February 22, 2016

The Secrets of Sculpting with Creative Paperclay: Tools and Essential Techniques II

The Secrets of Sculpting with Creative Paperclay: Tools and Essential Techniques II

Last week we looked at some of the tools to sculpt Creative Paperclay. This week, I want to talk about important techniques when working with air dry clay and also THE most crucial tool you’ll need to succeed with this medium.

The best things are worth waiting for...

The most important thing to have in your tools when sculpting with air dry clay is... (drum roll, please): Patience.

Shocked? You shouldn't be. The key to working with Creative Paperclay (CPC), or any artist quality air dry clay, is letting it dry. Duh, right? That might seem obvious, but I mean REALLY dry. Not just dry to the touch, or leather hard, I mean bone dry with no moisture left in it.


If you touch your sculpture and it:

- feels cold (similar to ceramic, CPC gets cold as it dries)


- has some give when you push on it

it’s not dry!


I emphasize this because the consequences can make the difference between a sculpture that is successful and one that needs to be re-built, or worse, thrown away.


Creative paperclay air dry clay crack
A typical example of a crack caused by applying a thick layer. Easily filled in with new clay

Success with Air Dry Clay = Working in Layers

The most effective way to work, and to ensure thorough drying, is layering. I start my sculptures by building a solid armature

Once that's complete, I put the first layer of air dry clay on this armature. It's important for this layer to be strong because it'll provide the base onto which everything is going to adhere afterwards.

I apply a layer, usually around 1-2cm thick, over the body of the horse (I generally leave the legs and head until the second layer), and let it dry for up to 3 days. I test the dryness generally by touch, but also by using my nail to see how easily I can dent it. If it’s dry, the clay will resist and your nail will only leave a small indentation.

air dry clay testing to see if dry with nail

Using your nail to test dryness: if the clay gives a lot it's still too wet

The second layer involves building up the general shape and padding areas where lots of weight is, such as the belly. I also cover the legs in a thin base-layer because when I start to really get into sculpting, the CPC will glide on and adhere flawlessly to itself.

Plus it helps to strengthen the legs in case I work the clay hard (this can happen when I’m working in a gestural way) and prevents cracking in that vulnerable area. This layer also needs to dry for up to 3 days. Did I mention this material requires a lot of patience?

Usually after that I get into the “meat” of the sculpting where I focus on bringing life to the horse I’m working on. The process is made easier because I’ve laid a solid foundation on which to work without fear of things breaking off or deforming.

building up layers on air dry clay horse sculpture

An example of layers being built up on a horse sculpture. Left - first layer, Right - 3 layers


Into The Cracks - Repairing Air Dry Clay Sculpture

The biggest complaint I read from users is that air dry clays crack, and this is the biggest barrier in using them. Well, in fact all water-based clays can crack, this includes ceramic, if they are not dried evenly. The cracking is caused by shrinkage because of the loss of the water inside the clay body. 

The most common cause of cracking in CPC is:

  • Sculpting over an armature or non-flexible material
  • Applying clay in a thick layer
  • Using a lot of water, either to mix the clay or to help it adhere onto a previous layer

creative paperclay cracking too much water

An example of a crack caused by using too much water to attach a new layer. Can  easily be filled in with new material

If you're making a sculpture designed to last, you’re going to have to use an armature. This means you will likely get some cracks. But because it's so straightforward to deal with them it should hardly bother you at all. Unlike ceramic, CPC cracks can be filled in with fresh material. 

Tips on how to minimize cracking when using CPC:

  • Layering – Layers actually help minimize cracks because the clay has a chance to dry evenly. Plus, it also gives you a chance to fill in any cracks with the next layer.
  • Less water – Go easy on the water application. I don’t mean you should be using dry clay, but just know that if you’re adding lots of water to smooth something out that it has a greater chance of developing cracks because that water has to evaporate.
  • Slow drying  ceramicist usually cover their clay in plastic and dry it very slowly to prevent cracking. I find this method too slow for my tastes, especially since air dry clay cracks can be repaired, while with ceramic it's not so simple.
  • Baking – That’s right, you can put your CPC sculpture in the oven (around 225 degrees for about 20 mins, depending on the size). I find, especially with small sculpture, there’s almost no cracking with this technique and it can be combined with the layering approach to great effect, so you can work faster. Remember that if your armature contains non-oven friendly things, like Styrofoam, you can’t do this.

This advice will help you sculpt effectively with air dry clay and hopefully save you some frustration. The only way to get good at something is to practice, so don’t worry if your first sculpture doesn’t turn out the way you want it to: learn from what you did and keep on creating.

Meditative Foal sculpture by horse artist Susie Benes

Don't forget to have fun!


What's Next?

Create your own horse sculpture from air dry clay

Check out Susie's Favourite Sculpting Materials and Tools