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Sculpting in clay

This activity sets out how to sculpt a clay head using an armature. An armature is a framework beneath the clay surface. Its structure supports the soft clay and reduces the amount of clay needed, making the sculpture lighter and easier to work with.

Sculptors have used clay for centuries. It can be used to make models for larger pieces, for moulds of works to be cast in metal, or as sculpture in its own right. Below are just a few examples of heads sculpted from clay. You can explore more clay sculpture on Art UK.

Choose a subject

Before they begin sculpting, ask your students to choose someone they would like to model in clay. They may wish to model another student, or they can research images of a person to use as a guide in preparation for the making task. If they are in need of some inspiration, encourage them to search through Art UK for paintings or photographs of people.

Materials

Each student will need:

  • a wooden base
  • bendable wire and chicken wire (or aluminium foil) for the armature
  • clay (preferably air-drying and around 2 kg per pupil) and a clay-cutting wire
  • some basic wooden clay tools. Alternatively, you can use plastic modelling tools or even cutlery

Make an armature

Dora Gordine activity materials

Materials

You may wish to create the armatures for your students to save time in class. While ready-made armatures for heads are available to buy, they tend to be expensive. To make your own, you will need a wooden or chipboard base with four holes drilled into it, as in the picture above. Fix two pieces of bendable sturdy wire into the base by placing each end diagonally across from the other. Fix the two wires together using a small piece of wire, then wrap the whole structure in chicken wire (or aluminium foil) to fill in the gaps between the bendable wire in order to create a head-shaped armature. Be careful during this part, as the cut ends of the chicken wire can be sharp.

Method

This short time-lapse video demonstrates the making of a basic wire armature and the addition of clay to make a simple sculpture of a head. Some key points include:

  • 0:28 – fixing wire into the wooden base
  • 0:43 – covering the armature with clay
  • 1:28 – using wooden modelling tools to heighten the facial features

Once the armature is complete, students can cut lumps of clay using a clay cutter and begin covering the armature with it. Make sure the clay is soft and easy to work with – it is best kept at room temperature and can be warmed by rolling in it the palms of your hands.

Encourage students to add clay where it is needed to form a head shape and bulk out features. Hands are the best tool for smoothing out the clay during this process.

Once your students have a basic head shape, they can begin to form the features by using their reference images or an in-class model as a guide. This will require modelling tools such as a basic pottery clay toolset or anything else suitable for safe modelling.

Remind your pupils that, when working with clay, it is easy to correct something they are not happy with as long as the clay is still wet so encourage them to take risks and try out different options until they are happy with the proportions and definition of the features.

Top tips:

  • Cover your sculpture with a bag when taking a break and/or lightly spray with a water bottle if using air-drying clay (but not too much!)
  • Using a potter's banding wheel (a rotating stand) will make it easier to work around the head

You may wish to hold a mini-exhibition in the classroom, with students presenting their work and explaining who they chose to represent in clay and why.


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