Working With Clay

This article coversthe basic elements for working with clay.

One of the most important things to do when working with clay is to feel it. This may sound silly, but getting used to the texture and feel of the clay is important. The reason for this is actually very practical. There are many different types and qualities of clay and each type of clay is suitable for a particular task. When buying clay ask about the amount of grog that the clay contains. Grog is a hard element in the clay that determines the strength or weakness of the material. If you are going to use the clay for sculptural purposes then you need strong, flexible clay; while smoother clay with less grog may be more appropriate for pottery work.

However, there are no hard and fast rules and I have often used a clay that was deemed for pottery in my sculptural work. This is what one has to develop a "feel" for clay. It is only through actually working with the particular clay that one establishes a sense of its quality and ability.

What do you need?

Once you have your clay then the following items will be essential. One needs a range of tools with which to shape the clay. These tools are sold at hobby shops and are usually in the shape of cutting wires, knives and spoons. However, one can use almost anything to shape soft clay, including old kitchen implements. Even pieces of wood and steel can be used to shape clay in a unique way. All sculptors have their range of favourite tools, and these are often not bought but made or found.

You will need a solid surface on which to work. A piece of masonite board is an excellent surface as long as it is not too thin. Remember that clay is wet and must remain so throughout the working process, this necessitates that the board or surface you work on should not be too thin, otherwise it will be prone to warping.

Other items that are extremely useful are: a sponge for smoothing and even shaping the clay and a spray bottle for keeping the clay moist.

Making your clay model:

Start with something small. Large clay models require a different technique and can be frustrating for the beginner. A large model also requires an armature to be made. An armature is a frame; usually from steel, which is constructed to support the clay model. A further reason for starting small is that the later casting process becomes more complex. A suggested model is a face or hand or something with simple lines and shapes. Do not try using your imagination to model at first. A more imaginative approach can be used later after the foundations of clay sculpture have been mastered.

Begin experimenting with your range of tools and explore the different ways in which they shape the clay. Remember that the wonderful advantage of clay is that you can wipe out any mistakes and start again. Always remember to keep the clay moist with your spray bottle. If you have to leave your model for a period of time, cover it with plastic, making sure that it is fairly well sealed, and moisten the plastic. In this way one can keep a clay model fresh for working on for weeks.

Once your creation reaches perfection and you feel that you have achieved your aim, then the clay can be left to dry. But this drying process should be done slowly, as they clay may crack if it dries too quickly. Therefore, put your model in a cool place to dry and cover it with a slightly damp cloth. Do not allow it to dry in the sun, as this is sure to cause cracking. Once the model is completely dry you may apply a varnish or a coat of paint. Remember that hardened clay is still very fragile and this process is only suitable for indoor sculpture. There are a number of casting techniques which allow the transformation of the clay into a much more durable material like bronze and fibreglass.

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