I received yet another question about this on my Tumblr, and I’ve written a few posts on this before (can’t be arsed to find them now) but not very comprehensibly. May as do that well now.
For starters, let’s think about what sculpture is. You can basically divide all the different types of sculpture into two camps: subtractive and additive. Subtractive being where you start out with a block of something hard, and carve away everything that isn’t your sculpture. Additive being you start from nothing and create mass. There are, of course, things in-between but generally speaking you’re looking at subtraction or addition. I won’t delve into the subtractive side now, since it’s a very intimidating place to start sculpting and I think people generally like starting out on the additive side– perhaps a post for another time.
So on to additive sculpture, which is what all of the sculpts on my blog are. You create mass using clay. Sounds simple, right? Not really, especially if you start thinking about it. Every clay is different, every project is different. I obviously don’t know what your projects are, but I can speak to the properties of varying clays and why they might be better or worse for whatever it is you’re doing.
So first, I’ll introduce you to a few types of clays, their properties, and what they’re best suited to be used for. Every one of these clays would be suitable for a beginner to pick up and learn with, IMO, which is why I am including them and not others. It might seem like a bit much, but bear with me– many people don’t know what can be done with clay, much less that there are more than a few types. Becoming familiar with clay of all kinds will better inform what kinds of things you can create.
This camp of clays is chemically cured, meaning that they come in two separate parts, A and B, which you combine in order to initiate the chemical reaction that hardens them. Once the parts are mixed, you have a window of working time in which the clay is still soft– typically 1 to 2 hours, with a full cure within 24 hours. Once cured it’s almost rock hard, and of all of these clays, it takes the most elbow grease to sand and carve. In its raw form, right after it’s been mixed, epoxy clay is incredibly sticky but workable with water or a touch of Vaseline. It will adhere to almost everything, including itself, which makes adding onto what you’ve already sculpted very easy.
Time is the biggest factor when it comes to working with epoxy clay. The working window is relatively small, and then having to wait a further few hours in order for it to harden enough that it doesn’t deform when you try to work on it further can be annoying. The cure can be, however, sped up by use of heat (and conversely, slowed down by cold.)
This is my absolute favorite type of clay. It holds so much detail– this clay makes for some crisp edges, where the others don’t. And furthermore, it’s the most durable of all of these clays, which (if you’re like me and tend to drop and accidentally smash things a lot) is important to ease of handling and the permanence of the finished piece.
COST: On the expensive side, ranging from $22/lb to $40/lb depending on the brand.
WEIGHT: Heavy, and the weight adds up quickly.
DURABILITY: 5/5, after a full cure. It can be stretched very thin and still maintain its strength, making it suitable for any project that requires a lot of small or thin projecting parts.
PROTECTIVE FINISH?: Not necessary, although some UV-cutting spray is recommended for unpainted pieces, as they will yellow over time.
RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Apoxie Sculpt, Milliput.
No, I don’t mean papier mache or that horrible grey linty dust that you added water to in middle school art class to create a lumpy sad goop (although I’m sure people have created good sculptures with them before.) I mean actual clay. This type of clay has a very smooth consistency, fine particles, and dries very lightweight and durable. It is not very sticky, but it does adhere fairly well to itself and to other things, and again the stickiness can be combated with water. It is air-dried and comes ready to use, with no conditioning (mixing) required, so no need to mix two parts together or to fiddle around with an oven to cure. The soft-clay working time is, theoretically, limitless so long as you keep the clay wet (although it will weaken if you add too much water, I find.)
It is easy to carve and sand once dried. If you progress through the sanding stages properly, it can be polished to a lovely almost porcelain-like sheen. In terms of holding detail, paperclay does pretty well, but not nearly as well as epoxy clay. This clay is made up of a lot of tiny little fibers, after all, and the fibers will show once you get to a certain level of detail.
One disadvantage is that thicker pieces will tend to crack unless you build them up in stages. Additionally, sometimes new layers won’t adhere well to older ones– I’ve had it happen where I’ve added a new layer to a piece, only to discover later on that it flakes off. It’s easy enough to fix, but can be annoying having to go back and redo things.
COST: $15/lb seems to be the average.
WEIGHT: Very lightweight, even in thicker pieces.
DURABILITY: 3-4/5, depending on the brand. Where epoxy clay cures to be like stone, paper clay cures to be like a soft wood. These will dent and scratch easily if you drop them, but they’re not likely to shatter unless the piece is thin.
SHRINKAGE: Minimal, but it can lead to cracking.
PROTECTIVE FINISH?: Necessary, to protect against yellowing, against damp, and prevent dents and scratches from handling.
RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Premier, Premix, LaDoll, Creative Paperclay (listed in order of strength from strongest to least.)
