Project 5 Clay Modelling

My first steps in modelling with clay were to follow up my research with sketchbook work looking at forms which I might explore in clay. These included shells, stones and coral.


The coral particularly appealed because of its history and weathered, simple shape with the added interest of holes. I tried to develop this shape and also research sculptures which echoed this form.


Having researched retail suppliers of clay and postage/travel costs, I decided that the most cost-effective way of obtaining clay and space to work in, was to join a clay open studio and was lucky enough to find a local Community Arts Centre offering great access and clay at a very reasonable price. The only draw back was that it was a difficult space to photograph in, as I later found.

Following the course suggestions of first getting to know the feel of the material, I pulled and pushed the clay into simple shapes. I then went on to explore a series of ideas arising from my sketches and my research. I tried to remember to photography and draw at various stages but backgrounds and lighting were difficult in the studio.

First attempts:

form 1-1form 1-2 form 1-4 form 1-3

form 2-1 form 2-4 form 2-3 form 2-2

Asked ‘Could a five year-old have done that?’, I think the answer would be ‘Absolutely’. I quickly made some drawings and then knocked the clay back together and started again.

structure 1-5structure 1-6

This was based around my sketchbook work looking at coral. Coral has a resonance for me. My grandfather had a desk with a small drawer of ‘curiosities’ which included  a shells and a little piece of white coral. When I visited, it was my treat to be allowed to open and explore this drawer. The desk and its contents now live with me and get used in still life drawings. Coral is also significant as an indicator of the impact of climate change with bleaching occurring due to even small rises in the sea temperature.

discount-5 form 3-1form 3-2 form 3-3 form 3-4

I found the clay rather lumpen and lacking in grace. I worked on thinning the columns at the bottom and giving the structure a more organic feel. I wasn’t worried about smoothing the texture made by manipulating and applying the clay; I like the haptic nature of the marks.

form 4-4form 4-5form 4-3form 4-6form 4-7

I think that this is rather more successful with a better sense of balance. The overall structure is more multidimensional with interest when seen for all angles and from above. It is, perhaps, too representational of coral. My objective isn’t to make models of the real thing but an abstraction drawn from it. Again, I made quick sketches.

structure 2-1

The clay was knocked down again (much to the puzzlement of other studio users) and restarted, this time pulling clay in lumps from my main block and considering an additive construction rather than a reduction.

form 5-1

form 5-3 form 5-2

I just followed where the clay took me here. I rather like the off-balance feel but, of course, it did gradually flop over. It reminds me of works by Tony Cragg.

form 6-5 form 6-3 form 6-4discount-1

This next piece was developed from thinking about bones, in particular the femur, and Henry Moore’s work ‘Upright Motif II’. We have a skeleton from my husband’s medical student days and I have often drawn it. Throughout, I was considering my sketchbook work but also trying to go where the clay lead me. Here I was enjoying the bulbous shapes of the clay contrasting with the sharp cut lines of the modelling tools. The sloping cuts give this a dynamic thrust.

research drawings-5discount-9

Thinking of Moore and Turnbull, and their works with balancing elements, I made another element to balance within or from the bowl.

form 6 with additions-1 form 6 with additions-2

Firstly I contrasted the original shape with a smooth sphere resting in the ‘bowl’ but I think this is unsuccessful; the two shapes have no relationship. I then produced another bone inspired shape, resting as if part of a knuckle. I think this works better but adds little to the original piece and, indeed, obscures its shape.

My next attempt was based on a column of clay, cut and manipulated to produce an abstracted face. I wasn’t attempting to create a likeness or any anatomical exactness, but to capture exaggerated features such as brow crests and nose. I have given the face a broken nose in homage to Rodin and it find it surprising the character this single feature creates. Faces fascinate me; what makes them attractive, male or female, characterful and infinitely variable. My husband is a reconstructive plastic surgeon and I have, for fifteen years, acted as his private secretary and occasional medical photographer. I am really interested in what makes a face, where its character resides and how injury can alter someone’s perception of their own identity.

head 1-2 head 1-1head 1 drawing-1

I developed this face, building greater volume into the skull and developing the features and jaw and adding simple eyes and a gash of a mouth, heavily influenced by Fautrier’s Large Tragic Head. I have relied upon my life drawing experience here, rather than any reference and I have tried to exaggerate the features as a form of abstraction.

head 2-1 head 2-2head 2 dev-1

I kept developing the face aiming for character but abstraction. By using a crude gash for the mouth and holes poked for the eyes, the face comes startlingly alive with an intense gaze.

head 3-2 head 3-3 head 3-4 head 3-5


head 3-6head 1 drawing-2

My next subject was a torso. The idea for this arose out of considering Fautrier’s face reflecting the anguish of torture. A dear friend has just undergone a second mastectomy, a mental torture. I the past, women experienced physical torture too, as witnesses by Fanny Burney’s letter describing her mastectomy without anaesthetic. It has led me to think about how you might feel about part of your body turning against you, even though female physical identity is closely bound up in having breasts. I have been musing on all those representations of classical beauty and how startling it would be if you suddenly realised they only had one breast. Michelangelo’s female figures are so muscular that I am not sure one would even recognise them as female without breasts.

