What Is Clay Sculpting and How to Sculpt Clay?

Feel like starting a new hobby to put your creativity to test? Then you’re in the right place now.

So, you may find the perfect option in clay sculpting.

Yes, if you’re wondering what clay sculpting is and how to sculpt clay – we’re going to teach you in this article.

You’ll learn everything there’s to know about this art. With this comprehensive guide, you’ll also find a few exciting tips to sculpt clay like a pro.

Without going into many other unnecessary details, let’s get your hands working and the clay rolling. Read up!

What Is Clay Sculpting?

Before we explain clay sculpting, we need to go deep into the clay. Well, not that deep, really – just mold the outside for you to understand.

Anyway, that’s precisely what clay offers:

The ability to mold, model, and sculpt. Thanks to its versatility and ease of use, clay becomes a piece of cake to give shape to and transform into a wide array of stuff.

So, how do you sculpt? Here are many factors to consider. First, you need the right material, depending on the texture and hardness you’re looking, the appearance, and the finishing you want to give.

Then, you need the tools. There are many to choose from, with different sizes, shapes, styles, and purposes. Some scrape, others shape, a few of them cut, and sure enough – all of them sculpt. You may find them in wood, steel, plastic, or even carbon steel. In the end, your hands are the best.

After the tools, you need the armatures. This is the support of the sculptures for what you place inside the clay to hold the piece before, while, and after you’re working with it.

An armature usually works well with the stands and the accessories. These are the things that help keep the sculpture in place, as well as those that give a unique shape or appearance.

So, what is clay sculpting? In short words, it is the art of creating clay sculptures with the use of clay or materials, tools, armatures, stands, and accessories. All those pieces together, make clay sculpting an art – and one of the best hobbies you can get into nowadays.

What Do You Need for Clay Sculpting?

Like we explained before, there are a few things that you need for clay sculpting. But we didn’t get deep into them. So, here’s a more comprehensive explanation of each:

Clays and Materials

There are three primary materials for clay sculpting: plasticine, water-based clay, and wax.

You must be wondering, why is it clay sculpting when you use plasticine and wax? Well, they are also types of clay – they’re just called that way to differentiate them from each other. They also have different uses, hardness, textures, and finishes.

But the main difference between these types of materials is the ingredients and the purpose of their use.

  • Plasticine

Commercially known as Plastilina, it has oil and wax as the base. Then, the self-hardening clay is added to give plasticine the ceramic-like body and texture.

Plasticine will be a perfect choice if you want to sculpt something using a mold. It doesn’t stick too much and still offers the chance to self-harden fast and effectively.

  • Water-Based Clay

Another example would be pottery or water-based clay. It usually refers to regular clay with several components, including water. The components may add some hardness, texture, or finish to the piece. But it always demands water to work.

If you don’t care about casting or molding the piece and still get it all cured, then water-based clay is your best bet. And if you want to fire (bake) the sculpture, then it’s also an excellent choice.

  • Wax

Last but not least, you will find wax as the best option for molding with extra detail. Some waxes harden really fast, so they are ideal for carving waxes.

If you want maximum detail in your sculpture, you’ll inevitably pick wax clay as your first choice.

Tools and Accessories

If you are a beginner, you probably have no idea that you can also do sculpting with tools.

Yes, you don’t only need to use your hands and fingers. In fact, most sculptors prefer using tools and accessories, which make the molding and casting even more precise.

Using these tools and accessories would be like giving your hands superpowers. And when they’re used correctly, they become even more important than the materials.

So, what are these tools we’re talking about? Well, they can be many. In fact, you can use almost anything you can think of – from scissors to spoons and even knives in your sculpting. And their purpose would be simple: to cut, to scrape, to shape, to smooth, and to detail.

But to make it easier for you, here are a few popular tools that make clay sculpting easy:

  • Wire Tip Tool

This is usually a homemade tool that comes with a wide on its end. The purpose of this tool is generally giving wrinkles to the clay. When it’s used across the surface, it may also leave small marks – ideal for providing unique texture to the sculpture.

  • Wire Rake

This refers to two wires or guitar strings twisted with each other, and they form a loop-like tool that rakes bumps and lumps around the sculpture surface. It is an ideal option for getting rid of inconsistencies in the clay.

