Sculpting Techniques

Someone once said that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. That’s a horrible analogy if you love cats, like me, but when applied to non-living things the saying rings true. There are several ways to transform a lump of clay, a chunk of metal, a blank canvas, a block of wood, and so on. In the first article, I gave a list of different methods and techniques that can be applied during the process of sculpting to reach a desired end product.

As a beginner sculptor, it’s helpful to know and be familiar with the basics of each of these methods and techniques. It also doesn’t hurt to begin practicing them. First, let’s learn all there is to know about these various methods of sculpting. Keep in mind that these methods and techniques encompass all materials involved with sculpting: wood, stone, clay, etc. The following is a general overview of all methods associated with sculpting, not just techniques for sculpting clay.


  • Involves cutting or chipping away a shape from a mass of stone, wood, or other hard material
  • a subtractive process where material is systematically eliminated from the outside in

This one can be figured out pretty easily. Hack away at something until it looks like what you want. More advanced artists will map out planes and masses that make up the shape of the outer forms, then once the outer shape is complete, map out smaller sections until the only thing left to do is add small details.

After all of that is complete, a finish is added.

You might think that this is the only way to carve an object, by mapping it out and completing from large to small. Even with this method, your idea for the piece can change as the piece is manipulated. That will happen during in any sculpting project. With direct carving though, there is a plan and a map of how to get there, even if the end product is different from what the artist had originally envisioned.

Indirect carving is accomplished by first making a clay model of whatever the artist intends to produce. Then that same model is carved out of wood or stone, whatever the artists prefers, by a pointing machine (we’ll talk about pointing later). This method is not a favorite among carvers and normally ends in disputes among them. Even though it is not widely used, it’s still good to know about.


  • created when a soft or malleable material is built up and shaped to create a form
  • while carving is a subtractive process, modeling is an additive process

A variety of materials can be modeled, not just clay; plaster, wax, concrete, stucco, etc. Normally a model is made to be reproduced in another more rigid form, like metal, plaster, concrete, or fiberglass. Unless it is already made to be rigid and permanent through the characteristics of the material used.

Just like there are different types of casting, there are different types of modeling.

Modeling for casting involves just that. Making a model, normally out of clay or plaster, that will end up serving as a model for a sculpture made out of plaster, fiberglass, or concrete.

There’s also modeling for pottery sculpture. In order to handle the stress of firing, a pottery sculpture must be hollow and of even thickness. This can be done through two ways: hollow modeling and solid modeling.

In hollow modeling, the clay model is built hollow and of even thickness from the beginning of the process. In solid modeling, the clay model is constructed as it normally would be. Then, before it is fired, it is cut open, hollowed out, rejoined, and dried out.


  • an additive process
  • involves melting down a material, normally a metal, that is then poured into a mold. The mold is cooled and the metal is hardened


  • the process of gathering and joining different materials to create an assembled sculpture
  • an additive process


  • the process of reproducing a sculpture by transposing measurements taken all over its surface to a copy
  • a pointing machine ensures accuracy and thoroughness on the sculpture
  • this machine is an arrangement of adjustable metal arms and pointers that are set to the position of any point on the surface of a three-dimensional form and then used to locate the corresponding point on the surface of a copy
  • the main use of pointing is for the indirect method of carving, which I covered earlier

Surface Finishing

  • can be natural, bringing the material of the sculpture itself to a finish, or applied
  • Natural methods include smoothing and polishing on surfaces like stone carvings, wood, ivory, concrete, and metals
  • Applied methods include painting, gilding, patination, electroplating, and various forms of finishes
  • Paint can add a durable finish to any sculpture
  • Gilding is the method of decorating a sculpture with gold, silver, and various other metals that are applied in leaf or powder form over a suitable priming
  • Patinations are caused by chemicals; whether it’s by exposure to different kinds of atmosphere or by burying in soil or by immersing in seawater
  • These same techniques can be achieved through artificial means, like applying a chemical to allow iron to rust or applying a chemical to the surface of bronze and then heating it to make green, brown, blue, and black patinas
  • Electroplating is the process by which surfaces of metal sculpture are coated with chrome, silver, gold copper, and nickel
  • Other finishes include etching, engraving, metal inlaying, enameling with metal sculptures; pottery can be decorated with oxides, enamels, colored slips, glazes, and through the process of burnishing

That concludes the general overview of sculpting methods and techniques. I would like to end this article with a bit of advice for beginning sculptors. It may be tempting to start this hobby alone and closed off in your home. There’s a few reasons why this shouldn’t be your first instinct.

