Sunday, January 15, 2012

YOU CAN SCULPT!: Mysteries of the Sculpting Mediums Revealed!

So, here it is! General info about every reasonable building material that I can think of that is NOT ceramic clay in one exhaustive post. Are there lots of others? Oh, indeed! Add a comment if you've worked with one that you'd like to recommend! At some point in another post I will cover various armature-making methods because I think that would be helpful for someone.

Here we go!

Note: I updated some bogus links on August 4, 2013. I'll try to remember to do this on occasion.

Polymer clay:
For polymer clay, there's really only one awesome option, Super Sculpey. There are other polymer clays, and Sculpey makes lots of different varieties as well (see below), but honestly, I just wouldn't touch 'em. I am completely partial, and I just think Super Sculpey is the best.

What I love: Unlimited working time. Sculpt a bit, grab a drink, sculpt a bit, go out to eat, come back, tinker with it, etc., etc. The only thing that I should point out, if you are working with Super Sculpey over a vinyl toy or a vinyl doll form or whathaveyou, you have about a two week working time before the clay becomes a bit crack-y. The clay's oils will over time start to "soak" into the substrate. Not sure why exactly and I don't want to risk sounding like a dork trying to make up something that sounds smart. Also, if you are going to commit to working with Super Sculpey, you'll need to get a Clay Conditioning Machine (a.k.a. a pasta roller thing) to condition your clay. A must.

What I hate: You have to REALLY watch what you use as an armature. Everything you sculpt upon has to be able to withstand a 275 degree oven. That means NO STYROFOAM! I've also used clay over dolls that sort of got a little melty in the oven and created a seam. After everything comes out and re-hardens, you can fix that stuff with some epoxy clay (see below) but it's usually a big pain in the ass. So yeah, the unpredictability factor is a big negative. And while polymer clay is pretty durable, you can't expect to sculpt long, thin pieces without an armature. It WILL most likely crack if you're an average klutz like me. It all boils down to what qualities in a sculpture medium are important to you. If you like an unlimited working time like me, then polymer clay is your only option.

Hey, Sharon... What about Sculpey Original, Sculpey III, Sculpey Premo, Fimo and that kind of polymer clay stuff? That stuff is great too, it's just a little harder to get squishy and workable. Totally cool though. I would HIGHLY recommend the clay roller (see above) if you are planning on working with these clays as they come in relatively hard blocks. ALSO, it's important to note that the pretty, bright colors can mix together to create yucky, muddy combos, AND there's a high likelihood that your colors can scorch in the oven if you're not vigilant. BUT, many people use this stuff to make pieces that are the total shit! Check out my friend Amy's stuff!

And click HERE to see a piece made using Super Sculpey polymer clay.

Air-dry clay:
Holy crap, I risk getting the majority of the art doll community's panties in a bunch for saying this, but I DON'T GET IT! I just find this material weird and wet. O.k., I have to insert that, like what you order at the bar, everyone has their preference. This stuff just isn't mine. BUT, well over 80% of the doll/figure making artists in the universe use air-dry clay, almost EXCLUSIVELY Creative Paperclay Modeling Material. And don't let the "Paperclay" name throw you off, this stuff's made with ash, talc, water, wood pulp, and preservative (I was super curious and had to look it up - it doesn't say on the package). Let me give you the pros and cons (with an obvious bias)...

The pros are that it sands better than any medium listed in this post AND you can sculpt over literally ANYTHING. Like there is absolutely no worry of a physical or chemical reaction to anything you wrap the material in. Also, it dries over several days, which to ME seems like a con, BUT this can be a bonus if you know how to use the medium and wish to use the varying levels of hardness to continue sculpting upon. That being said, it has great adhesion to itself, and there is virtually no weird, uneven warping. THAT being said, there IS a bit of cracking that usually happens throughout the drying process that needs to be addressed. Smaller cracks can be fixed with just a large gooping of gesso, but in the instructions (and this kills me) it says, "Fill any cracks or seams that develop in drying with a bit of fresh material." Like they KNOW their product will have fucked up results. I think that takes balls.

