beginners guide to sculpting clay

Do you want to learn how to sculpt clay but aren't sure where to begin? Whether you’re new to polymer clay or you’ve been sculpting for years, there is always something new to learn. Whether it’s a new technique to make your art look even better or a tip to get a job done more quickly, the world of Sculpey is endless. This guide to clay sculpting will walk you through different clay types and techniques to set you up for at-home crafting success.

Ignite your creativity and learn how to sculpt clay with confidence — even with zero experience — using the following tips and tools. You'll be making crafts, jewelry and handcrafted treasures in no time!

What Is Sculpting Clay?

Before you dive into sculpting, let's discuss the differences among clay types.

  • Oil-based modeling clay: Oil-based clays,made from oils, minerals and waxes, won't dry out like water-based options. This material can be tricky for beginners, as it requires heat to soften and mold. A favorite tool among special effects artists, oil-based clay remains workable for long periods but does not harden, making it unsuitable for finished craft projects.
  • Water-based modeling clay: Originally developed for Disney's animatronics models, water-based WED (Walter E. Disney) clay is another material used by entertainment professionals for animation, masks and more. Designed for fast sculpts to make molds, WED clay must stay moist and does not allow for firing. 
  • Water-based ceramic "firing" clay: If you like to create household ceramics, pottery and earthenware, you can shape these water-based clays by hand or throw them on a potter's wheel and fire them at high temperatures in a kiln to cure.
  • Polymer clay: Perfect for crafting projects, polymer clay has a synthetic plastic polyvinyl chloride base and comes in a wide range of colors. Polymer clay remains soft and pliable and won't dry out. You can bake polymer clays in a conventional oven.

Which Type of Clay Is Easiest to Use at Home?

If you want to practice sculpting techniques, soft water-based clays are an excellent beginner option. First-time clayers can effortlessly build simple forms using hand-building and simple tools, and you can quickly clean up with soap and water. 

Polymer clays are the most versatile options for at-home crafters. You'll love that you can bake polymer clay in a household oven or toaster oven so you can make cured, usable pieces at home. 

The first step is choosing the right clay, choose a strong clay that is easy for you to work with. When doing more complex polymer clay sculptures Super Sculpey Medium is a good choice. It’s very easy to achieve fine details with it. Other good choices for more difficult sculptures are Super Sculpey and premo Sculpey.

However, Sculpey® also has polymer clays available for every skill level. For the starter sculptor, try these beginner-friendly products.

  • Sculpey Bake Shop: Make keychains, trinkets and more with the super-soft Sculpey Bake Shop®
  • Sculpey III: Easy-to-knead Sculpey III® captures fine details and is available in bright colors, pastels and even metallics, so you can make accessories to match every outfit!
  • Original Sculpey: Available in granite, white or terra-cotta finishes, Original Sculpey® looks and feels like ceramic clay, perfect for bowls and dishes to decorate your home.
versatile polymer clay

What Tools Do You Need?

You can use household items to roll, cut, shape and texture clay, like kitchen and utility knives, crunched aluminum foil, old toothbrushes and toothpicks. Make sculpting even easier with these tools designed to simplify and improve your process.

  • Rollers: The Rolling Tool from our Sculpey Tools™ Essential Tool Kit rolls out level, flat sheets of clay.
  • Blades: The dual-handled Sculpey Tools™ Clay Blades make straight, curved or decorative cuts and edging. 
  • Needle tool: The Needle End Pointer from our Sculpey Tools™ Clay Tool Starter Set adds tiny details and pierces holes in small crafts like beads, earrings and ornaments.
  • Ball stylus: Use the Ball End embossing tool from our Sculpey Tools™ 5-in-1 Clay Tool set to create a dimpled texture or smooth ridgelines without dragging the clay.
  • Shaper: Do you need to connect two clay pieces, like adding a nose to a figure's face? Use a Flexible Tip Shaper from our Sculpey Tools™ Dual End Detail Tools to blend and smooth seams without leaving a mark.
  • Shape cutters: From stars to circles, making precise shapes is as easy as rolling and cutting sugar cookies with our versatile clay cutters.
  • Sandpaper: Replicate natural textures like skin, grass and stone using the Sculpey Tools™ Sandpaper Variety Pack.
  • Tweezers: Jewelry tweezers can pick up and precisely place clay pieces that are too small to move with your fingertips.
  • Oven-Bake clay adhesive: Oven Bake Adhesive is great for attaching parts of a sculpture that you want to be extra strong and reinforced. Brush this on with a dedicated paintbrush and remove any excess after connecting the pieces. This adhesive is also great when attaching clay to wire armature. Add the adhesive to the wire before attaching the clay and it will stick much easier. This trick can be used instead of wire armature and, can be even more effective.
  • Clay softener & thinner: If you are looking to create super smooth areas of a sculpture, use Oven-bake clay adhesive in combination with Clay Softener. Just simply add the adhesive to the surface of the area you want smooth, and then add a few drops of clay softener and mix the two together on the surface until you have a nice, even texture. The adhesive properties of the Oven-bake clay adhesive also reinforce your sculpture. This can also be done with Translucent Liquid Sculpey which has a much lower viscosity allowing it to spread faster. Brushing on clay softener alone is a phenomenal way to remove surface fingerprints. The softener contains a bit of thinner so it breaks down the surface of the uncured clay slightly to remove just enough to give you a beautifully smooth, professional finish.

