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Tips for Sculpting With Oil Based Clay

Twi'lek Pam

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When selecting clay for a sculpted costume piece, it's always good to use an oil based clay. Unlike water based clays, oil based will not dry up, it will not shrink, and it is far less likely to crack as you work on your sculpture.



Tips for Oil Based Clays:



- I like to use Chavant Clay and Monster Makers Clay. Chavant is softer and easier to work with on small projects, while Monster Makers is a harder clay that works well for large scale projects.



- Unlike the clays you bake and harden (Sculpey, etc), oil based clay is NOT intended to be used for a final costume piece. Instead, it is used to create a sculpture that you can then make a mold from. Once the mold has been removed, you can use the clay over again for another project.



- If you are going to make a silicone mold from your sculpture, be sure to get a sulphur-free brand of clay. If your clay contains sulphur, it will keep the silicone from curing, and you will be left with a goopy mess!



- If you are going to be working on a large sculpture, be sure to support it with an armature underneath or the clay will slump under its own weight. Wire or plaster are most often used for armatures, though other materials can also be used.



- Oil based clay is greatly affected by temperature. When the clay is cold, it becomes very hard and brittle. As it warms it becomes softer and easier to work with. If it gets too warm, it won't be easy to sculpt. If you are working on a project during cold weather, it helps to keep a lump of clay warm by placing it by a light, on a heating pad, in a slightly warm oven, or even in a crock pot! Heat guns, hair dryers, or space heaters can be used to warm up a sculpture prior to working on it... but be careful! If you heat the clay too much, it will melt and slide to the ground, destroying your work and potentially buring your skin.



- It helps to get into the habit of holding a small piece of clay in your hand while you work, so you always have a soft piece ready when you need to press it into your sculpture.



- Trim your nails. Sorry girls, but this is one time when long nails are a liability. It is very frustrating to get a sculpture looking just perfect.... only to repeatedly gouge crescent shaped nicks out of it with your nails!



- Use wooden scultping tools rather than plastic ones. Wood tends to slide across the clay easily, while plastic tools tend to flex and gouge the clay.



- It is usually easier to refine the shape of clay sculptures by removing clay than by adding it. A good technique is to add plenty of clay until you get the general form that you need, and then use a scraping tool to remove the extra clay and refine the shape. You can then add small pieces where needed, and follow up by smoothing the surface back out by scraping and blending the edges of the newly added clay.



- When you use a scraping tool, a pile of thin clay scrapings will build up at the base of your sculpture. Resist the urge to smash those scrapings back into a large lump... small pieces are much easier to warm with your fingers and apply to the sculpture when you need to fill a low spot!



- To smooth a sculpture made from oil clay, dip your fingers or sculpting tools in a small bowl of rubbing alcohol. This serves two purposes: first, it lets your tools slide over the clay surface instead of digging in, and it also softens the top layer of the clay. As you rub the alcohol into the clay surface, small "pills" of clay will form. Give them a moment to dry, and then gently brush them away. Most stores sell 70% Isoprophyl Alcohol, which is good enough. If you can get 99% alcohol from a medical or art supply store, you will find that it works even better. Don't put too much alcohol in the bowl at once... it tends to evaporate quickly and ends up being wasted.



- Cut old nylons into 6 inch lengths for smoothing the clay. Dipped in rubbing alcohol and then wrapped around a finger or sculptuing tool, nylon works very well to even out the clay surface. Change pieces as the fabric gets clogged with clay residue. For smoothing a large area of clay, you can dip a long piece of nylon into the rubbing alcohol and then use it to buff the clay in a "shoeshine" fashion, pulling it back and forth across the surface.



- Oil clay takes textures VERY well. Experiment with different materials to get the textured surface that your sculpture requires. I have found that stipple sponges make an excellent skin texture, for example, while a house painting brush with stiff bristles can create a terrific mottled texture.



- Don't leave problems for later. If your sculpture looks rough around the edges or has a lump that you don't like... fix those problems BEFORE you make a mold of your sculpture. It's a lot easier to fix problems in soft clay than it is to try to remove them from finished castings later on.



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