O.k., now the cons... It feels like very wet, moist Play-Doh, which you're all like, "That's a con?", but I find it TOO squishy. AND because I'm used to working with polymer clay, I HATE the feeling of the clock ticking as far as optimum workability. You HAVE to keep a spray bottle next to you as you work because this stuff starts to harden around the edges super quick. I personally find it hard to sculpt fine detail, and I feel like once you get something just right, all you need to do is breathe and you eff your shit up. Like it took me over 30 minutes to sculpt a pretty respectable ear, a frustrating task if you've ever sculpted one, then I turned the piece over to do something small on the back of the ear and BAM, the whole thing went sort of squishy. Grrr... I also hate waiting for it to dry. I also hate the feeling of the final product not feeling sturdy. Like it's super light. That weirds me out. BUT I for sure think you need to purchase a pack and try it for yourself. Tons of people use it and make amazing stuff!

For a link to one of my all-time favorite doll artists who uses Paperclay click HERE.

Two-part epoxy clay:
And even MORE bias... I LOVE this material! I use the brand Apoxie Sculpt. Again, I do NOT like the feeling of the clock ticking while I'm sculpting (there's about an hour window of optimum workability depending on how warm your studio is), but the tick-tock is outweighed by this product's awesomeness.

This stuff has better adhesion to vinyl toys and other items than polymer clay, and with a bit of water will feather edge wonderfully. After you mix the A and B together the material is quite sticky, but if you leave it sit for a few minutes you're golden. It works about the same as polymer clay and has about the same density. You DO need a cup of water nearby to help smooth out the cracks and whatnot. I like to dip a crappy paintbrush in water for smoothing purposes and to quasi sculpt with. I like the fact that even while it's in it's final hardening stage it can be slightly manipulated.

The only con with this stuff is it's difficult to find in a local retail situation (although in Columbus, Ohio you can get epoxy clay at Hobbyland in the Graceland Shopping Center) and clean up is tricky. You really don't want to get any down the drain and I've had product stuck to my fingernails days after using it.

Click HERE to see a customized toy where Apoxie Sculpt was used.

Papier mache clay:
This stuff is not an ideal sculpting medium, but it certainly has its place. I'm actually making a piece now using papier mache clay, and it's going well so far. Here's the deal... If you buy a pre-made pulp product, the sticky part is usually built in. If you make it from scratch (HERE's a great recipe link!), you have to add the adhesive yourself in perfect amounts or you are doomed. The whole medium is already a crap shoot, but if there's not enough binder/adhesive then you just have a wad of wet paper.

Papier mache clay added on top of a cardboard armature makes for interesting results. The piece will bend and warp creating an unintentional but often super unique/awesome final product. Using the product by itself as a sculpting clay is an iffy endeavor. I've historically experienced a lot of cracking and uneven shrinking paired with little opportunity for fine detail work. BUT, great things are indeed possible with papier mache clay! What brand? I prefer Amaco's Claycrete, but there are others which are equally adequate.

CLICK HERE to see a not-the-best photo of a piece I made using papier mache clay over cardboard.

Traditional Papier mache materials:
I'm a big fan of old-school sculpting methods, so this is one of my personal favorite ways to build. And CHEAP! Ripped up newspaper, paste, armature - BAM! What's the best paste to use? Personally, I prefer wall paper paste, specifically, Metylan Wallpaper Paste. It mixes up into a goo that looks EXACTLY like snot, and a tiny bit of powder makes tons of the stuff! If you cannot find Metylan products in your area, I'm sure other wallpaper pastes will be equally effective. I DO suggest finding one that comes in powder form so you can mix as much as you need for each project. Do I suggest balloons or some item that will shrink over time as armatures? No, I do not. Unless you want to spend hours upon hours building up a gajillion layers of papier mache so that there are no saggy or weird jumbly sections. I'm guessing you've got better things to do with your time.

Here's how I work with this whole deal. I dip my hands in the goo, spread it on the armature, then add a layer, spread more goo, etc., etc. It's super easy to wash off your hands and goes way quicker than any other papier mache method I've tried.

Click HERE to see a piece made using traditional papier mache methods.