First off, taking lessons at a studio can be helpful. You can observe and learn from people who have sculpted for years and know how to guide you through the beginning stages of sculpting. Secondly, you can avoid a catastrophe where you forever ruin your carpet with clay or a glaze you wanted to try out on a finished product. If that happens to you, give Katy Carpet Cleaners a call. I’ve trusted them to keep my carpet clean for years and I always refer to my friends. They can remove the most stubborn of stains from any carpet and leave it looking better than when it was first installed.

Sculpting: Clay Types

Open any how-to book on a new skill and the first few chapters will most likely contain the history of the skill, its definition, tools commonly associated with it and so on. All of that to say there will be a few chapters of information before it covers the actual process of how to go about achieving the skill.

These articles will be structured in that same way. We’ll cover some basic knowledge that any sculptor should know, like clay types and their characteristics, sculpting material, sculpting techniques, and so on. I am learning as we go, too, so if you’re a beginner sculptor like me we’ll be in the same boat.

Before we begin, “to sculpt” is defined as a verb that means to “create or represent (something) by carving, casting, or other shaping techniques.”

As I mentioned in the previous article, sculpting can be done with other materials besides clay. The reason we’re focusing on it in this article is because clay is the most common and it’s the easiest material to start beginning sculpting and work up to more advanced techniques on.

Clay comes in many forms, no pun intended, and different types are suited best to certain techniques. It’s helpful to learn all of this before you even begin sculpting. Below are various types of modeling clay and their characteristics.

Modeling clay

  • General term that covers a group of malleable products used for sculpting and building by children, art students, hobbyists, and professional potters and animators
  • All types can be shaped and worked with tools for sculpting, blending, texturing, thinning, scraping, poking, and cutting
  • Can also be rolled with rolling pins or in pasta makers, molded, and worked with tools such as extruders, potato mashers, and garlic presses to create various shapes
  • Can be built up on its own or built onto a pre-formed armature
  • Below are some basic types

Oil-based (Plasteline) modeling clay

  • Scientific names: plastilina or plasticine
  • Invented in Germany by Franz Kolb in the 1880s and independently by William Harbutt in England in 1897
  • Its properties include: stays soft and workable, unlike pottery clay and way; neither hardens nor dries; comes in a wide selection of colors that can be used as is or blended to create another clay, unlike pottery clay; also unlike pottery clay, this type of clay will not stick to your hands.
  • However it cannot be baked in a furnace, or “fired”
  • This clay is commonly marketed for children because it doesn’t stick to your hands and it stays soft and workable and doesn’t harden or dry out over time
  • Popular choice of film studios, fantasy artists, fine artists, film special effects departments, and fantasy comic artists
  • Molds must be made of a finished product and then the molds can be baked; those will hold up better than the original product being baked
  • Needs softening when it comes out of the packet; can be done with your own body heat, in a pan, or in a microwave
  • Much more expensive weight for weight than ceramic modeling clay
  • Different degrees of hardness can be purchased, ranging from hard to medium to soft; can be mixed together for varying consistencies
  • Medium hardness is good for sculpts that are going to have tiny, precise details

Polymer modeling clay

  • Have various degrees of softness at room temperature
  • Can be mixed to combine their individual properties; you can make a softer clay stiffer by combining it with a firmer clay
  • This type of clay when baked should be in an oven at 265—275°F for 15 minutes for each ¼ inch of thickness
  • Once baked, they can be painted although they originally do come in a wide variety of colors and can be mixed
  • Besides the primary colors, they also come in translucent, fluorescent, metallic, and bright varieties
  • Other specialty colors include those with stone-like textures or glow-in-the-dark
  • It can be expensive weight for weight compared to ceramic clay and it’s also weaker than ceramic clay
  • It doesn’t have to baked to be painted