I started off modelling a torso without breasts but trying to make it female by narrowing the ribs down to a small waist. This was modelled without a reference, just using memories of life drawing. I have placed a strong twist on the body hoping to make it dynamic. I chose not to model the arms because I thought they would be distracting, but also difficult to support away from the body. I want the viewer to imagine them lifted it anguish or supplication.

 torso 1-3 torso 2-3

I then added a single breast. I found it really difficult to model the soft weight and volume of a breast in clay.

torso fem-1 mastectomy 1-1   torso drawing-1

Having modelled on breast I then cut crudely into the other side of the chest imagining the anger and resentment someone might have against their body. This left the clay looking mutilated. I asked other people in the studio for their responses which varied from pity to total revulsion.

mastectomy 2-1mastectomy 2-2

I then dug into the clay to make a negative breast to explore a sense of absence. I don’t think this is as successful as the cut clay. This would be a subject well worth returning to as some point.

For my next modelling session, I returned to earlier ideas of standing stones and acoustic mirrors in the landscape but also explore shaping clay by cutting with a wire to create sharp edges and smooth texture in contrast to earlier models.

form 7-1 form 7-2 form 7-3

I think the sharp facets create an interesting contrast to the smooth semicircular dish in the top face. I continued whittling and developing this model.

form 8-1 form 8-2 form 8-3 form 8-4skull drawings-4

I think that this became more successful as the base narrowed and the piece assumed a slightly twisted, off centre poise.  I can imagine this being a maquette for an 8′ sculpture in stone of bronze in the landscape. If I was scaling it up in a more stable medium, I would stretch the bottom of the column upwards to lend more grace.

skull drawings-1 skull drawings-2skull drawings-3

Before my final modelling session, I did some sketchbook work looking at skulls and heads and how I might abstract them. In the studio, I started with a column of clay and carved out the sketchiest of features using the most broad brush tools. The result was a rather cubist feel.

adstract head-3adstract head-4


I decided to give it a simple nose, but this would have been much better carved out of the solid, rather than plonked on.


adstract head-1 adstract head-2

This totally abstract head lacks all emotion so I decided to build a more naturalistic face and then cut it and scrap it to destruction, hoping to suggest vulnerability, possibly fear.

head 4-1 head 4-2

I deliberately kept the features exaggerated and asymmetrical.

head 5-2 head 5-3 head 5-4discount-2discount-12

Having built it up, I started to carve it away.

head 5-8 head 6-1 head 7-1   head 7-4head 7-3head 7-2

As I cut and carved away at the head, trying to leave an essence, I think it became more and more powerful.

Going back to my sketchbook ideas, I made a skull/mask which had human and bovine elements.

skull-2 skull-1skull-3

Suture lines were drawn into the skull. My idea was to leave the skull to dry out and hope to crack or break it and then reassemble it held together with string or wire or both. This was inspired by Villar Rojas work and also reassembled pieces like ‘Michelangelo’s David’ by Paolozzi. I hollowed out the skull so that it could be broken when dry but, sadly, it collapsed, exposing my lack of experience with the material.


I have thoroughly enjoyed modelling with clay and can really appreciate its usefulness for experimenting with ideas and developing them. I enjoy the marks that addition and subtraction can achieve, either with my fingers or with modelling tools. At times the plastic nature of the clay can defeat an idea or add to it.

I have tried to consider abstract shapes and also relatively figurative work without being too literal. Above all, I have tried not to make models of things. My sketchbook and the clay itself have led me to some interesting ideas which I hope to develop further with different scales and different materials. My quick drawings will be a real aid to revisiting these ideas.

Some ideas were more interesting than others, and some models worked better than others. I particularly enjoyed the mix of marks in my piece based on bones, sharp and soft, made by finger and tool. This had a good sense of volume and worked from all angles, including above.

form 6-4

I thought the heads were successful in producing lively character without being too representational. My research fed directly into these particular pieces, fueling my creativity. Clay lends itself especially well to this subject. I was trying to achieve a vulnerability in these faces but I dont think I succeeded.

head 3-2head 7-3

Some ideas, whilst they really interested me, didn’t translate successfully into sculpture, at least at this attempt. I would like to explore the idea of coral further, particularly in the context of global warming. Thinking about changes in appearance and identity will be something I know I will come back to either in this course or another.


About starrybird

I am mature student studying art with The Open College of the Arts. My passion is printmaking.
This entry was posted in Part 3 Clay and Plaster, Project 5 Clay Modelling and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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