by Michael Wohl
One of the more exciting new materials available to those interested in figure modeling is a range of products known collectively as Polymer Clay. While there are many variations of Polymer Clay we shall be restricting ourselves to Super Sculpey and its near relatives, Sculpey III and Granitex.
All forms of polymer clay are hardened by baking them in the oven. A chemical reaction causes the clay to change from a soft bubble-gum like consistency to being anywhere from rock hard to extremely brittle (depending on how badly you needed that piece to finish your artistic triumph). There is often no rhyme or reason as to why these variations occur. With polymer clay forewarned is forearmed. I have found through sad personal experience that with anything to do with polymer clay, if it can go wrong, it will.
Do not let this truth, however painful, discourage you from experimenting with polymer clay. There can be few things more satisfying in the modeling world than seeing a finished piece that came totally out of your head and your hands. The path to that moment can be short and sweet or long and tortuous, but it is a journey worth taking. Let’s get started.
We have already touched on Super Sculpey and its family of clays. Super Sculpey is usually sold in one pound bricks of flesh colored clay. If the clay appears to be almost hard or crumbly do not buy it. Super sculey should be firm but pliable. Some sculptors prefer to mix the flesh colored clay with a colored clay, such as Sculpy III, to avoid the opaque surface of pure Super Sculpy. Unmixed Super Sculpy can look wonderful before it goes into the oven, leading the modeler to believe that a call from Disney or Hollywood is soon inevitable, only to emerge from the oven resembling Cinderella’s coach after midnight.
This is ultimately a minor problem however. Most projects will require a number of trips to the oven as corrections or modifications are made.
Once you have settled on a type of polymer clay you will want to go on to the tools required for the job. The number of tools required for any given project can vary tremendously. Overall, few tools are absolutely necessary and most kitbuilders will already have some of them.
A hobby knife with a number eleven blade is essential. Not only is it useful in a number of ways but it is also one of my favorite sculpting tools. You will also want some sort of Xacto saw tool. A smiliar blade is also available and designed especially for cutting polymer clay. Either or both are useful.
There are two types of tools imperative for sculpting that the modeler may not be as familiar with. The first is the “spoon” tool. These come in many forms and material (metal, wood, plastic) as well as many sizes. The most useful spoon tools that I have found are either teardropped shaped or round. Often these tools will have two different tips. These double-ended tools are a very common characteristic of sculpting tools,
The other piece of vital equipment is called a wire loop tool. These also come in a variety of sizes and materials and are also often double ended. As the name implies, these tools are different sizes and shapes of wire most often set in a wooden handle. Such tools are generally used to carve excess clay from the piece or to refine an area by removing small bits of clay at a time.
You will also want to have various sizes and shapes of wood to attach your unfinished sculpture to. These can be as inexpensive as possible so long as they provide a good deal of support for your work. Balsa is to be avoided for this job.
Many other items can be useful and can be as simple as pins, files, tubing of various diameters and above all, hands. Many sculptures could probably be done with no other tools other than the sculptors’ ten digits.
Fingers are often much better for shaping and smoothing clay than any tool in metal, wood or plastic. There is one other material that a beginning figure sculptor in polymer clay will need: wire.
Discussing various type of wire also brings us to the subject of armatures. Like the old adage that in real estate all that really matters is location, location, location, armatures are that important and deserve their own section which, combined with a look at the advantages and disadvantages of different types of wire takes us into the actual construction phase of a polymer clay sculpture.
A good armature is something of a paradox. It must be extremely stable and strongly made or any number of disasters can occur (remember our motto, with polymer clay if it can go wrong, it will) At the same time, there will be many occasions when the sculptor will wish to make a change in the pose of their work. Some wire used in armatures will easily allow this, others will not. I have used three types of wire to make armatures and must therefore, limit myself to them. That does not mean that other materials aren’t available and can’t be used successfully.
Moving from weakest to strongest wires, the first would be craft spool wire. This type of wire comes in many colors and sizes. My own experience has been largely with twenty and twenty four gauge wire.
Before you begin construction of any armatures you will have to consider what you wish to sculpt. If, for instance, you want to make a monster or alien that no one has ever seen you will have much more latitude than if you are going to make a human or easily recognizable animal such as a horse or a dog.