  • Fine Loop

It is the same as a wire tip tool, but this time it doesn’t form the loop entirely. This hook-like tool helps to wrinkle detail and gouge lines out of the clay.

  • Wire Brush

When some areas are hard to reach, a tool for reaching and smoothing it out is necessary. Here’s where the wire brush enters into action. It’s made of wires attached to a stick and reaches places no other tools can.

  • Ball-Tip Tool

It’s the same as other tools but with a ball on the top. This works as a perfect alternative to using your fingers. The ball is usually made of metal. It can drag across the surface, push, get rid of unwanted textures, and more.

  • Loop Cutters

It looks like a carving knife and works like a gouge. A loop cutter is a perfect tool for carving in hard clay.

  • Rubber Tip Tools

When the clay is still malleable, a rubber tip tool helps to blend with other clays or simply give shape without causing damage. Once the clay hardens, this tool helps paint the sculpture.

  • Regular Brushes

Brushes are usually used to blend the clay, smoothen it out, and sometimes just give texture to the surface.

  • Heavy-Duty Loop Tool

Lastly, you have the heavy-duty loop tool – perfect for cutting and carving sculptures when they’re large and demand something that can cut a lot of space.

  • Molds

You will find thousands of different molds available. Some of them with specific designs and others with more standard shapes – so you’ll have to choose the right mold according to your needs.

  • Painting Brushes

Sure enough, a sculpture sometimes needs paint as well. That’s why painting brushes are also necessary – to give color to the pieces.

  • Sponges

Not useful for molding or giving shape to clay, but instead for painting it. When a sculpture demands some color, the sponge may provide a unique pattern that no brush can.

  • Potter’s Wheel

Have you seen those movies and/or images where clay just spins, and the sculptor molds it using the spin tool? Well, the machine that makes the clay spin is a potter’s wheel – and it can be super helpful.

All these tools and accessories may differ in construction, design, and size. And of course, they will work according to the type of sculpture that you want to create.

You may also use some of these interchangeably and mix them together to create unique results. And sure enough, they will work for all types of clay – without fault.

But overall, you may use your hands only, or come up with your tools if needed. However, popular tools are always useful – so don’t overlook them.

Armatures and Stands

After you set up a toolbox with accessories for your sculptures, it is time to learn how armatures and stands work.

Just like a human or animal body needs a skeleton for the flesh to attach, sculptures also need something that holds the clay.

Here’s when the armature enters into action. Without an armature, most sculptures would eventually fall and don’t work as thought.

In fact, most sculptures rely more on armature than in clay. With the right armature, you may not even need to add too much clay – just give some shape to it, and that’s enough.

However, it is essential to mention that armatures can be made from a wide array of materials. Here are some of the options:

  • Steel

When steel is used, the armature is usually capable of holding more weight than any other type. However, this armature is also super heavy, so it demands more strength to be molded in the right shape. Steel is usually used for thin pieces that hold a lot of clay.

  • Wood

This is another super-strong option, yet lighter. The disadvantage of wood is durability. If a wood armature is too light, then it is likely not to last much. However, if it is made from hardwood, then it may last a long time – but it will be too heavy. And sure enough, it is still hard to give shape when needed.

Relevant article: Top 12 Successful Ideas for Start Woodworking Business

  • Aluminum

Then there’s aluminum, the best option for its durability yet still decently light construction. Aluminum also offers the chance to ply the wire and achieve any form necessary. Apart from that, it is non-staining and doesn’t lose strength over time. Sadly, it is not the strongest option for an armature.

Most armatures tend to be pliable and easy to mold into different shapes. This is necessary for the sculptor to get the most out of it and have the full creative capacity.

That’s why most sculptors decide to make their own armature by hand. And typically, they use aluminum wire for their jobs. In case the sculpture is too large and bulky, then they end up with wood or steel.

Last but not least, it is vital to have stands on the project. This is where the armature will stand and where the sculpture will be placed when finished. Sometimes, the stand also works as the work area – so it is super necessary.

It is usually made of wood or steel. But both the stand and the armature must be resistant to corrosion, mainly when used with clays that don’t dry up entirely like wax.

