This page is all about getting a good grounding in clay sculpture technique. Collectors often ask me about how I produce my work (as do students of sculpture). So this is the page to give an account of what I do. In the end all sculptors are different - they work out their own methods that work for them. There is no right or wrong. How you get to your finished piece is up to you ultimately.
On this page (scroll down) is a review of the various options available for basic techniques.
For example, people often ask whether you carve the clay by cutting into it ...Or model by adding the clay on.
The short answer is:-
.....You use both techniques.
I will explain all. On this page, I won't be taking you through a piece from start to finish - I do that in the
Online Sculpture Lesson
. Here I will give an introduction to basic sculpture technique.
Another must read before you start out are the Sculpting Tips pages.
Sculpting Tips 1
goes through all the different modeling clays, and
Sculpting Tips 2
gives you some background about how each type of clay is best managed and utilized.
Here we go!
Sculpture technique consists of 3 simple principles. You are either:
Adding Clay (modeling on)
Removing Clay (sculpting off)
Moving soft clay around (wet ceramic clay or warmed oil-based clay)
We will look at all three sculpture techniques on this page.
Newsflash: About Armatures
I am often asked about armatures, so let's deal with that point before we go on. You need to use armatures with plasteline and polymer clays. Normally, there is no need for internal armatures if you use ceramic clay. For more information see About Armatures
WAIT---- DO YOU HAVE SCULPTING TOOLS?
To summarize, here's the stages a sculpt using ceramic clay has to go through:
1. Roughing Out (Background).
Its just you, your tools and a lump of fresh clay. A bit daunting, huh? A bit like a blank sheet of paper for a writer.
My way of getting over this hump is to have my references right there - thrusting their way into my consciousness. Make sure your references inspire you to go on. This is all part of sculpture technique - the mental aspect.
Then using fresh soft clay as your friend you can push and manipulate the clay into a rough shape.
Everything can be amended from here, so don't worry too much - it's a bit like an artist slopping on the first layer of paint for the background. This is the essence of sculpture technique using ceramic clay.
However, this first layer of clay gives you a base on which to work, a bit like the foundations of a house.
If you are doing a human figure, you would be advised to measure and mark some basic reference points even at this stage (i.e. how high the shoulder will be and where the hips are in proportion).
Don't try to fiddle with detail at this stage, just mark off dimensions in a pragmatic way (I use dividers
). There's plenty of time for getting all arty later.
You should now have something that looks like the cat dragged in, but who cares? Lots of beginners give up right here, because they haven't produced something beautiful yet! Patience, my dear, patience
2. Let Your Background Set.
Leave your 'background' to harden off a bit until it isn't so sloppy and has enough resistance to apply more clay without bending or collapsing.
Don't let it become too dry though because once it has dried beyond a certain point it loses some of its plasticity (see clay management in
Sculpting Tips 2
3. Add And Subtract.
You can then add or remove clay to your hearts content as long as you keep the clay in good workable condition (see above & below). Some sculptors like to have the option of adding very soft pliable clay to already hardened off clay - this works particularly well if sculpting fabric. Oil clays will need to be warmed up (I have tried this - and it is rather fiddly). For me, ceramic clays lend themselves to this type of technique. You make a structure, harden it off to leather, then add softer clay to push and manipulate into the desired effect. I don't have to fire my sculpts as moulds are taken so be cautious if you are planning to fire. Experiment first.
4. Cutting and Repositioning.
Once your piece has been roughed out, you may be aware that something doesn't look quite right (if you are brutally honest - which you need to be). Some surgery is required (at least that happens most times with me).
Using your potters knife
never be scared to cut off whole sections and rejoin.
This is one of the beauties of working with
rather than, say, plastiline where you have internal wire armatures.
Newsflash: Never Discard Your Work
One big mistake I see inexperienced people make - especially if they consider themselves gifted 'arty' types - is they say:
"I don't like it, it just doesn't have the right feeling".
They then throw the piece away and start again. Starting again just does not come into my vocabulary, unless the work has dried out too much (a very rare occurrence). With traditional ceramic clay everything can be amended and improved until it is right ... that is as long as you are managing your clay properly - see
"clay management in the 'Sculpting Tips 2' section
Adding Clay (modeling on):
First, as you know, clay sticks to itself only if it's wet.
Sometimes you have to add soft clay to soft clay. This often happens in the early stages of a sculpt. You don't have to wet the clay to get it to stick firmly.
You have to add the clay carefully in balls or pellets and not press too hard.
Once underway, you are normally adding softish clay from the bag to slightly hardened off clay.
In this case you have to wet the harder clay with a brush.
As I said, you will have to add & subtract clay in equal measure when you are progressing a piece.
You remove the clay using various cutting tools or scraping tools. Some tools are designed for adding and some for taking away. Some do both.
Removing Clay (Sculpting off):
Some tools are designed to take away large chunks and some for tiny little adjustments.
These tools are known as cutters.
More of this in the Sculpting Tools section and the Sculpting Tutorials section.
Moving Soft Clay Around:
As already discussed in point 3 (Add And Subtract) above, there is a third technique which entails the placing on much softer and more pliable clay into a hardened off rough. This can be used by heating up oil-based clays like plasteline, but I find this technique is where ceramic clay comes into its own.
Soften up some of the clay by adding some extra water and soaking overight. Then add to your hardened off pre-prepared rough. Particularly good if you are modelling the folds on ornate dresses (my stock-in-trade), this technique is truly magical.
Simply push and pull and move the pliable clay into the desired position - adjust, compose, create to your heart's content.
As the clays gradually dry and merge back to the same consistency, there may be some cracking to attend to - but simply press in a tool to the crack to consolidate and then fill.
This basic 'Sculpture Technique' section doesn't cover detailing too much - that's in the Sculpting Tutorials advanced section. The principle to note is most detailing I do is not done on the piece.
In the 'Julia' sculpt on the left, the face, hands and the raised part of the intricate lacing were all done separately.
They were then added to the sculpt at different stages. Separate, the tricky bits are accessible to being worked on properly (see off sculpt page).
The hair was done on the piece (apart from the hand-made flowers).
Don't forget, apart from this Sculpture Technique section showing basic techniques to ground you correctly, you can also go to the Sculpting Tips: about types of modeling clay and their uses.