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 a Care-home setting.


There is plenty of documentation about how arts and crafts can play a huge role in health and well being in Care Homes. But fitting activities into a busy, often stressful day can be daunting. Hiring in professional Artists experienced in working in health-care settings to assess the options and train staff can be great fun and very rewarding. But it might be beyond your budget.

Carers have the most important skills needed; they know their Residents well and want them to enjoy their day. In-coming teachers might not be able to spot the subtle signs that a Resident is having a rewarding experience or that they are getting bored or distressed. Residents often wont open up to new people. The only thing that matters is that the activity, even if it is just loosening stiff hands by playing with tools or being intrigued by the squishy feel of the clay, is that it adds stimulus, and hopefully fun, to the day.

I’m thinking mainly of people with Dementia here but Clay Modelling will be very popular with all sorts of Elderly Residents. Be prepared for lots of very rude models and lots of laughs!!

These basic principles can be used for all arts and crafts- and the results will always be just as good.


Carers often undervalue their skills and can be shy about providing craft-skills. They just need encouragement, sensible, efficient Craft-packs and storage and a well managed schedule.

Clay Modelling in Care Homes; Low cost, straight-forward, self-hardening, recyclable.

Clay Modelling kit- One time purchases, max £60

You will need;

-1 x 12.5kg bag of Scarva Earthstone ES70  Architectural Body Clay a professional quality white clay from Scarva, my favourite supplier of outstanding sculpture clays. Including delivery you will spend about £25-£30.

-A bucket (the clay bag always leaks!)

-a choice of tools; Wooden Modelling Tools and Ribbon Tools will be the most popular.Scarva have a good range  but I buy them from Top Pot Supplies ( best quality yet lowest prices!) Amazon has affordable letter stamps (Small or larger) that will be very useful. 

-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.

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. Residents can keep favourite pieces in their rooms for a while. It can mean a great deal to visiting families to see nice things their loved one has made.

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! People are usually perfectly happy to get a photo of their work and then let it go. Often it takes the pressure off to make a ‘product’ and they can relax and enjoy the making part more.

What To Make?

Anything and nothing! Just try out the material, let your-self and your Resident play around, feel the material, flatten it, poke it! Put a little water on it and feel the smooth change in the texture. Letter stamps are great- get your resident to pick out the letters of their own or a family-member’s name. Press in every day objects. Try all the tools; it never matters what the tools are used for. Make models to get a conversation going. Give an enthusiastic resident some space and quiet to try things at their own pace. You don’t need to ‘teach’ you just need to share the experience. It’s a lovely thing to do.

Let people know that this is professional quality clay and tools; Residents are often very prickly about being treated like children and people forget that Adults are allowed to play too and that creativity is important for everyone’s well-being. We call it ‘A Hobby’ so it sounds mature! If you make your own things along side them and laugh about your mistakes it sets the right tone.

Work with a group or just one person for as much time as feels right. Have Art and Craft as part of any day, not just as a special occasion.

Gwalia Mynnydd Mawr Residential and Nursing Home in Carmarthenshire are aiming to bring creativity and fun into every day for their Residents. The kids had great success with asking Residents what hobbies they used to love or what pets they had and then making a model of that in front of curious Residents. Lots of warm conversations were started that way.

Gwalia Mynydd Mawr Residential and Nursing Home in Carmarthenshire are aiming to bring creativity and fun into every day for their Residents. The kids had great success with asking Residents what hobbies they used to love or what pets they had and then making a model of that in front of the now curious person. Lots of warm conversations were started that way.

Re-using the Clay

-At the end of a session drop all the clay back in the bag. (lots of people 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 minimum over night.

-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 recycle.

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


-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.

Homes need to be adaptable like ‘normal’ homes and organise a way for Carers and Residents to feel welcome to relax and make some mess. You wont get much with clay. Have a broom and a dust pan and brush handy. Enjoy!



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.

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. Family days like this are great fun. Take photos of the pieces and then re-cycle the clay.

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.

Interesting article:

Clay therapy offers pathways into communication and reminiscence for people with dementia


Article By: Melissa McAlees, News Editor

There is plenty of research about how arts and crafts can play a huge role in individual health and well-being in care homes. Clay modelling is a therapeutic activity that has become increasingly popular in the care sector.

Clay is cathartic in nature as it allows an individual to express an array of emotions. For older people and those living with dementia, clay therapy provides creative stimulation, social interaction and develops fine motor skills with a variety of positive outcomes, including increased confidence, concentration and motivation.

Rebecca Buck, professional sculptor at Osprey Studios has offered clay therapy to older people and those living with dementia as part of Arts Care Gofal Celf’s Gwalia project in Wales. She believes it is fundamental for older people and those with dementia to experience varied activities such as clay therapy.

