(Feb 2018) How to Start Sculpting: Method, Part I
 Hello all,   

This month's article is a continuation of my How To Start Sculpting series, which started on Tumblr but has been reposted here and will be continued here. As many of these things seem to turn out to be, it’s less of a tutorial than it is a guideline for things to do and look out for as a beginner to both art and sculpture, especially for those who are learning completely on their own as I did. I may delve into more specific tutorials eventually, and if requested, but for now I would like to stick to a more generalized look into beginner sculpture so that anyone reading this is not restricted to just doing the same sort of sculpture I do.  


Once you've acquired your materials of choice, the best thing to do is dive right in with a project that you know lies within your limits.  Whether that is a simple head sculpt, something more abstract, or a whole action figure sort of sculpture, you will know best what that means; but I find that just biting the bullet and doing something to start is the best, rather than overthinking it. I hear often about beginners procrastinating on even touching the material because they are intimidated by it, afraid of failure, or afraid of wasting clay somehow-- but like anything, you have to start somewhere, even if that seems an obvious point to make.  

At any rate, once you have that idea in mind, you may find it helpful to draw a few different views of it to provide yourself with a blueprint. Front, back, and side generally suffices but the more thorough you are, the better understanding of the object in 3D you will have, which can only be a good thing.   


Whatever project that you’ve chosen, it will likely require an armature (unless you use another technique like coil-building, which I will cover in a later post as it's slightly more difficult and involved.)

Where clay is your sculpture’s flesh, an armature is its bones-- armatures are the hard underlying structure that you can build upon with your clay.  They can be anything from twisted wire, to cardboard tubes, to crumpled aluminum foil or even crushed paper. As long as you can build on it and it provides adequate support, then it will work.   

While you do have many choices of material to build your armature out of, you should take the clay that you are using into consideration. Any clay that requires heat to cure should not be used in conjunction with a styrofoam armature, for instance.  Additionally, if you want your resulting sculpture to be light and hollow, then plan for your armature to be easily removed-- ensure that it is smooth so that there are fewer surfaces for the hardened clay to hang onto, or that it can be easily cut into pieces. Covering your armature with shipping tape or plastic wrap for example will achieve this.   

Another consideration to bear in mind is the size of your armature. A thicker armature will of course mean that you use less clay, but it will make for thinner clay walls and possibly mean later on that you have less room for correcting errors or making course adjustments. Hopefully, you do not end up fighting your armature because it’s too close to the surface of your sculpt and you have given yourself no room to carve into.  On the other hand, if you have a very minimal and thin armature, then you will likely have a heavy sculpt that uses up a lot of your resources.  

Some clays also fare better when you work with them at below a certain thickness. Paperclays, for instance, should not be layered on too thick because that will make for a very uneven cure, leading to cracks, warping, and a very long cure time. Epoxy-type clays also get heavy quickly; 1/8th of an inch to 1/4th tends to be the ideal for the roughly ⅓ scale sculptures that I do, allowing for a decent amount of strength and space to carve without using too much clay.   

If you decided to draw a blueprint of your project, then at this point draw an outline of your planned armature within the sculpt to ensure that you know what shape you are aiming for when you build it. This will help you be mindful of clay thickness especially.  


The specifics of how you do this will vary depending on the clay you use, but essentially building up general shapes is what to bear in mind, using large pieces of clay.  I will avoid getting into the artistic aspect of this here because there are thousands of resources out there already that can teach you anatomy and blocking out, and instead focus on ways to work with the clay:

Usually this stage involves piling on the largest amounts of clay, and logistically that poses a few problems: one, many of the clays I list are very stiff at room temperature, or require some kind of mixing, both of which are difficult on the hands. Two, once you have a lot of raw, malleable clay in play, things can get complicated.

Gentle heat like from a hair dryer on a low setting, or a small desk heater, will soften some of those clays and make them easier to work with. Plastiline, polymer, and epoxy will all soften with heat, but too much will accelerate the cure of the last two. When it comes to epoxy specifically, using heat during the initial mixing stage will soften it a great deal and give your hands a break; once it has been mixed, do not continue to apply heat or it will harden much faster than you might like.  

Mixing paperclay and epoxy with water will also soften them, with some trade-off in terms of durability. Paperclay out of the bag is fairly pliable, but in cases where you need it to be easier to push around and smooth, knead water in gradually until it is the correct texture. Epoxy tends to vary from extremely soft/sticky to very stiff, and in both cases I find that adding water makes it more workable; add in water gradually as you would for paperclay.  Paperclay will weaken more easily by adding water than epoxy will, but unless you are creating a very thin easily breakable piece, it shouldn't be too worrisome.

As you sketch out your sculpture on top of your armature, you may find it helpful to strategically harden sections of it as you go along, in order to avoid marring what you've already laid down. Plastiline will remain workable indefinitely, but putting it in the freezer will harden it well enough that you do not have to be worried about badly denting/scratching what you've already made. Polymer clays can be baked repeatedly, but unless you are ready to commit to curing the clay, cold will also harden it temporarily.  With epoxy clay, really your only option is to speed up the cure with heat, at least until it is stiff enough that pressing into it with a fingernail will not leave a dent. Gentle heat will also cure paperclay relatively quickly-- the only danger is in applying too much heat too fast, which will lead to cracks and warping.

Knowing these facts about how your clay works will also help in later stages, and as you continue to use it, you will learn far more properties than I have the time or ability to describe here. Hopefully you will have picked up on the theme that every type of clay is used in very differing ways, each offering their own set of strengths and weaknesses.  Even brands within the same genre of clay will sometimes offer a different experience-- for instance almost all 'modeling' type clays, while they will all soften will heat and harden with cold, are able to hold differing levels of detail; some are more wax-like, and some are more earth-like.

At rate, I will write more next month about the next stages of sculpting. If there is anything I have missed in covering these topics, please comment and ask.