Making Small Figures

It should be so easy to make figures, right? You are one, from the inside out and you see them all the time! But it totally isn’t.

Studying the figure is used to train all kinds of artists exactly because it’s so challenging to what we think we ought to know. The extra skills a painter or sculptor needs to create figures so they can be used expressively are very different from the skills used to get to know people. And through the training we learn all sorts of amazing, beautiful things about how forms merge and flow into each other in nature, how to look objectively and how to understand the tricks and twists of human perception. And that opens doors to all sorts of other knowledge. It’s very rewarding work!

Portrait and Figure skills need a system that cuts across the fact that when an image goes in through your eye-balls your brain grabs it and interprets it according what it already believes. The system helps you relearn and re-interpret what you see in a way useful for making figures. And it breaks up the massive amount of information into manageable sections.

The more you practice these invaluable skills the more you will see improvement in all your artwork, your general concentration and your ability to see. Like a pianist ‘doing scales’ you will build up the small muscles, motor-skills and neural pathways involved in this challenging, rewarding activity.

It is not rocket science and you can do it.

The key to all sculpture is this:

1- Block out the form: decide the dimensions (height, width, length) including the base.

2- Work in rotations refining the whole sculpture at each turn (by adding or subtracting in the case of clay).

Working on a Small Scale.

Starting small will allow you to get your head around the issues and get results quickly.

Ideally use a clay with lots of grog in it because it will sag less, crack less, fire better or be stronger as self-hardening clay. Here I used Scarva ES50 Crank, an outstanding sculpture clay.

All Pottery Suppliers online will be happy to recommend clay if you tell them what you want to make. Clays are made from recipes so there are endless kinds. You want a Hand-building clay with fine-medium grog ( pre-fired grit). Throwing Clay for the wheel will resent being a sculpture and be hard to handle. Many ‘Self- Hardening ‘ clays are over-priced and difficult or unpleasant to use.

Bath Potters Supplies are really kind and helpful, have a lovely new website and a great selection of clays and tools for fair prices. And they are still open and delivering during the Pandemic.

How To Make A figure

Print out an A4 sheet showing both sides of a skeleton. Make your figure the same size as the skeleton so that it is easier to get the proportions just right which will make your figure look great.
Get about a tennis ball sized piece of clay.
Gently squeeze it into a thick sausage shape.
At one end press in a rough head and neck. About half-way down gently squeeze what will be the legs. Already people will see a figure!
Flatten it a bit except the head because in our skeleton state, where we all look almost exactly the same, we are wider than deep.
Press gently down the sides to block-out the arms.
Measuring is the key to getting the proportions right and that will make a world of difference. Without measuring 99% of people will make the head too big, the legs too short, the hands and feet way too small.
The tip of the tool marks one point, your finger marks the other: hold this and transfer it to your clay.
Now measure the width of the head….
Mark the measurements onto your clay head…
Cut away the excess clay.
Copying from the skeleton cut the arms and legs free.
Lay your rough figure over the skeleton and cut away all the excess clay.
Use Measuring and sketch the bones in place. This will make your progress quicker and better. Focusing on the placement of the bones is much easier than trying to capture the gentle curves of a specific person.
This is still the Blocked-Out form. You have used the Craftsmanship of Portraiture to get everything in it’s key, human-like place
Using tools, which will be more accurate than fingers and give a better bond and look to the clay, model on small bits of clay to flesh-out the shoulders. Work around the form, adding or subtracting clay to develop the body of the person you are making.
Add the depth .
Keep checking those measurements because they help so much and will stop you making exasperating mistakes that will distort your figure.
A handy trick is to put underwear on there. It will genuinely help you to get the chest, armpits, stomach and hips right because we easily remember and understand what underwear should like.
From there note that your elbows fit into your waist, your hands conveniently reach your crotch, and a hand is big enough to cover a face. Using your own body to check things really helps you remember them and to get poses looking natural and expressive.
The clay will be drying a bit now so a slight dab onto a damp sponge will moisten clay before you add it, to get a good bond. Never over-do the water or you will end up with mush!
Now you’re getting to the bits a skeleton doesn’t have but you will see clearly where
they go.You can use photos.
The main body features are not too tricky- it’s the areas in between that are difficult. But on this small scale one thing runs reasonably naturally into another. At this point add clothes if you want to. And you can turn the figure over and work on the back. (resting the front on foam is ideal). You are still at the blocking out stage so no details, focus on the main forms.
Then you are ready to bend your proportionally good person into an expressive pose.
This person is going to sit on a simple, natural shape. I’m making the seat hollow so that it’s not too thick to fire in the kiln. Up to 4cm is ok if your clay is gritty. If you are Self-hardening it, it doesn’t matter at all.
The skeleton’s joints tell you where the figure in meant to bend. The bones are the straight bits. Muscles and skin can stretch or bunch up.
A very common mistake happens when people bend the figure for sitting.
Stand up and put your palms on your hips: now sit. Notice your hands have not changed angle: we sit on the bottom edge of our pelvis . Feel the bones under there. Your buttocks wrap around the pelvis as you sit. The tops of the thighs and stomach may touch.
Dab a little water on top of the seat and rub it around until it is sticky. Gently put the figure in place and move it around until the two pieces are stuck together. (There are clear instructions about making joins at the bottom of this post. Very Important Reading!!)
You can try different poses. If bits drop off, no probs, join them back on. That’s the beauty of working in clay. You can change any bit at anytime until it’s dry and joins can’t be made any more.
When bending bits refer to the skeleton and your own body: note how the bones show close to the skin on a bent elbow or how the calf touches the thigh in a bent leg.
This my blocked out pose. Now I will work in rotations adding or subtracting clay to gradually improve the form and increase the emotional expression. Small changes in body language tell different stories. Right now she could laughing at a terrible joke, feeling embarrassed or starting to cry.
The story changes a lot with the angle of her back and where the weight seems to be.
Taking the pose myself I realize that with a straight back it feels like she must be laughing and that her hand would only just reach her mouth.
Act out the emotion and notice what your body does. Aim for despair and fear: the back bends right over. The hand covers the face and goes just into the hair line. The foot touching the floor goes up a bit on the ball of the foot. The knee of the bent leg comes up to add to the enclosed space around the breaking heart. Interestingly shaped negative spaces are formed between the limbs.
To hold the foot where you want it, steady the whole sculpture and define the space she is in, add more to the base and fixed on the foot.
Fix the hand to the head well.
Measure from the Skeleton and work on places that have become distorted. For example the for arm looks way too long: Start at the hip, measure the thigh bone, get the knee right.
identify the wrist, get the hand to the right size.
Check in the same way, by measuring that this elbow and knee are in the right place. Track problems back to the fixed points in the lower body.
Add a temporary support to hold the leg up and blow dry everything a bit to harden it.
It’s important to accept that it looks pretty bad at this point! But the key factors are there: the pose, the story, the proportions roughly.
Time to go back to the skeleton and get that back sorted.
Sketch on the rib cage. Your rib cage is a pretty rigid basket for keeping your favorite squishy bits in so they are safe. So when you bend forward it moves as a whole.
Horribly your arms are barely attached to you. Just a little cartilage in the middle at the top front of your rib cage! So one shoulder can be raised higher than the other, arms can go way forward or back and the shoulder blade slides over the ribs. Here one shoulder-blade is back, one is more forward.
The buttocks form around the tilted pelvis, no butt-crack in site.
Look again at the skeleton and remind yourself that the hips stick out of the side of the pelvis and the thigh bone joins on the there. With these joints clarified you can best measure where the legs start despite the fat and muscle covering them.
The shoulder position affect the placing of the elbows and so on.
Work on the neck a bit.
Improve the look of the seat.
Sort out the head shape and try some hair styles.
The elbow tucked in there tells of how afraid she is.
The foot is too big!!
Feel how the shoulder muscles go right up the back of your neck.
Feet can be overwhelming. But they have clear sections, sides and an iconic bottom. Take your time.
This arm is bent weirdly and has a crack in it: scoop away the whole crack area and replace with moistened clay to the fix the arm. If cracks are smoothed over they will reappear when the sculpture is dry and can’t be fixed.
Double check measurements yet again!
Work from all angles.
At this small scale keep details simple. But don’t be tempted to leave mittens!
Small metal tools are awesome for reaching into tricky areas.
This stone makes a perfect Temporary Support to reset the knee that had dropped a bit.
Work on the hands. Use the same level of detail as every where else or they will look like gloves.
Some blow-drying to stiffen every thing up a bit and the stone can go and any dent be touched up.
Improve the base. Undercut all around the edge to create a shadow that always looks good and prevents ugly chipping.

