We all benefit from the learnings of the many generations of sculptors preceding us. This piece of ochre, found in Blombos Cave in the Republic of South Africa shows engraving marks made by an artist—are you ready for it?–77,000 – 75,000 years ago.
Our history lesson, Art History: A Brief History of Sculpture, at the end of this course describes the history of sculpture in more detail.
Tip: If you are taking this course on your own, please take a look at the Being A Successful Student lesson first.
In this lesson, we’ll go over the essential supplies you’ll need for creating a sculpture as well as how to set up your studio to work in. Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:
Essential Materials And Tools
In this section, we’ll go over the essential items you need to start sculpting and at the end, there’s a printable recommendation list you can take with you to the art store. As you’ll see below in Exercise 3, our sculpture budget is $88.
Choosing Your Clay
There are many different types of clay on the market that you can use to create a sculpture. For the purpose of our lessons, we will be using a plastilina clay, but it’s helpful to know about other types just in case. In this section, we’ll talk briefly about the most common types of clay.
Ceramic clays are made from clay minerals and other raw materials. They are water-based, meaning that eventually the water in the clay will evaporate and it will become hard and brittle.
To keep them from falling apart, pieces made from ceramic clay must be fired in a kiln.In ancient times, people mined clay from the earth and made vessels and pottery pieces that were then fired in primitive kilns, kept hot over many hours with fire.Pieces made from ceramic clay are allowed to air dry for a period until the majority of the water has evaporated, then they are fired (i.e. “baked” but don’t say that to a professional ceramicist!) at high temperatures until the clay becomes solid. Think about the tile in your bathroom or your coffee mug—chances are they are made using this process.The benefit of using ceramic clay is that, once fired, it can last forever (unless you drop it and break it—same as your coffee mug). The drawback is that, unless you have access to a kiln, ceramic clay will become very brittle and crumble. Ceramic clay also requires a bit of “babysitting.” When you are working with ceramic clay, the piece must be kept damp with a spray bottle of water and wrapped in light plastic in order to keep it pliable. Clay dust is also a health hazard as it contains bits of silica. If you work with ceramic clay, don’t ever sweep dry bits of clay—instead, use a damp sponge to pick up any clay dust. Once the clay has been fired, don’t attempt to sand it for the same reason—silica can be released into the air, and it’s not good to breathe.You can learn more about kilns if you want here.Oil-Based ClayThis is the type of clay we recommend for our sculpture course. Oil-based clay is a non-drying clay. It can be reused indefinitely because it never hardens. Because it is oil-based and not water-based like ceramic clay, it cannot go into a kiln—it would just melt! It is non-water soluble and is often used in animation (have you seen Wallace & Gromit?). Depending on the type you get, it has little to no odor and there are no serious health concerns associated with using it.The nice thing about oil-based clay is that you can just keep experimenting with it over and over again without having to worry about it drying out or becoming brittle. When you’re finished sculpting for the day, there’s no special treatment for it—just eave it on a flat surface and walk away. The drawback to oil-based clay is that, unless you make a mold of your finished sculpture, there’s no guarantee it will stand the test of time. High temperatures (even direct sunlight from a window) can cause the clay to melt.WED ClayWED clay is a type of clay often used for model making (like alien masks in movies and that sort of thing).
It’s a sort of hybrid of the two aforementioned clays—it is water-based, but doesn’t require firing in a kiln to become hardened. It still requires some babysitting, and it should be kept damp when you’re not working with it, though it dries much more slowly than traditional ceramic clay. It is not reusable like oil-based clay, and cannot be fired in a kiln. The nice part about WED clay is that you can get a lot more detail than you would with other types of clays. Most artists that use WED clay will make a mold of the final piece to cast it in other materials like silicone, plastic, resin, or plaster.
Polymer clay is the stuff you buy at craft stores and is typically used to make small things, like figurines, dolls or jewelry.It comes in a variety of colors and can be baked in an oven at a low temperature, allowing it to cure and become hard. It has a polymer polyvinyl chloride (PVC—basically plastic) base, so there’s no need to keep it damp and it will remain workable until it is baked.Due to new regulations, most polymer clays are safe to use and bake in your personal oven, but it’s a good habit to get into to always read the labels on your art supplies.
So which clay should I use?
For our lessons, we are using oil-based plastilina clay. It requires less attention than water-based clay and although making a mold of your final piece to have a long-lasting replica of it seems like a pain, at least it’s something you can do at home or in your studio. Not many people have access to ceramic kilns and even if you did, transporting clay that is in a brittle state can be risky business.
If you have access to a kiln and want to use water-based clay, go for it! If you want to make very small sculptures and figurines, try using some polymer clay. The choice is ultimately yours as an artist.
If you will be using something other than the oil-based clay that we use for the lessons, you won’t be able to use paint thinner to smooth the clay. We’ll talk about that more later, but keep it in mind if you choose to work with a different type of clay than what we are using.
