Experiments with Air-Dry Clay


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When I saw Shaun Tan’s “The Singing bones” I fell in love with his simple and evocative sculptures.  I was delighted to find out he used inexpensive materials and techniques so I set out to experiment on my own. In the afterword of The Singing Bones Shawn explains:

“The main materials I’ve used are papier-mache and air-drying clay, carved back and painted with acrylics, oxidized metal powder, wax and shoe polish. The resistance of clay in particular at a small scale encourages simplicity, especially where the key tools are blunt fingers and thumbs: Faces and gestures are abbreviated, just like characters in the tales themselves. “

He also wrote a blog post about his process. I remember playing a lot with modeling clay when I was a child. I created a lot of creatures and strange faces and I think I wanted to experience that aimless sense of creation again. I bought some relatively inexpensive Crayola brand air-dry clay at a store near me and set out to feel the material.

My first tub of air-dry clay

It’s nice to work with when wet and it accepts the common clay techniques and tools. But my favorite part is carving it when it has dried a little bit (usually a few hours depending on your climate).  A made a short video to demonstrate:

 

The tools I’ve been using besides my fingers are a couple of carving gouges, an X-Acto knife with a #22 blade (the curved edge is nice for scraping), a paper clip and a bamboo skewer:

Some of my carving Tools

Size wise I’ve stayed below 1.5″ x 1.5″ roughly. I think this type of clay can support bigger sizes especially if you make a wire structure but it’s nice to have limitations. Here are some of the characters I’ve made so far, ruler and coins for scale:

 

I think I would enjoy making more elaborate sets for these characters but so far I’ve kept it simple. Sometimes I take pictures on top of my sketchbooks or inside a lightbox I made out of foam core and tracing paper. Total cost (without the lamps) was less than $2, there are a lot of tutorials out there for building your own, this Instructable would be a good start.

DIY lightbox is about 12″x12″x12″

Right now I’m more interested in the shapes than in the stories of each character. Although I hope some of the pictures will suggest a story by themselves. Here is a collection of the ones I’ve posted so far on my Instagram account. I think it’s a fun and approachable material, I suggest you give it a try.