Armatures for known subjects should be as close to the proper proportions as possible. It is a very unpleasant sensation to realize halfway through a project that the legs are way too long or some other obvious error. Fortunately there are many sources for sculptors to obtain the proper proportions. It is also recommended that the armature be constructed using your visual template as a master. Do not attempt to eyeball the dimensions, at least not at first.
Back to spool wire. I cut off lengths of the wire longer than I will need. I then put the end of one piece of wire up against the end of the second piece. Then with a small wire tool, I begin to twist and braid the two pieces together. Make these braids as tight as possible. Once this is completed make a second braided strand that is not quite as long. The first strand will form one leg and the torso, while the second will be the other leg. Twist the upper end of the second leg around the torso about halfway up so that the feet are now even at the bottom. It probably is a good idea to wrap a fine wire around the spot on the torso where the two strands are twisted together. I also would put either superglue or five minute epoxy on the joint to strengthen it.
Once this has dried bend out the hips so that they form an upside-down letter “U”. Bend the upper end of the hips backward a bit to simulate the tilt of the pelvic bones. Be sure the hips match the appropriate spot on your visual master. Now take a single strand of your heaviest gauge wire and match it to where the shoulder line should be. When you have it properly placed, wire it securely to the upper part of the torso and glue it in place.
You will now have a basic but very flexible armature. At this stage you may wish to mark the vital spots on the armature with a small dot of bright paint. These would include knees, elbows, and the spot where the feet will be flat on the base, You should have enough wire below that spot to firmly secure the armature to the base.
At this point you could simply drill a few holes in the base, glue the armature in and begin to sculpt. However several things should be taken into account if you wish to go beyond this step. First, what pose will your figure be in? Will both feet be on the ground or any feet for that matter (i.e., an angel) A figure running flat out will need much more support than one that is standing still.
Even if the pose is not particularly active it is often better to add some extra support by adding a wire that comes up from the center of the base and is either wired or bent to the armature hip area. This should provide a fairly stable platform from which to start yet still allow some variations in the armature’s position.
The next type of wire that can easily be used for armatures is floral (Green) wire. The process of making these armatures is very similar to the twisted spool wire method with a few differences. The floral wire does not have to be braided, as it is intrinsically stronger. It is not as flexible as spool either so while it can be altered, it is better to develop a final pose from the start. It is often a good idea to wrap the floral wire armature with spool wire of a relatively small (high number) gauge. This gives the clay something to adhere to other than the smooth floral wire itself.
The next, and strongest armature wire is steel wire, especially those snipped from coathangers and the like. These are, obviously, the hardest to bend into the desired shape but they will give you the strongest support.
I will not go into the sad, sad story of my floral wire armatured-dinosaur running flat out with only one toe in contact with the base, but, as you might have guessed, steel wire would have been a much better choice. Apparently no real fossils have been found with support rods protruding from their bellies into the ground. Once constructed a steel wire armature can also be wrapped with small gauge wire to add tooth for the clay.
In addition to the three types of wire discussed already there is also a fourth type readily available. This is called, oddly enough, armature wire. Armature wire is usually sold in coils of various dimension from fairly small to gigantic. I do not have a great deal of experience with armature wire but most of the precautions previously mentioned for spool wire should also be applied. Armature wire is certainly widely and successfully used.
We now have arrived at the sculpting equivalent of the writer’s blank sheet of paper. The armature is made, we have the clay and the tools. Now we must actually sculpt something.
Putting the Clay to the Metal
There are so many ways to undertake the next step that all I can really do is to go step by step through the method that I have evolved. Let us assume that we are sculpting either a human male or female and go from there.
Beginning at the hips, and staying as close to the actual body plan as possible, start to apply the clay to the armature. You may have to knead the clay in your hand for a bit to make it pliable enough. At this stage (usually called roughing in) I do hips, legs, torso, shoulders and sometimes arms. Many sculptors do the head before they do anything else and that is certainly a good idea. I find the head so important and intimidating that I usually do it as the last major portion of the sculpture. I do make a rough head shape to get the correct proportions.
