June 10, 2019

Manes and Tails: Sculpting Thin Areas with Paper and Air Dry Clay

Manes and Tails: Sculpting Thin Areas with Paper and Air Dry Clay

The mane and tail of the sculpture above were made using this technique

An artist air dry clay, like Creative Paperclay, can do many things, but thin forms is not one of them. Even if you reinforce it, air dry clay is stronger when there is more of it. Simple.

So, what do you do when you want to sculpt something wispy, say like a horse's tail? Say hello to your new sculpting friend: paper.

Yup, you read that right, paper. Paper's strength in sculpting comes from it's ability to flex, which can actually prevent cracking, if done properly. With the right approach and a few materials, paper can make a suitably strong sculpting medium.

What You'll Need

- Paper
- A glueing agent
- Wire mesh

Let's look at each of these supplies in more detail.

The Paper 

The best paper is Japanese kozo (mulberry) paper. The kozo fiber makes strong, translucent and absorbent papers. All great properties for sculpting thin forms. They are of course the most expensive option. Go figure. 😒

However, almost any lightweight paper will work. Standard white printing paper is probably not the best choice as it lacks fibers (which are what give paper strength). Instead, choose paper types that you'd use for papier mache, like newsprint; they will soak up glue readily.

I have also used tissue papers in the past, but they are overly thin and quite difficult to work with once they get glue on them. 

The Gluing Agent

The most accessible option is to use simple white glue. It helps to dilute it with some water to make it easier for the paper to absorb. But careful: Don't dilute it too much as it will not harden sufficiently. Try to keep the ratio of 1:3 water to glue (e.g. for every three tbsp of glue use one of water).

The mixed media artists, Forest Rogers (if you haven't seen her art go check it out now!), introduced me to acrylic medium, such as soft gel, as a method to secure paper to a surface. It's not as tacky as glue, but it is more transparent, archival, and more forgiving in application. 

For those that are truly archival activists, a great glue is methyl cellulose paste. It is a plant-based glue that is totally archival, and is often used in bookbinding. The only thing to be aware of, is that methyl cellulose can be reactivated once dry by adding water, so it must be sealed. Coincidentally, it also makes a great papier mache medium.

Wire Mesh

The wire mesh essentially forms the foundation of the structure, and is key to sculpting with paper. The finer the mesh, the strong the thin form will be. The paper actually just strengthens and gives body to the wire mesh. It can be hard to obtain and it's often quite pricey. Sigh, such is the life of a sculptor.

A wire mesh form to support the tail hair


First, build your armature out of the wire mesh. If you're making a horse tail (or maybe wings? :D) shape it and attach it firmly to your main armature.

You can apply the glue in two different ways:

  1. Dip the paper into the glue solution and scrape off excess with fingers, then drape over armature, or
  2. Lay the paper roughly over your armature, then take a brush and paint the glue over top, ensuring it soaks into it.

Method number two generally offers a bit more precision, but it depends on the paper you're using and your technique. You may find that tearing the paper into manageable strips helps.

Let it dry. You may need to apply several layers to achieve real strength.

The tail covered in white paper and clay added on top for body

Putting it all together

Now that you have a base, you can add clay over top of this thin, yet sturdy armature if you need to bulk out certain areas. Very cool and useful!

Happy sculpting!


What's Next?

Get an intro to what air dry clay is

Read more about the importance of armatures for air dry clay