Regardless of the clay you choose, it goes without saying to wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty when you sculpt, and consider wearing an apron too as our sculptor Kent does in his videos.
Other Essential Supplies
A small piece of plywood or other flat scrap wood around 12” x 12” less than 1” thick will serve as a platform for your various sculpture pieces. You’ll want a firm surface that is small enough to be portable.
If you plan to work on more than one sculpture at a time, make sure you have enough boards to accommodate all of them.
Steel minarettes are sculpture tools that will help you in tight spots. Each has a different end for different situations. You can purchase these in sets (for about $20) so you’ll have an opportunity to try each one out and see which are your favorites.
Each tool has different qualities and tasks that it is best assigned to. If you’re trying to scoop out a large amount of clay from a block, obviously a sharp needle tool isn’t your best bet—something bigger and shaped like a spatula will be better suited to that task. Once you buy your toolkit, play around with each of the tools using a chunk of your clay to get a feel for what each tool does and how you can best use it when you’re sculpting. Sculpting tools can be found at art stores or online (try searching for “sculpture tools” or “dental tools”).
Our Recommendation List also suggests having a mirror handy. This is so you have a constant reference point–your own face! We’ll be working on sculpting a self-portrait (or a general human face if you prefer) in this series of lessons, so a mirror is an excellent resource for being able to examine individual bits of the face as you sculpt.
It’s helpful to have a clip-on lamp to attach to the edge of your workstation to keep your work well lit. An overhead light combined with a directional, clip-on lamp is an ideal lighting setup as it will give you a nice spotlight on your work (the clip-on light) and good fill light (the overhead). Just make sure you don’t have a lot of shadows being projected onto your work. That will make it more difficult to see small areas of detail.
Small, clip-on lights like this can be purchased from hardware stores for around $10. Make sure you don’t leave them on when you leave your studio—they can get hot!
Before the invention of electricity, a lot of artists painted by candlelight. Michelangelo used to sculpt at night wearing a hat of candles for light! Another artist, Giorgio Vasari, wrote a biography on Michelangelo and mentioned the sculptor’s lighting scheme: “…and very often, being unable to rest, he would get up at night and set to work with his chisel, wearing a hat made of thick paper with a candle burning over the middle of his head so that he could see what he was doing and have his hands free.”
We do NOT recommend this!
Armature and Drill
When you complete this sculpture course, your final exercise will be to sculpt a human head (also called a “bust”). When you make your bust, you’ll need an armature to hold the clay up and keep it from falling down as you work. To make an armature, you’ll need some steel pipes, fittings for them, and a floor flange, all of which can be found at a hardware store. More on this in Lesson 7: Building An Armature And Sculpting A Head In The Round.
Throughout the lessons, we will be using paint thinner on a brush to smooth out the final sculptures. Paint thinner isn’t totally necessary, so if the fumes are too much for you or your space isn’t well ventilated, you can skip it.
Paint thinner is toxic and flammable, so if you use it, be sure that you are in a well-ventilated area. If you can manage to complete this step outdoors, that’s best. If not, you need at least two windows open across from each other to get cross-ventilation and drive the nasty fumes outside.
If you ever start to feel light-headed or nauseous, leave the room immediately. Go outside and get some fresh air. Your studio isn’t well ventilated enough and you should reconsider your ventilation system or your working methods. For more information about proper ventilation, check out this website: http://muddycolors.blogspot.com/2012/02/studio-safety-pt-1-ventilation.html
Paint thinner is also flammable, so you’ll need to take care of brushes and rags immediately, as they can ignite without a spark. Do not smoke or leave lit candles/incense by your paint thinner.
Watch this video from ABC News:
Keep rags in a fire can—any metal container with a lid will work. Make sure there’s no plastic inside the can as it can ignite and melt if there’s a fire. If you don’t have a fire can, you can soak your rags in water and lay them out flat to dry. Crumpled rags start fires but laid flat the heat will dissipate as the paint thinner cures. Once they have dried, they can be reused or thrown out with your household trash.
A small, soft, synthetic bristle brush can brush off any dust or unwanted clay bits from your sculpture and, if you decide to use paint thinner to smooth out your sculpture at the end, you’ll need a brush to apply it. An inexpensive brush will be perfect—you don’t need anything fancy!
A banding wheel or lazy Susan is helpful to turn your sculpture, but if you don’t have one, don’t sweat it.
You’re going to be watching tutorial videos as you’re sculpting, so you’ll want to have a computer or smartphone and internet access in your studio. We recommend for all our videos that you watch the video first all the way through without attempting to sculpt along, then read the text, and finally watch it a second time while sculpting. The videos should be watched in full screen whenever possible. Click on the link below for a refresher on watching videos.
