The malleability of clay makes it possible to bend and shape it into any shape imaginable. From figure sculpting, to abstract ceramic sculpture, clay sculptors are making incredible ceramic sculpture. But as we all know, the malleability of clay can also present challenges.
In today’s post, an excerpt from Sculpting and Handbuilding, Claire Loder gives some clay sculpting tips and shares a couple of techniques from two ceramic sculptors.- Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
Tips on How to Sculpt Clay
by Claire Loder
Sculpting is loosely defined by the building up of clay, rather than subtraction. This is a highly expressive way of working and at its most basic relies solely on the hands as tools. The term is used to define a huge working range, from intricate and intimate processes to a whole body experience. Sculptures in clay vary greatly in scale and style: from figurines delicately modelled with the thumb and forefinger in the palm of the artist’s hand, to vigorous works produced by hurling wet clay at a structure to build up form, and everything in between. Sculpting with clay can be fast and immediate, suited to large-scale pieces and outdoor works. It can also be small and expressive, conjuring up images of the first figures of ancient times, whose features were squeezed out of wet clay to resemble animals and human forms. Sculpting utilises the plasticity of clay.
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• Any clay can be sculpted. Grogged clay is better at supporting itself and ideal for large sculptures, while finer clays are good for small-scale work. It is worth experimenting with different clays, as sculpting is often a highly tactile experience; the physical qualities of one clay may suit you more than those of another.
• Sculpting with clay often involves supporting the structure as it is created. Depending on the scale, form and composition of the piece, there are various methods of doing this. Small-scale pieces can be supported with scrunched up newspaper, pieces of sponge, or sticks with clay applied to each end. Building directly onto the kiln shelf, using kiln props to support appendages, makes transferring the piece to the kiln easier. Larger pieces can be supported by constructing internal walls and structures as you build.
• A metal framework or armature is often used to support large, complex objects. Armature wire is commonly used, in combination with chicken wire and wooden struts. Artists develop their own methods depending on the requirements of their work.
• Be aware that any non-ceramic materials that go into the kiln as part of your ceramic works, internal supports or other additives, and which burn away during the firing, may result in harmful fumes. Adequate ventilation is vital for all firings and ideally extraction fans should be fitted.
Susan O’Byrne builds large-scale ceramic animals from a patchwork of clay slabs. O’Byrne was born in Cork, Ireland. She now works from a Glasgow studio where she produces sculptural works, using the animal form as a vehicle for the expression of human emotions. She is interested in the use of animals in storytelling, legend and folklore throughout history, to simplify the complexities of adult life. ‘I aim to give my animals a certain awkward vulnerability. This is achieved through a very personal making process. I make a wire framework, onto which layers of printed and patterned pieces of porcelain paperclay are applied to form a skin. The natural twists and kinks of the wire frame and the shrinkage of the clay around it during firing are allowed to dictate the posture of the finished animal. The element of chance in these processes is central to my work.’
O’Byrne has devised a method for supporting the structure as she builds and fires. Nichrome wire is used to construct the torso armature of each animal, minus the legs. The individual wires are then covered with rods of paper to allow for shrinkage during drying and firing. Some wires, on the back of the animal, also have loops attached which will extend through the clay wall and allow the animal to be hung in the kiln, preventing slumping at top temperature. The armature is attached to wooden supports and tubes of paperclay are added to form legs. Fine sheets of paperclay are cast from slip on a plaster bat and applied to the armature. Once the entire animal has been covered, a second layer of porcelain paperclay is cast and applied over the first. Most of the modelling of features is completed at this stage. Hooves, tails and eyes are added. Approximately ten large sheets of patterned paperclay are created to form the final surface of the animal. The patterns are made by printing, drawing and scratching into coloured slips on a plaster bat. These pieces of pattered paperclay are then collaged onto the surface of the animal.
Bath-based ceramicist Jo Taylor makes sculptural forms from fragments of clay. Each fragment is created by a gesture of her hand. When
the clay is very soft, it is formed into a rough coil and smeared onto a bisque surface, joining additional coils to form a basic motif. Each motif is different, and made quickly and instinctively. Using wet fingers, Taylor firmly brushes the clay until it takes the shape and direction of her gesture. Many pieces are made using this process. Each is left to dry a little before being removed and stored, and then assembled by scoring and joining.
For the artist, the experience of making is distinctly sensory. ‘The making process is rhythmical and pleasurable, the sensation of the soft clay yielding. The finished sculptures contain a sense of energy and organic growth. The softness of the clay during the forming process remains apparent in the finished form, the fluid motion of the clay at the moment of its creation captured and contained in the final rigid structure.’ Taylor uses grogged clay. Its malleability is ideal for this free-form process and its strength enables her to produce large-scale work.
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