Dough modeling clay

  • Resembles PlayDoh® and is sometimes called playdough
  • Can be edible or inedible
  • Can be easily made at home in both cooked and uncooked versions
  • Less expensive than other types of clay
  • Made of ingredients commonly found in any kitchen: flour, cornstarch, cream of tartar, oil, and water
  • In order to add color, you can just add food coloring before it’s cooked or paint it once it is cooked
  • Most flour-based clays are not meant to be baked and made to last, like gingerbread houses. They tend to crack as they dry. PlayDoh® is meant to be used and reused
  • There are types of air-drying modeling clay, like Activ-Clay® and Model Magic®, that dry better than PlayDoh® and hold up better over time

Pottery or Firing Clay

  • Used for pottery and stoneware
  • Worked by hand and on a potter’s wheel
  • Meant to be air-dried and then fired in a kiln
  • During the firing process, glazes with glossy, matte, or specialty finishes can be used to decorate pottery and are baked on
  • There are glazes for each type, ranging from low fire, mid, and high fire clays
  • Available in terra cotta, a rust-colored clay, and white which tends to look gray when moist but dries white
  • Some clays do have different tints
  • Clays described and categorized by their raw and firing color, texture, throwing amenity, slab, particular uses, and sizes and thicknesses for which they work best

Ceramic clay

  • This type is tricky to work with because it comes out of the bag soft and pliable, and this is when it is best to rough out a basic form
  • But you can only do so much with the clay in this state because it’s too soft to add any details
  • You must allow it to harden before you can proceed
  • Before you begin working on it again, place it on moist plaster
  • If you have to leave the project at any point, be sure to cover it with a clear plastic bag
  • The trick to working with this type of clay is to keep it from drying out but now allowing it to become too moist that it is unworkable
  • Keep a spray bottle of water on hand and spray it every once and awhile when it starts to dry out

Now you know some basic types of modeling clay and their techniques. I even included some tips on working with certain types as a little bonus. Next article, we’ll look at techniques to use when working with clay and other materials.

Sculpting Intro

Everyone needs a hobby, or at least that’s what people tell me. I’ve never been much of a hobby person. I like to read every now and then but books don’t hold my interest for long. TV and movies are great, but sometimes I feel like my brain is being drained of all creativity instead of being inspired. That’s what my problem was: I couldn’t find a hobby that inspired me. Any hobby I attempted felt more like a chore than something I wanted to do during my free time.

It wasn’t until I came across Johanna Drummond’s sculptures that something clicked. Looking at her work inspired me to try and create my own sculptures. This blog is my way of documenting my journey into sculpting. There are so many things to learn about sculpting and techniques to try, so come with me on this journey and learn along with me.

Some techniques we’ll look at include:

  1. Carving
  2. Indirect Carving
  3. Modeling
  4. Modeling for Casting
  5. Modeling for Pottery Sculpture
  6. Constructing
  7. Assembling
  8. Casting
  9. Pointing
  10. Smoothing
  11. Polishing
  12. Painting
  13. Gilding
  14. Patination

These techniques can be applied to much more than clay, which is the standard material associated with sculpting. Sculptures can be made out of any material that can be manipulated, so that could include a range of things. Besides clay, there’s metal, wood, and stone. Those are just to name a few.

The techniques listed above also cover several areas of sculpting ranging from the most general of areas to the more specific: reproduction, surface-finishing, modern, representational, and relief. We’ll cover these in a future article.

Because of where I live, Katy, TX in the Cinco Ranch subdivision, I have access to Houston’s incredible art district. There are countless museums, sculptures, paintings, and various other mediums of art to behold. I used to go there pretty frequently for recreational purposes, but now when I go it’s to get inspired and see what I can learn from the art presented.

As we transition from one stage of life to the next, wherever you may be at in your life, I know it becomes easier to fall into a rhythm and feel like you’re just doing things to “get by.” That’s how I felt before I found sculpting. Sculpting was exactly the hobby I needed to fill the hole in my routine. It’s something I look forward to, I plan for, I shop for, and, most importantly, it inspires me and challenges me. That’s what I needed to jumpstart the part of my brain that felt listless and bored.

I encourage anyone who feels the way I felt, tired and uninspired, to find a hobby that you wouldn’t expect to like. Something that challenges you, is new and different, but overall brings you joy and inspiration. No more wasting hours in front of a TV just to feel like you’ve effectively turned off your brain or just doing things on auto-pilot. Life is too short to do unnecessary things that bore you or that feel like a chore.

If sculpting is that hobby for you, like it was for me, stay tuned for informative articles that will help any beginner sculptor on their sculpting journey.