“No more horses, Susie”, is a phrase often used by my exasperated teachers. I spent most of my adolescence being told that horses were off-limits as the subject of my next project, book report, or art piece. This instruction was so deeply ingrained, that when it came time to do my Master’s degree, my thesis was about Gothic Architecture in Bohemia!
Fortunately, you can’t take the “horse” out of “horse crazy”, and despite these early setbacks, I have managed to recapture and channel my creativity into the one thing that truly inspires me: horses.
I cannot remember a time when I did not love horses, and even from a very young age, they have formed the basis of my creative expression. How I came to be a mixed media equine sculptor is not a straightforward path, but one of persistence and a lasting passion for these magnificent animals.
I started off, as many children do, drawing. With practice my horses evolved from potatoes with legs into elegant creatures. I attended a youth art school where I experimented with various mediums and learned both traditional and innovative techniques. In university, I took diverse fine art courses, including lithography, painting, and bookbinding. I was slowly becoming a jack-of-all-trades.
Throughout my schooling in Toronto, Canada, horses were always involved: I rode and worked at various riding stables in my free time.
After attending the University of Oxford to complete my masters (where I rode at a quaint English stable!), I moved to the Czech Republic with my husband. My art fell by the wayside as I started to work full-time. Worst of all, from a horse-lover’s perspective, I found the Czech Republic an equine desert with very few riding schools and horse ownership reserved only for the exceedingly wealthy. Which, I sadly am not.
After a couple of horseless years, we moved back to Canada in 2012, and horses and art crept back into my life.
I decided that I was going to create art for myself, and there was no question as to what the subject matter would be. After all those years of being denied and denying myself in turn, I knew that all I wanted to do was make horses.
With my varied art education, I knew that in order to pursue my art seriously, I had to decide on a specific medium. I choose sculpture because I knew that working directly with my hands would be the most fulfilling and challenging.
An Akhal Teke foal sculpture called "Into the Sun"
I spent almost 2 years experimenting with various materials before I found something that met my requirements of:
I studied ceramics, polymer clay, plaster, papier mache and a whole lot of air dry clays before finding what worked best for the type of artwork I wanted to produce.
Today, I often use a mix of clays to complete my artwork, but my primary medium is a product called Creative Paperclay, an air dry clay from Japan.
Sculptures made from this museum-quality clay can mimic the look of ceramic, but are lighter and very durable. Over the years I have developed techniques for sculpting and decorating this exciting medium, and it has allowed me to create my unique equine sculptures.
When I really began to concentrate on my art, I was able to start exhibiting in local art galleries in Vancouver, BC and branch out from there. Most recently, I had a sculpture in the Horse in Art 2016 exhibition juried by the Society of Equestrian Artists in Suffolk, England.
If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that it is important to persevere, in both the horse and art world. There’s a saying that “In order to end up with a little money in the horse business, you have to start out with a lot”. With art it is often the same, and I am very grateful to be able to do what I do without a large trust fund at my disposal.
While I did not expect to end up here, I am very glad it turned out the way it began: with horses and art together.
One of the foals from the "Foals Rush In" series
The following is a brief walk-through of the process I use when hand-building my unique air dry clay sculptures.
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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.
In this article, I'll refer to 3 types of clay:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Learn about the tools and techniques for sculpting with Creative Paperclay|
When starting a new project, I ask myself:
The need for a base is something that should be decided early on in the design stages, though in some cases it’s possible to add afterwards. Air dry or cured clays, as opposed to fired clays, are often lightweight, and a base provides much needed stability.
I’ve made sculptures with and without bases, and I want to give a brief introduction to the techniques I use, especially as they relate to air dry clay and equine sculpture.
Bases can be made from any number of materials; stone, concrete, plastic, metal, etc. Conversely they can also be sculpted from clay.
For an understand modern look, I find that my Creative Paperclay sculptures are best complemented by a solid wood base. The wood provides enough weight to keep the sculpture balanced without compromising the lightness of the sculpture’s weight.
I have my wooden bases custom cut, often from reclaimed wood and then sealed with tung oil for a lovely and subtle hand-rubbed finish.
How the base complements your subject should be a central consideration when it comes to choosing a material and finish. It should not detract from the sculpture itself.
Here are the facts: horses have thin legs. While they give them grace in life, those lovely legs can cause all sorts of issues when it comes to mounting because they can be fragile, especially when small.
There are several approaches to mounting clay horse sculpture that can help tackle these concerns:
Option 1: No Base
Many air dry clay sculptures don’t require a base if they are well balanced. When making my miniature set Foals Rush In, I opted out of using bases because a base can often create a sense of formality that I felt didn’t fit the sculptures’ spontaneous feel.
Option 2: Rod to Base
Using a wooden or metal rod to attach a sculpture to a base is very common. I use this approach not only when I want to create the illusion of a horse suspended in mid-air, but also when attaching delicate horse legs directly to a wooden base is impossible.
It also works well for portraiture-style sculpture where a horse bust can be raised away from the base and brought to life.
