Armatures serve several useful purposes in free-standing polymer clay sculpture. Firstly, they provide a frame upon which to build the clay. Secondly, they cut down the quantity of clay required so that the resulting sculpture is lighter and bakes thoroughly in a shorter time. Thirdly, they support the sculpture after baking, which is particularly important with the more fragile clays. Foil and wire are ideal materials for polymer clay armatures because they are inert and can remain inside the sculpture without causing problems. Wire should always be galvanized or non-rusting. Figurines are particularly successful in polymer clay: the excellent specialist doll and flesh clays give realistic flesh tones, while the rich variety of coloured clays can be used with textile techniques, to clothe the figure. The clay can be baked repeatedly so that each stage is hardened before proceeding to the next. Finally, the clay is perfect painting surface so delicate features can be added with acrylic paint to give startlingly lifelike effects. The following sequence shows you how to make a 178 mm tall figurine using a wire and foil armature. The part of the torso that is hidden under the clothes is made with beige clay, while a firm, smoothable flesh clay is used for the head, hands, and feet. When sculpting the basic figure, you will achieve much greater realism if you refer to photographs of the human figure as you work. Models in clothes catalogues, especially those modelling swimwear, are particularly useful, or you can make your own sketches from life.
You will need:
- Polymer clay: beige (or any neutral colour), copper, dark brown, white, light brown, gold, leaf green, stone, clays, scrap clay, smoothable fresh clay
- Tracing paper, pencil
- Medium gauge wire
- Wire cutting pliers
- Knife with curved blade
- Aluminium foil
- Large tapestry needle
- Blunt stainless steel tool
- Soft paintbrush
- Darning needle
- Roller or pasta machine
- Denatured alcohol (methylated spirits)
- Acrylic paint: blue, brown, black, white, crimson
- Fine paintbrush
- Matt varnish
- Artists' pastel: carmine, burnt umber, burnt sienna, yellow ochre
- Fine strainer or sieve
- Ceramic tile
- Epoxy glue or superglue
1. Draw a figurine. Folklore is a rich source of ideas for sculpted figures. You can also draw inspiration from everyday life, history, or fantasy and science fiction.
2. Enlarge the template and make a tracing. Cut a 50 cm length of wire, bend it in half, and hold it over the tracing. Twist the wire together at the neck and waist, leaving the wire opened out into loops for the head and upper body. Cut a second piece of wire long enough to go from one hand, right through the shoulders, to the other hand.
3. Tear off strips of foil and wrap them round the body and head. Push the arm wire through the foil covering the body and then wrap more foil to secure it. Squeeze the foil to compact it and shape it so that it is a little thinner all over than the traced template. Do not cover the limbs with foil.
4. Roll beige or scrap clay into a sheet about 2 mm thick and cut into strips 25 mm wide. Wrap these around the foil until the body is completely covered. Push the clay and the foil beneath into shape, to match the template outline. Add extra clay to shape the figure and smooth the joins.
5. Cover the head and neck in the same way as the torso, but using flesh clay. Apply an overlay of flesh clay to the front of the chest. Form a 13 mm thick log of beige clay and cut two 28 mm lengths for the upper arms. Thread these onto the arm wires and smooth into the shoulders.
6. Form a 10 mm log of flesh clay and cut two 38 mm lengths. Round one end of each and thin the clay into a wrist 13 mm from the rounded end. Press the resulting ball ends onto your work surface for the hands. Cut a V-shape out of each and mark fingers with your knife. Smooth and round the fingers with the tapestry needle.
7. Mark nails with the eye of the tapestry needle. Slice under each hand with your knife to remove it from the work surface. Mark details on the inside of the hand with your needle. Curve the hands into a natural shape and thin the wrist.
8. Trim the arm wires to just shorter than the base of the fingers. Trim the forearms to length and thread them onto the arm wires, smoothing the join with the upper arms. Bend the wire at the elbows and refine the shape.