“It’s fun, soothing and engrossing. Being creative might have played a huge part in a person’s life, happiness and self-expression. Even for those who are living with dementia, they still need an outlet,” she said.

“Clay therapy can replace the verbal language that has been lost in some individuals. Several of our participants who were non-speaking and prone to angry outbursts showed wonderful skill and contentment with drawing, clay and painting. That gave their families a way to link with their loved one, which resulted in happier residents.

“Arts and crafts can create a bridge between residents and their loved ones and offers pathways into communication and reminiscence. Making family visits relaxed is therefore very important as the focus can tend to concentrate on the individual’s condition.”

The qualities of clay have a calming effect on those living with dementia

A previous study, published by the American Academy of Neurology, revealed that individuals who participate in arts and craft based activities can experience a reduced risk of developing Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), which can often lead to dementia.

Research manager at Alzheimer’s Society, Dr Clare Walton, said: “Although this study looks at mild cognitive impairment rather than dementia, it does add to previous evidence that keeping your brain active during life with arts, crafts and social activities might reduce the risk of developing memory problems.”

According to Alzheimer’s Society, 80 per cent of people living in care homes have a form of dementia or severe memory problems. For some, clay therapy and arts and crafts activities can conjure up anxious feelings about their capability.

Similarly, although clay therapy sessions have been found to support the interactions between care staff and residents, Ms Buck believes that care workers can also often undervalue their skills and can be shy about providing craft-activities.

She suggests that, at times, care staff require ‘encouragement to feel confident that clay activities are about providing a sensory rich experience, rather than creating a piece of art’.

Clay gives shapes to formless entities of feelings and ideas

Since conducting extensive research, Sumita Chauhan, researcher at the University of Kent, found that clay is the most familiar material to make sculptures with and is currently used for therapeutic as well as creative purposes.

She said: “My workshops on clay modelling involve people with dementia and are organised to provide enjoyment through the creative process of making sculptures. Working with clay is a very effective way of individuals expressing themselves as it doesn’t restrict it to verbal communication only. I have realised the act of creation and involvement in the process is as important as the final creation.

“Creative activities have many benefits for people with dementia. The possibility of transforming a lump of clay into a form provides self-control and builds up confidence. Clay as a material has many qualities. Its softness and smoothness has a calming effect on people with dementia, and the process of using clay to make a sculpture offers individuals a wide variety of sensory experience.

“Preparation of the clay starts with kneading first and this process requires a lot of force and pressure. Sometimes, while doing this, individuals living with dementia let out their pent up anxiety and, to a certain extent their frustration, as a non-verbal communication.”

‘Clay sculptures become a source of communication and reflection’

Clay modelling can also be a valuable social activity. Co-operation and sharing of ideas in groups can promote a sense of identity and a sense of belonging.

Commenting on the many benefits, Ms Chauhan said: “Clay modelling is a slow process and as the form starts building up, it takes a lot of patience to complete the details required on the surface. This allows individuals to leave a personal mark on their work. As a result, clay sculptures not only become a source of communication but also a source of reflection.

“Most of the participants in my workshop sessions instantaneously react to the material. I have found that the tactile contact of the material often becomes the starting point of conversation. An open discussion across the table makes it easy to know each other and be social.

“It is worth giving maximum time to develop individuals’ ideas of what they want to create, thus helping to build their identity. Instead of explaining the process, a demonstration is more effective.

“Watching others working with clay or making a sculptural form certainly stimulates individuals. There is a definite involvement and the outcome of such interaction is their response and comments about the sculptural form, such as their likes or dislikes. Sometimes people reminiscence a past experience which they associate with the material or the form they are seeing.”

Art projects in care homes rekindle imaginations and trigger memories

A two year arts care project involving residents at Gwalia Mynydd Mawr care home recently culminated in the unveiling of a new sculpture.

‘Yma a Nawr’ was funded by the Baring Foundation and delivered by Carmarthen-based Arts Care Gofal Celf. The project brought professional artists of various disciplines into Gwalia’s Mynydd Mawr care home to work with residents and their families.

The interactive sessions included printing, textiles and sketching.

Commenting on the success of the project, Jodie Boyd, occupational therapist at Gwalia, said: “The arts are proven to have numerous benefits within residential and nursing care settings, the storytelling and reminiscence work is particularly successful when a person’s short-term memory has started to deteriorate but their memories from years ago remain intact.

“Arts Care Gofal Celf’s work has rekindled imaginations, triggered memories, provided opportunities for socialising and conversation and increased self-esteem.”