From here begin to refine shapes. This can be done with any tools that work but pay careful attention to proper placement of muscle groups, basic body shapes and the like. It is often easiest to break living creatures down into triangles. Try to see what “shape” each part of the body is and how it integrates with the neighboring bits. Keep your reference material close at hand even at this early stage. Reference material can be from any source but I have found drawing books to be particularly useful. A good drawing with sharp and clear lines is often more valuable than an actual photograph. In photos important features are often indistinct. It is also good practice to draw as much as you can. You don’t have to become a master but it will help immensely to see how bodies are put together and function.
At this early stage you might very well be discouraged by what looks more like the incredible melting man than the superhero or soldier you are trying to make. The best advice here is to just keep on going. It is normal for work to look like this now. It will get better.
An important consideration that is going to arise is when to bake your figure for the first time. Very few works go into the oven completely unbaked and come out finished. I have baked a single work as few as two or three times and as many as twelve. Just to guess, the average is about three to six times. Often the first baking is necessary to stabilize the sculptures and/or to preserve good work that you have already done.
Let’s talk about the oven for a minute. Nowhere is our often-repeated warning “if it can go wrong, it will” truer than in the oven. A very common disaster is having almost finished work mysteriously sheared off at the ankles. While such damage can usually be repaired these blackened, twisted things are not a pretty sight and you have to steel yourself to get past them.
Several “laws” have to be followed for the oven. Always make sure that there is a sufficient support for your work. Heat can prove too much for an armature support that is fine outside of the oven.
The second “law” is once you have turned off the oven leave your work in there until the oven is stone cold. If possible leave it in overnight, but two to four hours minimum is almost mandatory if you wish to avoid cracks caused by a too rapid cooling of the still hot clay. Opening the oven is often a bit like Christmas morning but you run the risk of ending up with a lump of coal.
Everyone develops favorite temperatures and times to bake. These usually depend on the oven but it is always wise to start with the instructions on the package.
Let’s assume that we now have a partially done work that has been in the oven once. You now have several options. Both start with carefully and critically looking at what you have done so far. Is everything even and symmetrical that needs to be? Are basic forms as well defined as possible? Are there cracks or other problems produced by the baking?
The primary options come down to two. The first is to give the figures a light coat of primer to show what has worked so far and what has not.
You could then use the other option of beginning to sand, watching out for small imperfections or certain changes that might be necessary. In either event, you are going to need some good wet and dry sandpaper and probably medium to light grit regular sandpaper as well.
After you have sanded, but before adding any more clay, wash the figure off completely either in the shower or outside. Let it thoroughly dry before you continue.
Continue adding, removing or shaping clay as necessary. Remember that while many viewers will be drawn to the details of your work, such as weapons, equipment, etc it is the form underneath that is crucial. At this stage, the form is all-important. Spend as much time as you need to do this. Remember that you have a very different task from the painter whose work is seen in two dimensions. You are, in effect, doing a three hundred and sixty-degree painting. No sculpture is ever equally well done from all sides (ever seen the back of Michaelanegelos David?) but strive to achieve that anyway
Let us assume for the moment that you have completed several passes at improving and baking your piece. It is baked, cool, clean and you are ready to move on. We can call this section “getting dressed.” Clothing varies so much that only the most general overview is possible.
The worst problem I have encountered at this stage is that thinned-out polymer clay meant for clothing is very easy to tear. It does not like to be stretched out too much. The worst problem is trying to make items that cover large areas, such as a coat or a dress. You could fill the entire area in with clay but that will be heavy and expensive or you can apply, bake and patch and keep on going. If possible some sort of temporary internal support (even just fingers) would be helpful.
The other primary area of clothing is rendering folds and wrinkles. There are books just on this subject and they are useful. The other method is to study or even wear something as close to the material to be modeled as possible. By wearing the clothes, you can see where folds and wrinkles would naturally occur when you get into the same position as your sculpture. Folds can be very daunting at first and done badly can ruin a figure. Take your time here as well and after awhile they can become enjoyable. There are two basic methods of making folds and wrinkles.
In the first, take a blunt edged tool such as the teardrop shaped spoon and press folds into the already existing clay. In the second technique, rolled snakes of clay can be applied to the surface and blended in with a hand or some other type of spoon tool. The latter is especially effective for coats, capes, and dresses with large folds of not overly heavy cloth. This also brings up the somewhat obvious point that thin material usually has a lot more folds than heavier ones. The folds for each will behave differently.
