Detail of figures from the Seven Deadly Sins series.

Several years ago, I began making fanciful clay figures inspired by current events, literature and history. These themes have held my interest since I was a child, which proves perhaps that artistic ideas can have their roots in early experiences.

 

I’ve made hundreds of these figures for my own work and taught numerous workshops, including many with high school students. The students make interesting figures while learning hand-building techniques.

 

With an emphasis on the importance of ideas, creating clay figures presents students with an opportunity for individual expression. When making clay figures, I take into account many of the techniques involved in any art-making process, in addition to the typical techniques commonly associated in making ceramic objects. I select a clay type and incorporate appropriate construction and surface decoration processes. Though these choices are important, considerations of content are my primary concern. Through my figures, I try to share my observations and interpretations of the world around me with the viewer.

 

Themes

A figure from The Phony series.

Content in a work of art comes from the artist’s desire to share a specific idea. Content can be profound or simply a personal statement. Two years ago, I made nearly 80 pieces based on Dante’s Inferno. The series included many characters described in the epic poem, but to make it more meaningful for me, I also substituted individuals from my past, from classical literature and from American history for some of Dante’s original characters. The updated characters included Lady Macbeth, J Edgar Hoover and one of my former English professors, to name a few.

The project led to a more recent series, which, in turn informed one of my recent workshops. The series, “Legends of History, Myths and Current Events,” was presented in a high school setting with Pamela Woodworth-Watkins, a high school teacher from Atlanta, Georgia. In response to my presentation, she had her students create characters from Alice in Wonderland, with great success. Through my experiences, I’ve found that focusing on recreating or re-imagining figures from the books covered in literature classes, as well as novels and stories the students are reading on their own, is a good way to integrate art into the K–12 setting when coupled with other subjects from the curriculum.

Art history can also offer inspiration and provide a way to integrate a well-rounded learning experience into the student’s studio art practice. Studying the works of artists, such as Hieronymus Bosch and Peter Bruegel the Elder, is very instructive for students working on a narrative clay figure project. Bosch’s and Bruegel’s paintings have a strong sense of narrative conveyed by expressive characters.

Inspiration can also come from brainstorming exercises, and it helps to keep a list of potential titles for pieces. Titles suggest subject matter that can inspire figures. I’m always looking for potential descriptive terms for my work, and encourage students to do the same.

 

 


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Action Figures


A figure from the Blind Justice series.

A figure from the Blind Justice series.

Materials

 

The figures I make for my own work and when teaching are generally small and do not require large amounts of materials (each figure requires about two pounds of clay), so working within a tight budget is possible. I use Amaco’s low fire White Art Clay No. 25–Talc Free, but any earthenware is acceptable. Surface decoration utilizes an assortment of colored underglazes, a good clear cone 05 glaze and gold and silver lusters for a luster firing. Many additional colors can be mixed, like paint, from a just few underglazes. Black is the only underglaze used in significant amounts but I dilute it about 50/50 with water.

 

These “action figures” are built using slabs textured by various found tools and stamps, coils and balls of clay for detailed features and simple tools for finishing.

These “action figures” are built using slabs textured by various found tools and stamps, coils and balls of clay for detailed features and simple tools for finishing.

 

Tools

 

Not many tools are needed. The process requires a sharp bladed knife, a few brushes, containers for water and slip, sponges and an assortment of other tools or found objects for making textures.

 

A partial list of my texture tools includes a sharpened wooden stick, an old fashioned butter paddle, parts from a ball point pen and the remains of a catalytic converter found in the street. These, along with many other items of unknown origin, give great texture. Texture stamps can also be made from clay by carving or pressing it into a textured surface like the sole of an athletic shoe. When the stamps are dry, bisque fire them to ensure durability.

 

Clay is added to the head to form facial features. Additional tools, such as an empty ball point pen tube can create exaggerated facial expressions.

Clay is added to the head to form facial features. Additional tools, such as an empty ball point pen tube can create exaggerated facial expressions.

The Process

When working with students, I ask them to pay careful attention to two considerations. First, an abundance of detail is more successful in terms of developing character and narrative within a figure than the accuracy of detail. Second, as their time in art classes is limited, I ask them to first watch any demonstrations and then follow my directions very carefully so that they work efficiently.

