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The Basics of Working With Clay

Tools, Materials, and Sculpture Process


Preparations - Before beginning a sculpture, start by drawing out your ideas on paper to find the exact positioning and structure that you want. Small details can be added to the drawings, but don't bog yourself down with technicalities.


Armature - A good armature for a clay sculpture consists of a wooden base with pvc pipes cut to the approximate height of the finished sculpture. Wrap the pvc with newspaper to form the musculature/skeletal outline of the sculpture. Once the general shape is in place, then start molding the clay around the newspaper. Go to building a clay sculpture armature for a detailed example.

Smaller artworks can be built over newspaper with no armature - see the Clay Horse Sculpture Demonstration for more info.


Sculpting/Drying - I use a white, low-fire earthenware clay (water-based) fired to cone 05 for most of my sculptures. Once the sculpture is finished, allow the piece to dry until it is leather-hard (the clay has dried enough to no longer be pliable). Then pull the entire piece off of the armature with the newspaper still inside (you may need to use a wire tool to detach the clay from the wooden armature base). After carefully removing as much newspaper as possible, allow the piece to completely air dry.


Firing the Sculpture - see the Firing Charts pages.



Tools - from top to bottom, left to right:

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  • Rolling pin - flattens the clay. Most often used for slab-type construction (the process used in the small clay demo).
  • Wood modeling tool - this is a very useful tool that allows you to seam together clay pieces, smooth the clay and add details.
  • Knife - Used to cut straight lines (the needle tool can also be used for cutting lines, but the knife usually makes a smoother edge than the needle tool).
  • Needle tool - This tool has many uses:
    • cutting lines or tiny details into clay
    • scoring the clay (you could also use a fork for scoring).
    • venting - this tool is used to stab small holes through the clay to the armature in order to open up any air pockets (this is demonstrated in the panther sculpture demo).

  • Spoon - Used to smooth over the clay surface once it is semi-dry (before it turns leather-hard).
  • Ribbon Tool - Used to cut designs and patterns into an artwork (entaglio).
  • Slip - Watered-down clay that is used to seam together two or more pieces of clay (this is demonstrated in the small clay demo).


Useful Terms:

  • Leather-Hard - The unfired clay is no longer malleable. At this stage the artwork is complete, but you can still cut in some designs (entaglio) or add stain.
  • Greenware - A finished clay artwork that is dry but has not been fired.
  • Bone Dry - Most of the water has been removed, and the clay is ready for the initial drybox/kiln heating.
  • Bisqueware - Clay that has been fired, but not glazed.
  • Glazeware - Clay that has been fired with glaze.
  • Scoring and Slipping - using the needle tool, the wood modeling tool, or an old fork to score the clay, and then filling the scores with slip. This makes new clay adhere to old clay and reduces the possiblility of air pockets. Check out the small clay demo for examples.

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Copyright 2012, Artist Jen Pratt, Equus Studio - horse art & clay art by horse artist Jen Pratt
Contact: Jen Pratt | 417-763-0428 | jen (at) jenpratt (dot) com


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