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How to Sculpt a Portrait with Air Dry Clay

00:04 Challenges of heads
01:15  Proportion measurements
01:45  Observing proportions
02:35  Armature for portraits
03:21  Armature wire
06:54  Attaching the armature

08:21  Armature “butterfly”
10:26  Adding styrofoam
11:22  Air dry terracotta clay
14:49  Packing the clay
20:21  Anatomy
21:55  Sculpting the neck

22:54  Adding the shoulders
23:53  Nose & mouth relationship
26:22  Sculpting hair
28:11  Wrapping the sculpture
29:47  Dry time
31:26  Bloopers

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Sculpt a portrait using air dry clay and a wire armature.

Core Ideas

Form, gesture, space, skull, facial features.

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Materials provided by Clay House Art

Recommended Tutorials

Portrait Drawing Mistakes

Portrait Compositions


Art Prof Caution

Utility knives are extremely sharp and it’s really easy to cut yourself by accident!  We recommend wearing a kevlar glove on your hand which is not cutting to prevent injuries.

Armature Wire
Art Supplies: Utility Knife
Art Supplies: 3/4" thick Plywood
Art Supplies: Lazy Susan
Art Supplies: 1/16" thick armature wire
Art Supplies: Fettling Knife
Art Supplies: Wood Sculpture Tool
Art Supplies: Hammer
Art Supplies: Metal Kemper Tool
Art Supplies: Needlenose Pliers
Art Supplies: Plastic Sculpture Tool
Art Supplies: Air Dry Terracotta Clay
Art Supplies: Plastic Bag
Art Supplies: Styrofoam Ball
Art Supplies: Styrofoam

Partial Video Transcript

Prof Lieu: “Sculpting is really challenging, because I think there’s a lot of baggage that comes along with sculpting a face. Why do you think that is for a lot people?”

Annelise: “For me personally, I’m very picky with how my face looks, and I feel like I expect to be symmetrical, but it never is. So maybe that would come into play when you’re sculpting a face, the need to make it perfect when it really isn’t.”

Prof Lieu: “There really is no version of a perfect head, to me it doesn’t make a lot of sense to even strive for that, the portrait sculptures that I think work best, are the ones that really aim for a more exaggerated version.

Sometimes when people try to sculpt the head exactly as they see it, it ends up looking really understated, it almost has no life or expression to it, and I also think people are very judgmental when they look at a face. Just your average person can look at a sculpture, something’s not quite right about these proportions, you don’t even need an art history or studio art background to be able to pass judgment on a face.”

Annelise: “We spend so much time looking at faces, I feel like it’s the first thing you notice, when you first meet someone, is they’re face.

Prof Lieu: “It’s a means of communication for a lot of people when you make eye contact with somebody, when you meet someone for the first time.”

Annelise: “So when I learned how to draw faces, I was taught to do the line system, like line down, line where the eyes are, line where the nose is, line where the mouth is, like the space between your eyes is the same as one length of one of your eyes. There’s all these little measurements you can use to proportion a face.”

Prof Lieu: “Did you find that helpful?”

Annelise: “I found it a little too nit picky, you get so caught up in making everything perfect that you can lose your voice in that.”

Prof Lieu: “A lot of the proportion systems, they really restrict your way of working. What I found much more valuable is just really sharpening your eye to observe forms. People ask me all the time, ‘how do I do proportions, I really struggle with that.’

And they always go to that measuring system because it feels very stable and reliable, but I think all proportions are all about noticing relationships. For example, the width of the cheekbone is much wider compared to the width of the eye, and yet it’s a lot more shorter than the width of the jawbone. The proportional relationship is much more important to observe than to measure. And let’s face it, how many of us fit into that proportional system? There’s always somebody that most of us, our bodies are just not made to be that way.

So I’m not a fan of the systems at all. I really want people to just look very carefully. In terms of an armature, a head is so much easier to do than a figure, Because you don’t have limbs that are sticking out, it doesn’t have to stand on anything.

Technically speaking, if I wanted to, I could just make it without and armature, and it would be fine. But the thing is, you’re armature gives you stability, and also you can fill the armature with styrofoam. And it cuts back a lot on the amount of clay. It’s also not as heavy, there’s just a lot of advantages to doing it that way.

Just have the styrofoam ball, think about how much clay you’re saving by putting this on the inside of the figure, and then also securing it to a base is also a good idea. SO you could but, I don’t recommend it. I think it’s much better to do it with an armature. You can take armature wire, that’s about an eighth of an inch thick, and you want to measure it so that it wraps around the styrofoam like that.

So that’s pretty good, so let’s cut that down to here, and you want two pieces of wire that are the same lengths, go and measure this so it’s the exact same width.”

Annelise: “How come you left so much extra?”

Prof Lieu: “Well, because if you have too much armature wire it’s really easy to just snip it, but if it’s too short, it’s a real pain to add extra wire. You can, it’s not impossible. But it’s like, why do that if you can avoid it really easily.”

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