For polymer clays, you’ll need an oven, oven thermometer and the Sculpey Tools™ Oven-Safe Work Mat to bake your clay safely.

How to Set up Your Workspace

Enjoy crafting more by setting up an organized workspace. A clutter-free work area decreases anxietyboosts creative focus and saves you time because you'll know where all your tools and materials are before you begin.

Comfort is crucial, since working with clay can take several hours. Use an ergonomic chair and table set to an enjoyable height to prevent hunching. Add bright lamps or set up near a window for access to natural light so you can see fine clay details.

Clays can stain some furniture surfaces, so protect your work area with a Sculpey Tools™ Oven-Safe Work Mat, aluminum foil, parchment paper, metal, ceramic tile, granite, glass, lucite or marble. Store tools within reach in your favorite mug, or add shelving above your table so you can grab items with ease. 

How to Sculpt Clay: Easy Tips for Beginners

Welcome, new clayer! Now that your workspace is ready, it's time for the fun part — sculpting! These tips will teach you how to bring your idea to life, from initial concept to finished piece.

  1. Envision the completed piece: Before you start, draw several design sketches of how you imagine the final product to look from various angles for reference. 
  2. Test clay for usability: If you're using water-based clay, test the wetness to ensure its moldability. For polymer clay, pull off a small piece and roll it to test its flexibility.
  3. Condition your clay: Knead and warm up the clay to prepare it for use. Conditioned clay prevents breakage and creates a more durable finished product. Ideal for clayers who may have limited hand dexterity or wish to condition larger amounts of clay, the Sculpey Tools™ Clay Conditioning Machine quickly produces even, flat sheets of polymer clay.
  4. Experiment and practice: Get a feel for how different tools affect the material. Practice cutting, poking and dragging tools across a sheet of clay. Experiment with techniques to learn how to build up clay, connect pieces and add details.
  5. Start with simple, contained shapes: More advanced sculptors make clay figures with extended limbs by adding clay to armatures — metal wire structures that support the clay's weight. Before attempting a complex figurine that requires balance and support, begin with simpler projects. Once you've had time to practice basic techniques, you can apply those skills to armatured creations.
  6. Pick an easy starter project: Numerous first-time clay projects are beautiful and easy to make! Flat-backed relief sculptures only have details on the front side, reducing the need to accommodate weight or balance. Recommended beginner projects include earringsmarbled beads, magic wands, keychains, vases and ring dishes.
  7. Less is more: A very common mistake that people tend to make when they start sculpting is to make all the features too thick and too big. This tends to make your faces look like cave people or trolls. Really pay attention to scale and thickness of your features.
  8. Attach the features well: Another common issue is not attaching the features well enough resulting in breakage. That’s where using a rubber-tipped tool comes in handy. Really make sure you’ve smoothed all edges and that the piece is firmly pressed down. Another thing to consider is using an armature if the pieces will be sticking out.
  9. Curing: Most likely your sculpture will be on the thicker side. Due to this your piece will need to be cured much longer than average unless you’ve used an armature.
  10. Follow instructions: When you finish sculpting, bake your clay according to the manufacturer's instructions. Various materials require different temperatures and baking times. Use an oven thermometer to ensure the temperature is accurate.
  11. Have fun: Imperfections are OK! Remember, all artists and crafters improve and grow by learning from mistakes. Working with clay is supposed to be a relaxing, fun experience that inspires you and awakens your imagination. Experiment with different tools, techniques and materials, and don't be afraid to play!

