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Basics of Sculpting with Clay: Article or Project

Suitable firing clay
miscellaneous sculpting tools
heavy cloth
plastic bag
armature for larger form
newspaper or similar

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Whether done as a hobby or as a craft or as a profession, all clay working is a form of art and great freedom of expression. You can take a lump of wet clay and just let yourself go to free form or you can attack it with a plan.

For really small sculptures, it is not necessary to use armatures, but if you are going to tackle a larger piece, you will most definitely want to build an armature as your base. It is best to not let the clay get too thick(1“ or there about, is desired maximum), so you ultimately want your sculpture hollow to some degree. The thicker the clay is, the more problems that will occur during the firing process.

It is recommended that you begin with some kind of sketch or drawing in order to determine the structure of an armature if needed. You can add as much detail as you want, but it is not really needed.

An armature is a foundation or form from which you wrap and build the base of your final sculpture. There are armatures on the market that are poseable, or you can create your own with wire or PVC attached to a base (most often wood). Keep in mind that you will have to remove this armature prior to firing. Once your armature is shaped for your basic pose, wrap it with thick layers of newspaper (or similar), The thicker you can wrap it, the more bulk you can create and the more hollow your item will be....and the easier to remove the armature.

After creating your armature, you can begin to mold your clay around it, building up your working base.
You have several choices of clay, there is smooth and then there is clay with varying degrees of grog. Grog is best described as sand or crushed fired clay mixed into the wet clay. Some grog is small, fine grit and others are quite coarse.

When you have your clay base built around your armature, there are any number of tools available on the market or in your own home that can be used to carve and design the details of your finished piece. Check with any Potter or ceramic supply to see what is available. You can also use knives, forks and spoons, sponge, water, brushes, cake decorating tools etc. I do recommend you have a long needle tool or stylus for attaching and scoring.

As you build your clay base, there will be times you will want to attach larger bits or clay extensions. In those cases, you will need to score (draw lines and generally rough up) the area where you are attaching the additions. Use the needle tool to poke a few holes in the clay extending into the armature as a vent . Wet the area with water (both the sculpture and the addition), then apply some slip/slurry to the area and then press your attachment into place. You can make slip by putting a small amount of clay in a bowl, add water and mix to a thick gravy consistency. You will want to do this also if you add more clay at all when you have allowed your piece to set for a day or two. This venting and scoring and application of slip helps prevent air pockets from forming which can explode during the firing process.

Have fun exploring different tools for carving and creating new textures. If you need to stop, cover your item with a wet cloth so that it does not dry out. If you are going to be away for long periods (a day or two), cover it with a plastic bag so it does not dry out.

When you have finished your masterpiece. Let it set for a day or two uncovered so that it can begin the drying process. When it reaches leather hard (firm) stage, carefully remove your armature and base and as much paper as you can without damaging your piece. It is most important to get the armature out, the paper will burn away. Trim and shape the bottom of your sculpture so it will sit/stand flat. If you need to, add more clay (remember to score and use slip to attach more clay).

One note about armatures. Some of your delicate pieces having thin extensions (I.e. arms, legs) should have armatures but they would be very difficult to remove. There are wire armatures on the market that can remain in the item and be fired in place. Check potter supply outlets.

It is imperative that your sculpture be BONE dry before firing. NO traces of moisture. This could take weeks, or even months, especially for larger pieces. If you have any doubt, wait. During firing, moisture can collect in any air pockets and your piece can explode. Trapped air can also cause your piece to explode during firing, so make sure you do not create pockets as you build your clay sculpture. To be safe, you may want to extend the firing time to several hours on low to give that added edge for dryness. Different clays require different firing temperatures for maturity, be sure to check the product specifications for correct cone/temperature and firing process.


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