January 26, 2016

Air Dry Clay Sculpture Foundations I: A Solid Armature

Air Dry Clay Sculpture Foundations I: A Solid Armature

Air dry clay is still a relatively new artistic medium, and one of the keys to a successful sculpture is a strong armature. These tips will work best with Creative Paperclay, but other high quality air dry clays, such as La Doll, will follow the same principles.

Susie Benes horse sculpture armature
One of my early armatures from wire mesh was not the best choice of materials

What's an armature?

An armature is the inner support system of a sculpture, and can be constructed of many materials, one of them most common being wire.

In many traditional forms of sculpture the armature is only a temporary aspect of the process. For bronze, the model is built on an armature before a mold is made, and in ceramic, sculptures can be built around an armature, but the armature must be removed before firing.

Even polymer clay artists have to be careful about their support systems since they have to bake their clay.

Why do I need one?

Unlike traditional materials, air dry clay doesn't need to undergo a lot of heat to become hard, so the armature stays put. An integrated armature is great - it provides a lot of extra strength to the sculpture for its entire life. Better yet, you're able to use a variety of different materials to construct one.

Wire armature for air dry clay equine sculpture

Not a typical armature - some of the wire will be left exposed

Make it Strong, Not Pretty

The two most important things to consider when constructing an armature for air dry clay sculpture is: strength and stability. If the armature is not strong and stable it will not support your sculpture properly and may in fact cause it to deteriorate, especially delicate areas. 

When I used wire mesh (the first image in this post) to construct an early sculpture, the armature wasn't stiff enough to hold the clay in position and as a result, the sculpture cracked in several places and could not be moved safely. Fortunately, it was an experiment and not bound for a gallery or collector.

I cannot overstate the importance of a solid armature.

Susie Benes horse sculpture wire armatures

Small wire armatures for my horse sculptures

Materials for Armatures

On smaller sculptures, wire can often be enough to provide the support a sculpture needs. Creative Paperclay is relative flexible (it has some give, as opposed to La Doll clays, which can be more brittle) and it works well with wire.

Common materials for air dry clay armatures include:

  • Wire – almost always
  • Wooden dowels – they’re light and strong, perfect for legs
  • Extruded polystyrene – stronger/better than regular Styrofoam
  • Super glue – self explanatory
  • Hot glue – best for quick attachments that are then strengthened with another material
  • Electrical tape – awesome for securing articulated dowel legs because it’s flexible
  • Epoxy clay – best permanent holder of anything (I use brands such as Apoxie Sculpt or Milliput)
  • Aluminium foil - for bulking out the figure once the armature is complete

Armature for air dry clay horse sculpture

An example of an armature made of wire, dowels, foil and mounted on polystyrene 

Final Thoughts

Use materials that will not rust or decompose inside the sculpture, compromising its structure. On larger sculptures, ensure that the armature is light and doesn’t flex so the clay has a solid base and won’t crack, and also that it’s strong enough to support the weight of the wet clay.

    These are the sorts of initial considerations that go into creating an armature for a sculpture. In my next post I want to talk about how anatomical considerations impact the construction of the armature in air dry clay sculpture.


    What's Next?

    Read the second part of this post about Equine Anatomy