I integrate the rod or pin right from the beginning because by making it part of the armature it will hold the sculpture securely.
Method - A hole is drilled into the wooden base, a 2-part epoxy is put into the hole and the rod (with sculpture on top) is inserted into it and left to dry. When using metal rods, I use the epoxy almost as a formality because the rod is tapped and then physically screwed into the base.
Option 3: Clay Base
Making a base out of clay is an effective way to mitigate the difficulties of thin horse legs while ensuring a sculpture is balanced.
Lulu (below) is a good example of that. Because she is technically only standing on one leg she needed to have a second base built in the front to keep her upright.
This method also means that the armature is integrated right into this clay base, and consequently there’s no movement at the point where her hooves touch the “ground”, ensuring no cracking.
This appraoch also allows the sculpture to be attached to a more solid or heavier base material. If I wanted to attach Lulu to a wooden base, it would only require 2-part epoxy on the clay bases to permanently affix her.
The most important question to ask yourself is, will the final product will be well-balanced and not get knocked over?
I typically decide right from the get go if an artwork will have a base because it helps to structure the entire sculpture. Bases add a sense of formality and richness, but also make sure your sculpture will stay beautiful for many years to come.
All in all it comes down to a personal choice and what is best suited to an individual piece.
Find out how to make a strong armature for your sculpture
This sculpture started off white (the colour of the clay and then the gesso), then got a black base layer, was painstaking lightened to a chestnut brown, and then tuned to a fine dark mahogany brown.
Good question! And before I answer it, I'll briefly outline how I start painting my art pieces.
After a clay sculpture has dried out completely (a process that can take up to a week), I cover it in a layer of gesso (pronounced: jesso – as in “jelly”).
Gesso is a primer used by artists: it won’t yellow and is designed to cover a multitude of materials. It seals the surface and prepares it to accept paint. Gesso ensure that my paints adhere properly to the Creative Paperclay and won't flake off in the future.
Next, I spray several layers of acrylic to cover the whole horse. I do not use regular spray paints from a hardware store, many of which are solvent based and not necessarily designed for long-term reliability. I use a specially designed artist-grade acrylic paint in spray form by Liquitex. This layer can be any colour, but I often choose dark neutrals such as raw umber, black, or grey.
Once that layer is dry, I go back with a brush and touch up all the nooks and crannies with the same dark colour, except this time from a tube. I do this to ensure total and uniform coverage, so that no white from the gesso is showing anywhere.
Most of my sculptures are painted in a dark solid colour firstBut why?
This approach is similar to “laying a ground” or "toning" in painting. This means to put down a layer of paint on a canvas to give it a tone before starting the actual painting. I do it on my sculptures for several of reasons:
Laying down a toned ground isn't necessary, but it really suits my approach to painting my horse sculptures, and helps to create a depth of colour and emotion.
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 most important thing to have in your tools when sculpting with air dry clay is... (drum roll, please) patience.
Shocked? The key to working with Creative Paperclay, 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.
A typical example of a crack caused by applying a thick layer. Easily filled in with new clay
If you touch your sculpture and
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.
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.
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.
An example of layers being built up on a horse sculpture. Left - first layer, Right - 3 layers
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:
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.
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.
Have fun with it!
I recently got into a friendly chat with some attendees at a ceramic art show. When I started talking about the materials I use for my sculptures there was immediate interest – You don’t fire the clay at all? How does it work? Where can I get some?
These sorts of questions aren’t unusual because air dry clays are a relatively recent development in the art world, and using them in sculpture is newer still. With that in mind, I’m sharing the knowledge I have acquired about this awesome material, and spreading my love of this versatile medium.
I use Creative Paperclay for the majority of my work, but the techniques I describe here can be used for a variety of other artist-grade air dry clays. The great thing about Creative Paperclay (CPC, for short) is that you don’t need any specialized tools to start making beautiful objects.
There are 2 things that are absolutely necessary to have when working with air dry clays: a small bowl or cup for water, and a lint-free rag.
Air dry clays are usually water-based and need to be moistened regularly, otherwise they will dry out and crack.
The bowl is used to keep your hands moist and also to moisten and wash any tools. Find a bowl that is a good size to dip your fingers into and won't tip over easily.
The cloth keeps pieces of clay I’m not using at the moment from drying out. I can also wipe my hands and tools so they aren't clogged with clay.
With these two simple tools and some clay you can start sculpting!
I should mention that tools are based on personal preference and sculpting style. There is no right and wrong, and tools that work for me may not be what you're looking for. Experimentation is key to finding your favourites.
There are three basic things I do to my clay to create a horse sculpture: shaping, carving, and smoothing. So, let’s break down the tools by task they are needed for.
I do most of the shaping using my fingers. When I'm working in a tight spot or need to create details, I find the most effective tools are metal and wooden ceramic/pottery tools. It often help to moisten the wooden ones slightly before using them to prevent them from sticking to the clay.
Nail art tools are also awesome for shaping - a trick I learned from polymer clay artists. I bought my set on Amazon for a pittance.