These figures are assembled on bisqued clay slabs that are approximately 3/8inch thick, 12 to 14 inches long and 5 inches wide. The slabs need to be prepared and bisque fired prior to beginning a sculpture, so plan ahead.

Cover the bisque slab with a paper towel or newsprint to separate the wet clay from the bisque clay. Because the slab is only bisque fired, it is still absorbent and without the paper towel layer, your figure may stick to it.

Make an assortment of heads so one can be selected to best suit the personality of the figure. Start with an appropriate sized ball of clay, make it egg shaped and add a neck. Then, cut an opening for the mouth with a knife and insert teeth. This detail needs to be completed early in the process as it is difficult to do after the head stiffens. Add lips and smooth them onto the face. At this point, add clay to define the facial features, like cheeks and a nose; push depressions in the head for eyes; then add balls of clay for eye lids and the eye balls. Define the eye using various parts of a ball point pen. I’m especially interested in the facial expression and exaggerated features convey expressions more dramatically. Big eyes, a big nose and big ears may be important to the personality of the figure; don’t be timid. After adding the ears, set the figure’s head aside and gently wrap it in plastic for later.

 


Tip: Use the bisque slab to support the figure, and hold the slab rather than the figure when adding or defining details.


Make small slabs for the robe and sleeves. Use texture tools to decorate the surface. Form the slab into a shape fitting for the figure’s costume and let it stiffen before attaching.

Make small slabs for the robe and sleeves. Use texture tools to decorate the surface. Form the slab into a shape fitting for the figure’s costume and let it stiffen before attaching.

Create a textured slab that becomes a robe and acts as the main body for the figure. I dress most of my figures in textured robes from head to foot. I make a small slab for the robe by throwing the clay against a piece of canvas, but a rolling pin or slab roller would work as well. Use your texture tools to press surface decoration into the clay slab. If necessary, trim the slab to a desired shape. Form the slab into a shape fitting for the figure’s costume and place it on the paper covered bisque slab. Handle the textured clay as little as possible. Allow the clay to stiffen just slightly so it can be handled without rubbing out the texture. Use the bisque slab to move or carry the work in progress.

Attach the head with slip to the robe. Adjusting the angle of the head permits the figure to gaze in a particular direction, which is more dynamic than if the head is looking straight ahead. Sometimes you need to support the head with a smaller piece of clay while it’s drying. No problem! It’s all lying on the bisque slab. Separate the pieces of clay from the head and torso with paper to prevent the them from sticking together.

Make the hands, arms, sleeves and feet separately and attach them the same way the head was attached. Add as much detail as possible, since the more detail your figure has, the more personality it will possess.

A black underglaze wash highlights fine detail work when wiped off. Any number of underglazes can be used to paint the figures.

A black underglaze wash highlights fine detail work when wiped off. Any number of underglazes can be used to paint the figures.

Add accessories for additional detail—hair, hats, jewelry, etc. A garlic press facilitates making hair. Remember to do all this without excessive handling so that the textures remain crisp.

Allow the figure to dry. Leave the figure on the bisque slab for firing as the bone dry clay will be brittle.

After the bisque firing, stain the figure with thinned black underglaze (I use a 50/50 water to underglaze ratio). Brush on a coat and wipe the surface lightly with a sponge, removing the underglaze from the high spots but leaving it in the recesses, revealing the texture. This underglaze wash creates a contrast that emphasizes texture against flat surface area. Color other areas as desired by applying underglazes like paint and allowing them to dry. Finally, if desired, glaze all or part of the figure with a low-fire clear glaze and fire to cone 05.

After the glaze firing, I further highlight jewelry or any other metallic accessories using lusters. Follow the instructions on the bottle, wear a respirator and work in a well-ventilated area. Generally lusters are fired between cone 018-019. They are expensive so consider this an optional treatment.

Dee Schaad is Professor of Art and Chair of the Department of Art and Design at the University of Indianapolis. For comments or questions, contact him at dschaad@uindy.edu.

 

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