How To Sculpt Using Different Types of Clay


This page is an overview of how to sculpt in different types of clay. 

It is a general discussion intended to help people work out which of the modeling mediums might suit their purpose best.

Personally, my preferred medium is water-based clay. 

However, it wasn't my natural or first choice, but was forced on me when I began making sculptures for the English bone china manufacturers who said "Either use our type of modeling clay, or you won't get work".

Once I got to know how to use ceramic clay, which took a while since I was used to oil based plasteline, I liked it much more.

Polymer clays like Fimo or Sculpey were my introduction to clay modeling.  Like many people starting out, I was drawn to this medium because these PVC clays harden off in a domestic oven rather than needing kiln temperatures to fire, or moulds to reproduce them.

Cold porcelain is new to me, but increasingly popular and easy to make from a home made recipe, so I have asked for help from an expert.  With lots of input from visitors, this is developing into quite a big section within this site .....more

How to sculpt in other clay sculpting mediums:-

  • Hard wax sculpting (aka "Toy Wax") is an interesting medium, but quite a specialist area due to the complex heated equipment needed and the difficulty in working it.  I have no experience of this medium, so I give it a miss here as it is less accessible for most people, and there are lots of specialist tutorials available elsewhere
  • Air-drying clays like Das and 'New Clay' are not included as they are more for schools and fun projects.  There is a Japanese air-drying clay called Deco Clay which looks very good for super-real flowers.  I am currently investigating
  • Plasticine, as distinct from plasteline, is a brightly coloured patented and trade-marked modeling product mainly for children's play, originating in England about 100 years ago

QUICK LINKS for this page

Ceramic Clay


Polymer Clay

1.  Ceramic Clay

(i)  Correct working consistency

(ii) Drying clay sculptures for firing

(i) How to sculpt with correct working consistency

  • Ceramic clay comes out of the bag soft and pliable
  • Use this soft consistency to rough out your basic form. Just build blobs of clay to the roughly the right scale
  • You can only do so much in this state as it's way too soft for any detailing. 
  • So you will need to pause while the rough shape hardens off just enough to hold its own weight against gravity.
  • It needs to set to the point where you can't easily squish it with your hands. 
  • It must remain moist but it now needs tooling to work it
  • Place your work on a damp bat made of plaster of Paris which holds moisture and circulates it both by capillary action and evaporation.

  • When not working on the piece put a clear plastic bag over it.  The bat will keep the work at the right working state.
  • The bag needs to be see through as lack of light forms mildew.
  • Your piece shouldn't dry out too much, neither should it be too wet.  spray little and often to keep it right. Use a sprayer to arrest the evaporation process while you work

(ii) How to dry clay sculptures for firing

  • The best clays for sculpting often contain a high ball clay content - quite bad for cracking while drying and warping in the kiln.
  • But they can be fired successfully with a little care
  • Ensure an even thickness - could require some hollowing (see hollowing section)
  • Ensure when you sculpt, you are not leaving air-pockets between the clay pieces
  • Do not hurry the drying process - dry the piece out very slowly
  • Allow days rather than hours
  • First keep your bag over the finished sculpture, but open it to let a bit if air in
  • Each day open the bag a bit more
  • This gradual drying process gives you the best chance of having no cracks in the piece you want to fire

There we have a brief overview of how to sculpt in ceramic clay (other tutorials go into more details) now let's look at an alternative, plasteline (as distinct from plasticine).

I used this professionally for a number of years.  Even then, I couldn't describe myself as an expert in this exacting medium.


2. Plasteline  Clay

  • Plasteline is the popular choice of film studios and fantasy artists
  • Oil based clay doesn't dry out but needs managing just the same. I used it for years professionally, but now I only use it now and again (see Rose Arbour pic below).

Using plasteline and polymer clay sculpty

  • Plasteline is the choice of many fantasy comic artists, fine artists and film special effects departments
  • It is popular because, unlike ceramic clay it never dries out
  • It needs to have mould made as does not harden and can't be fired

  • The clay is much less pliable out the packet, so it needs softening
  • It softens with your own body heat, heating in a pan, or microwave
  • It is much more expensive weight for weight than ceramic modeling clay
  • You can buy various harnesses (hard, medium, soft) and mix together for varying consistencies
  • This medium is good for high precision sculpts which need repeated applications of tiny precision details.


3.  Polymer Clay Management

How to sculpt in polymer clay is dealt with in many other websites like Katherine Dewey's very good tutorials. 

So, here I am just giving a run through based on my own experiences, so you can get an idea of whether it might be a suitable modelling medium for your requirements.

polymer clay expert dewey

  • Commercial polymer clays like the brands Fimo and Sculpey are oven hardening
  • I have never been able to use this medium in a professional capacity, but many artists do use it
  • An expert in this medium is Katherine Dewey. (see her fantastic Dragonfly sculpt above 
  • KNY (aka Kenn) also loves to 'free-style' with polymer (see below)

  • You can put a thin skin over an armature, bake and then add more soft clay
  • Use the Sculpey solvent or lighter fluid, to blend and smooth
  • Below is a smoothed out piece in Sculpey by Nadia Evans

Nadia Evans a face in sculpty

  • Fimo is good for small work and if you mix small amounts with Sculpey, you get any color Sculpey you want.
  • Polymer is very expensive weight for weight compared with ceramic clay
  • It is more convenient to decorate and you don't have to go through the bother of firing
  • It is much less strong than fired ceramic


I hope this overview of how to sculpt in different clay mediums has given you a well rounded introduction to the different types of modeling clay and how to manage them.

Ceramic clay can be used either to make and fire an individual piece.  Or it can be used as a medium from which to take mouds.

Plasteline can only be used for mould production, as it can't the hardened.  It doesn't dry out, so is used by film studios and various types of artist.

Polymer is baked in at a low temperature in a domestic oven to harden.  It is not as strong as fired ceramics.

On this website I have several more detailed tutorials on how to sculpt in ceramic modeling clays, as that is my specialty.

Please enjoy them, but most of all, get to know your raw materials and just give them a try.

Happy clay modeling!

Further reading on how to sculpt:

How to become a sculptor

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