How to Sculpt a Clay Animal

Art EducationBrigida SwansonComment
How to sculpt a clay animal

I teach my fifth grade class the basics of ceramic techniques by showing them how to make clay animal figurines. This is a great lesson to combine pinch methods, scratch and score and imagination. If you're a new teacher, or curious about how I teach this lesson, here is a script of my process with the kids.

Today you will sculpt a four-legged animal with clay. You can make any sort of animal that you wish, whether it’s an animal in real life, a mythological creature, or an imaginary animal that you make up. The only requirement is that it should be an animal that stands on all four legs, like a cat, a unicorn or a turtle.

Step 1: Gather Your Supplies

How to Sculpt a Clay Animal 1

For this project, you will need the following: ceramic clay (I use LF-06 White), a needle tool, a knife tool, slip, water, a canvas board or other surface to work on. You will definitely want to wear an apron and cover your table since working with clay gets very messy. For glazing, I recommend using the Stroke & Coat Wonderglaze line from Mayco. You will also need a variety of bristle brushes to glaze with.

Step 2: Wedge the Clay

Start with a block of clay that can fit comfortably into your hand. Before you start to sculpt your animal, you will need to wedge the clay. Wedging clay is a method to release as many air bubbles as possible that might be within the clay block. If air bubbles remain in the clay when it goes into the kiln to be fired, they will expand with the heat of the kiln and cause your sculpture to crack, shatter or explode. We’ll take as many preventative measures to stop that from happening.

To wedge your clay, stand up at your table and drop the block of clay onto the canvas board. Do this with a small amount of force: enough that it will hit the canvas with a steady drumbeat sound, but not with so much force that it causes the clay to flatten or create a loud banging sound.

Repeat this motion, using your full arm and body to create the force. Turn your ball of clay each time you drop it onto the canvas so that it stays in a semi-round rock form. You want to avoid it turning into a flat pancake. If your clay does pancake out, fold it up again and re-wedge to get rid of the air bubbles created by the fold.

Step 3: Start With a Pinch Pot

Hold your clay in the palm of one hand and use your other palm to tap any corners into more rounded edges. Try to focus on tapping the clay with your palm instead of rolling it in your hands. This will help prevent your hands from soaking up the moisture in the clay, and will keep the clay pliable for longer.

When you have a loosely rounded ball shape, cup your clay in the rounded palm of one hand and use the thumb of your other hand to press a hole into the middle of the sphere. Press your thumb straight down and go pretty deep into the clay. Don’t press all the way through, but leave at least a thumb’s width or two at the bottom.

Still keeping your clay in the palm of your hand, place your other thumb back into the hole it created. Place the rest of your fingers onto the outside of the clay. Very gently press your thumb outwards at the bottom of the clay while rotating the ball of clay around in your palm. Don’t press very hard. You don’t want to create a full pinch pot or bowl, but just want the thumb hole to get a little bit wider.

Step 4: Sculpt the Legs

Keep your clay in your palm, hole side facing up. Use your knife or needle tool to draw a plus sign that starts from the center of the hole and goes outward. You should have four lines. Use the side of your needle tool to cut each line all the way through the wall, going about halfway down the side of the ball. You will end up with four sections coming up from the base. Gently pry these sections apart to make them easier to work with. These sections will become your animal’s legs.

Now, use your fingers to gently pinch or press each section into a rounded leg. For the sake of stability, you will want your animal’s legs to remain somewhat short and stubby, even if it’s going to be an animal like a horse or giraffe that normally has long spindly legs. Think of your sculpture as a cuter and more cartoon-y version of the animal. The shorter, thicker legs will help your animal to stay stable while standing on a table and will maintain enough thickness to prevent them from breaking as they dry. However, if your animal’s legs are excessively thick, you can gently press and pinch some of the clay from the legs to move it upwards toward the body.

Step 5: Sculpt the Head and Tail

To sculpt the head, choose one side between two of the legs and start to gently pull and press the clay from the body into a lump coming out of the side. Keep doing this until you have the beginning of a rounded head shape. You can also press your thumb or finger from underneath and inside the body to hollow out the head a bit and make it larger.

If you do not have enough clay to fully pinch out a head, add more clay with a method called “scratch to attach.” Take a small piece of wedged clay and mold it into the form that you want to add onto the head. On the side of the piece where it will be attached, use your needle tool to roughly scratch lines into the clay. Do the same on the area of the head that will connect to the new piece. This is called scoring the clay. You want to be pretty rough and messy with these lines. Essentially, you are making a clay version of Velcro. Dab a small amount of slip (liquid clay that functions as glue) onto your scored areas. Press the two pieces together until they are very secure. Use your fingers to smooth out the connection point until you can’t see the seam anymore.

Repeat the same process of pinching out the tail or attach more clay if needed. One tip for your animal’s tail is to keep it fairly close to the animal’s body to maintain sturdiness and prevent breakage. If you are sculpting a long tail, consider having it wrap around to be against the body elsewhere, or make it a bit thicker in a similar manner as the legs to create more stability.

Step 6: Sculpt Details

How to Sculpt a Clay Animal 6

Consider what details you want to include on your animal, such as facial features, a snout, ears, wings or claws. Pinch out what you can and add on more clay using the scratch to attach method. You can also use your knife tool to carve open a mouth and your needle tool to press in eyes.

Step 7: Add Textures and Patterns

How to Sculpt a Clay Animal 7

To finish off your animal, add textures and patterns with the knife tool, needle tool, and anything else you can think of to press into the clay. The sides of screws rolled onto the side of the clay create a texture of fur, and the edges of straws make a nice circle pattern. Test out different materials for pressing in textures of fur, scales, shells or wool. Experiment with what works and gently smooth out anything that doesn’t work.

Step 8: Prepare Your Sculpture for the Kiln

How to Sculpt a Clay Animal 8

Before you finish your animal, do a few things to get it ready to be fired. Use your needle tool to press deep holes from the underside of your animal in any areas that are a bit thicker. Press at least one hole into each leg. Holes pressed into the head and tail from the hollow interior outward are also a good idea. These needle holes don’t have to go through all the way to the other side. They will function as air release holes for any air bubbles you might have missed when wedging your clay.

Write your name or initials on the bottom of your sculpture with the needle tool. Let your clay dry out for about two weeks before firing it in the kiln. Depending on the sculpture’s size, it may take more or less time to dry completely. Check that it’s dry by carefully touching it with your fingers. If your sculpture feels cold, that means it’s still too wet to fire. When it’s ready, put it in the kiln.

Step 9: Glaze Your Sculpture

How to sculpt a clay animal

When your sculpture comes out of the kiln, you can glaze it in any color you want. Search for images of Oaxacan animal sculptures online to get some great ideas for painting your animal in a colorful and non-realistic way, or stick to the colors of the animal in real life. Follow the instructions on the glaze bottle, and stick to these general rules. Paint two or three layers of each color you use to ensure a glossy, vibrant finish. Don’t paint the bottom of the animal or any area that will touch the kiln shelf.

After your animal has been glazed, put it back in the kiln for its second firing. When finished remove your sculpture and enjoy! Put it proudly on display or consider giving it as a handmade gift to someone you love.