How I sculpt: secrets from clay to sculpture

Secrets of how I sculpt from Small Company Artworks[Update: This post describes my sculpting process in polymer clay, which the attentive reader will remember is my former medium. My new, cast-stone sculpture has another approach, but you still might enjoy seeing the polymer come together.]

The number 1 question I get asked about my work: How long does it take to create a sculpture?

Answer: It depends. And no, I can't be more specific. Stay with me, and you'll see what I mean.

The second-most-asked question I hear is how I create my sculpture. I get this question both from readers and from kind people that I happen to meet at parties. 

Warning: if you ever happen to meet me at a party, be prepared for a big ole "uhhhhh..." in reply to that question, because I really don't know how to answer it. "Uh, clay. Sculpt. Sculpt some more. Mess it up. Start again. Get it right. Fix it when it messes up. Make myself stop fixing it. Fire, paint a bazillion times, varnish. Sculpture."

Yes, I make a fine party conversationalist, as you can tell. But maybe some photos will help me explain it here.

in the beginning: the easy part

I just start with the standard number of limbs and a head. Sometimes the clay decides that the person is a female with ample bosom, and sometimes the clay gives the figure manly shoulders. I have no idea why this happens. (Yes, some days the clay decides it will give me nothing at all thankyouverymuch, and I have to go do laundry or floss the cat until it comes around.)

Sculpting a figure

My newest technique resulted in ballroom dancing couples, so in this example the lady gets a skirt instead of legs. There are also slight variations in the gentleman's form, since he'd presumably be wearing shoes and a tux. But at least he gets to keep his legs.

For the record, the sculpting is the easy part for me. (Get a little peek at sculpting in action with my 15-second Instagram video, below.)


and then she created dancers

Once I like how the couple looks together (scale, proportion, style), posing comes next. In this case, I decided to try a dance pose that I had managed to contort myself into once upon a time.

What happens next is a mish-mash of reality meeting the limitations of clay. The gentleman's left foot needs to snuggle up under the lady's dress, for example, to keep him stable. His right foot will also have better durability (read: be less likely to break off) if it snuggles up, too. So we add some foot snuggling.

Now he's snuggled up, but boy, his posture is just weird.

Draft dancer sculpture from Small Company Artworks

As I work through this process, every tweak leads to other tweaks and sometimes serious issues. At this point in this sculpture, all my tweaking was causing the gentleman's arm to break off.

A broken arm is rarely a good thing, but I'm beginning to think I should do some of those torso-only sculptures like the late masters. Sure, they say the arms broke off later, but I think the masters just knew what a nuisance arms are.

and then there were physics

After some emergency surgery and maybe just a teensy bit of salty language, my dancing couple is ready to fire. Or bake. I know it's technically baking, but my background in terra cotta clay means I can't help calling it "firing."

Oh, wait, my bad. Now it's time for structural engineering to counter the effects of physics.

Physical reality of clay: polymer clay has the tendency to get gooey before it hardens. This means that standing figures can contort into all kinds of not very pleasant shapes if left to themselves. In this case, I decide to add some support to her dress, their upraised arms, and her head.

One day I might leave all the structural support out and give you photos of the bizarre results, but today is not that day.

and let there be color (this is my old process, before cast stone)

Once the sculpture has cooled, paint goes on. And on. And on. Painting requires several layers over a couple of days. Painting also requires several brushes with different types and lengths of bristles for different applications. Like most things, figuring all that out is mostly trial and error.

final reveal

See how the varnish gives the final sculpture a nice depth? The varnish isn't just functional (the finish is much more durable with varnish, and it's UV-protected) - it's also pretty!

And that, gentle readers, is how I create my sculpture. As you see, "how long" it takes depends on, well, everything. Do you suppose I can politely direct party-questioners to this page next time they ask?

As a little parting gift, please enjoy this 15-second video of my new dancers, um, dancing. Turn up your speakers if you'd like sound! You might notice that I'm having a lot of fun with Instagram lately. I hope you'll join me!

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