Top Tips for Beginner Clay Sculptors

3dtotal Publishing’s latest book Beginners’ Guide to Sculpting Characters in Clay is an immersive introduction to the world of clay sculpting, and from cover to cover is full of advice and guidance for anyone looking to tackle traditional character sculpts.

3dtotal have kindly shared 10 top tips by seasoned sculptors to help point you in the right direction before you roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty!


#1 Set up an appropriate workspace (Alexander Ray)

When you are sculpting it is important to have a well-organized, clean, and comfortable workspace. The creative process is quicker when you can locate all your tools and materials with ease. A table that is situated at a comfortable height is essential so that you are not hunched while you work.

I use a drafting table with an adjustable height setting. I would suggest using a table with enough space to allow ample room for all of your supplies and your sculpture. You will also need a comfortable chair as you may be sitting for extended amounts of time as you work on your sculpture.

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#2 Use a range of references (Jennifer Hendrich)

I recommend studying the skeleton, muscles, and clothed and nude anatomy of humans and animals from life, books, and photographs. If you can sketch humans and animals in a sketchbook it will help you to understand them. Scale models and écorché figures are also very handy to study from since you can hold them in your hand and study them in different lighting.

For this project I gather reference images from the internet and anatomy books: human references for the skeleton, muscles, and female body as well as fish fins and fish scales.

You could go out to the beach to collect real seashells and rocks to get a feel for the textured surfaces. I also have scale human anatomy and skeleton models that I can touch and study, which I recommend.

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#3 Use a template when constructing an armature (Alexander Ray)

In my opinion, the best way to make an armature is to have a drawing or printed template on a piece of paper on which you can lay the armature in order to make sure the aluminum wire is within the confines of the object you are sculpting.

In this case, you will be sculpting a female character so create a basic female silhouette image on a computer and print it out so that you can lay the armature directly on the paper.

This will help you ensure the size is correct. Silhouettes are widely available online if you do not want to make your own. If you do not have access to a computer or printer you could draw a silhouette freehand or by tracing over an image.

Creating your armature over a silhouette ensures that it will fit within the confines of your sculpt.

#4 Approach anatomy in stages (Djordje Nagulov)

The most common mistake new sculptors make is to jump into the juicy details too early, before the primary forms have been fully defined. If you do not pay due respect to blocking out the primary shapes first, you can easily find yourself struggling with forms that will not fit correctly.

Any large muscle group should be added as an overall volume first, and only later be broken down into individual forms. Further striations and shape breakdowns may serve to reduce the schematic quality the sculpture might initially have. However, it takes painful experience to overcome this compulsion to start putting in muscles and other fun elements before the sculpture is ready.

For example, immediately attempting the zigzag of the serratus before you have shaped the ribcage properly will cause you problems. Layer in the detail slowly, and your sculpture will be the better for it.

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#5 Consider the pose carefully (Jennifer Hendrich)

When posing a clay sculpture, it is important to make sure that the pose works from all angles. The character needs to look balanced and the composition needs to work from all angles as well.

Try to make sure that she does not look like she is falling off the rock from the sides, top, back, and other odd angles. Ensure that there are appealing curves in the pose from every perspective.

It can be useful to take photographs from different viewpoints at this stage because it is easier to see if something is wrong in a photograph. Keep turning the sculpture around, adjusting the pose, arms, tail, torso, and head as needed.

Make sure the pose works from all angles by rotating it throughout the process. Final sculpture © Jennifer Hendrich.

Make sure the pose works from all angles by rotating it throughout the process. Final sculpture © Jennifer Hendrich.

#6 Check your proportions as you go (Glauco Longhi)

By gradually adding smaller bits of clay, you can easily shape and add more forms to the hair to match your references. For example, you can see in the image that the tip of the mustache is outside the silhouette of the head in the three-quarter view, which fits the concept.

This is how I compare and check proportions at this stage: by making sure the mustache is longer than the eyes and mouth, and so on. Drawing imaginary lines between your forms makes these proportions easier to check. You could also take photographs and then draw the lines on top of them.

Comparing the size of facial features against each other ensures you maintain the correct proportions.

Comparing the size of facial features against each other ensures you maintain the correct proportions.

#7 A mirror is a useful tool (Alfred Paredes)

A mirror is an invaluable tool for a sculptor. Not only can you use it to study your own face and expressions, you can use it to check your sculpture for irregularities. Turn your sculpture so it faces a mirror and you will notice lots of things that are not quite right.

It is important to do this every once in a while throughout the process so that you do not progress too far and then have to make major corrections or destroy an area that you have worked on for a long time.

Checking your sculpture in a mirror will help you identify and correct irregularities.

Checking your sculpture in a mirror will help you identify and correct irregularities.

#8 Be creative when it comes to problem solving (Alexander Ray)

The pose of this character makes it difficult to reach parts of the hand. To address this issue take a stable object like an upside down plastic cup and add some folded bubble wrap on top.

This will give the sculpture something soft to rest on so that it will not become damaged. It is also important to have the support situated so that the sculpture is relatively level to avoid too much pressure on the clay. Now you will be able to access any part of the hand.

Use supports to tackle those difficult to reach areas.

Use supports to tackle those difficult to reach areas.

#9 Experiment with different tools (Romain Van den Bogaert)

After the initial surface smoothing is complete, you can take the skin texture further. I use a homemade tool consisting of two steel wires to do this.

In fact, these wires are guitar strings stretched and mounted on the handle of an old brush. When this tool is rubbed on the surface of the sculpture, the thin but rigid wires lightly mark the surface of the clay. The wires tremble slightly and their elasticity allows the tool to follow the volumes of the character’s anatomy.

Creating your own tools can generate unique and interesting results.

Creating your own tools can generate unique and interesting results.

#10 Experiment with stamps (Alexander Ray)

Another great tool for a sculptor working in clay is a stamp. A stamp is anything that you press into the surface of the clay to create an effect, and the best part is that it can be made from just about anything.

Looking around the house I find a small Allen wrench that will be great for adding a patterned texture to this character. I use the end of the tool to carefully stamp out a perfect honeycomb pattern on the inside of each thigh.

Using everyday house hold items as stamps can help you achieve fantastic results.

Using everyday house hold items as stamps can help you achieve fantastic results.


For more tips and in-depth introduction into clay sculpting, get your copy of Beginners’ Guide to Sculpting Characters in Clay. Looking to get started with sculpting but don't have the right tools? Take a look at CG Cookie's SculptBox, an all-in-one starter kits for clay sculptors including hand-picked tools, reusable material and access to step-by-step training.

  • whitandy

    Thank you for that some very helpful points there

  • Ignazio del Mar

    A very nice collection of handy hints. Thanks!

  • hannibal247

    Djordje Nagulov diagram for the abs.. alwaysstops at diagram 2.. where do the extra details in the abs come from.. I've never seen them diagramed before .. whats the source?

  • crew
    Pavla Karon

    Hey there, the image you mention is a render of one of 3D Total's anatomy figures, and they have then added an overlay on top for the book. Hope that helps!

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