Clay Sculpting Techniques

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Create the rough shape first by pinching, pulling, molding and smoothing with tools and your hands.
Create the rough shape first by pinching, pulling, molding and smoothing with tools and your hands. (Image: Britannicus84/iStock/Getty Images)

As one of the easier mediums to work with for sculpting, clay offers a pliable, moldable and soft surface -- until it hardens. To sculpt clay, make certain you have the right tools, as you need to cut away excess clay, smooth its surface, add details or texture, depending on the desired results. Experiment as you sculpt, because mistakes are easily smoothed over if you don’t like the results. For children, use oil-based clays that don't harden and aren't permanent, but for art pieces, use water-based clays.

Tools of the Trade

Sculpting requires a modeling stand or a tray that turns -- like a Lazy Susan -- so that you can get at all sides of the piece. Wire-end modeling tools have wooden handles along with large, small and medium wire loops on the end for carving and sculpting. Hardwood modeling tools help you create detail or texture -- also available in plastic -- and you’ll also need pointed metal tools made from carbon and stainless steel or chrome. Palettes and scrapers help to remove large sections of clay. A wire armature offers a skeleton frame for adding stability to figures. The size of the sculpture determines the sizes of the tools used.

Rough Shape

Start sculpting clay by molding it into the rough shape desired with your hands. If you plan to make a figurine, work the clay into its basic shape or pose based on a model or picture from a reference book onto a wire armature for best results. Store-bought armatures have the proportions built in, but if you make your own, set the proportions according to the size you plan to make it. If you are making a human figure, set the height for the shoulders, the hips and the knees, proportionally, to the figure’s overall height. The rough shape becomes the base you build upon. Don’t worry about details; those come later.

Adding Clay

Let the rough shape harden a bit without becoming too dry. A harder surface prevents you from indenting the clay when you add soft clay where needed to form shapes or details. Use your tools or fingers to add soft clay to define the shape further. Smooth with the wooden flat-bladed tools, your finger or a wrung-out sponge. If the rough shape has hardened a bit, moisten the hardened and soft clays where they join. If the rough shape is still a bit soft, shape the clay in small round balls before adding it to the sculpture to avoid misshaping it.

Sculpting With Tools

Use the appropriate sized wire loop or ribbon-cutting modeling tool to remove sections of clay to define the shape you’re sculpting. For instance, if you’re sculpting a bust with the head already shaped, use the tools to remove clay from the eye socket area and use the clay you removed to build up the nose or shape the eye and lids. Ribbon cutters are stronger than the smaller wire looped tools and can remove larger sections of clay.

Texture and Beginning Details

For making hair, folds in clothing, creating texture or frills, soften up clay overnight on a plate by adding water to it. Apply the wet, mushy clay to the sculpture with a contour paintbrush to get the desired effects. Mold or push the wet clay around with the brush. As it dries, it shrinks a bit and shapes itself in appealing ways. For cracks that appear, smooth with a wooden tool. Once dried a bit, draw in details with metal, plastic or wooden tipped tools. Smooth the rest of the sculpture to ready it for the final details.

Final Details

Don’t start the final details until you’re satisfied with the final composition of the piece. Add final details using a variety of methods: scraping, sponging, brushing, pressing, drawing or detailing with a fine-pointed tool or adding clay and then texturing it. Press fabric, plastic stencils and more into the surface to create a desired design, pattern or texture. Don’t press too shallow or too deep with the pressing tool if you don’t want the sculpture to look ugly or develop technical problems. You can also add extra clay to create raised details in the laying on technique. Look to standard household supplies or tools to create interesting texture for final details, such as the wrong end of a cocktail stick, for hair strands.

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