Plaster cloth:
This is a cool material that works about the same way papier mache does. Strips are cut and layered, but this time with just warm water to moisten the strips. The warm water activates the plaster which takes just a short time to harden. Same thing about balloons, etc. DOUBLY applies for plaster cloth. For some reason, it seems to perform much better on a stiff armature. I've used it on balloons before and it DID work well, but I did a similar project with a group of folks once, and it was a disaster. The plaster was super floppy in many spots after the balloon collapsed.

Part of the success of this method relies on how well you work the plaster through the cloth as you layer your pieces. You have to pretty much massage the pieces as you go to get the plaster squished throughout the cloth. Which brand to use? I prefer Activa Rigid Wrap Plaster Cloth. It is for sure not the most economical one out there, but I've had the most success with this brand. If you want to try plaster cloth, perhaps start here to get used to the medium and then shop around for cheaper brands as you start to feel confident.

Click HERE to see a piece made with plaster cloth.

Other materials:
  • Amaco (brand) Self-Hardening Clay: Honestly, I'm not sure who buys this stuff. These are those dusty, 5-lb. boxes of clay that you see on every bottom shelf of the clay section of every craft supply store. I think the company keeps this product line due to enough curious school teachers thinking that this will be a great way for kids to make little pots for Mother's Day. Joke's on you school teachers, this stuff is impossible to get squishy enough for ANYone, especially kids, to work with.
  • Plastilina clay: This is the generic term for an oil-based clay that never-ever hardens. As a medium intended for a permanent piece, this isn't an option. This is more like the type of clay stop-motion claymation artists use and what folks use to create mold positives. But I am not an expert, so don't quote this in a book report.
  • Salt dough: Commercially, this is sold as Play-Doh. Not really great for a permanent sculpture that you're gonna put in a gallery or for a piece to sell to a real-live person, but super fun to work with and great for a group project! THIS WEBSITE has a great collection of recipes for dough.
  • Auto body filler: That's right. Bondo. True story: I used to work for a company that manufactured a similar product, and there was an artist who sent in photos of huge sculptures that he created using body filler. It would for sure be a way to skim coat a very large armature for way cheaper than an art store medium. Is it safe? Not really. Can it combust or cause long term health problems? Probably.
  • Stucco, plaster, various building materials: These are another (probably safer) option for coating large armatures. I've used mastic and dry wall putty over cardboard with success. The texture it leaves is rather nice as well. Neither these nor body filler (above) can be sculpted with as a medium on their own, they can merely be used to cover a well-sculpted armature.
What about molds?
Oh, geez... The subject of mold-making stresses me out. I periodically stand in the sculpting section of Dick Blick and just stare with my mouth open at the 20+ options for mold-making materials, and then I have an anxiety attack and run out. It's confusing, and I've never taken a class on this stuff, soooo for total stupids like me, I recommend Amazing Mold Putty. You can make a push mold for various clays with it. I'm pretty sure a baby can use this product.

Good luck!


  1. Thanks for the run down! Btw, you can actually carve plaster. Like cast a big block and chip or carve it down.

    We used to do that in art school when learning to carve. Much cheaper/softer to carve than stone. So you can use it for slightly more than armatures.

  2. I actually didn't even think about stuff you can carve! Thanks Brianna! I might try this!

    Love your blog!

  3. I've used super sculpey and paperclay and have been curious about Magic Sculpt (Elizabeth McGrath uses this). Is that similar to Apoxie Sculpt?

    This is a very valuable post! I know I'll refer to it from time to time when I need to sculpt. Thanks for all the links to art made by the different materials too!

  4. Thanks, Linda!

    Yes, Magic Sculpt and Apoxie Sculpt are practically interchangeable. Both are 1:1 mixes and behave similarly. Magic Sculpt is usually a few pennies more expensive, but the quality is pretty much the same. DO try it! I think you'll love it!

  5. LOVE Apoxie Sculpt...been using it for almost 20 years now, back before they were even a "proper" company! Back then, they hadn't really figured out there was a market there for artists, and the product was a bit difficult to work with...once you mixed it, you had *maybe* 15 minutes before it became too stiff to work with! (thankfully, they figured out the art aspect of it, and altered their "recipes" to make it more workable!)

  6. OMG, I've just spent about a half hour total reading your blog! I love it!!!