How To Sculpt Systematically

Learn how to tackle your clay sculpt systematically, stage by stage in order to keep a strong mental focus.

The first thing to conquer is always your own mind.

Make no mistake, clay modelling is a hard thing to do well. 

It can be a truly gnarly pastime, so your mental approach is key.

You need to be relaxed and confident about your work, and look forward to the challenge.

A Common  Mistake

When I taught classes, so many people went wrong with the mental approach - perhaps just through fear of the unknown.

People started a piece, were disgusted with it, threw it away and started again.  Wrong!  Just keep adjusting until it starts to come right.

Clay is infinitely adjustable.

So when it goes wrong, don't worry, just have a cup of tea, and a go at it again after a rest.

Precision vs Artistry

My clay pieces need a perfect finish for demanding clients.  So I need to be precise and measured.

I am not thinking 'artistic'. You can't just attack a lump of clay with a set of tools.  You can't rush or get stressed and go at it like you are attacking a bear with a stick.

Artistry, in this case, comes with precision.  Think 'Swiss watch maker', rather than 'Jackson Pollock'

Roll up your sleeves, focus, and have these following instructions in mind and know the tricks of the trade. :-

super realistic sculpt by Peter Hollandsuper realistic sculpt by Peter Holland


  • Tell yourself you don't need artistic ability to sculpt, you need systematic, determination and a structured game-plan.
  • So when doing a sculpt, don't try to get "creative" as much as strategic.
  • Being strategic in this 'war on clay' means using tactics one by one to build the overall strategy.


  • For example, work up important details of the model in isolation away from the rest of the piece.
  • Work on the details properly and at the optimum angles.
  • This is why I prefer to work with water-based modeling clays where there is no internal or external armature and the clay joins together with wet slip very easily and strongly.
  • Place the detail back on when you are done.

actual size face of the scale Peter Holland works inactual size face of the scale Peter Holland works in

Example 1 - Faces

  • With the faces of my bone china ladies being tiny - less than an inch high, it is very hard, if not impossible to work up the details of the face while it is attached to the model. 
  • I have to get the face portraiture right, then place it on the model for final working and adjustments.

Example 2 - Hands

  • Put some softish clay slightly larger than the hand is going to be onto the end of a cocktail stick
  • Start working the rough hand shape.
  • You start with softish clay from the bag, then as you are working, the clay is hardening off, gaining more resistance so you can start to cut and work the detail.
  • These small hands are hard to do with pottery clay which wants to dry all the time.
  • Keep your grit & determination, stick with it and you will get there.
  • If a hand takes you longer at first, so it is drying out too much on the cocktail stick, think about attaching it (with the cocktail stick for support) to a larger lump of clay as a base (the principle is, the larger the volume of clay, the longer it takes to displace its moisture).
  • You also have the option of putting that mini-sculpture on its own small damp plaster bat.
  • You can then take this on and off the bat as required.
  • The cocktail stick comes out once you are ready to apply to the piece to the sculpt.


Each problem has a solution.

A series of solved problems adds up to the 'whole' - the finished project.

A figurine in clay suitable for using as a master-sculpture for a commercial bone china product is just a series of solved problems.  Probably, any creative project could be described in the same terms.

The nature of human beings is they have a high capacity for problem-solving.  This is not to do with intelligence as such, it is more to do with a 'needs must' type of native wit.

The more motivated a human being is in terms of their self expression ('self actualization') the better their problem solving ability.

Problem solving can be fun - which is a good thing, because most of our lives are spent solving problems of one sort or another.

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