Terracotta can be a particularly gratifying medium that allows artists to create bold, primitive pieces or finely detailed statuettes. As figurine sculptor Peter Holland notes, "A simple piece of clay is possibly the most useful and intuitive art material known to man." Artists working with terracotta typically use one or a combination of three basic techniques.
One of the most basic terracotta sculpting techniques is modeling on or hand building. Using this technique, an artist creates a sculpture by joining pieces of clay together. One way to implement this method is to cut strips of clay from a 1/4-inch-thick, rolled-out slab, and then join and shape the terracotta pieces into the desired form.
Sculpting or Carving
The 'sculpting-off' technique is the act of carving the clay to remove everything the artist does not intend to be part of the finished sculpture. After the rough, basic form emerges, the sculptor uses a variety of tools to fine-tune the piece. Sculptor Katherine Dewey's suggestions for inexpensive, readily available carving tools include dental tools, knitting and sewing needles in various sizes and wire loops. This technique is also useful for carving designs into slabs of clay to form hanging plaques or bas-relief sculptures.
Manipulation of soft clay is another technique for shaping terracotta sculptures. To use this method, a sculptor pushes, pulls, bends, twists or otherwise moves the clay into the desired shape. Creating a pinch pot is a good way for a beginner to become familiar with this technique before progressing to actual sculpted pieces.
Firing and Finishing
After an artist has completed a terracotta sculpture, it is time to add the finishing touches and make the piece into a durable piece of art. Firing is the process of baking a sculpture at a very high temperature. A sculptor may use special paints that can withstand the high temperatures, or choose to use glazes instead of, or in addition to, paint. Painting or glazing may take a series of steps with multiple firings, depending on the effect the artist intends to create.