While on the subject of clothes we can also throw in hair and furs. The most important thing to remember here is that hair and fur have a distinct pattern and flow. Even human hair follows this pattern. See how the hair on your arm swerves towards the outside edge of your hands.
Most tools used for hair and fur resemble small combs with only a few teeth. Even a single pin or toothpick will be effective in this role. After perhaps several passes at this stage you should have something that is starting to seriously look like a final product.
Faces, good luck. (More on this later)
You now might be at a stage where you need to make some form of equipment or weapons. Polymer clay is generally better at “soft” forms than hard, but it can be used for both. It is also reasonable to use other materials if they are oven compatible. Do not slog through making something out of clay if it is more easily made in wood or other materials.
We are now very near the completion of the sculpture. Now is a good time to check for flaws and perform a nearly final examination. Look for anything that can be corrected, smoothed down or generally made better. You will almost certainly want to apply a primer coat to the figure to check for flaws.
If you find things that need attention it may be as simple as sanding an area smooth or applying a bit of putty such as Green Stuff. If an area needs to be built up slightly or slightly smoothed down you can use several coats of a thick paint evenly applied to the area. My favorite is Model Master Dark Tan enamel.
If you want to have a very smooth surface you can also put on several coats of gloss spray. This will tend to even out the surface. If you are happy with what you see you can apply a final, or several light coats, of primer.
Before going on to a brief discussion of painting, we should discuss the question of bases. Many figures done in polymer clay do not have any sort of base and you might very well not want one. I often try to make my figures so that they will stand up on their own to check weight distribution even if they are ultimately going to have a base. In most cases the figure is definitely improved by being on an appropriate base. The base can be thought of as your figure’s stage or set and should provide a stimulating but not overwhelming environment.
Bases do not have to be entirely sculpted out of polymer clay. Even when the final “frosting” will be polymer clay, the underneath might well be made of scrap wood or aluminum foil to save both money and weight. If the base is to be baked, always remember to keep the materials oven compatible. Never put Styrofoam or probably any form of plastic in the oven as these will give off toxic fumes when they are heated. Do not even use them inside a sculpture that will be totally covered in polymer clay. Even so covered, the dangerous fumes will still be released.
Overall, your base should be treated the same way as the rest of your work. Look for rough spots or areas that can be improved before giving your base a final coat of primer.
Painting you sculpture is a subject largely beyond the scope of the present discussion. While virtually any type of paint can be used, acrylics have been found to be the most clay-friendly. The various types of hobby enamels are serviceable but do not do as well even on a well-primed surface.
We have reached the end of the road. Hopefully you will be looking happily at your first or new sculpture. There are many more things that can be said, but let me just close with a few observations that I hope will be of some use.
Many times instructions in classes or craft shows will point out how easy it is to do something in their field. Sculpting is not easy. There will be a fortunate few of you who will take to it like a duck to water and become an instant Michaelangelo, but they are rare. Most people will learn the hard way. I have made more than my share of mistakes because of ignorance or not thinking ahead. Be prepared for this and do not let it stop you. As noted earlier, very few things in the craft and hobby world equal making something that is totally your creation. With luck you will be one of those happy, but tormented, souls who sculpt because the have to.
I was purposely very flippant about faces. Most of learning faces is pure trial and error combined with observation. Always pay a great deal of attention to the face and do not quit until you are satisfied with the results. It is sometimes advised to treat the face and head as if they are a separate sculpture and that is not bad advice.
If you stick to sculpting long enough, you are going to notice an important change take place. At first you will probably spend most of your energies just trying to get everything in the right place. This is going to take awhile and is an important step. Eventually youfind yourself moving towards a more integrated whole that tells a story and is not just anatomically correct. If you get to this stage you are going to love it. Don’t ever get too cocky because clay is always full of surprises. But now, you might just get the magic feeling of thinking you know what you are doing and you may very well be right.
Do not be afraid to try something new or more difficult. After all, it is only clay. Some teachers purposely make their students destroy their work just to prove that point. Finally, good luck with all of your endeavors. Polymer clay is a difficult taskmaster but well worth the effort.
All figures in this article were sculpted by Mike Wohl
Photos by Jeff Junker