Dry your sculpture slowly or the limbs may crack as they will shrink faster than the rest of the form. A cardboard box placed over the top is ideal to slowly allow moisture to escape.
Self-hardened this will be delicate but last forever so long as it doesn’t get wet. Firing will make it stronger and water-proof. When it is dry/fired paint/wax/stain the surface : a simple all over bronze colour always looks great.

Quality Joints:

Genuine joins are formed when the chains of platelet-shaped particles from each section of clay inter-lock. Picture a magnified image of tangled hair.

‘Score marks’ do not give the surface ‘tooth’; they allow water into the clay-body. On vertical surfaces they hold the water in place to give it time to sink in and swell the clay so that the clay platelets are able to link with other platelets.

Slip is not ‘glue’, it is clay particles spread out in water and has little strength, especially when it has dried . It is ideal for holding a lot of water in place to give it time to be absorbed to soften the area of leather-hard clay.

Once both edges are softened put the pieces together and move them back and forth until you feel the edges lock together.
Manipulate the softened clay at the join to encourage further integration of those particle-chains and to disturb the straight line of the join; cracks love to zing along a nice straight slip-weakened join during the firing when the pull of shrinking stresses the sculpture.

Thicknesses: cracking/breaking.

How thick the clay can be to fire well depends on the amount of grog (the gritty bits of pre-fired clay ground to specific sized grit/dust that gives improved structure and resilience to your clay), the denseness of your modelling style, drying time and the speed of your firing.

Air bubbles trapped in the clay will expand with the heat. Grog and/or a loose surface will allow the air to seep through the clay. The same is true with water but steam expands fast. If your piece breaks into big bits during the fire it was trapped air and you will be able to see where the bubbles were in the shards. If it blows up into a trillion smithereens it wasn’t properly dry!


I dry thick sculptures slowly under plastic which I turn inside out ( to avoid condensation pooling) daily for 4 weeks minimum and then 1-2 weeks in a plastic tent with a dehumidifier.  A card-board box makes a great, slow, draft-free drying chamber. A long dry allows the water to level out, as water loves to do, and that will enhance the structure of the clay within it’s new sculpture shape. You will get less cracks or distorting in the fire.

I fire very slowly with an 18 degree C rise until 600 degrees C. then onto full power up to the desired temperature.

Generally 3cm is a fair maximum thickness for a well grogged clay.

There is good essential advice about handling clay on the post about Coil Building.

How To Make a Head looks more closely at Portraiture and you will find it helpful. It talks about human heads but of course is relevant to all heads apart from the handy option of being able to measure with calipers from your own.

One thought on “Making Small Figures

  1. Pingback: How To Make Small Sculpture and Models | Rebecca Buck

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s