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5 Tips for the amateur Sculptor - ArtLyst Article image

5 Tips for the amateur Sculptor

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There are many different types of clay that are used in sculpting, each type has specific properties and can vary greatly in terms of handling and finish. Oil-based clay appears unrefined and is difficult to work intricate details, but it is known to remain soft and can be reworked, which makes it the perfect clay for practicing. While Polymer based clay is also soft and can be baked in a household oven to fix. But it is prone to cracking a little more than Oil-based clay.

The new sculptors ought not to feel disconcerted if their projects don’t come out as well as you’d like. Working in three dimensions is a little and difficult and will probably take some getting used to. If you are creating a 3D sculpture for your home, consider which direction it will be most commonly viewed from and try to ensure that if your first attempt isn’t perfect from all angles, it will at least look good in position. The other alternative is to try a relief sculpture by building up forms on a flat slab of clay that won’t be viewed from all sides.

Here are five useful tips to help you begin working with water-based clay:

1. Envision the final piece

before you start, it is always a good idea to have a clear idea of how you want the final sculpture to turn out. Make sketches of various imagined viewpoints and projections. Consider the dimensions of the main shapes and the ratios between lengths.

2. Test for wetness

Dried clay will be difficult to work with but it is easy to test if it is wet enough before you start. Pull off a small piece of the clay you intend to use and roll it in your hand until it forms a cylinder, about 1cm in diameter and about 10cm long. Bend the cylinder double. If it bends smoothly, it should be useable; if it cracks, try adding more water.

3. Build forms cleverly

If you are working without a potter’s wheel, there are still several simple ways of building up forms. Coils of clay are a good way of building up the sides of a hollow shape – laying the clay down in a spiral prevents it collapsing easily. Recesses can also be created by pinching the clay, digging out with your thumb and forefinger.

4. Avoid protruding shapes

you may have seen more advanced sculptors create figures with extended legs but the chances are they will have used armatures – long, metal skeleton structures that support the weight of the clay. Brass rods, aluminum wire and other stronger materials can be used, but it is often easier to practice with more contained shapes.

5. Look out for a local studio

while some art skills can be learnt through observation and practice, the more advanced aspects of clay sculpture can be tricky and need expert guidance. Look out for courses or local studios in our classified section and sign up to find out more, and to try your hand at firing your finished works for permanence.


Try to knead the clay a bit before forming or shaping it to prevent those awful white stretch lines in the clay after the baking or curing process.

  • Be sure when you are kneading your clay that you don't fold it over itself a lot as this can create air pockets within the clay.

  • While working with your clay, if you see white spots in the clay you can 'rub' the area until you get down to the air pocket, then push and rub the clay to get it back to where it was before you got rid of the air pocket.  It can be a tedious job to rub out those air pockets but it does ensure a better looking baked piece!

  • Do not put your clay in a food processor to "grind" it up and make it soft...this will trap so much air in the clay that the finished piece will be covered in white spots and Moonies.  If your clay is really hard try wrapping a heating/heated pad around it to help soften it up (unless you have very warm hands...then just hold it in your hands a bit until it warms up.
  • The opposite can be true too...too warm clay...terrible to work with at this point.  You can place it in the freezer a few minutes to get it firmed up OR you can dip it into some clean ice water...this will firm it up too.

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