Sculpting Faces with Polymer clay

Sculpting faces can seem daunting but once you break them down into simple shapes it gets much easier. Having reference materials in the form of photographs is also very helpful. If you are trying to do a likeness get several reference pictures and have them the same size as the face you’ll sculpt that way you can very easily compare shapes.

Assembling Your Clay Face

Please refer to the photos to help with getting the shapes right. To start take a large ball of clay and form it into an oval, flatten the back of the oval and taper one end to form a spot for the chin. Take your needle tool and make a vertical line dividing the face in half. Make a horizontal line 1/3 from the top for the eyes. Make another horizontal line just below the halfway point for the nose and another below that for the lips. Now using a large ball tool or rubber tip tool make two holes for the eyeballs. Make them large enough that the eyeballs are 2/3 in the hole. Glass beads make great eyes but If you want to use clay eyes instead I'd suggest curing them first to make it easier.

To make the features make a triangle of clay for the nose, if you are sculpting a caricature make the nose larger. Make two small spheres for nostrils. Make a flattened half circle for the upper lip and a smaller one for the lower lip. For the cheeks make two shapes that look like a flattened bean, flip one so it is the opposite of the other. Make an oval for the chin. Make two ovals for the ears. For eyeballs make two spheres of clay. For the eye lids make two circles, cut in half. Use the top half for the upper lid. Cut the bottom 1/3 for the lower lid, set aside excess. Make two snakes for the eyebrow ridge.

You’ll notice in the picture that all the pieces are made and then placed on the face without being smoothed first. This is a great way to make sure your pieces are the right size and to play with expressions a bit. Try arranging the eyelids, eyebrows, and lips at different angles and you’ll see your face come to life. Once you’ve decided everything looks good take all the pieces off again and let’s get to smoothing them down.

Take your nose and flatten the back and extend the edges to make it easier to attach. Place it between the eye sockets with the bottom of the nose on your nose line. Use one of your smoothing tools to smooth the edges of the nose all around. To do this place your tool on the edge of the piece you are attaching and make a downward dragging motion until the piece is smooth. Don't worry about the nostrils now. Shape the nose how you like and remove any excess clay.

Attach the cheeks by smoothing the edges making sure to mirror the pieces. Take the half circle and flatten the outer curved edge, leaving the bottom thicker to form the upper lip. Curve if you want a deep smile or grimace. Smooth and attach making sure not to compress the lip. To make the lower lip flatten your piece a bit and attach and smooth the bottom edge matching it to the upper lip. Attach the chin by smoothing the edges. Don’t add any fine details yet, it’s too easy to mess them up at this point.

Place a ball of clay in the eye sockets making sure that the ball is recessed enough to not appear bulging. Flatten your lower lids and attach and smooth the bottom edge making sure to not disturb edge against the eyes. Repeat with the upper lids attaching and smoothing the upper edge. To make the brows flatten your snakes and attach them making them meet at the top of the nose. Smooth all edges. Add the ears, smoothing the front edge and reinforcing the back with small snake of clay.  Add the nostrils, smooth.

Now is the time to add details to the whole face. Start by using a small ball tool and opening the nostrils. If you are unsure of how to apply wrinkles look at your reference photos. Using a needle tool add lines around the nose and mouth. Add a cleft between the nose and upper lip. Add wrinkles around the eyes and maybe the cheeks. Add detail to the ears. Remember the more details you add the older the face will look. Here are some finished examples of faces.

Start Sculpting in Clay Using Tips and Tools From Sculpey®

For more than 50 years, Sculpey® has helped hobbyists, crafters and sculptors learn how to bring their ideas to life in clay. We've designed our tools and resources to work with polymer clay, so even with zero experience, you can create unique jewelry, keepsakes and more! 

We'll supply the tools if you bring your creativity! Explore our wide selection of innovative clay tools to cut, score, texture and blend your clay creations, and visit our how-to page to discover how to use them to make incredible crafts.

start sculpting clay