How To Sculpt Clay: this is a large topic, which encompasses more than this website can hold! However, here’s my attempt at breaking down this topic, having been a clay sculptor for over two decades.
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How To Sculpt Clay: Choosing Clay as a Medium and Overview
- Clay is very durable – There are many examples of clay sculptures lasting for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Many horse sculptures are still around from ancient Chinese dynasties. There are exhibitions even today at major metropolitan museums showcasing ceramic sculptures from West Mexico dating back to 300 – 400 B.C., almost two thousand years ago. In its fired form, clay is very durable, and when kept in a home environment can be passed down generation to generation.
- Many finishing options – From acrylic paints to kiln fired glazes, raku to horse hair effects, there are many options.
- Repairable – Ceramic sculptures can be fixed, especially if it is a minor break and the piece is not glazed. For more, see my two repairing a broken sculpture posts in the clay panther sculpture demo.
- No mold-making required – If your goal is to create one-of-a-kind artworks, then the original clay artwork just needs to be fired and finished.
- Learning how to sculpt clay – clay doesn’t require a degree, and coming from someone who got a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in sculpture, trust me that, in the real world, that paper doesn’t make much of a difference! Learning how to sculpt clay can be achieved in much less formal (and expensive) ways, including here!
- Types of clay: from raku and wood fired clay, to porcelain, there are so many types of clay for sculpting and throwing purposes. They differ in feel, plasticity, firing temperatures, and so much more – so researching the types of clay you want to test and eventually work with is important. Since feel and the type of work each artist does is so individual, this is a process of trial and error to find what works for you!
How To Sculpt Clay: Pottery Tools and Supplies
Clay tools are every bit as earthy as the clay medium – wood, metal, and simplicity. See my clay tools post to get started on building up your clay tool stash, to learn some clay lingo and names of clay tools, and to see a very quick overview of the sculpting process.
How To Sculpt Clay: Clay Sculpture Timeline
My clay sculpture timeline post is a more in-depth view of the sculpting process, complete with how long it takes to finish a clay sculpture.
How To Sculpt Clay: Working With Kilns
If your finished artwork will be the original clay sculpture, then you’ll need to work with water-based clays and you’ll need to fire it. Kilns are a very important piece of the clay sculptor’s tool box, and there’s SO MUCH to know just in the subject of kilns. So far my focus is on electric kilns, though I intend to post on other kiln types as I get more experience with them.
Before deciding on a kiln, look at the What Size Kiln Do I Need? post and the Clay Firing Schedules post – these will give you a brief look into how to get started with kilns.
How To Sculpt Clay: Clay Finishes
Your clay sculpture isn’t finished until you, well, finish it! Take a look at my personal finishing process for clay sculptures here!
Think You Have An Understanding Of How To Sculpt Clay? Try Some Of My Tutorials!
Check out the Clay Sculpture Demos page for more tutorials and art projects. The three main clay tutorials range from easy slab box, to moderate small horse head, to difficult panther figure, shown here:
How To Sculpt Clay: Keeping Costs Down When Getting Started
If you don’t own a kiln but wish to create clay sculpture, there are a couple of options –
- Use air dry clays – these clays, while not as durable as fired clays, are a good way to practice working with clay. If care is taken with the finished product, it can last for some time (I would only recommend this product if you’re not planning on selling the sculpture).
- If you would rather work with molds/castings, you can use oil-based clays, which have a higher initial cost but can be reused.
- Many schools or associations will allow you to fire your personal sculptures in their kilns, usually for a fee. They may, however, have specifics to the type of clay, etc., and they may not allow a sculpture that still has newspaper inside.
Take a look at Blick Art Materials to start pricing tools, clays, glazes, kilns, and more, and remember that kilns and other large art items can be bought used for a fraction of the price new – but comes with a higher learning curve, can need repairs (that also have high learning curves), and can be less beginner friendly.
How To Sculpt Clay: Some Important Things to Remember About the Clay Medium
- Each piece can be finished to look however you want it to look – you are not confined to the color or patina choices of metal works, such as bronze.
- Works can be cast to have multiples of each sculpture – clay or plaster casts are much more cost effective than metal casts.
- Ceramic works can last for hundreds of years.
- There are some limitations to the clay medium, but with enough experience these limitations will not keep you from creating beautiful and durable artworks.
- Clay artworks should be kept indoors – Clay sculptures last longer when kept indoors, and can be damaged if they get wet. Any finish, other than glaze, can be damaged from water. Most fired glazes keep clay from getting damaged by moisture, but clay not covered by the glaze is susceptible to water damage. Even glazed artworks can be damaged, cracked, or busted by water combined with freezing temperatures.
- Size and shape is affected by the clay strength – Clay is best used for smaller artworks because it is simply not strong enough to support its own weight on a larger scale. This also affects positioning of your artworks – a horse sculpture that is supported by only one leg will not hold its weight. Even if you could build the sculpture and make it work for a short period of time, eventually it is likely the supporting leg will break.