How to Sculpt Clay? – Step-by-Step Guide

As you can see, learning clay sculpting is not as easy as it seems. But there’s still a lot more to learn – especially how to do it.

Here’s a step-by-step guide with some tips you can follow to start sculpting clay:

1. Learn the Basics

At first, there’s nothing more important than learning the basics.

This is critical because it will give you a better idea of what sculpting is all about and how you can get the most out of it from its fundamentals.

If you can learn the basics with a book or educational video, that’s ideal. But if you can attend a course or a local studio for clay sculpting, then that’s even better.

Make sure to have a few weeks of experience and knowledge about the art. Watch other people sculpt live or via YouTube videos, or whatever.

Once you have enough experience and have a better idea of what it is about – then you can start getting into it.

2. Set Up a Workspace

The second thing to do: set up a place where you can sculpt with peace, full creativity, and comfort.

There’s probably nothing more important than this at first – as it will help you to be more organized, think better ideas, and eventually polish your skills over time. Without the right workspace, you’re doomed never to sculpt well enough – or at least not as well as you want.

The best workspace would be a large-enough table where you can place the clay and other instruments at arm’s reach. It should be high enough so that you can work both standing and sitting on a chair. If it has height settings, then that’s even better. Go for a chair with the same advantage.

Last but not least, make sure this workspace is somewhere with little to no human traffic. If you can set it up on a basement, attic, garage or cabin at home – that would be ideal.

Remember, clay sculpting is an art. If you want to do it correctly, then you need to be super creative and neat with your hands. And that demands a lot of concentration – so a comfy and peaceful workstation is critical.

3. Learn Anatomy, Textures, and Structures

Once you plan an ideal workspace, then you can start learning about anatomy, structures, shapes, forms, and overall sculpting concepts.

If you want to make a perfect figure of a ballerina, for example, then you need to learn about muscles, body shapes, and movement.

The same happens if you want to make an Eiffel Tower out of clay. Learn about how it was made, about the materials, the design, and everything in between.

For the best results, go into books that can teach you all these things with pictures. While learning the concepts will help you out a lot, nothing will beat seeing how things look and feel first-hand.

4. Choose the Right Clay

Before you start anything, you must choose the right clay.

As we explained before, different clays are ideal for different uses. Some you will need to bake for them to dry up. Others will dry with air. And there are few that may never dry completely.

You also need to consider the color or tone of the clay. Some types of clay are colored and shiny, such as polymer clay. An air-dry clay or plasticine is also colorful. And water-based clay is usually dull-looking – yet it offers the chance to paint afterward if needed.

Choose the one you find ideal for your project. Then prepare the clay accordingly.

5. Prepare the Clay

Making clay is not that hard. But it may depend on the type you’re choosing – and how much you’re making.

Usually, you just need to mix the clay flour with water, and that’s it. Some types of clay may demand extra ingredients such as sand and/or chemicals to add additional results. Oil and wax are also common ingredients for the waxiest clays.

Once you have the main ingredients together, you can knead the clay. This is all about mixing until the clay feels more compact and malleable. Then you can start getting rid of the bubbles by massaging with your hands, cut in half, and then piecing up together again.

Repeat the process until there isn’t a single bubble on the clay. Once the clay feels totally malleable, even in texture, and soft but sturdy– then it is ready.

6. Sketch the Sculpture

By now, you should be ready to start sculpting. The idea is flourishing in your head, and you can’t find the way to put your hands on the clay.

Yet, it is not the best course of action to go at it without drawing a sketch first. It doesn’t have to be pixel perfect and be the final sculpture you want to create. But if you have something to base your sculpture on – then it will be easier to start going at it.

For the best result, make several sketches – play with dimensions, textures, shapes, lengths, etc. Then, once you find something perfect to start sculpting – you should go at it.

7. Use Templates

Sketches are super helpful, but nothing compares to templates.

If you’re making something that is not too specific and/or strange, then you can probably find a template for it.

The template will help to make the main shape or form of the sculpture beforehand. And it helps to build the armature more quickly as well.

