Clay sculptures on armatures are all the rage. Armatures for clay sculptures can be formed from a variety of materials. You’ll see artists use wire, cardboard, plastic mesh, chicken fencing, and foil, to name a few. My favorite armature for clay sculptures is made with newspaper or butcher paper. This is a simple DIY — do it yourself — studio tool that can expand your sculpting scope. We’ll step you through the armature and the beginnings of a sculpture.
Materials — DIY Clay Sculptures on Armatures
- A simply made wooden stand composed of a foot long, 1″ dowel rod and a square foot of half inch plywood, plus one flathead screw.
- A pile of newspaper or butcher-type wrapping paper. The kind you might use to wrap a parcel for shipping.
- Wide tape with decent sticking power. Duct tape, packing tape, masking tape, painters tape.
- A very soft clay body. My life-sized heads require about five to seven pounds of clay.
- Studio tools like a paddle, a sponge, carving tools, ribs. You know the drill.
- Plastic for wrapping the piece between working sessions.
DIY Clay Sculptures on Armatures — Assembling the Armature
Don’t get nervous. The woodworking here is rudimentary — you might get your home center to do the cutting. Size the height of your dowel so that any piece you construct will fit in your kiln. Same goes for the size of your plywood base. My dowel is a foot tall, the clay usually ends up a half inch thick or so. Even if I put a hat on my figure, it would fit in my 20″ deep kiln.
- Cut a plywood square or rectangle to your preferred size. Mine is a foot square.
- Cut a length of one-inch diameter hardwood dowel to your preferred height. Account for the thickness of the base. If your kiln is 18″ deep, cut the dowel to less than 18 inches. Otherwise, it won’t fit the kiln.
- Create a slight recess in the center of the base if you have a forstner drill bit (available at home centers). No bit? Flush mount is fine. Mount the dowel into the base. Drive a long flathead screw through both the base and the dowel from the bottom side of the base. Tighten it up and you’re done.
Now off to the clay studio. We’ll cover the armature stand with paper wadding. Clay sculptures on armatures need padding to provide shape and curves.
- With newspaper and tape handy, set your armature stand on a work table. Begin crushing paper into wads.
- Wrap the wads tightly around the dowel — you’ll use more paper than you might think. The padding has to be quite firm and immobile.
- As you apply paper wads to the dowel, tape them in place, adhering them to each other and to the post.
- Build methodically, keeping your object to be sculptured in mind as you shape. Build out where you need to, for example the curve of a skull. You’re goal is to create a general shape, not detail.
- When you have something that strongly resembles the outline of your intended work, step back. Touch and squeeze the form to be sure it’s solidly firm. Add tape or paper where the form feels soft or gives too much.
- Make sure you have padded the top of the dowel so it does not end up poking through your piece as you build with clay. See? I told you building clay sculptures on armatures is simple.
Clay Sculptures on Armatures — Adding Clay to the Form
Put about five to ten pounds of your clay body handy to your workspace. You’ll pull off blobs and flatten them as you work. The clay should be very soft and plastic so you can do all of the flattening and application by hand, fairly quickly.
Pull off a large handful of clay, maybe half pound to three quarters, and pound it flat on your work surface. This is hand pounding, your don’t need mallets or clay rollers.
Make a rough pancake of clay about five eighths of an inch to a half inch thick. Slap it onto your form and press it so it stays while you make another. Maybe flatten a few at once so you can hold the first few onto the form while you add more pancakes.
At first, you’ll feel clumsy and might find it challenging to hold several onto the form. But it gets easier. Work quickly.
As you assemble the clay surface, don’t think about detail. Your goal is to cover the paper form with an even layer of soft clay. Using a serrated rib, rough up the edge of each pancake before you add a new piece.
Compress these joins thoroughly with your fingers. It’s kind of like coil joins. Smear the clay from the edge of one piece into the edge of the next and so on.
Keep going until you have covered the paper form completely. Let this set up a bit.
Refining the Surface of Clay Sculptures on Armatures
Still not thinking about forming a head, a horse, or some other specific object, continue considering the general outline shape of your piece.
- With your warm, bare hands, smooth the whole shape by stroking lumps down and refining seams a bit. Dampen your hands if they won’t slide over the clay — damp, not wet.
- With a wooden paddle or back of a large wooden spoon, tap the surface to
further shape it into a defined form. Pay attention to seams, paddle them smooth. Don’t spank the clay, just tap to flatten and refine.
- You need to poke steam release holes. Using a thin skewer, maybe an eighth inch, poke a good assortment of random holes all over the form.
- With your favorite rib, completely refine the surface so it’s smooth and shiny. Pull clay over the surface of the holes you made. Do not fill them completely, just cover them. At this point, you might consider gently indenting areas like eyes or chin.
- When you’re totally happy with the condition of your surface, you’re ready to begin shaping the final form.
Clay Sculptures on Armatures — Notes on Sculpting
You’re finished preparing your basic form and ready to sculpt. If sculpting is new to you, keep in mind that you’ll want to add clay and subtract clay. Eyes are not carved into a form, they are shaped and applied. Detail is carved or impressed. Chins are added. Ears are added. Lips and noses are added.
Hollows and indentations are ribbed in or pressed in with your fingers. It’s important that you avoid poking through your clay foundation as you shape the features.
With this armature process, for some reason, joins of clay-to-clay tend to pop off in the kiln. Make sure you thoroughly score new clay, and the clay to which it will attach. Use water or slip even if you’re joining flatter surfaces like a chin to a jaw.
Apply a lot of rib and hand compression.
When it’s time to put the piece away until another session, wrap it tightly with dense plastic smoothed against the surface. If you can’t get back to your piece for a long period of time, wrap the work in a barely damp towel before you cover with plastic.
Clay Sculptures on Armatures — Finishing
The possibilities for making clay sculptures on armatures are endless. After some practice, size is no limitation. You can work tiny or huge. A life-sized horse? Sure. It’s done often. A small child’s head? Yep.
I don’t recommend firing the armature. Burning paper makes a mess of carbon and off gasses. Cardboard is even worse. I suggest that you remove the paper base as follows.
Dry the finished sculpture thoroughly to leather hard. Remember that the inside is insulated, so it will dry quite slowly. If the surface gives to finger pressure, the object is not dry. A full-sized head takes a week or more in normal 40% to 50% humidity to dry. Be patient.
Let the piece spend a couple of days under loose plastic wrap. Then uncover it, leave it alone, and wait.
Once you’re quite sure the work is leather hard and can stand to be handled, it’s time to disembowel it.
You can lay the piece gently on its side on upholsterer’s foam. Or you can have a strong and patient assistant hold the piece while you do the extraction. If the clay is, indeed, leather hard, grab hunks of paper and tape and pull them out the bottom. You can tug pretty strongly — the stuff will come out.
Keep pulling and reaching in for more. The smell will be unpleasant, since you’re dealing with paper that has been wet for quite a while. Once the form is empty, it’s ready to rest some more to the bone dry stage. Then it can be bisque fired. It’s safest to put it on stilts or lay it on its side so moisture can escape out the bottom.
Building clay sculptures on armatures, as we said, can enhance your body of work. It’s fun to build large, and making a big project is a nice break from mugs and bowls. Surface decoration of these pieces has no limit. Glaze and fire, or fire and then use alternative media like inks, paint, stains, or metallics.