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Creating Art With Clay: a beginner's guide

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

Types of Clay

There are several types of clay used for sculpting. Some clay is oil-based, some clay is water-based. For home use, and the casual beginner, you will want to play with water-based clay. Another option is polymer based modeling clay, which is soft and can be fired in a household oven.

If you get really serious you can start playing with firing clay. Firing clay is a water-based clay that is shaped and then fired at temperatures in excess of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. This is often shaped on a potter's wheel, but without the investment in expensive equipment it's far easier to use hand shaping techniques.

Guidelines to creating a sculpture

For beginners we all go through 4 simple steps or guidelines.

Envision your sculpture

First thing is to give some thought to what you want to make before you start throwing clay around. It's a good idea to envision what you are trying to accomplish. If you have some artistic drawing skills try making some simple sketches from various angles to help you solidify in your mind what you want the piece to look like. Think about where you would like to display it and what it will look like in that location. You could create a relief piece built from a flat surface up, or a complete 3D piece that can be seen from multiple angles. Also, give some thought to the ratios of height, width and depth. Keep in mind artistic rules like the Golden Triangle that will lend aesthetic qualities to your pieces. Once you have a good idea in your mind then you can start sculpting. Don't be afraid to start over if things go south.

Make sure your clay is wet enough

Second thing to keep in mind while you're working with clay is to watch out for the wetness of the clay. Dry clay can be very difficult to work with. I'm not talking about clay that snaps in your hands; it may seem moist but if you roll out a cylinder about ⅓ of an inch thick and then bending it in half without cracking it should be moist enough. If it cracks you need to add more water to the clay and work it in until it's workable. It should be quite wet, wetter than you might imagine. This will help the clay be more malleable and give you longer working time with the clay.

Build your pieces with coils or clay

Third thing to consider is how to build your piece. Whether you're working on a wheel or on a flat surface rolling coils out and then using them to build up your structure is a good way to start. The coils are malleable and it will help keep the clay from collapsing on itself. While laying it out you can pinch and shape the clay between your thumb and forefinger to give relief and texture.

Make sure there is adequate support

Forth thing to worry about is the overall shape. Once it's dry you don't want thin pieces sticking out that will easily break off. If you do want a sculpture with thinner pieces protruding, like a human figure, you should consider building a skeleton to support the weight of the clay. Brass rods or aluminum wire, metals that won't rust, are good choice to create your skeleton from.

The biggest thing to keep in mind is practicing. You may get frustrated and think your early pieces look like something from a grade school project. But don't give up. Treat every project as a success; you either learn something from a satisfactory endeavor or you learn something from an abject failure. As they say, “From the Ashes of disaster grow the Roses of success.”

Guidelines for working with clay

Now that you have a basic introduction, let's focus on some important aspects of working with clay; storing clay, wedging clay, joining pieces of clay together, and firing clay.

Storing Clay

Storing clay is pretty simple; the main object is to keep it from drying out. Ziplock bags work well for this as well as air-tight containers. To store for longer periods of time you may consider keeping in a refrigerator or other cool place. You may also consider wrapping the clay in a damp paper or cloth towel as an added barrier against drying; heat and low humidity are the enemies of clay.

Wedging clay to get the air bubbles out

Wedging is also very important if you intend to fire your pieces. The purpose of wedging is to remove air bubbles. The problem with air bubbles is that they can explode in the kiln or cause weaknesses in your pottery. Wedging is akin to kneading in baking, although the purpose is different. The typical approach to wedging Clay is to create a square out of the piece of clay you are working with and then with the palms of your hand push the clay forward flattening it out. Next pull the clay back and repeat the process 10 times. reform the clay into a square again and then repeat the waiting process. This should remove all the bubbles from the clay. If you are using reclaimed pieces of clay there will be more air bubbles in them and you will have to wage it up to a hundred times to ensure that you remove all the air bubbles. Wedging is hard to describe in words, you may want to watch Wedging Clay: How and Why to help you understand.

Joining pieces of clay together

To join two pieces of clay you must use a technique called score and slip. Two pieces of clay will not stick together if you simply mash them together. There's some science behind this but the basic fact remains that after you fire the pieces or let them dry they will be weak at the connection and easily come apart. To avoid this you have to use the technique called score and slip. Slip is a term for watery clay sometimes referred to as slurry. You can make your own by simply watering down a small pieces of clay to a slurry (about the consistency of thick porridge).

quinn norton, scoring and slipping the flange, CC BY 2.0

Scoring can be done with a fork or serrated scoring tool to rough up the surfaces where the two pieces of clay will be attached. The scoring should be fairly deep up to 1/8 of an inch depending on the size of surfaces you are joining. Scoring is not enough; you have to have a layer of slip to help adhere the two pieces. You can add sip directly to one of the surfaces or add water directly as you score to create a layer of slip while scoring. Once you press the two pieces together you can take a smoothing tool and smooth the edges pulling the clay from one surface into the other and vice versa. This will make for a very strong bond that will not separate during drying or firing.

Firing clay

Firing clay changes it physically into a harder, more cohesive substance. Dried clay can be ground up and reused as clay for new projects, though it takes quite a bit of work to return it to a workable clay compound. Firing the clay essentially turns clay into a glass-like material; it is irreversible.Traditional pottery has to be fired at very high temperatures and requires a dedicated kiln capable of reaching those temperatures. After firing you may also put a glaze on, like painting it, and then re-fire it to achieve various beautiful finishes and effects. A deeper discussion of firing is beyond this article.

A popular type of clay for modeling, especially with young children, is polymer clay. it's not an actual clay but a compound made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a man made plastic. It's referred to as clay for marketing purposes and because it is moldable and workable like clay. It is also fairly simple to bake in a home oven to harden it and turn it into a solid piece of plastic that is very durable.

Cute owls made from polymer clay
Cute owls made from polymer clay

The reality of working with Clay is that, unless it is intended for culinary, use firing is not absolutely necessary. however, as mentioned, it will change the nature of the object and make it more resilient and harder. All pottery, whether fired or dried, will easily break if it is dropped.


Creating art with clay need not be daunting; with very little investment in equipment you can explore your three-dimensional creative side. If you don’t like the outcome you can start over with very little risk, even re-using the material easily if it hasn’t dried out. Once you are happy with a piece you can paint it with acrylic paints for beautiful results. As you progress you can explore more advanced techniques like firing and glazing.


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