Beginners guide to sculpting in clay (2024)

By Artists & Illustrators | Thu 13th Feb 2020

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Working in three dimensions can be an interesting artistic challenge. Our guide on how to make clay sculptures breaks it down into simple, easy-to-follow steps.

Beginners guide to sculpting in clay (1)

Sculpting clay is a brilliant way to ignite your creativity. Although if you’re new to the medium and wondering how to make sculptures at home, it can be hard to know where to begin. From picking the right clay to improving technique, the following advice on clay sculptures for beginners will help get you started.

What clay is used for sculpting?

Before you start your clay sculpture you need to pick the appropriate clay. There are several types of clay used for sculpture, all varying in terms of handling and finish:

Oil-based modelling clay can appear unrefined and can be tricky for detailed work. But it stays soft and workable, making it good for practising with.
Polymerbased modelling clay is equally soft and can be baked in a household oven to fix a composition. It can be prone to cracking though.
Pottery or ‘firing’ clay – a water-based clay which can be shaped and fired at temperatures in excess of 121°C to stay firm. This is the method used for creating household ceramics.

What is the best sculpting clay to use at home?

Out of the above clays, the water-based option is best for beginners sculpting at home. Although it is often shaped on a potter’s wheel, it is by far the easiest to use to create shapes and forms using hand-building techniques.

How to start sculpting?

Now you’ve got your water-based clay sorted, it’s time for the creative part. Working in three dimensions will take some getting used to. However, these five useful tips will teach you how to make clay sculptures, from the initial idea to how to improve.

1. Envision the final piece

It is good to have a clear idea of how you want the final clay sculpture to turn out. So, before you start, make sketches of various imagined viewpoints and projections. Also consider the dimensions of the main shapes and the ratios between lengths.

Another recommendation, if you’re a beginner creating a 3D sculpture for your home, is to think about what direction it will most commonly be viewed from. Then if your attempt isn’t perfect from all angles, it will at least look good in position.

You may even want to consider trying a relief sculpture. As this involves adding forms onto a flat slab of clay, the final product won’t be viewed from all sides. It also lessens worries about weight and balance.

2. Test clay for wetness

Now you know what form your sculpture will take, it’s time to pick up your clay. Before you start, however, you’ll need to check if it’s wet enough as dried clay is difficult to work with.

Luckily, this is easy to test – pull off a small piece of the clay you intend to use and roll it in your hand until it forms a cylinder, about 1cm in diameter and about 10cm long. Bend the cylinder double. If it bends smoothly, it should be useable; if it cracks, try adding more water.

3. Build forms cleverly

If you are working without a potter’s wheel, there are still several simple ways of building up forms. Coils of clay are a good way of building up the sides of a hollow shape – laying the clay down in a spiral prevents it collapsing easily. Recesses can also be created by pinching the clay, digging out with your thumb and forefinger.

4. Avoid protruding shapes

A common question from beginners is how to make clay figures. You may have seen more advanced sculptors create these, with extended legs. The chances are that these artists will have used armatures – long, metal skeleton structures that support the weight of the clay.

Brass rods, aluminium wire and other stronger materials can be used for this too, but it is often easier to practise clay sculpting at home with more contained shapes. Once you’ve got the hang of this, then it’s time to consider adding armatures into your repertoire.

5. Look out for a local studio

While some art skills can be learnt through observation and practice, the more advanced aspects of clay sculpture can be tricky and need expert guidance. Look out for courses or local studios and sign up to find out more.

This gives you the chance to try firing your finished works for permanence and will ultimate improve your clay sculpting skills.

For more artistic advice and expert tips every month, .

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Beginners guide to sculpting in clay (2024)


Beginners guide to sculpting in clay? ›

Polymer clay remains soft and pliable and won't dry out. You can bake polymer clays in a conventional oven and your creation will still retain its color, shape and size after curing. Polymer clay is the perfect choice for beginners, but it's suitable for crafters of all skill levels.

