As I mentioned in my last blog post I’ve always been a sculptor. I’ve also been teaching sculpting for a long time. One thing I hear over and over from students is “I can’t sculpt” or “I’m afraid to sculpt. I’m always surprised by it because these aren’t always beginners sometimes it’s people who do incredibly complex things with polymer clay. People who do really elaborate canes or five part Skinner blends without blinking an eye. Somehow though they are confident that they’ll never be able to sculpt. I’m here to tell you that sculpting is like everything else when I comes to polymer clay, there are simple steps and tricks that will turn anyone into a decent sculptor. Just like everything else of course the most important thing is practice, yes some of us have an innate ability to do stuff but in most cases practice makes perfect. I’m sure even Michelangelo had a room of his early work he hid from view. I decided in this blog post to give you some of my tips and tricks and show you how to sculpt a simple face.
Picking a clay
The first step is choosing the right clay, choose a strong clay that is easy for you to work with. My clay of choice for when I’m doing a complex sculpture is Super Sculpey Medium. It’s very easy to achieve fine details with it. Other good choices are Super Sculpey and premo Sculpey. Make sure your clay is well conditioned before you start sculpting.
Less is more
Now anyone who knows me well knows I rarely follow this rule otherwise but when it comes to sculpting less really 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.
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.
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.
Sculpting a face
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 I recommend getting several reference pictures and have them the same size as the face you’ll sculpt that way you can very easily compare shapes.
My favorite sculpting tools are a taper point rubber tipped tool and a needle tool and a ball tool. The ball tool and rubber tip mainly smooth the clay and the needle tool is used to add details and wrinkles. Sculpey design and blend tools work well too.
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 half way 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 eye balls. Make them large enough that the eye balls 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 my picture that I make all the pieces and then place them on the face without smoothing any of them first. This is a great way to make sure your pieces are the right size and to play with expressions a bit. Try arranged 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.