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Traditional Sculpture Materials


Most artists think sculpture is only possible in a large, industrial studio with access to a kiln, forge and foundry. While it’s true that certain processes are only possible in a large facility, there are many ways to work in three dimensions in a small studio, or even in your own living space, with no special equipment.

Clay is certainly the earliest material for additive (creating by applying more material) sculptural processes; it’s really just a refined mud. Regular ceramic clay can be used at home to make medium to large works for casting in plaster or cement; if access to a kiln is possible (check local schools to find out firing schedules), the original may be fired as is. To begin sculpting with ceramic clay, use a plywood board, or purchase an armature to give structure to the wet clay. Wedging clay (cutting large lumps into pieces, and working them manually like dough) drives off air pockets that could explode during firing; this step is not important when casing the clay in plaster. It’s helpful to have a kit of tools for working clay such as a wire toggle cutter and various wooden and metal modeling implements. For casting, the clay model should be kept wet with a damp towel draped over, and plastic bags sealing the lot.

Air drying clays can be used to create small models which, when dry can be painted or varnished. Completely dry air- or oven-hardening clays are about the same hardness as plaster.

Polymer Clays can be used for tiny miniatures or full-size models, limited only by the size of your oven. These acrylic-based putties come in a variety of hardness and color which can be combined easily. Since polymer clay doesn’t shrink as it hardens, large pieces can be built over heat-proof armatures such as aluminum foil and metal mesh. Polymer clay can be carved after firing, and more clay added, and fired again.

Wood Carving is a pleasurable and safe sculpture process. Chisels should be kept sharp to avoid slipping, eye protection is a must, and a filter mask should be worn during sanding, but no extreme safety measures need to be observed when carving wood indoors.

Stone Carving can be done on a small scale at home, outdoors. When carving with chisels and rasps, a fan should be used to blow dust away, and a filter mask and eye protection must be worn. Small works can be easily carved from soapstone or alabaster with a small knife. Finished pieces can be sanded under water with wet/dry sandpaper to avoid airborne particles.

For the sculptural equivalent of sketching, Roma Plastilina and Victory (microcrystalline) wax are non-drying, completely reusable compounds for working out ideas and making models. (For castings, Plastilina can, with some difficulty be cleaned out of a mold; wax can be burned out completely in a kiln.)

At one time or another, most painters enjoy sculpting, just as most sculptors occasionally draw. Every studio should have in stock some basic materials for three dimensional art, for when inspiration strikes.

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