Creating something out of a lump of clay may seem simple at first, but it can be as daunting as facing a blank page or canvas. As with any medium, working without basic relevant skills is likely to make even a simple project more difficult. Clay sculpting methods are as varied as the potters who use them, though most potters use variations on some very basic techniques. Having mastered simple methods and skills, experienced potters can successfully add their own creativity to the work.
Working With Clay
Assuming you wish to fire the clay in a kiln (and if you plan to keep your sculpture, you absolutely should fire the clay), you will need to follow a few ground rules.
Never trap air in the clay. Air bubbles will cause the clay to explode in the kiln. You will need to wedge the clay before beginning the sculpture. Wedging is a process similar to kneading dough, and it is meant to squeeze air bubbles out of clay before you sculpt it. Wedge the clay by rotating it on the table and pressing it with your palms into the surface of the table.
Do not allow the walls of the sculpture to be more than 1cm/ 1/2 inch thick. Anything thicker will explode in the kiln. If you need to make an object thicker, hollow out the walls of the object. For example, if you want to make a round ball of clay that is 6 inches wide, hollow out the inside of the ball. Because you can’t trap air in the clay, create a passage for the air to travel from inside the ball to the outside. You can do this with a tool as small as a needle.
When attaching one piece of clay to another, remember to score and slip the clay. This is done through making hatch marks on both sides of the clay, where the pieces will be touching. This is called “scoring.” Drizzle a light layer of water or clay-infused water (called “slip”) over the score marks. Think of the score marks as being like the teeth of a zipper that will grip each other and not let go, and the slip is much like glue. This will hold the two pieces of clay together. Clay that is not scored and slipped will often fall apart in the kiln.
Techniques For Building Structures And Objects
Three classic ways to build a structure out of clay are by making coils, slabs and pinching.
Coiling is one of the most common traditional methods of sculpting clay. Coil pots are made through rolling long coils of clay and lining them up along a base, scoring each coil as it connects to the coil that follows it. Coil pots may be smoothed down to form uniform walls, or they may be left as coils for a decorative touch. Although this is one way of making a pot, this technique may be used to make the walls of any structure made from clay, not just pottery.
Slab Building is the simple process of pressing out a lump of clay into an even thickness using a rolling pin or similar tool. It is a process not unlike a baker rolling out dough to make biscuits. To ensure that the resulting slab is of an even thickness all around, use guides on the sides while you roll out the clay. It’s also important to remove all air pockets from the clay prior to rolling it, which you can achieve by wedging the material. Air trapped in a piece of clay can be a costly mistake–when you fire the clay, the air will expand and may cause your project to explode in the kiln.
Pinching is true to its name, this method essentially involves pinching clay between your thumb and fingers to create an object. Potters commonly employ this simple, ancient clay sculpting method to produce what are called pinch pots, or thumb pots. Start with a small ball of clay about the size of your palm and press your thumb into the center. Moving upward and outward in a slow, methodical manner, push the clay up from the bottom of the pot to the top, making each area of the pot equal in thickness. Clay has a tendency to dry out as you work with it, so run cold water on your hands regularly or place strips of damp cloth on the work in progress to remoisten the clay and keep it workable. Two pinch pots of about the same size may be scored together to form a hollow ball, useful for forming larger structures such as the body of an animal or the head of a person.
Creating Your Own Style
An artist’s specific style usually has three components: medium, subject matter and portrayal. When you are learning to sculpt with clay, you will explore different subjects and experiment with methods of portrayal. For example, maybe you only work with your hands and use minimal tools. Maybe you like the clay to be heavily textured, or maybe you like the clay to be smooth and elegant. Maybe you prefer to create sculptures of human subjects, or maybe you like to sculpt buildings.
Experiment with textures and methods for creating textures. For example, try pressing found objects into the wall of the clay like a stamp. Scrape the clay with your fingernails; punch it with your hands; smooth it with water and a sponge.
Paint or glaze the sculptures once they have been fired in the kiln. Consider your color choices and your medium carefully. For better control over color, you can paint with acrylic or oil paints. Glaze will give your sculpture a more classic appearance.
You will need at least a few tools in your studio, including a sponge and a needle tool. Many artists prefer to work with a wide variety of wooden and metal tools found in art supply stores and around the home. Look for different tools–sticks and knives in particular–that will be work well in your personal collection
Basic Sculpture Tool
A basic sculpture tool is the most frequently used item in the studio, it’s approximately 6 inches long and shaped like a pencil made from hardwood or plastic. The tool has one rounded, pointed end for edging, making small holes, cutting clay and tidying up the sculpture. The other end is a flat spatula shape used for smoothing the texture of small areas after applying extra sections of clay, such as arms, to a sculpture.
Small Cutter Tool
A small cutter is approximately 5 inches long and made from hardwood or plastic and stainless steel. The tool has two smooth metal loops, a square one at one end and a round one at the other. Use it to cut into the clay to remove sections from sculptures, by scraping it along the surface. The round end is especially useful for adding fine detailing to hands and faces.
The scraper tool is a clay modeling tool approximately 7 inches in length, made from hardwood or plastic. Some models have a metal-covered end for extra durability. Use the wider, flattened scraper end as a cutting tool to take off unwanted sections of clay, smooth and scrape the clay’s surface. The smooth, narrow end is useful for cutting and smoothing the sculpture.
A rubber kidney is a smoothing tool made from rubber or soft, flexible plastic and used for the initial flattening of large areas of rolled-out clay. Sections are smoothed out with a firm pressure applied on this tool, in several passes over the clay. Hold the tool in the palm of your hand with the indent against the tops of your fingers inside a closed hand and sweep across the clay. This tool is used to remove the throwing rings, or lines on hand-thrown clay pots.