For example, if you’re sculpting a woman’s body – then a standard woman silhouette may help you as a template. Then you can add the extra details. The same happens if you’re sculpting a man’s body or an animal.

Also, templates help you come up with the right proportions and/or sizes of the sculpture. You just need to come up with the idea, print the model, and start making the armature and/or sketch from it.

8. Build the Armature and Stand

The skeleton of the sculpture is probably the second most crucial part of the clay.

That’s why it is super necessary that you build an armature for the sculpture before you start molding the clay.

This armature will hold the sculpture together, make it more durable and strong, and sometimes even make a stand by itself.

For the armature, you can use wood, steel, aluminum, brass, and more. But we recommend aluminum, as explained before, for how easy it is to ply and move around.

You just need to mold the armature in a way that you can attach or add clay to it, then start making the sculpture from that. Not easy, but it is not too hard either.

Once you have the armature, find something heavy and stable to put it over. This would be the stand. We usually recommend hardwood and steel for the stand, and these will support the sculpture better than most other materials.

9.Use Proportions

While adding clay to the armature, and before you start sculpting, we recommend adding just enough clay using proportions.

This will save you lots of time and effort when sculpting. And this just means adding the perfect amount of clay to a specific part of the sculpture – no more and no less. So, you can mold it as needed without having to add water or take the clay off.

The main benefit of doing this is that you can add more details and better shapes without eventually losing them when taking clay off or adding.

10. Sculpt with Care

After adding the clay to the armature, it is time to start sculpting.

If you’re using a potter’s wheel, then you can use coils to make hollow shapes on the clay. In case you’re using a simple armature for a fixed sculpture, then you can start the pinching method with your fingers. It is a piece of cake and often delivers impeccable results.

Your focus should be on recreating your imagination, sketch, or template exactly how you see it. Using the tools and extra care to prevent any damage to the clay or armature, you should come up with a sculpture in no time.

But remember to do it gently. Play with the clay but being serious about it. Pinch, pull, rake, cover, uncover, smooth out, give texture, attach, separate, and more – whatever you need to sculpt the piece, do it.

11. Use a Mirror

While you’re working on your piece, it is common to lose some perception and get stuck in certain parts, or simply feel like you need a different view. Here’s when a mirror can help you out.

The mirror will let you look at the piece differently, and also let you take a look at the sketch and/or template better.

You will notice mistakes, paths to take, things to do, what to avoid, etc. A mirror will give you the chance to see things that would generally go overlooked. And it will help you out, especially when you’re stuck.

Similarly to a mirror, you may also use someone else’s views – especially if that person is a sculptor as well. A small piece of advice or a unique idea can give you an excellent path to follow and lead to a perfect final result.

12. Be Creative

When you’re working on the piece, from beginning to end, nothing is probably as important as creativity.

And we not only mean creativity in the sense of the idea to work on but also on the small parts of the sculpture.

Be creative with the skin of a character. Use a new pose to inspire a new emotion. Give a different shape to a body part to make a statement. Just be as creative as you can, and it will not be dismissed.

Remember, you have tools like wire rakes and wire loops. You can cut and move clay around. And you can rub the surface as well as give unique shapes to the sculpture if needed.

There’s just so much you can do that you shouldn’t tell yourself out of an idea. Whatever comes to your mind, don’t hesitate to set it up on the sculpture. Creativity is king when it comes to sculpting amazing things.

13. Test Wetness and Hardness

Once you’re finished with part of the sculpture or with the whole of it – then you need to test wetness and hardness.

Touch the sculpture, feel how well it has dried. Check whether it is dry enough, or if it feels wet still. Remember to consider the type of clay you’re using as well. And you can’t expect incredible results without the ideal type either.

Here, you may also need to leave the sculpture to dry if necessary. In case you’re using pottery clay that demands a kiln, then don’t hesitate and cook it.

We recommend just following the instructions on the clay flour packet. This will let you know what’s needed to dry and harden the clay.

Some sculptors like to really sculpt their pieces once they’re dried. That can also be an excellent idea.

The sole purpose is to make sure that the sculpture is done and ready to be further edited. Then, you can say you’ve successfully created a clay sculpture by yourself.

14. Paint the Sculpture

The final and optional step to take would be to paint the sculpture.

