How To Make Small Sculpture and Models

Covid 19; Standing Up For Peace Sculpture for Saxon Hall, Hereford: The design Phase. Please join in!

The Big Skill is working on a community project to build a sculpture for the beautiful garden at Saxon Hall Community Centre in Hereford, UK. We had started to bring people together with fun, informative, creative clay workshops to start developing the design. The models people made will be incorporated into the sculpture’s surface to add an expressive, relief surface that tells of the many ways everyone builds peace into their lives and communities. Then Covid 19 took over.

So now we have taken the work online. Please feels very welcome to join in. Go to The Big Skill website for more details.

Clay Modelling and small sculpture.

Using clay on a small scale is a great way to work out those ideas and feeling that are ‘on the tip of your tongue’ or just out of reach in your head. You can play around intuitively until it looks about right. Then you can use that model to guide you through another one where you think about it a bit more and so on. This is the basis of how I work and how I deal with any emotions or situations that in life that I can’t get my head around.

When planning a Public sculpture I start this way to clarify my own interpretations of the Theme. Then I will be inspired again by your models and other art-work and I’ll start making scale models that incorporate your ideas and forms and the issues out-lined in the Project Brief.

Coping with the Covid 19 lock-down has made us all acutely aware of how it feels to live in fear and what really matters and helps. So the models you make will really be from the heart and everyone will be able to relate to them in some way.

Humans are a social species and so it’s very important that we have a wide variety of skills to offer our communities. We are unified by a drive to share and communicate and some of us do that best through wordless routes like art work: making it and connecting through the art we see.

A piece of clay about the size of a tennis ball will keep your model a manageable size that wont keep collapsing or get to thick if you plan to fire it.
Just mess about: the ideas will come through your hands.
These other posts about small models will be useful:
Making Small Figures How To Make Animals
Listen to music that suits your mood or the mood you are aiming for.
I’m making an abstract form because that is my strongest language. The easiest, ‘best’ thing to make is the thing that interests you the most. Take your time and don’t care one bit about what anyone else might think.
I’m just trying to capture the movement or flow here, like dancing.
Much of the lower part is just there to stop it tipping over.
Blow dry just enough to keep it steady, especially lower bits. Don’t over-do it.
I’ve defined the form a bit more by cutting bits off and smoothing and compacting the clay with tools.
It’s time to add more clay: Break off a small piece with a tool, dab it onto a moist sponge and model it onto your sculpture.
Note the cake in that dish has gone.
Keep going around in Rotations, developing it in layers.
Look at it from all angles.
The next 3 images show the point where I’m beginning to get the hang of this model.
Bit more of this lower stuff will come off…Note that is is ‘roughed out’. If you spend too much time smoothing it will feel hard to make changes because “you don’t want to spoil it”. And being able to make changes at any point is one of the great benefits of working in clay.
I’ve blow dried it a bit more because now I’m going to add on quite a lot more clay. At this stage this piece is effectively the Armature.
Dab water on the surface, rub that until it is sticky, then add more clay.
I have switched to Porcelain clay which is tricky to work with. It looks a mess now but I will carve that back when I think I have the shape done. It will shrink way more than the Crank clay underneath so after the firing I will have a hard white finish with a lot of cracks in which I will emphasize in black. I’m after a timeless, stone-like finish.
Blow-dry the new clay to stiffen a little. Then use tools to compact the clay and clarify your farm. Don’t be tempted to smooth with water.
Raise the sculpture up so that you can see it better. I’ve had this fab turntable for eons. But I often use boxes and bits of wood which turn well. It’s very good to be able to sit up comfortably.
I used all the tools shown on the board for each task shown over the next set of images.
Refine the surfaces in rotations. I like to do a rotation of removing, then a rotation of adding, etc, for a minimum of 5 rotations.
Metal, serrated tools like this are AWESOME! But for years I’ve used wooden ones, Ribbon tools, small metal tools.
The curved ends of the wooded tool is great for smoothing and compressing clay in the curves and along the edges.
Once you have the shape you want Wooden tools blend in the scrape marks for a lovely, lasting smoothness. and crisp edges.
Over smoothing a form can kill it dead. some texture brings out the smoothness.
With small sculptures you can often see features from all sides at once. They need to interact and relate to each other. You can still play with surprise revelations as the sculpture is turned like you can with large pieces. This form is inspired by my experience of the Covid 19 Lock-down and part of the Edge Series which uses two sides linked by a hole.
Ready to dry.
This is now covered in the white porcelain. The firing will do most of the finishing. Then I will complete it by rubbing black-iron oxide powder into the cracks.
Weather you fire or self-harden your sculpture do plan on applying a colour to finish it. Dry clay, and sometimes fired clay, looks very blah. Don’t judge the piece at that point.
Add colour. using layers of thin washes to build up a colour works best. (be careful with water if you have self-hardened or it will disintegrate) Perhaps wax or varnish. I never recommend glazes on ceramic sculpture: they usually hide your nice surface and unless you are experienced with a particular glaze it can go very wrong.
Putting the sculpture on a nice base can transform the way it looks.

