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Art Tools and the Sculpture Process: How To Sculpt Clay Figures

Horse Sculpture "Dapple" by Artist Jen Pratt - Horse Art, Handmade Fine Art Sculptures
Horse Sculpture "Dapple" by Artist Jen Pratt - Horse Art, Handmade Fine Art Sculptures

How to Sculpt Clay Figures and Sculpture Process: This is a rough timeline on how to sculpt clay figures – it gives an overview of art tools and materials needed for the sculpture process, and is a good guide to use before jumping into a large project! Before starting a sculpture, it’s a good idea to know how long it’s going to take you to finish. This timeline is for larger (18-24″ high), highly detailed work; smaller, less detailed work takes less time.

Learning how to sculpt clay figures takes some finesse, so don’t feel bad if your first try isn’t what you expect! This is a process, one that can take decades to fully realize your potential. Scroll to the bottom for three in-depth clay sculpture classes to help you get started!

Getting Started: Tools and Materials

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I use Amaco No. 25 clay for it’s light color (doesn’t affect your finish) and medium-to-light grog content (some plasticity yet fairly smooth surface).  You can also use air dry clay for practice works; they won’t hold up like fired clay, but they’re a good way to get started sculpting.

Keep in mind that different types of clays have different tactile properties and feel and will affect your finished artwork.  For more on this, see the clay finishes page.

How To Sculpt Clay Figures and Sculpture Process

Art Tools and the Sculpture Process: How To Sculpt Clay Figures
Total Time Needed: 35 hours
Total Cost: 75 USD

Required Art Tools and Equipment:

- Pre-built armature (cost does not include armature)
- Access to a small pottery kiln or community kiln (if not using air dry clay)
- Art tools and pottery tools, including a smooth boxwood tool and needle tool (included in the Kemper set above)

Required Art Materials:

- Clay suitable for sculpture, around 15-20 lbs
- Paints and finishes
- Wood for a base, if desired

Four Critical Steps In The Sculpture Timeline:

Armature - use a pre-built armature and build up the skeletal structure of the sculpture using newspaper and masking tape (see Art Class: Panther Sculpture below as an example). This is a fairly quick step usually taking no more than an hour. If you're working smaller you can do a quick and easy newspaper armature as seen in Art Class: Horse Sculpture below.

Working hours = 1 hour.
Clay Tutorial - Panther Sculpture Armatures - How to Build An Armature For Larger Clay Sculptures
Step 2 : How To Sculpt Clay Figures - Sculpting
Sculpting - start building the piece from the bottom up. Depending on size and how familiar you are with the subject, this can take up to 1 week or more for a larger piece that's an unfamiliar subject or medium.

Working hours = 8 to 25 hours. Head sculptures take less time than figure sculptures - the horse sculpture shown took 20+ hours of sculpting time alone, even though I'm familiar with the subject, as it's highly detailed.
Art Tools and the Sculpture Process: How To Sculpt Clay Figures
Step 3 : How To Sculpt Clay Figures - Drying and Firing
Drying time - depends on the thickness and size of the sculpture. Can take 1-3 weeks depending on size.

Firing time - place dry pieces in the kiln for firing, and monitor the firing process. Firing takes a full day: about 6 - 8 hours of monitoring and flipping switches if you have an older kiln, but complete babysitting isn't necessary. Then the kiln must sit overnight to cool enough to remove the sculptures. This is for a cone 05 firing, hotter firings take longer, and time varies for different kilns. See my Kiln Firing Schedule for my process on firing clay sculptures in an electric kiln.

You won't need this step for air dry clays, but be aware that air dry clays aren't nearly as durable as kiln fired clays.

Working hours = 0 hours for drying, 9 hours for firing (includes loading and unloading the kiln - would be less with a newer, automatic kiln).
Firing pottery and clay sculptures: loading kiln shelves and clay firing
Step 4 : How To Sculpt Clay Figures - Paint and Base Your Sculpture
Finishing up - paint and base the sculpture. This process varies as well, and can take up to 7-10 days, including drying time for paints, stains, and sprays. See my Clay Sculpture Finishes post for ideas on finishing a clay sculpture.

Working hours = 8 to 16 hours (depends on whether the sculpture was fired as a whole, or broken or fired in sections). The sculpture above had an armature hole to fill but no other broken or sectional pieces, and took roughly 10 hours to finish.

Working hours = 2 to 4 hours (building and adding the base).
Horse Sculpture "Dapple" by Clay Horse Artist Jen Pratt

The approximate total number of hours that it takes for me to build one large horse head sculpture that is fired as a whole is 32 hours. This doesn’t include things like building the armature (I use the same armature for most sculptures), putting a sculpture back together (if it was fired in sections), or firing at a hotter temperature. This also doesn’t include any prep work, such as studying a subject, initial drawings, finalizing the drawings, or small studies. When I first started sculpting, the number of working hours was almost doubled, and some sculptures took 3 to 4 weeks to sculpt (I had fewer hours during the day to work on them).

Ready to try it for yourself? Begin with my free clay sculpting classes (projects range from easy slab box, to moderate small horse head, to difficult panther figure):

Learning how to sculpt clay figures begins with learning the clay medium, so feel free to check out all my posts and clay and kilns!

Art class: simple clay slab construction pottery box

Art class: simple clay horse head sculpture, no armature

Art class: larger clay panther sculpture with rigid PVC armature

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Modern Farmhouse Decor and Unique Art Gifts: Horse Sculpture "Dapple" by Artist Jen Pratt - Horse Art, Handmade Fine Art Sculptures

Other helpful posts:

Products for creating clay sculptures:

Kiln Safety:

After learning how to sculpt clay figures, kiln safety is the next thing to consider if you’re working with water based clay. Placement of your kiln, surface protection from heat, and ventilation should all be top priority. With my old Gare I used kiln safety screens to protect the surfaces around my kiln from getting too hot. I didn’t have a ventilation system, so I opened up windows, doors, etc. and didn’t stay in my studio while the kiln was firing – especially in the beginning when the newspaper was burning out.

I intend to put a ventilation system on my next kiln to help with fumes. When you get your kiln, read the instruction that come with it (or look up the instructions online for an older kiln) – kilns can be dangerous and care is needed when using them.

Kilnsitters, Orton Cones, and Timers:

My kiln uses switches, which you don’t often see on newer kilns. Pyrometric cones (orton cones) and bars are a necessity with older kilns like mine, but while you still need the orton cone charts to help determine your firing temperatures, you don’t have to have a pyrometric cone for firing (though “witness cones” can help make sure your kiln is firing at the proper temperature).

Kiln Shelves and Furniture:

Last but not least, you can never have too many shelves or supports! Every firing is different, and the more options you have for shelving, the more artworks you can fit in a single firing. It’s never fun to have a full kiln and one piece still sitting outside the kiln, especially if an extra shelf would have fit that extra piece in.

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