Plasticine has distinct properties that make it useful. Unlike clay and wax, plasticine stays soft and workable: it neither hardens nor dries. Unlike pottery clay, it comes in a wide array of colors that can be used as purchased or blended. Also, unlike clay, plasticine doesn’t stick to your hands.
Plasticine can be shaped and worked with modeling tools for shaping, sculpting, blending, texturing, thinning, scraping, poking, and cutting. It can be worked on its own or built on a pre-formed armature. Note, however, that it cannot be fired.
Two important new uses of plasticine have developed recently. Canadian illustrator Barbara Reid has developed a book illustration technique using plasticine. She creates illustrations of scenes using plasticine relief sculpture, employing a variety of techniques to convey distance, size, texture, and lighting. Her illustrations for The New Baby Calf by Edith Newlin Chase, copyright 1984, are the first published example of this technique. The Party, from 1997, for which Reid won the Governor General’s Literary Award, and The Subway Mouse, from 2003, are other works illustrated using this technique.
Plasticine was formulated by art teacher William Harbutt of Bathampton, in Bath, England, in 1897. He wanted a non-drying clay for use by his sculpture students. Although the exact composition is a secret, Plasticine is composed of calcium salts (principally calcium carbonate), petroleum jelly, and long-chain aliphatic acids (principally stearic acid). It is non-toxic, sterile, soft, malleable, and does not dry on exposure to air (unlike superficially similar products such as Play-Doh, which is based on flour, salt and water). It cannot be hardened by firing; it melts when exposed to heat, and is flammable at much higher temperatures.
A patent was awarded in 1899, and in 1900 commercial production started at a factory in Bathampton. The original Plasticine was grey, but the product initially sold to the public came in four colours. It was soon available in a wide variety of bright colours.
Plasticine was popular with children, widely used in schools for teaching art, and found a wide variety of other uses (moulding for plaster casts, for example). The Harbutt company promoted Plasticine as a children's toy by producing modelling kits in association with companies responsible for popular children's characters such as Noddy, the Mr. Men and Paddington Bear.
The original Plasticine factory was destroyed by fire in 1963 and replaced by a modern building. The Harbutt company continued to produce Plasticine in Bathampton until 1983. It is currently made in Thailand.
From 1983 to 2006, the brand went through a number of ownership changes and was off the market for a long time. Plasticine was owned by Bluebird Toys plc following its acquisition of Harbutt's parent company, Peter Pan. Then, following Bluebird's takeover by Mattel in 1998, the brand was sold on to Humbrol Ltd, famous for its Airfix kits and model paints. In 2005, Flair Leisure licensed the brand from Humbrol and relaunched Plasticine. A year later, when Humbrol went into administration, Flair bought the Plasticine brand outright.
Plasticine is often used in clay animation. One of its main proponents is Aardman Animation's Nick Park, who used characters modeled in Plasticine in his Oscar-winning short films A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995), as well as the feature film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. This technique is popularly known as claymation in the US, and is a form of stop motion animation. Plasticine is appealing to animators because it can be used with ease: it is moldable enough to create a character, flexible enough to allow that character to move in many ways, and dense enough that it can retain its shape easily when combined with a wire armature.
Plasticine is also used in party games such as Cranium, Rapidough and Barbarossa.
Television presenter James May together with Chris Collins, Jane McAdam Freud, Julian Fullalove and around 2000 members of the public created a show garden for the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show made entirely of plasticine called 'Paradise in Plasticine'. The garden took 6 weeks to create and 2.6 tonnes of Plasticine in 24 colours was used. May said, "This is, to our knowledge, the largest and most complex model of this type ever created." It couldn't be considered as part of the standard judging criteria as it contained no real plants, but was awarded an honorary gold award made from plasticine. The garden was extremely popular with the public and went on to win the Royal Horticultural Society’s 'peoples choice' for best small garden.