Now this is where it gets really complicated. Polymer clays are popular because they are (ostensibly) easy to use, come in many colors, and stay soft until you bake them in an oven, which for many beginners is less intimidating than feeling like you’re working against a clock. There are some amazing effects you can create with polymer clay due to the sheer variety of what’s on offer– there’s translucent clay, glow in the dark, shimmer/glitter effects, all sorts. Because of that you can create some amazingly realistic fleshtones and really colorful pieces without the need for paint.
But they are incredibly difficult to group together and describe. There are many brands of polymer clay, and many varieties within those brands. For instance, Sculpey alone makes Original Sculpey, Sculpey III, Super Sculpey, Premo, and Sculpey Model Air, all of which have different textures and properties and strengths. For simplicity’s sake I won’t delve into detail here, so in the broadest of terms:
Polymer clay is a firm, smooth-grained, plasticky sculpting compound that stays workable until cured in an oven. It usually requires some conditioning before use, which can wear on your hands if you’re trying to use large quantities at a time. Upon cure, if cured correctly, it is similar to ceramic. (If cured incorrectly, it can become brittle, burnt, and discolored, which sucks for a beginner.) It can be baked more than once, and fresh clay can be added to the surface with the aide of some sanding/clay conditioner. It is also easily smoothed with tools or your fingertips.
But more than that, as I said, is pretty difficult to say without over-generalizing all the different varieties. Head over to The Blue Bottle Tree for far more comprehensive information on this.
COST: $12/lb ish – $30/lb. Ish.
WEIGHT: It gets pretty heavy in large quantities.
DURABILITY: 3/5. In my experience with it, it breaks far more easily than the two above, even when it’s properly cured.
SHRINKAGE: Not that I’ve noticed.
PROTECTIVE FINISH?: Again I defer to The Blue Bottle Tree.
RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Sculpey, Fimo, Cernit… but these are just the ones that I’ve personally used, there are far far more out there. Check out that link.
Probably the first thing that popped into your head when reading that header was the bright primary colors of elementary school modeling clay, making dinosaurs, smashing dinosaurs, getting your hands stained with that strange-smelling residue and mixing the clay together to create one massive brown blob at the end of the day. But modeling clay is not only a children’s teaching tool, and all brands of them are certainly not created equal. There are, indeed, proper artist-grade varieties of modeling clay, and these are the ones you should look into.
Good modeling clay is almost like a soft wax– it doesn’t crumble at the edges like your elementary school clay, and can hold crisp detail. It’s reusable, very firm when cold, soft when warmed, smooths easily, packs on easily when you’re building mass– fantastic to learn with, because it’s impermanent, and it forces you to let go of the idea of making something perfect.
This is the clay I’d recommend to anyone who just wants to get a feel for sculpting without the pressure of creating anything, or who is worried about wasting clay. And I’d recommend it to anyone starting out because it’s simply good practice to get into the habit of sculpting things and then destroying them.
COST: $3.29/lb – $7/lb.
RECOMMENDED BRANDS: Klean Klay, Van Aken Protolina, Craftsmart.
My recommendation for a beginner: buy 1lb of modeling clay, and choose 1lb of clay from the other three categories. Choose one that best suits what your end goal is. Are you going for permanence? Ease of use? A high level of detail? Colors? etc.
So now that you know Too Much About Clay (imagine what it’s like being in my head, honestly), and have possibly chosen one to research further, we can talk about tools.
Tools are incredibly personal, and as you sculpt more, you will develop your own toolbox that’s suited to your techniques. Starting off, however, you’re probably good to go with any old wooden set of tools like this one. Nothing fancy. Wooden tools like these will work fine with all of the above clays, so long as you keep them clean. I wouldn’t recommend those metal dental-tool looking sets that are for pottery, like for example this. Why? Because they are for pottery. The forms are not well-suited to additive figurative sculpture, generally speaking– too harsh and pokey. Some individual tools from sets like those, like the loops or rounded little spoons, are useful. But for the sake of getting started, stick with the wooden tools.
In addition to that, I’d recommend you also get:
-a comfortable X-Acto knife with extra blades
–a respirator and a vacuum (things get dusty)
-a large cutting mat (things get messy)
That’s all you really need to get on with, as far as materials go.
As for methods, that entirely depends on what you want to get up to– if you want to do what I do, I post a lot of WIPs in my tag, and I’m always open to questions if you want to know more about the process. ‘How do I get started with sculpture’ is just such a broad question, with so many factors that go into explaining the ‘how.’ Something as seemingly simple as clay took me nearly a thousand words to get through– so as you can imagine, the more specific you are with your questions, the more helpful I can be to you.
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