Here, you need to add all the details that were impossible or hard to do with clay. Then also consider being creative with the use of colors. And finally, let the paint dry up further.

Remember that painting is optional. Some people don’t like using paint but other accessories like feathers, frostings, fabrics, and so on. Of course, it all comes down to your needs.

Before painting, however, it is vital to cover the table or workspace with newspaper or something similar. You won’t like it when hard-to-remove paint is all over the place.

After painting or adding the accessories, then you can let it dry for a few hours. Then come back and see your final result.

Safety Tips for Clay Sculpting

Before you start sculpting, though, be sure you know how to do it correctly. If you want to make a sculpture and prevent accidents in the process, here’s what you can do:

  • If you’re using pottery clay that needs to be fired (taken to a “kiln,” a kind of oven), you need to transfer it correctly. For that, you need specialized tools that not only safeguard the sculpture from damage when handling but also prevent you from having direct contact with the kiln.
  • Before placing the sculpture inside the clay oven, make sure there’s no other material apart from clay and the armature/stand inside. If some parts can be taken off, make sure there’s enough ventilation for getting rid of fumes.
  • It is super important that you support the piece before, during, and after the job. For that, we recommend using the best armature possible for your needs. The best option is almost always a metal armature – so it doesn’t fall or break down when you’re working on it.
  • Always use the right clay for your work. That means using hard and fast-drying clays if you’re working on something large that demands strength. And work with more malleable clays for small jobs. This will save you time and effort when sculpting.

How to Take Care of Clay Sculptures?

The final section in this article will be about taking care of the sculptures after working on them. Here, you will find a few tips that will make it possible to keep sculptures safe and looking neat for years and even decades.

These are some of the tips we recommend:

  • Whenever you’re moving the sculpture from one place to another, be sure to use special tools to grab it. Anything from gloves to stands, hooks, etc. that could make it easier and safer to transport the piece is super useful.
  • If you’re moving out and need to make a sculpture with you, then consult with fine-art shippers who know how to do so safely. Especially if your sculpture weighs several hundred pounds, then it is essential to have proper transportation.
  • Never move a sculpture by yourself if it is too large. And be careful when moving it around homes and/or buildings, especially doorways, halls, and small rooms. Also, be cautious with other objects and never rush when handling a piece.
  • When grabbing a sculpture, always grab it from below or the middle. Never grab it from small or fragile parts. For example, if it is a woman’s body, grab it by the torso or legs, never by the arms or head.
  • A small spot may ruin an entire sculpture with ease. That’s why it is necessary to use gloves and prevent grabbing the piece with dirty hands. Also, scratches and similar damage can be awful. So, when handling sculptures, try not to have pendants, rings, buckles, buttons, necklaces, or bracelets on.
  • When placing a sculpture on the floor or any other surface, it is super important to do it gently. Even the smallest impact may damage a clay sculpture, break it, or sometimes even make it fall apart. At the same time, make sure the sturdiest part touches the surface first, instead of the most fragile ones.
  • Cleaning is also super important. Clay sculptures demand soft and gentle cleansing, usually done with a feather duster. If the piece does not have any paint that could wear off or smear, then a dry cloth can also be helpful. As a last option, compressed air can be useful. Avoid chemical cleaners.
  • Clay sculptures usually don’t withstand outdoor environments. We recommend keeping them protected from exterior factors with structures that keep the sun, freeze, and rain away.
  • You can always cover clay sculptures with metal coatings such as copper or stainless steel. These will change the whole appearance of the piece, but may also add amazing details and/or resilience against outdoor factors.

These are the leading and most essential tips you can follow to take care of clay sculptures. But of course, whatever else you listen or read to may also be useful, so don’t stick to these only.

Start Clay Sculpting Today!

So, did this article teach you something about clay sculpting? We’re pretty sure it did. Even if it didn’t teach you how to do it, you at least know a few things that you didn’t before – and that’s enough for us.

Anyway, if you’re genuinely interested in starting a clay sculpture today – then this is your time. Follow our advice and tips, and you’ll surely get far at sculpting with clay.

So, don’t waste more of your time and start sculpting. Now it is time to put your knowledge and ideas into work.

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