We animals are frequently surprisingly similar and identifying those differences can be really difficult. Furriness or our perceptions built around our relationships can confuse the information and make it hard to see. Skinny legs supporting big bodies or building on larger scale where the weight of the clay is a huge issue causes a lot of problems.
This is the same technique I now use for making heads. A simple clay armature supports the weight throughout the build and gives you a central point that you can work outwards from, allowing that most important key to success: making loads of mistakes and fixing them. You get to avoid hollowing out so that you can play around with textures while you are building. And you will be using the process to reorganize the information in your head: there is no better way to do that than hands-on.
The skeleton is a stick-figure with the right proportions (so important when you are being species specific) set out clearly and unambiguously. Fur, muscle shapes changing with the pose and fore-shortening in photos can confuse you leading to sculptures that are a cross between lifeless, amateur taxidermy and stuffed toys.
The key reason making naturalistic forms is so hard is that our perception (the way we take in our knowledge) that we have built up over our lifetime of what shape the thing is, is based around our general experience of that animal. Making a sculpture of that living, moving, person requires going against what ‘feels’ right and using information we are unlikely to have bothered with before. Portraiture has a system to organise the huge quantity of subtle details. Learning this system will broaden your knowledge, and your access to more knowledge, enormously. That’s why the study of Portraiture and Figurative Sculpture is traditionally the bed-rock of making Art.
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.
Because clay shrinks as it dries and is floppy when very wet, a Clay Armature that will support and shrink with the form through the drying and the firing is invaluable. All other types of Armatures must be perfect in shape or they will ruin the sculpture. And they limit your option to change your mind. Most cause disruption because they have to be removed: clay will shrink as it dries and crack around a rigid armature.
Most techniques for building hollow, coiling or slabs, have a strong ‘voice’ of their own and will influence the final look of the piece. They can demand that you harden lower sections before you can build upwards and you are then unable to change them when you later realize they are wrong. This is a real disadvantage irregardless of your skill level. It is better to work solid over a clay armature especially if you are not using a scale-model and hollow out just before finishing touches. It’s not difficult. That technique is detailed here: Working solid and hollowing out.
Working solid is an excellent method. You set aside the ceramic requirement for certain thicknesses in the clay until you are sure you have the best sculpture you can make at that point. The armature holds the weight up. Some areas can be built hollow too. When you essentially have the look you want but just before finishing touches, hollow it out.
The key to all sculpture is this:
1- Block out the form: decide the dimensions (height, width, length) including the base. Your clay armature will do this.
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 an animal and be hard to handle. Many ‘Self- Hardening ‘ clays are over-priced and difficult or unpleasant to use.
Working on a larger Scale.
I ran the following workshop over two days at the wonderful North Devon Ceramics Academy and Studio. Nicola Crocker and Taz Pollard have created a fantastic, fun, supportive and practical space for learning and sharing creativity in clay. I absolutely love teaching there. Nicola and Taz have a very genuine commitment to empowering other people and sharing their open and imaginative approach to the vast potential within ceramics. The Studio is spacious, bright and comfortable and the atmosphere is friendly, unpretentious and very encouraging.
This amazing group of all experience levels were a joy to work with. And they came up with some great improvements to the technique. You will also adapt it to suit your hands and ideas.
We are using the out-standing Scarva ES50 Crank clay (a stoneware clay with a lot of grog (ground up ceramic grit) in a variety of sizes from coarse to dust making it much easier to hand-build with because of the way it reacts with water (allowing for excellent joins) and it’s superb strength when leather-hard and also when dry. You can use different clays for the armature and exterior but using the same one means everything shrinks at the same rate during drying and firing.
Many thanks to Nicola Crocker for the great photos of the workshop.
This piece is all about the energy and character of this squirrel. The ‘fluffy tail’ can be a meaningless cliche and has not been used here.
Making birds is notoriously difficult because of their insane relationship with gravity. Work slowly in stages allowing the parts to firm up and add to the support system. Remove parts of your clay-armature cautiously in small stages.
A wonderful form where negative shapes play a stunning role. Their grace and movement is enchanting and very tricky to capture.
This animal is iconic and has held it’s place in art for Millenia. It’s bulky form and thick fur can easily be over generalised into a blob on sticks. Here the skeleton secures the integrity of the structure. This sculpture is about his power and movement.
Cats are extraordinarily flexible and their exterior hides their structure. Making pets can be very difficult because we have so much knowledge of them that can cloud the sculptural information. Use the skeleton to keep on track with proportions that our nutty perceptions may think are similar to humans!
This student had gorgeous pictures of her adorable young dog, especially his loving face. But at this small scale she focussed on his movement and energy to portray him. She will paint his distinctive markings on in colour.
These little guys have tiny feet and very slender legs. You could build some grass or rocks around their lower legs to give stability. Or add a friend.
This up-right stance gives similar problems to the meercats but the way otters stand gives plenty of attachment to the base.
Like many big herbivores, horses have surprises in their skeletons that are key to their shape. A ridge of spurs along the spine limits over-flexing but also keeps predator teeth away from the precious spinal column. It defines their characteristic silhouette. The skull seems bizarre but get that blocked in well and the head will look great, even in a small scale.
These guys go well out of their way not to look like animals all! They have extraordinary skeletons, well worth studying. But it has to be said that apart from getting proportions right, the hard shell-like outer skin means you see no clues of the bones showing on the armadillo’s surface. Their shell is a very subtle, beautiful shape with exquisite patterns.
Your central, weight-bearing support does not need to be flat/straight: Both of these abstracts below were built outwards from a stiffened, curvy, up-right central shape of various thickness set on a metal rod. You can see parts of the original central support where it became part of the final form, much like the sculpture of the Giraffe above.
Genuine joins are formed when the chains of platelet-shaped particles from each section inter-lock. Picture a magnified image of 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 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 back 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.
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 is essentially the same method 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 callipers from your own.