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Choosing your sculpting medium

The views expressed on this page are solely those of the author and do not reflect any opinions or works of others.

  • Sculpture is a process of transferring your creative idea into something tangible, creating an object from something that you can not yet hold in your hands. There are no short cuts, no modern devices will transform those ideas into your subject. If left to themselves, even the most modern sculpting tools will not produce a good sculpture. A sincere desire to create your own sculpt, combined with immense gratification and pleasure of the process, practice and determination result in a creation that belongs to absolutely no one else - your idea brought to life becomes the sculptors reward. Realizing the desire and creating the ideas are the first part.

  • Where to begin - what to grab hold of, and how to begin using whatever medium you choose? These are the first question every sculptor faces when setting out on the creative journey. The sculpture process is a slow one and requires preparation. Just as every artist prepares a canvas, composes a poem, or practices musical notes to express what they desire, the sculptor must consider both the subject and the end result in order to determine the process.

    One guiding consideration is always the medium. Dolls ave been produced for generations, with simple and elaborate wood or stone carvings becoming cherished playthings for those who came before us, with neither the access to or knowledge of many of the forms of clay available today. Modeling allows for expansion of a gesture; carving is primarily confined to the limits of the piece of raw wood or stone. Wood or stone does not lend themselves to the same subject freedom as does clay, yet many wooden and carved dolls are the elite of the art form, as well as cloth sculptures. Good sculptors have achieved the fluidity, play and expression through the use of wood and monumental sculpts have been created utilizing soft material, the subject choice and the medium used is as free as the imagination.

    For the purpose of this discussion, I will discuss modeling CLAYs, the types and choices to be used: Natural clay, Plastilina ( an oil-based natural clay), and Polyform or polymer (manmade) clays. Each type presents different challenges and modern adaptations of polymer clays provide the sculptor with varied material from which to work, depending on your purpose in sculpting, your feel of the medium, and the effect you wish to achieve.

  • Natural clay, often referred to as ceramic clay, is an earthen-based material found in our environment. Years of learning how to process the natural material have lead to the ceramics art industry. Our ancestors literally dug clay from the ground and devised methods of firing the clay to generate pieces of art, architecture and forms. There are 3 categories of clay suitable for modeling or sculpture: earthenware, stoneware and porcelain.

  • Earthenware clays are coarse, low-fired clays with various impurities which can cause interesting color variations. In a finished piece, this may be used when rich, dark brown, reddish-brown or orange colors will enhance the desired effect. Earthenware clay fires at low temperature, up to a cone 1. As a modeling clay, it is grainy to the touch and especially good where a rough textured surface is desired. It holds water well and moves easily. It dries slowly and stays pliable for a long time, which is a plus when modeling over an extended period of time.

  • Stoneware clays have a microscopic particle size somewhere between that of earthenware and porcelain, but does not mature until a high temperature of cone 2 to cone 10 is reached. Fine or coarse grog (crushed fired clay) and/or sand is often mixed into the clay. These additives contribute to the texture of the surface and result in a loose and open clay body. Compared to porcelain clays, stoneware clays can be wetter without being sticky and drier without tearing when used for modeling.

  • While porcelain clays are not typically used for sculpting, a discussion of its composition is important. Porcelain clays are composed of finer particles than earthenware or stoneware. Because these particles are packed more tightly together, it is a smoother textured clay. With just the right amount of moisture, porcelain feels creamy and silky. When it is allowed to dry too much during the modeling process, it becomes stiff and crumbles. When it is too wet, it gets sticky. With porcelain clay, it is very important to maintain just the right amount of moisture, there is a very narrow range between too wet and too dry. Porcelain high fires at temperatures ranging from cone 5 to cone 14. There are quite a few doll artist who direct sculpt in porcelain. Marlene Verhelst is a renown artist who has a couple of pages on her site with graphics depicting the steps to sculpting a head in porcelain. You can find these pages at : MarlaineVerhelst.com Follow the link to the article: Sculpting Directly in porcelain, by Marlene Verhelst

    Which of these natural clays should be used for sculpting or modeling a doll?

    All of the natural clays are available in different textures and colors, ranging from smooth to very coarse.