9. Form a 13 mm log of flesh clay and cut two 50 mm lengths. Round one end of each and then pull down a hell 19 mm from the rounded end. Press the foot onto the work surface, mark toes with the knife and shape the foot. Thin the ankle and shape the back of the calf, reversing, shaping for the second foot.
10. Thread lengths of 13 mm logs of beige onto the leg wires for the thighs and lower legs. Smooth the joins and shape the knees. Thread the feet onto the legs, adjusting the length as necessary. Bend the right leg at the knee and trim off the wire at the base of the heel. Leave at least 19 mm protruding from the left heel for the support.
11. Sculpt the face according to how you want it to look like, using flesh clay. Form small teardrops of flesh clay, flatten them, and apply to the side of the head with the points up, to make elfin ears. Smooth the clay towards the face and indent the centre. Lay the figure on a baking sheet and adjust his pose as necessary. Support hands and feet with foil and bake for 45 minutes.
12. Roll out 2 mm thick sheet of copper clay. Cut a piece big enough to cover the top front of the figure. Use a knife or a pair of sharp scissors to cut the clay to size with a V-shape cut out for the neck. Cut out the armholes but leave the sides generously wide.
13. Cut another sheet of copper clay for the back, lay it on, and trim to size. Trim and then overlap the side seams and smooth neatly to suggest a stitched seam. The shirt should be long enough to reach to the hips.
14. Make two strips of lace and gather round the wrists for frilled cuffs. Cut two sleeves in the shape shown, long enough to reach from the top of the shoulder to the cuff. Press onto the figure, using a modelling tool to smooth, and drape the clay around the arms. Press the underarm seam together and apply extra strips of clay for cuffs.
15. Roll out a 2 mm thick sheet of dark brown clay. Cut out two pieces in the shape shown, long enough to reach from the waist to mid-calf. Lay one piece round the figure's left leg, with the join up the inside leg, trim to fit, and smooth the seam together. Repeat with the second leg piece, trimming the centre body seam and pressing it together.
16. Gather the leg bottoms and push them up a little to bell them out. Cut a strip of light brown clay for the belt and wrap it around the waist, covering the top of the breeches. Model a buckle from gold clay and press it onto the belt. Cut strips of white clay for a collar and press on over the raw edge at the neck.
17. Roll out a sheet of gold clay for the hair and cut pieces to fit over the head, building them up to make the head a good shape. Use a needle to texture the clay and feather the ends to look like hair.
18. Roll out a 2 mm sheet of leaf green clay and cut out two pointed pieces as shown. Press the pieces together along the front and back joins to make a hat and turn the bottom edge up for a brim. Press onto the figure's head.
19. Bake the figure again for 20 minutes, propping up as necessary to prevent the clothes from being crushed. When the figure gets cool paint the face giving the Brownie blue eyes. Use a thin wash of crimson paint for lips and carmine pastel for the cheeks.
20. Form a base of scrap clay, approximately 100 mm by 75 mm, and 50m high. Roll out some stone clay and cover the scrap clay, shaping it to suggest rocks and boulders. Use other stone-coloured clays to make pebbles and add more rocks.
21. Soften some leaf green clay and press it through the sieve to make moss. Scrape the 'moss' off the sieve and press onto the rocks. Rub both browns and the ocher pastels onto scrap paper and apply the resulting powder with a brush onto the base to suggest lichens.
22. Place the base on a tile and press the baked feet of the figurine onto it to impress the soft base with the shape of the feet. The wire support in the left heel will make a deep hole in the base. Bake the base for 45 minutes. When it will get cool glue the feet to the rocks with the wire support inserted into the hole, to stabilize the figure.
- Keep your hands very clean when using flesh clays (they pick up dust and dirt easily).
- Air bubbles can sometimes occur when baking large pieces. Air, trapped in the foil armature, expands on heating and pushes up the clay surface in a large, unsightly mound. To prevent this, pierce through into the foil with a darning needle at unobtrusive points before baking. This will allow any trapped air to escape.
- If you enjoy sewing, you can make the clothes from fabric instead of clay!
When sculpting figures, an active pose like the one described above gives added impact. The basic figure design can be varied to give many different sculptures.