint
- A brush
- An old-school cheese dome with a wooden base, a cloche, or some other cool way to display your brain (I got my cheese dome at Goodwill for $2.99)
- Additional paint, beads, or ephemera as desired to decorate the base
Seven Steps to a Spectacular Brain
1. The size of the brain you make will be determined by the size of the object you choose as a base, so before diving into the project, bring your Great Aunt Bertha’s cheese dome over to the dark side, grab a plate with a crack in it, or use this tutorial as an excuse to go a-thrifting. (Come back soon, though – and get some stuff for me!)
2. Once you’ve selected your base, tear off a long sheet of aluminum foil, crumple it firmly, and shape it with your hands so that it looks more or less like a brain. Test the size by placing the crumpled foil on the base. Add more foil as needed. People at the front of the line call this support structure an armature, by the way, but we don’t have to. They can’t make us.
3. Now open the clay (exciting!), tear off a hunk, and start working it in your fingers. Squish it, squash it, pull it, and push it until it feels soft. If you have a roller that you use for art, you can roll the clay out; otherwise, just press it between your fingers until it’s as uniformly thin as you can manage. Lay the clay over the top of the aluminum foil and press it down. Keep doing this until you have covered your brain, using your thumb to smooth over the seams. If there are tiny pinpoints of foil poking through here or there, smooth them over as best you can, but don’t stress. We’re going to add another layer of clay, so those won’t ultimately matter.
4. Pinch off a small section of clay and work it with your fingers as before, then roll it under your hand until it forms a long wormy shape. (People in the front of the line probably don’t call it that.) Repeat this process, so that you have two long worms. Lay them side by side down the middle of the brain – with a narrow space between them – to create that iconic line down the center. Smooth the far edges into the existing clay using your thumb.
5. Keep making worms. Using your reference photo, add the worms to the brain in imitation of the real brain’s winkles and folds. Repeat until you cover the top of the brain, which may very well require you to use all of your clay.
(Note: This is a demo photo. By the time you’re making worms, all of your foil will be chastely covered.)
6. Heat an old toaster oven or your personal oven to 275 degrees F (130 C) or the temperature indicated for your clay. If you’re using your personal oven, be sure to use that cruddy old cookie tray you’ve been meaning to throw away – or something disposable. Bake the brain for 15 minutes, or as directed for your clay. (If you find you like using clay, you can get an old toaster oven from Goodwill for $10 and avoid stinking up your cooking oven with clay fumes.)
7. After the brain cools, paint over the folds with watered-down black acrylic paint so all the folds and crevices look their best. If you like your decorations a little on the creepy side, you can also add red paint. When the paint dries, seal the brain with a glossy spray.
Decorating the Base
As you may have observed, my cheese dome – and its wooden base – were extremely well loved when I found them:
You are, of course, free to decorate your base however you like, but I’ll give you a quick rundown on how I salvaged this mess.
- The first step to altering any wood object, of course, is to sand. it So I did. I’m a follow-the-steps kind of girl – at least when I’m awake and alert.
- When I’m tired, on the other hand, I’m more of a skip-the-steps-that-take-too-long kind of a girl. Like gessoing. I skipped right on over the gessoing step, a decision I sincerely regretted when I had to apply 14,000 coats of yellow paint to my wood.
- After the paint dried, I sliced strips of painter’s tape in half with my paper trimmer and noted the width (3/4”). Placing my trusty ruler perpendicular to the wood grain, I drew marks every ¾ inches and then lightly penciled in lines for stripes, placing the tape over alternating stripes and smoothing it down.
- With the tape in place, I painted three coats of Pumpkin Orange, being careful to wipe up drips with Q-tips so I wouldn’t have weird mutant lumps all over the place. (Hey. Not that weird mutant lumps don’t have a place in this world from time to time.)
- Once the orange dried, I removed the tape and painted the outer and inner rims black. I also delineated my stripes with the fat end of a black Zig marker, which helped to tidy up those places where the tape didn’t entirely cooperate. With a little additional sanding, the piece looked old and vintage, just the way I like – although it did not look bloody. Yet.
- To rectify that situation, I turned my Barn Red paint bottle upside down and squeezed paint over the middle of the base to create a “pool” of blood. (If you want to do this, be aware that the paint takes 12-16 hours to dry – possibly more if you really pour it on thick. After it dries, it will appear matte; to bring back the “fresh blood” look we all enjoy, coat the red paint only with a high-gloss sealant.)
- And finally, I embellished the rim by painting small gray skulls around it.
If all of that seems like a lot of extra work after you just whipped out a clay brain in record time, just note the difference between the brain without the base and the brain with the base. The brain under the glass dome looks pretty great.
But the brain on the base looks bloody great, eh? Eh? Get it? (Ahem.)
Combine both looks, and you have a Halloween decoration that is sure to become a treasured family heirloom, or at the very least, a kickass conversation piece for your table, your buffet, or your kitchen counter.
After I had this on the counter for about 24 hours, my husband peered down and said, “It’s too bad we don’t have a plastic fly.” I laughed. This is wonderstrange. Did he really think we didn’t have a plastic fly?!
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Want some more amazing altered goodies (though sadly no more plastic flies) for around the house? You should probably peek at some of the cool stuff we have in store.