How to begin sculpting with clay? ›

  1. Knead the clay using your palms. Place the clay on a hard surface that is covered with newspaper. ...
  2. Try the pinch method for an easy first project. ...
  3. Roll lumps of clay to create coils. ...
  4. Stack clay coils to create a vessel. ...
  5. Roll and trim clay into slabs.

What is the best clay for sculpting for beginners? ›

Polymer clay remains soft and pliable and won't dry out. You can bake polymer clays in a conventional oven and your creation will still retain its color, shape and size after curing. Polymer clay is the perfect choice for beginners, but it's suitable for crafters of all skill levels.

How to use clay for beginners? ›

  1. Open your clay. Begin working over a smooth, clean, nonporous surface. ...
  2. Knead your clay until it is soft. Kneading and massaging the clay will soften it and make it easier to work with. ...
  3. Shape your clay. ...
  4. Decorate your clay. ...
  5. Store your excess clay.

Is clay sculpting harder than Drawing? ›

However, sculpture is about creating a real object with real dimensions, weight and proportions. It depends what you like best, and what feels more natural to you. If you already know how to draw, and know basic anatomy, you may be a natural at sculpting. You won't know until you try it.

How do you harden clay after sculpting? ›

If you're talking about water-based pottery-type clay, you can harden it by firing it in a kiln. There are bake-hardening modeling clays such as Sculpey and a few other brands, which harden by baking in an ordinary kitchen oven.

What is the easiest clay to work with at home? ›

Stoneware clay is the most versatile and easiest to work with. If you are a beginner who's trying pottery making at home for the first time, we recommend you to get stoneware clay. It comes in a variety of colors from white to dark brown.

What's the difference between polymer clay and sculpting clay? ›

While modeling clay varieties such as Sculpey Non-Dry™ clay are oil-based, polymer clay uses polyvinyl chloride, a plastic-based material. Both modeling clay and polymer clay come in a wide variety of colors.

What is the best material for beginner sculpting? ›

Air dry clay

This one should come as no surprise to those familiar with my blog. Air dry clay is in my opinion the perfect medium for sculpting from home, especially for beginners.

What is the enemy of clay? ›

PLASTER IS THE ENEMY OF FIRING. It is most important that small pieces of plaster do not make their way into recycled clay because they will explode/spit out in the kiln once heated causing disastrous effects on pottery.

What are the techniques for clay beginners? ›

The three methods of handbuilding are pinching, coiling and slab building. Once you have experience with these three methods, you can make just about any object out of clay. It helps to start with pinching, and build upon the technique with coiling, before moving onto to slab construction.

Can you paint clay before it hardens? ›

Most pieces will be safe to handle carefully within a day but should be allowed to dry at least 24-48 hours before painting or sealing. Actual time to completely dry may take several weeks, and the clay becomes stronger with time.

What are the 4 basic sculpture techniques? ›

Four of the main methods of sculpture include carving, assembling, modeling, and casting.

What are the basics of sculpting? ›

Sculptors primarily use four basic techniques. The processes are either subtractive (material is removed or carved out) or additive (material is added). Carving: Carving involves cutting or chipping away a shape from a mass of stone, wood, or other hard material.

What is the first step in sculpting? ›

The first step in creating a sculpture with the lost-wax casting process is to create the initial model or pattern. A mold is then made around the model, and molten metal is poured into the mold. The mold is finally removed to reveal the final sculpture.

Can you sculpt clay without a kiln? ›

Firing pottery without a kiln is a creative and adventurous endeavor, but it requires careful planning and experimentation. Whether you choose Raku firing, home oven firing, or pit firing, each method offers unique results that can add character to your pottery pieces.

What do you need to start clay modelling? ›

Polymer clay Tools you will need:
  1. A tissue blade set. ...
  2. An Exacto/craft knife.
  3. An acrylic roller.
  4. A set of playing cards. ...
  5. A beading awl or handheld pin drill for making holes.
  6. Plastic shape templates in a few basic shapes or a few basic cutter sets.
  7. A ruler.


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