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. You can try making lots of versions of the same idea until you find a style or image that really works for you. If it is authentic to you then other people will be able to relate to it.

Choosing Your Clay

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. Just looking through the site will give you a good idea of what is available. And they are still open and delivering during the Pandemic.

A bag of clay is 12.5 kg. Clay prices vary a lot. Talk to your supplier to get the right clay for the job. £10 shipping usually covers 10-25 kg so tools wont have extra shipping.


I love CTM for tools: great quality and prices, especially on the serrated metal tools. They sell fab clay too.

You don’t need lots…I have LOTS! You can make your own.

This useful post features a complete, reusable model-making kit that you can adapt to the size of your needs and helpful links: How To Use Clay In Primary Schools Affordably.

Quality Joints:

There is good, illustrated, essential advice about handling clay and making joins on the post about Coil Building.

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 slide 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. Pack in more clay if needed.

Thicknesses: cracking/breaking.

Generally 3cm is a fair maximum thickness for a well grogged clay if you plan to fire.

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!


These small models will dry out in a few days. To stop it drying between sessions wrap tightly in a plastic bag with no holes.

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 clay will be delicate but last forever so long as it doesn’t get wet.

Firing will make it strong and water-proof.

When it is dry/fired paint/wax/stain the surface : a simple all over bronze colour always looks great.

Place your sculpture on a nice piece of wood or stone and it will look amazing! Seriously!

Now go make another one.

The more you practice more skills you will build up. You will get the fine muscles, the organised thinking, and more challenging, interesting ideas. There is no such thing as Talent. There is Interest, skills, tricks of the trade, good, suitable materials and tools and practice.

Confidence is great but it does not always help tbh. Don’t be meaner to yourself than you would be to someone else. If you hit a block wrap the piece tightly in plastic and come back to it later. Note the first thing you notice when you un-wrap it: that is usually the bit that needs work or is really good.

Getting useful feedback is hard. Cover the piece, say to the person “tell me the first thing you think of” and uncover it. Keep your face neutral! Then ask ” what is the mood? ” or ” what is the model feeling?”

How to use Clay In Primary Schools affordably.

Primary School Pupils making models about memories in Carmarthenshire.

Primary School Pupils making models about memories in Carmarthenshire.

Clay is a fantastic resource for schools. Kids relate to it immediately and it usually engages their attention for surprisingly long periods. The majority of Pupils will learn best when their hands are busy. It is the 3D equivalent of Drawing; it’s not just for arts and crafts; it’s versatility and affordability means it can be used to enhance all sorts of subjects even maths or history. Many children will find expressing and accessing their ideas in 3D much more natural than using 2D and for some it will be much easier than using words.

Making a Zoo complete with 4 toilets, a car park and an over-looking  military complex. We worked on this all day, took photos and then squashed it all up. Fantastic fun, lots of skill sharing and teamwork.

Making a Zoo complete with 4 toilets, a car park and an over-looking military complex. We worked on this all day, took photos and then squashed it all up. Fantastic fun, lots of skill sharing and teamwork.

Bringing an experienced Ceramic Artist into school is a great idea  and will be worth every penny for special projects. But for everyday use the most important skill needed is the one you have; knowing your kids and understanding how they learn best. The clay-skills required are very straight forward.

Plan to recycle the clay at the end of each session just like a superior version of Plasticine.

Apart from special Projects there is no good reason to fire clay-work in Primary School. Firing adds  complications to the skills required, storage problems, big costs and lots of extra work for teachers.

If you want your Pupils to benefit from the science and art of firing ceramics bring in a Raku Potter for a day. It will be fantastic fun, massively educational and the ceramics will be gorgeous!

You don’t need all these things to start off. Quality hand-building clay is the most important thing. There are countless different clays designed for different tasks. The wrong clay can make people feel like failures.


Until it is fired Clay can easily be recycled endlessly until the end of time.

