January 31, 2016

Air Dry Clay Sculpture Foundations II: Equine Anatomy and the Armature

Air Dry Clay Sculpture Foundations II: Equine Anatomy and the Armature

This is a follow up to the first post on the subject of armatures for air dry clay. In this article, we'll look at how I approach the anatomical aspects of my air dry clay equine sculptures. 

If I find myself dissatisfied with one of my sculptures, it often relates to anatomy: the tail is not in the right spot, or the front legs are too far under. Something just doesn't feel right overall. 

I am not after conformational perfection, but as a rider and horse-lover, the anatomy is important in my work. If it is off by too much, I find it interferes with the visual impact of the sculpture. 

Armature Anatomy - right from the start

An armature locks in the proportions from the very beginning, so it can take effort to get it right. It can be difficult to measure them out beforehand because you're essentially building the sculpture from the inside out.

It is helpful to study the equine skeleton to understand how the bone structures come together and to build the armature accordingly, e.g. the slope of the shoulder is mimicked in the way the wire is bent.

An equine anatomy reference guide I use

The image above hangs in my studio for anatomy reference and I made for myself. It is super helpful. I actually include such a reference in my Sculpting Horses in Air Dry Clay Book.

I use a caliper or reference stick (usually just a thin wooden dowel) marked with  the length of the head and then use it to measure the other parts such as legs and girth to ensure that the horse’s appearance is consistent throughout.

Sometimes I play with anatomical features, such as making a foals legs longer, to play with form and experiment with ideas, but generally I try to be relatively accurate to life.

Horse sketch by equine sculptor Susie Benes
Sketching ideas and colours helps you to develop an idea


I don’t generally make complex 2D drawings before getting to work. I find that translating something that started off as 3D in my head into 2D and then back again is a pain. I do sketch ideas, but I do not like to tie myself down and usually let the sculpture "tell" me how it wants to develop.


Once I gather, physically and mentally, the reference materials I need (I uses multiple pictures to help with positioning of the joints and muscling), I sometimes make a maquette: a small study or 3D model of the larger sculpture. This method helps to define the final form, and provides a useful 3D reference when sculpting.

arabian foal horse sculpture by sculptor Susie Benes
An Arabian foal maquette in front of the larger sculpture armature

If I’m working on a small sculpture, I generally skip this part, though sometimes I may make several versions of the same thing before I’m satisfied. When I was making the "Foals Rush In" series, I threw out a considerable number of foals before I was able to arrive at something I liked.

horse foal sculptures air dry clay and wire by Susie Benes
Some of the third batch of "Foals Rush In" sculptures


Bulking Out the Armature

After the armature has been built up, it can look funny, especially the head. I find myself stressing that the proportions are off. Many artists scale up in a very precise way, such as printing enlarged photos and then building an armature in front of them, but I like the creative process flow organically, and to not get caught up in too many calculations. 

Horse sculpture Susie Benes
A sculpture being bulked out with aluminium foil and duct tape

Finally, I bulk out the sculpture, usually using aluminium foil, to keep the whole thing as light as possible. Adding too much armature material can cause problems once the clay is put on top. Sometimes it’s better to use more clay, which can easily be removed, rather than trying to cover an exposed armature.


Strong Armatures Make Strong Clay Sculptures

This is especially true for air dry clays, which require time to dry to achieve maximum strength. The payoff for all the work on the armature is a sculpture that is not only strong and anatomically truthful, but also wonderfully lightweight (as compared to a same-sized sculptures in traditional materials). 

This approach has allowed me to do things that might not be available in traditional media: such as wall mounting 3D sculptures like the one below, or combining wire and clay to create interesting exposed pieces. What will you make?

Meditative foal horse wall sculpture by Susie Benes
"Meditative Foal" is a wall mounted sculpture about 1 ft tall



What's Next?

See an air dry clay sculpture made from start to finish

Start sculpting in air dry clay with my horse sculpture book