Armature's a dirty job


Clay is maleable. That means it is unable to support itself so it is vital to have an armature. You can purchase armatures or you can build your own out of a variety of materials. For this bust I decided to use some old waterbased clay and build my own armature. The clay is unmarked so I'm not sure what clay it is or what it's firing temperature is. Since that is the case I'm not going to use it for kiln-firing but instead will sculpt the piece as a study. If I like it well enough I may make a mold of it and cast in bronze or Cast Stone later. But for now, I will consider this as a study for future ideas and works. 

I begin with a piece of plywood about 10" x 10" and have a couple of strips of scrap wood screwed onto the bottom so that it is easier to lift off my sculpting table. I have used a plumbing flange and 1/2" plumbing pipe for the main support. Then I took some heavy aluminum armature wire and bent two loops shaped like lightbulbs and used some electrical tape to secure the tops and bottom. Then is pushed these two wires down into the pipe. Next I took another long length of wire and bent two loops to support the chest area and also pushed the ends down in the pipe. After that I secured the aluminum wire with some bailing wire (smaller wire that is dark gray). 

Lastly I took some popsicle sticks and cut them to make a 'butterfly'. This is an X made of wood or other material that you hang from various points in your armature and supports more heavy clay - keeping it from slumping and distorting while you work.

Armature building

Bailing wire is much cheaper than aluminum armature wire, quite strong and readily available from most hardware and farm stores (I got mine at Ace). The drawback is the mess. The wire is slightly oily and black oil/dirt will be all over everything that touches it - keep that in mind and realize that while it makes no difference to my waterbased clay as this will be discarded, it will smudge and streak into your oil-based clay. It doesn't harm the clay but creates distracting discolorations. 

Start of clay sculpture Skeptic ©Lori Kiplinger Pandy
Start of clay sculpture Skeptic ©Lori Kiplinger Pandy
Start of clay sculpture Skeptic ©Lori Kiplinger Pandy

Now that the armature is made I can begin to block in the sculpture. I think that waterbased clay is much faster on portraits or larger sized works than oil-based clay. It is soft and easy on the hands right from the bag and you can build up bulk and form at a much quicker pace. Oil clay takes longer to build up - I often spend additional time making foam forms to take up space and weight before adding the oil clay - which usually needs to be warmed in order to be soft enough to add. The benefit of oil over water clay is that you stop and start indefinitely and not have to take any measures to wrap your work. It simply stays the same and awaits your return. 

Water clay, on the other hand needs to be kept at just the right moisture content. In the beginning it is quite soft but the outer surface area can dry quickly. It's important not to be adding water directly to the surface much while working as it will turn to slime and be a mess to work with. Not enough moisture, however, and the piece starts to get crumbly and dry, developing cracks and not allowing new clay to adhere to old. I find it is best to only spritz with water at the end of a session before wrapping up.

Once the initial blocking in of forms and attitude begins I let the clay rest overnight. This helps the clay 'memory'. I will take it up at the next session and refine the forms more before getting into details - best for when the clay begins to harden up a bit.

Waterbased clay 1/2 life size.

Start of clay sculpture Skeptic ©Lori Kiplinger Pandy

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