September 18, 2016

5 Key Differences Between Air Dry Clay and Ceramic Clay

5 Key Differences Between Air Dry Clay and Ceramic Clay

A mini foal sculpture

With their painted surfaces, delicate areas, and use of non-standard materials that would not survive the heat of a kiln, my air dry clay horse sculptures differ from a lot of traditional equestrian art.

I often get asked about how air dry clay and ceramic differ, and in response, I’ve prepared this primer as a reference about the the main variations between earthen clays and air dry clay.


Types of Sculpting Clay

In this article, I'll refer to 3 types of clay:

  1. Ceramic clay – These are clays that require a kiln to cure. These include earthenware, stoneware, ceramic, and porcelain. To keep things simple, I’ll refer to them as “ceramic” in this article.
  2. Air dry clay – There are many different types on the market and their quality and properties vary greatly. I will be speaking specifically about Creative Paperclay (CPC), an air dry clay from Japan that behaves similarly to ceramic except that it doesn’t require firing.
  3. Epoxy clay – A type of air dry clay consisting of 2 separate parts that are mixed together. The resulting chemical reaction hardens the clay. It is denser than CPC, but also heavier.
Horse head portrait sculpture clay modern Susie Benes
The scarf here is real fabric that's been permanently hardened onto the sculpture


Why Air Dry Clay is Great for Sculpture

1. No Special Equipment Needed

This is easily the most wonderful feature of air dry clays: Most air dry clays are non-toxic and do not require any special tools or equipment, such as an expensive kiln. 

tools for air dry clay

2. Clay Can Be Layered

Man, oh man, do I love this. As you may know, once a ceramic piece is bone dry (prepped for firing) or is fired, no new material can be added. You’re stuck with what you’ve got, even if it’s cracked! With CPC, you can fix imperfections and make adjustments indefinitely because fresh clay can be added on top of dried.

Work in progress clay horse head sculpture portrait
New clay (darker areas) being added to a dry CPC sculpture

3. Unique Structures Are Possible

Unlike ceramics, air dry clays can (and should) utilize internal armatures to strengthen the sculpture. Using an integrated armature means that I can build very thin structures (like horse legs) while still having them very strong.

Hourglass modern arabian horse sculpture art Susie BenesThe thin legs here are made possible through a strong wire armature

4. A Different Kind of Durability

While ceramic is strong, it's also inflexible and has a tendency to shatter when dropped. CPC, on the other hand, dries to the consistency of a soft wood and therefore has a very slight amount of give. As a result, it's more likely to dent or chip rather than break apart. An internal armature gives it added strength.

Case study: A commission for a client was returned to me for repairs when the sculpture was knocked over onto a metal grate from the top of a fireplace. The height of the fall (onto metal, no less) would likely have shattered a ceramic piece with such delicate extremities. However, this CPC and epoxy piece merely had a bent leg and broken ear, both of which were repaired.

Repaired air dry clay horse sculpture
The damaged leg above (cut away to get to epoxy clay core). Repaired leg below is as good as new
5. Can be Combined With Other Media

This is a big one: While ceramic pieces can have other materials added after they have been fired, air dry clay sculptures can have these unique materials integrated right from the beginning where they form an integral part of the sculpture.

Not even polymer clay can boast this because it also needs to be baked in an oven.

A good example is the piece below “Suspending Gravity II” where armature wire provides support, but also defines the shape of the foal.

Suspending Gravity clay horse sculpture by Susie Benes
"Suspending Gravity" combines wire and clay in an exciting new way

While ceramics have a long standing tradition, modern air dry clays have a lot to offer sculptors and provide unique opportunities for both artists and art collectors.



What's Next?

Learn about the tools and techniques for sculpting with Creative Paperclay

Epoxy or Air Dry Clay - which is best?