Some of my favourite tools for working with air dry clay
My absolute go to tool: are small brushes. They’re perfect for detail work, and can be used to smooth clay and get into tight areas. They are just flexible enough and can be moistened to help “wake up” the clay while shaping it.
You have to be careful to not over-wet the clay as it starts to lose its ability to hold its shape. Brushes should be moist, but not wet. This is when the moist cloth is handy: I dip a brush into water and then “dry” it off on the rag, providing just the right amount of moisture.
CPC can be carved once dry. This is useful if you need to reduce clay in an area and re-shape it. It can also create effects and textures, such as faceting. However, you must ensure your sculpture is really dry before cutting, otherwise you'll just tear the clay.
The primary tool I use for this is an X-Acto knife. Use safe carving techniques because CPC is quite hard once dry (imagine a soft wood) and you can cut yourself easily if you’re not careful. Make sure your blade is sharp: Just like with paper, a dull knife won't cut cleanly.
An example of "faceting" made using an x-acto knife
So, now that you’ve finished your sculpture and you would like to make certain areas smooth. We're talking baby's bottom smooth. The good news is it can be done, and there are several approaches to smoothing air dry clays.
Raw, un-sanded sculptures. Notice the patchy texture from layering clay.
Wet Techniques for Smoothing Air Dry Clay
Dry Techniques for Smoothing Air Dry Clay
Sanding air dry clay is a messy business and best done outside
These basic tools and techniques are a great starter kit to sculpting in Creative Paperclay, or any air dry clay for that matter.
A quick check-list of my essential tools for air dry clay sculpting:
I hope these basic techniques will help you take the leap into artist-grade air dry clays and find out what a powerful medium they are. The key to mastering the techniques is practice, so don't worry if you're first sculpture doesn't turn out. Keep on working at it!
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 equine sculptures.
Anatomy is a central concern in my sculptures
I often find that my dissatisfied with a sculpture relates to anatomy: the tail is not in the right spot, or the front legs are too far under. Something just doesn't look right.
I am not after conformational perfection, but as a rider and horse lover, honest anatomy is important in my work. If it is off by too much, I find it interferes with the visual impact of the sculpture.
An armature locks in the proportions from the very beginning, and 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 bones come together and to help structure the armature accordingly.
The image above hangs in my studio for anatomy reference and I use it regularly. It is super helpful. Thank you Mikki.
Note: these are not hard and fast rules, and allowances have to be made for different breeds, how old the horse is, and what I am hoping to achieve with the sculpture.
I use a caliper or reference stick (usually just a thin wooden dowel) cut down to 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 emphasise aspects and experiment with ideas.
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 a pain in ass. I do sketch ideas, but I do not like to tie myself down and usually let the sculpture "tell" me how it want's to develop.
Once I gather, physically and mentally, the reference materials I need (sometimes I use a picture to help with positioning of the joints and muscling), I start by making 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.
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.
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.
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).
Air dry clay is still a relatively new artistic medium, and one of the keys to a successful sculpture is a strong armature. These tips will work best with Creative Paperclay, but other high quality air dry clays, such as La Doll, will follow the same principles.
An armature is the inner support system of a sculpture, and can be constructed of many materials, one of them most common being wire.
In many traditional forms of sculpture the armature is only a temporary aspect of the process. For bronze, the model is built on an armature before a mold is made, and in ceramic, sculptures can be built around an armature, but the armature must be removed before firing.
Even polymer clay artists have to be careful about their support systems since they have to bake their clay.
Unlike traditional materials, air dry clay doesn't need to undergo a lot of heat to become hard, so the armature stays put. An integrated armature is great - it provides a lot of extra strength to the sculpture for its entire life. Better yet, you're able to use a variety of different materials to construct one.
Armatures can be made very complex
The two most important things to consider when constructing an armature for air dry clay sculpture is: strength and stability. If the armature is not strong and stable it will not support your sculpture properly and may in fact cause it to deteriorate, especially delicate areas.
When I used wire mesh (the first image in this post) to construct an early sculpture, the armature wasn't stiff enough to hold the clay in position and as a result, the sculpture cracked in several places and could not be moved safely. Fortunately, it was an experiment and not bound for a gallery or collector.
I cannot overstate the importance of a solid armature.
Small wire armatures for my horse sculptures
On smaller sculptures, wire can often be enough to provide the support a sculpture needs. Creative Paperclay is relative flexible (it has some give, as opposed to La Doll clays, which can be more brittle) and it works well with wire. The Foals Rush In series was made using this approach.
Common materials for air dry clay armatures include:
An example of an armature made of wire, dowels, foil and mounted on polystyrene
Use materials that will not rust or decompose inside the sculpture, compromising its structure. On larger sculptures, ensure that the armature is light and doesn’t flex so the clay has a solid base and won’t crack, and also that it’s strong enough to support the weight of the wet clay.
These are the sorts of initial considerations that go into creating an armature for a sculpture. In my next post I want to talk about how anatomical considerations impact the construction of the armature in air dry clay sculpture.
|Read the second part of this post about Equine Anatomy|