November 15, 2018

One Clay to Rule Them All: The Best Air Dry Clays for Artists

One Clay to Rule Them All: The Best Air Dry Clays for Artists

I'll get right to the point: there is no one "best" air dry clay for sculpting. I wish there was; it would certainly make my life easier. Instead, let's explore some of the air dry clays that are suitable for artists and what you might consider when selecting a clay for your artistic endeavors.

I often get questions from readers about making sculptures out of "air dry clay" or how "air dry clay" behaves in a specific circumstance.

While I try my best to help, it's important to recognize that "air dry clay" is a category in which not all players are created equal. Many air dry clays are simply not designed to function as sculpture mediums.

Things to consider when choosing a clay

Every artist will need something different from a sculpting medium. Some of the more common features to considerations are:

Price 💰
Top of the list for obvious reasons: air dry clays can be pricey.

Access 🏪
This is actually a really big one - if you can't buy the clay, you can't use it. Not all clay brands are sold everywhere. For example, I cannot purchase Apoxie clays* in my area, I have to order it online (which means shipping costs, and suddenly the price is much higher). Instead, I buy Milliput because I can pop into my local art shop while I'm buying other supplies.

Strength 💪
How strong is the clay once dry? I think we all generally prefer sculptures that don't crack or fall apart. This is also often tied to how heavy the clay body is. Air dry clays that specify "natural" or "pottery" are often based on an earthenware type clay and while easy to work with (great for classroom learning), the resulting objects can be heavy and quite fragile as a result. 

Texture 🥜
Air dry clays, like ceramic clays, vary in their make up. Some are grainy, some silky smooth. 

Ability to hold detail 🐴
This differs from clay to clay and is usually tied to how soft and how smooth it is.

Work-ability 🖐️
Mah fingers! How pliable is the clay to work with? Do you have to condition/mix it before using it? Some artists like firm clays, while others prefer soft. 

Stickiness 🍯
Not in texture, but how well does it adhere to things, especially armatures, and itself. This is key when you're trying to build up a sculpture.

Paint-ability 🖌️
Will the clay accept my desired method of decoration?

Longevity 👵
This is one that's not necessarily central in people's minds, but for artists it can be a key consideration. With sculpting materials like bronze and ceramic often the medium of choice, an air dry clay that is archival (or museum-quality) can reassure collectors, and also give you piece of mind that in 20 years the sculpture will not disintegrate. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but they are characteristics that can determine how successful an air dry clay will be.

The stages of an air dry clay sculpture


And the Winning Clays Are... 

There are some that consistently rank on top by artists who use air dry clays as the primary method of their art (such as sculptors and professional doll makers). Considering the list of factors above, these brands rank superior in many of the sections, especially in terms of longevity.

All the clays suggested below are artist-quality (and artist tested). They are arranged in alphabetical order.

Activa La Doll Premier Air-Dry Clay

average price: $12.50 USD for 300g

Pros  Cons

Strength: lightweight and very resilient: Sculptures can potentially survive a drop

Texture: the smoothest. If you need very smooth, this is what you want

Details: holds detail like nobody's business

Paint: It's slightly porous surface takes paints easy-peasey

Price: Probably the priciest ADC option

Stickiness: Takes some effort to stick to things and itself

Fingers: Can be a bit stiff to work with (also the reason it holds details so well), which makes it a bit of a challenge for beginners

Cold Porcelain

average price: varies since you can make this at home

You may be wondering what this is: Cold porcelain is not at all a porcelain, but an air dry clay made using corn starch and white glue. Many recipes exist across the internet. I include it because it has great longevity, and is incredibly tough. I have tried snapping and smashing thin pieces with little success. It is however difficult to work with since it is glue, not water-based.

Pros  Cons

Price: Can be be made at home for cheap!

Strength: lightweight and very resilient: Sculptures can potentially survive a drop

Details: holds detail very well, if you can shape it

Texture: generally smooth, but can be difficult to manipulate. Hard to smooth when wet. Very difficult to sand as it dries very hard

Fingers: while quite soft, it is very difficult to work with as it dries very quickly and can easily become insanely sticky when water is added. Requires some skill to use well

Stickiness: Has to be made to stick to things by wetting it or using more glue

Paint: takes paints, but may require extra primer because the clay body is slightly translucent

Creative Paperclay

average price: $12.00 USD for 454g

Pros  Cons

Strength: lightweight and very resilient: Sculptures can potentially survive a drop. More likely to dent than shatter

Details: holds detail very well

Stickiness: Sticks easily to everything

Fingers: Quite soft and easy to work with. Great for beginners

Paint: It's slightly porous surface takes paints easy-peasey

Price: Can be expensive and hard to get, depending on where you live

Texture: has a slight toothy-ness (which some, like myself, really like), but can be sanded smooth. It's softness, which makes it great for beginners, can also make it challenging to work with on thinner sections




$ A Budget-Friendly Option $

If you're just starting out, Pearl Paperclay modeling material is an affordable way to start playing. It is a classroom version of Creative Paperclay. It is firmer, not quite as easy to carve, and slightly less durable.The average price is $6.00 USD for 454g. The only downside is that it may be hard to find.


Air dry polymer clay

Air dry polymer clay is also a medium used by mixed media sculptors, but it has a tendency to droop in humid environments, and is on the expensive side. Polymer clays are a separate class of clay and I do not have enough experience with them to speak confidently on the subject. I mention it as another alternative.

In Conclusion

No matter what clay you choose, the key to successful air dry clay sculptures is to use strong armatures. Like a house - a sculpture won't stand the test of time without a sturdy foundation.

Playing with a few different types of clay will give you the best idea of what works and what doesn't for your artwork. While it's not the most cost effective method, it is hard to replace this type of play: simply reading about a clay will not give you the experience of using it. 

So get out there and take matters into your own hands! :)


* Apoxie sculpt is an epoxy clay. To find about more about these types of clays, read my post about Epoxy vs Air Dry Clay.