Important note: We spent a lot of time trying to make the Closed Captions on our YouTube teaching videos as accurate as possible. We hope this allows those students who do not understand English to more effectively convert the Closed Captions into their language of choice. Of course, we realize any translation will not be completely accurate, but we are hopeful that the translation, combined with the video, will allow anyone in the world to understand the videos and thus take all of the Beginner’s School courses.
See our discussion on how to translate Closed Captions here: Closed Captioning on YouTube
It’s nice to have access to a computer even if you’re done watching our tutorial videos just in case you need a reference image or have a quick question about something. The one problem with having a computer and internet access in your studio is that is can be very distracting. If you choose to have this in your studio, make sure you’re not wasting all your studio time on Facebook!
Space and Cleanup
Consider your floors. The clay you’ll be working with is non-toxic, so it can be used in just about an area of your home or studio, but dropped pieces can mix in with carpet and be impossible to get out if they’re ground in (accidentally, with your feet). It can also be difficult to get off of hardwood floors because wood is porous. Your best bet is to work on top of tile or concrete, where bits of dropped clay can be easily scraped off. If that’s not possible, consider purchasing a drop cloth or plastic tarp to protect your floors. You may want to wear some old clothes or a work apron that can get messy, especially when you move on to making a mold of your piece.
You’ll need a table to work on (at least 12” x 12”) and an adjustable chair will help keep you from hurting your back by standing or hunching over.
Storing your Materials and Sculptures
If you can swing it, try to have a place to work where you can leave your materials set up so you don’t waste precious creating time setting everything up! If you can’t do this, then try to store things efficiently so you minimize your set up time. Have all your materials in one place (boards, clay, tools, etc.) so you’re not running around the house trying to find everything you need. I use an old suitcase (like the one pictured below) to hold art materials.
You can also get a plastic art organizer from the art store:
These are nice because they have both large and small compartments for organization.
Of course, an empty cupboard or dresser drawer will work just as well. Perhaps it’s time for a little Spring cleaning…or garage sale shopping.
You’ll also need a place to store your sculptures as you work on them. There’s no need to do anything special to them when you’re not sculpting, so just place them on a shelf where they won’t get damaged while you’re away.
Give yourself plenty of time to work on a given day. Two hours is ideal! At the end of your sessions, make sure you have given yourself enough time to clean up and organize your space. Give yourself time in the studio not just to work on your sculpture, but to step back and look at your work. Looking and seeing are very important parts of the artistic process. If you just hunker down and work, work, work, you may stand up, step back, and realize you’ve forgotten a very important part, or that things are out of proportion.
You’ll also want to give yourself enough time to watch our tutorial videos at least once all the way through without trying to follow along, then watch again as you work alongside the video.
Make sure you take proper breaks to stretch, eat, and stay hydrated—making art is hard work! For some good stretches and snack ideas for your breaks, check out our Nourish & Flourish section.
Setting up Your Studio
Besides the tools and materials we’ve discussed in the rest of this lesson, the only other things you really need in your sculpting studio space are a small table and chair or stool. You can work indoors or outdoors, though if you choose to work outdoors, make sure you have enough shade to keep both you and your clay from melting! If you ever consider renting a work space, see our discussion here.
Last but not least…..
You should feel comfortable in your space! Play some music that makes you happy. Hang up an inspirational picture. Throw a pretty tapestry over the door. Whatever you need to do to make the space personal and comfortable, do it. You will have a good time creating if you’re comfortable and you’re less likely to get frustrated with what you’re doing. So bring in some positive energy and make that space yours!
Exercise One: Choose Your Work Space
Taking into account the considerations discussed in the lesson, choose your studio space. If you’re going to keep your studio in your home, you may need to talk to your roommates/parents/significant other about where you will set up for sculpting.
Exercise Two: Make The Work Space Yours
Go around your house and find three things that will make your studio space feel comfortable for you. It may be a vase of flowers (as Monet always had in his studio) or a motivating poster. Think about the music you’ll enjoy sculpting to.
Check out our Pinterest board for more inspiring quotes for your studio space!
Exercise Three: Shop For Basic Supplies
Consider buying online or find an art store near your home where you can purchase at least a few tools and some clay. View our printable Sculpture Supplies Recommendation List and come up with a budget using our Sculpture Budget Worksheet. You’ll see on the worksheet that our start-up sculpture budget is about $88.
Exercise Four: Get To Know Your Sculpture Tools
Once you have your tools and your clay, play around with them! Try making some simple shapes, like a cube, a pyramid, and a heart. After that, choose something from around your house or studio…maybe it’s an interesting seed pod or a bottle of hot sauce. The choice is yours! Show us what you came up with by sending a photo of your sculpture to using our submission form here. If you’ve made a video of your sculpture or a technique you’d like to share, you can submit that too by sending us a link to your YouTube video.
Key Lesson Learnings: We’ve done a lot in this lesson. We’ve talked about and selected your basic sculpture supplies, helped you select your workspace, and had you start using your new sculpture tools.
Next lesson: Sculpting the Nose