1 x 12.5kg bag of Hand-building clay with grog.  Scarva Earthstone ES70  Architectural Body Clay a gorgeous, professional quality white clay from Scarva Potters Supplies. My favorite supplier of outstanding sculpture clays. Including delivery you will spend about £32.

Bath Potters Supplies  are the most helpful, kind supplier I’ve come across and they will give you great advice. Just tell them you want a white (non-staining, easy to clean up) medium grogged (grog gives the clay much better handling qualities and the greater dry strength needed for self-hardening use.) hand-building clay.

Delivery will be about £10 for up to 25kg.

All the ‘Self-hardening’ clays I have ever tried are unpleasant and difficult to use, very expensive and not significantly stronger when dry than a lovely quality hand-building clay.


Tools make all the difference to what you are able to make. Using them develops fine motor and eye-to-hand skills

Wooden Modelling Tools and Ribbon Tools will be the most popular. Ebay always has affordable letter stamps that will be very useful and sometimes good tools.

These wooden fine modelling tools are outstanding. T1005 Steel Carving Tool Set from CTM Potters supplies are great value, really useful and very long-lasting.

Absolutely gorgeous forged steel tools also from the excellent CTM, will improve your work massively at the fairest price I have found.


-Re-usable plastic table-cloth cover if you are worried about scratches on your tables as this clay has small grit in it.

-a few micro-cloths. They are the quickest, easiest cloths for cleaning tables and hands.

-Boards are optional. B&Q will custom-cut a sheet of MDF for you. A board wide enough to fit across a wheel chair is great for some people.

Approx cost, incl. sheet MDF; £60. You don’t need all these items to start off.

Big Join-In Sculptures have a job for everyone and even the smallest contribution is part of something fantastic.

Big Join-In Sculptures have a job for everyone and even the smallest contribution is part of something fantastic.

The quality clay is the important item. Clays are made with recipes and therefor there is an infinite number of types of clay, each with particular properties. ES70 is absolutely lovely to use; it feels very nice, it’s not sticky, it doesn’t stain, it’s easy to clean up (on carpet let it dry + brush out), it’s not irritating to sensitive skin and you can eat it! Most importantly it is very easy to use so people get good, rewarding results quickly. Beginners deserve a great material that will reward their bravery for trying something new and give them fab results that will spur them on.

ES70 works very well as a self hardening clay and can be decorated with poster paints once it’s dry.

Plan to recycle all the clay, even if it’s painted or has dried completely. Explain that the clay is expensive so you need to keep it for next time so that they don’t think it’s because you assume they will make rubbish! Pupils are usually perfectly happy to let it go. Often it takes the pressure off to make a ‘product’ and they can relax and enjoy the making part more.

Clayton The Rottweiler has a full set of internal organs including a working bladder! At the end of the session we recycled the clay.

Clayton The Rottweiler has a full set of internal organs including a working bladder! At the end of the session we recycled the clay.

Re-using the Clay

-At the end of a session drop all the clay back in the bag. (lots of pupils will love smashing the work up!)

-Put bag in Bucket

-slowly pour a cup or so of water over the clay in the bag to soften the clay.

-Close bag w/ twisty

-leave  over night or longer.

-place bag on floor and step on it a few times to “knead” the clay, turning bag a few times.

-Voila! It is ready for use. You can re-cycle your clay endlessly.

!? Bag goes rock-hard; Allow to dry completely, drop lump on floor to break up, put pieces in bag and recycle

!? Bag goes quite hard; knock holes all over lump. (hammer + screw driver= surprisingly satisfying task!) Return to bag and add water.

!? Bag goes too squishy; Tip clay onto a board and allow to dry until usable. “Knead” a few times over the day (or two) so that it dries evenly.

For larger quantities of clay recycling click here.


-Always close bag tightly w/ twisty

-Ideally store in a handy frost free place but it doesn’t matter  if the clay freezes.

-Ideally have the bucket on wheels as 12.5kg is quite heavy (plant pot wheels – Home-Bargains, £1.99.)

-Have all the kit together for quick access by everyone.

Primary School children visiting the Care home for lovely afternoon of creative fun with Residents and carers. There was lots of singing, laughter and sharing. The residents lit up and the children were relaxed, charming and really enjoyed supporting their elders.

You can see more about the wonderful, 2 year long, Arts Care Gofal Celf Project shown in the pictures here; The Tumble Commission, parts 1-8 

General information about Workshops with Osprey Studios.

More information about collaborative and community projects.