What is clay sketching?

Have you heard the term maquette used before? I must admit it was a while before I knew what it meant, even though I’d been making many.

A Maquette is a small three-dimensional study or model of a larger piece, allowing the artist to experiment with shapes, materials and approaches to a larger or final piece of work.

It’s much like sketching ideas in a sketchbook with pencil and paper but done in a sculptural way. So, simply put, a maquette is a sketch in clay.

I’ve always been creative, so from a young age I used to attend regular art classes, but I became frustrated that my work wasn’t good enough, or not the way I had imagined it.

I once had a great art teacher who said that if I wanted my art to improve, I should get a sketch book and draw something every day. It didn’t have to be good but I had to be consistent, and importantly, I didn’t need to show it to anyone. It was a private and personal space allowing me to explore my creativity, to experiment, and to have the freedom to get things wrong, without worrying about what anyone else thought of my art. He even encouraged me to “mess up” some pieces so that I didn’t become too attached to the idea of things being perfect.  His sketchbooks were full of scribbles and notes, marks on pages, and random scraps. These weren’t perfect works of art, but to me these were more beautiful than any of his finished pieces. These were a treasure trove of inspiration, imagination, raw creativity and potential. From that day on I started to carry a sketchbook with me, and I still do, even though I might not draw in it as much now that I’m sculpting.

Later a friend of mine told me an important lesson she learned when she was learning to paint. Her teacher told her to carry her paintbrush with her; to hold and play with it while sitting down to watch tv in the evenings, and to fiddle with it as often as she could. All this was to be done even before putting paint and brush to paper so that she could get used to the feel of the brush in her hand. This also created muscle memory which allowed the brush to become an extension of herself as she painted.

When I started to sculpt more than I drew, I found that I was having the same struggles I’d experienced when learning to draw. The proportions weren’t quite right, the colours were wrong, it wasn’t as perfect as I wanted, and I couldn’t create what I could see in my mind’s eye. I was so frustrated! It was then that I decided to apply the same lessons I’d learned from drawing and painting, and I began to play and sketch with clay every day. I wasn’t trying to make anything specific, I just played with it, much like a child would, and then I’d squash and destroy what I’d made when I was done. It was hard to squash some pieces, but it did help me learn to be free and experimental with my work and I didn’t feel as limited as I did before. I began to understand my tools and my clay so that they became an extension of me, which allowed my creativity to flow freely. I didn’t destroy everything. There were some sketches which I (or my husband, Russell) just loved too much, so a few did make it to the baking stage and survived.

Learning how to play freely with my clay has made it easy to switch to sketching in clay rather than jotting ideas down with pencil and paper. Making larger more detailed sculptures is a lot faster and less stressful as I’ve already worked out the proportions, postures and the order in which I’m going to sculpt and build my piece, while making my simplified mini clay sketch.

When I made these caricature sculptures of my dogs, I first made a few little clay sketches like the one you see here in-between the finished sculptures, so I knew exactly how to make the final pieces.

And this quick sketch allowed me to figure out how I was going to attach this owl to an arm.

Where do I start and how do I do it?

It really is easy to get started sketching in clay. Here are a few tips and tricks that helped me:

  1. Use scrap clay -

You don’t need to use scrap clay, but I found that I was less worried about making mistakes if I used a colour that wasn’t precious to me, and I always seemed to have a lot of scrap, which I often mix with Super Sculpey.

2. Get used to the feel of the clay in your hands -

I need to keep my hands busy all the time and I have the awful habit of playing on my phone or snacking too much while watching TV. I started to keep a small ball of scrap clay next to me on the coffee table, with a few simple tools, and I now fiddle and play with the clay instead while watching my favourite shows

3. Take clay with you wherever you go -

I carry a small bag of scrap clay in my bag to keep my hands busy when commuting or in a boring meeting. I even take a piece into the dentist with me so that I can keep my hands busy when I’m in the chair. I’m nervous at the dentist, so this keeps my hands and my mind occupied and distracted, while also teaching me how my clay moves and moulds in my hands.

4. Start making basic shapes and then move onto complex shapes -

When you are familiar with how your clay moves and works in your hands, start making basic shapes, then squash them and make more. Then move onto more complex shapes and even faces. These aren’t pieces to keep, so make sure you squash them before starting the next piece. You’ll soon create some muscle memory, and your hands will naturally go to make certain shapes without you even having to think out it.

I had made so many practice faces like this one that when I came to make the final sculpture, I felt confident that I could make another, as I’d already made so many before.

5. Start a mini version of your sculpture -

By playing with your clay you’ve already started the process of sketching in clay. It’s now a very small step to move onto making a full clay sketch (or sketches) of your idea before you start to sculpt your final piece. And if you’re not good at drawing and find it to be frustrating, this might just be the way in which you can get all your ideas down in clay (instead of down on paper)

I hope that you find some creative freedom as you play with your clay and discover how to let your clay and tools become an extension of you.

These are three important lessons that I’ve learned with all my crafts:

  1. Practice daily (or as often as you can).
  2. Get to know your tools and media, so that they become an extension of you.
  3. Be unafraid to make mistakes – you can learn some cool things from making mistakes.

Get to know your tools and always practice, practice, practice. No one is perfect, creative freedom takes time.

Please use the hashtag #HowDoYouSculpey if you’d like to share your clay sketches. We’d love to see what you make!

And please mention which clay you are using (#Premo #liquidsculpey #supersculpey), even if it’s a muddy mix of all of them.

Happy sketching!