    If the intent is that the clay model will be nothing more than that, a model used for preparing a mold - a low fire white ceramic clay without grog, is preferred. Choose a clay with smooth texture. The clays usually come in 25 lb bags. If you are lucky enough to have a good ceramicist in you area she/he will point you in the right direction. DO NOT use a clay with high grog or sand content as you want the model to be as smooth as possible prior to molding. Coarser clays are used for larger objects where the sand or grog is required to support the sculpture.

    If you are doing a One-of-A-Kind sculpture which will become the finished piece, you will want to choose a high fire clay such as porcelain, but study the armature and hallowing processes required prior to firing. For modeling purposes porcelain clay is much too expensive and the thought of using this exquisite clay as a “throw-away” model makes me shiver!! Porcelain clay is great to use for lace draping, roses, floral and small items used to embellish a final object.

    Moist modeling clay is inexpensive when compared to most other modeling materials. I find it easy to smooth with brushes and sponges. It can also be allowed to dry and “sanded” for an even smoother finish. It is messy!! If you have an aversion to mud and dirt you might not want to consider this medium. Clay is basically mud or fine silt that has been purified.

    It can then be used as a model for a mold or can be fired or sealed for the molding process. I recommend making a mold from the piece prior to firing or sealing as the moist clay will be much more forgiving of undercuts and easier to remove from a difficult mold. In other words, the model will tear first, allowing you to see and clean up undercuts in the mold.

  • Plastilina is an oil-based earth clay which dries out less quickly than other natural clays. Some sculptors recommend using plastilina when sculpting hands as it doesn’t dry and crack as easily as moist clay. For me, it is difficult to get the detail. Also, the oil releases into the mold when making a mold, which creates difficulties when casting the mold.

  • Polymer clays: Modeling clays such as Sculpy, Fimo, and Cernit are manmade clays and come in a array of colors. Polymer clays are Poly Vinyl Chloride, or PVC. These modeling clays have been used for years to make jewelry and other objects. Each differ in their malleability and the finished look. As they are kneaded they become pliable. Each differ in their strength, color and curing time. Different polymer clays can be used together to achieve the desired effect. The kneading process often results in air bubbles and the sculptor must ensure the appropriate kneading time. A primary advantage to using these materials is that they can be baked to hardness in the oven and do not require firing . When baked, polymer clays have a long shelf life and, as opposed to moist natural clay, can be set aside and molded at a much later date. Many doll artist choose this media for their One-of-a Kind dolls. Character dolls and those with a large degree of detail work well in this aspect, especially if there are no plans to make a mold. Limitless detail can be added without concern for undercuts.

    A relatively new polymer clay, ProSculpt, had been designed by doll artist and instructor Jack Johnston. ProSculpt has been specifically designed for the doll artist and is available on his web site at artdolls.com . Jack has refined ProSculpt to better fit doll sculpting needs, including offering colors that lend themselves to a more natural look. He also offers videos and books, seminars and classes in doll sculpting. If you are interested in sculpting with polymer clays, I highly recommend you check out his site. You may also wish to check out other doll designers who sculpt in polymer clays and provide videos and/or classes at Art Dolls

  • A personal Choice ? Given the amount of modeling material available today, consideration and research is necessary to determine the right medium for your sculpture. Each doll artist has “learned” to use and adapt the clay of their choice to prepare the end-result, be it a model for use in casting or a finished product. Sculpting in any type of clay entails the use of your sense of feel and maneuverability of the object. While moist natural clay might be easier to work with in that it does not require the “kneading” process of polymer clays, you might find the long shelf life and translucent appearance of polymer clays more suitable for your needs.
  • My personal choice: I LOVE to work with natural clay. Because it is a part of our environment, it makes me feel like I’m in my flower garden, all is right with the world and I am communing with my creativity or creator. Sculptors and artist of the Renascence period became masters of this medium and when I began sculpting it was important for me to learn these techniques and their history.

    If you've managed to completely read this article, you probably have a sincere desire to sculpt. Go to a local ceramicist and inquire about sculpting classes and natural clays. Or, go to your local craft shop and purchase a small amount of polymer clay with which to experiment.

    Take a look at online resources available to assist you in your endeavor. Many of these are listed on our doll links sections at designer links or, sculpting links pages. Resources vary from online distance learning classes, online videos, sculpting supplies and much more.

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    Happy Sculpting, Dollmaking and Collecting!!

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