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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Clay Sculpting Advice for the Beginner

Inspired by Tal Bachman's music video and the actress Yvonne Scio

            I am going to talk about general design and personal technique on the human form, because that is what I sculpt most of the time. I use clay, different kinds, and I’ll talk about the pros and cons. There is no one best way to sculpt. You will develop your own style and find your favorite tools over time.

Anatomy is the key to good sculpting of the human form. Many new sculptors focus on a smooth surface. I know I did until I realized; what good is a smooth surface when it doesn’t look right in the first place. My first sculpture barely looked human, there were eyes, a nose and a mouth and I thought my mistake was just being able to blend them all together seamlessly. Wrong. There are a zillion details and they all have to be in the right place. Thankfully clay is very forgiving, just remove it or add it.
I find myself studying people. I look at very specific things, the corner of their mouth, the arch of their brow, the slope of their forehead; the details. Unless you are very talented, you will need some photos of the human form. Don’t go looking for a picture of a beautiful model. Those photos will be in color and have many details airbrushed away. You need details. Black and white photos show more depth too. What you want are anatomy pictures, or even go buy a book on anatomy. There are such books for artists; your local craft store should have some.
For me the easiest clay to sculpt is oil based clay. There are different kinds and different levels of hardness. A number 2 plasticine clay is about the right hardness to do a bust. It’s hard enough to sculpt detail but still soft enough to push around. You will find the kind you like. What’s nice about oil based clay is that it doesn’t harden. When learning sculpting, and even later, it’s a good idea to get away from your sculpture, cover it up and don’t look at it for awhile. Your eyes can and will get used to looking at flaws and accepting them as accurate. But when you leave it and come back and see it anew, usually flaws will be glaringly obvious.
Don’t be afraid to jump around to different details of your sculpture. Sometimes while working on an ear you may find yourself drawn to that little flaw on the eye. I just quit on the ear and go fix the flaw on the eye. I work all over, where I see the need. It all comes together in the end. The end is an elusive place. Don’t declare it the end until you are sure. Go away and come back and see if it still looks complete. Bad sculptures are just sculptures that aren’t completed. Oil based clay needs to have a mold made and a casting made from the mold. You can use the clay over and over.
I learned to sculpt on air dried clay because I could buy it locally and it’s pretty cheap. I used Amaco terra cotta clay. It must be kept wet. I use a spray bottle and keep it wet while working on it. When not working on it I would spray it down with a spray bottle and cover it with a plastic bag. It slowly dries out anyway. You have a limited amount of time you can sculpt with it. This kind of clay will have different consistencies depending on how wet it is. When you first open the package it should be soft and moist, it won’t hold detail very well. But the nice thing is, when you get the general shape done, you can control the drying so that it gets leathery, then detail is easier. I have re-constituted dried clay by soaking broken pieces in water. It’s a mess, and takes time and effort, but you can do it. There are other types of air dried clay and you can find reviews of those on my blog.
Most of your sculpture can be sculpted with your hands and fingers. When you get down to details too small for your hands, you will need some tools. One that is probably universally used is one that is slightly spoon shaped, and it is used for smoothing and adding. My other favorite tool is a straight needle, and I have three different sizes of diameter. The thickest one accidentally got slightly bent on the end and I have found I like it that way; I can sculpt very tiny curved lines with it, like eye lids. I also use a couple of wire loop tools. Loop tools are used for cutting away and can be used to smooth a surface, or the edge can be used to push clay. I use a round one and a square ended one mostly. I also like a triangular one for making slightly undercut, well defined lines. You can buy sets of tools at craft stores like Michaels, or order them online from a specialty store. You will find your favorite ones to use; there is no one best way to sculpt. Or you can even make your own tools from household items.  A rotating table, or lazy susan to work on is invaluable.
You will need to look at your sculpture from many different angles. When sculpting a head I like to hold it in my hands, that way I can turn it any way I want. Looking down from the top will reveal flaws in the forehead, cheeks, and nose that you may not have noticed when looking straight at it. You probably shouldn’t worry about sculpting facial expressions until you’ve mastered sculpting a face. But don’t let me define how you sculpt. We all see things differently. We all do things differently. Don’t worry about trying to duplicate someone’s exact technique, and beware of teachers that tell you their way of moving clay around is the only way. It may be the only way for them, but you aren’t them. Be you, everyone else is taken anyway.


  1. Hi,
    I came across your blog today, read a few posts and find them pretty useful(specially Ladoll review).
    If it is not too much bother can you please explain the procedure of reconstituting paper clay, I have some of it lying around since ages and its gone rock hard. I have been able to break it into tiny pieces and currently have it zip-locked inside a plastic bag with little water to make it damp. Any thing else I need to do? I tried to roll it and mash it but currently it turns into crumbles and is not sticking together.
    Thanks in advance!

  2. Hi, I've been busy, haven't been on here. I haven't reconstituted paper clay. I did Terre Cotta clay. I think you're on the right track. What I did was break it up, put it in a pot covered with water and let it sit. After a while, days, I poured off the excess. I still had to mush it around and let it dry some more, or add more water if not mushy enough. Wasn't really worth it. Paper clay is a bit more expensive so it might be worth it once in awhile. Also just posted about Amaco Stonex and Marblex, my new clay of choice.

  3. Thank you for reply :) It does not seems to be working on the particular brand I have. It is damp now but won't stick together :/
    May be when weather is bit more hot and humid, but I don't have much hope. Any ways your new works are looking great too! and thanks again :)

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  5. Good day, I am wanting to make a medium to large clay sculpture. I would like some advice on what clay to use and also what I can use to construct a figure before sculpting the clay on it, will it be possible to use something like this? And is it possible for me to make medium to large sculpture using air drying clay? If you could give me any tips on this please do, it would be highly appreciated. Kind regards, Mix

    1. Sorry I took so long. I'm not sure what to tell you because what you ask is kinda vague. I don't know what medium to large is to you. You can use whatever you want under the clay, unless you use air dry. Air dry clay shrinks so if you have a rigid armature, the clay will crack as it dries. You can see more of my work and contact me here:, this site uses a different email address, which I actually check, so if you want advice, happy to help.

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