This section is from the book "Feeling Better? Amusements and Occupations for Convalescents", by Cornelia R. Trowbridge. Also available from Amazon: Feeling Better.
HAVE you ever wanted to feel a sculptured figure as well as to look at it? Have you found pleasure in running your hands along its curves and passing your fingertips over its delicately molded surface? If so, clay modeling may appeal to you.
What shall you make? How ambitious are you? Will you model the animals of a circus procession? How many of the dogs in the kennel advertisements of some magazine can you do in the round so that your friends will recognize them? Can you represent a child at play? Can you make a portrait head in the round or in relief?
The most convenient medium for modeling on a small scale is the composition known as plasteline or plasticine. It is sold in packages of a pound or more, ready for immediate use. It is soft enough to be worked without effort but it will keep its shape and it is fine enough in texture for tracing any detail. It keeps soft indefinitely and will not crack or crumble, which means that your work can be both put aside and taken up again quickly. Plasteline comes in a variety of colors ranging from that of natural clay through terra cotta to a bronze green and may be ordered in assorted shades. It is clean. The best brands have no odor. Forewarn your nurse that it is hard to get off the hands, so that she will have a bowl of water ready. It may leave a stain on the bedclothes if you forget your bed-apron. Finished models must be carefully handled for they will be easily marred unless they are given a coat of shellac. Plaster casts can be made from them.
Modeling clay is less expensive but requires more attention. It will be worth your while to order it already moistened so that you will be saved the labor of dampening it and kneading it smooth. Like plasteline, it can be ordered from any dealer in school supplies or artists' materials. If it dries out, it must be sprinkled and kneaded again to an even consistency. Your work must be kept moist by wrapping it in a damp cloth or putting it into a closed receptacle. Any tin box with a snug cover will answer. Objects molded in clay will crumble sooner or later. Dealers, however, offer prepared clays like "Mondolith" and "Perma-Craft," which they advertise as hardening without cracking. If prepared clays are not strictly fresh, they are often lumpy and not sufficiently moist to be easily worked.
For further equipment you will need, first, a small board, an inverted plate or some such base which can be easily revolved so that you can work from every angle. A small tray will answer well for this. It can be turned upside down to work on and used right side up for putting away work and tools together.
The tools needed are few. There should be a wooden spatula, its two ends of different widths. If you have no better piece of wood at hand, ask your doctor for a tongue depressor to whittle into shape. For incising details nothing is more convenient than a manicurist's orange sticks. A little experimenting will show what shaped stick is most to your liking. Some modelers like a strong wire hairpin for doing details.
But hands come before tools in modeling. The lump of clay is in front of you and your design is clear in your mind or sketched on paper from various angles. If armatures or internal supports for the weight of the whole will be needed, they must be in place from the start. Our headpiece shows an armature for a lively horse. For figures on a small scale pipe-cleaners make excellent armatures. Toothpicks and wooden skewers, recommended by some craftsmen, are often too rigid. Dealers in artists' materials carry standard armatures for both human and animal shapes, which can be bent into any desired posture. With the skeleton armature adjusted to the pose of your subject, build up the larger masses about it with the clay. If you find your work slips and slides, anchor it in place by building it up around a nail driven into the modeling board. Art stores sell a little contrivance like a gallows for suspending figures which have to be balanced carefully.
If you work without armatures, you can get the larger masses by gouging out the lump of clay, bringing out the figure in this way instead of building it up. This bolder method is taught by many inspiring teachers. But however you work, constantly turn the figure you are modeling to study it from every angle.
Do not begin on details until you have the larger masses right. They must be in their proper relation, the general proportions correct, the planes blocked out, the main lines of the composition firm and clear. Use your thumb to get broad effects. In some places you will have to build up, in others to cut down. Then with the wooden tools put in the finishing touches. The fewer of these needed, the better satisfied you can be with your technique.
In modeling in relief the tools come into play from the first, for the outlines must be sharply drawn, the planes more subtly related, the details more delicately traced.
If you find pleasure in shaping the lines of a bowl or working a tile in low relief, perhaps pottery is the craft to which you will decide to devote your leisure in the years to come. If you try to make pottery that can be baked, you will find yourself handicapped, so long as you are still in bed, by the difficulty of getting all the air bubbles out of the clay. This process, known as throwing the clay, is a monotonous and fatiguing one but is necessary for any work that is to go into a kiln. You can, however, make a start at learning the technique of pottery with either plasteline or prepared clay. In place of using a wheel, most amateur potters today roll the clay into ropes, not over three-quarters of an inch thick, and coil these around to build up their designs. The coils may be smoothed over or left showing. Skill must be developed to keep the shape symmetrical and the walls of even thickness. You can dream a pleasant dream of a kiln of your own some day and a helper to throw the clay, and meanwhile you can learn to create graceful shapes and to have a craftsman's appreciation of the ancient art of the potter.
Read on through the chapter on Soap Carving before you begin to model. It may give you further insight into the principles underlying both modeling and sculpture.
Playing with Clay, Ida W. Wheeler. The Macmillan Company, New York. 1927. Written for children. Gives many hints useful for all beginners. Traces in an interesting way the history of the arts of sculpture and pottery.
Handbook of Modeling and Pottery Craft. American Art Clay Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. 1931. A pamphlet for teachers, fully illustrated. Modelling and Sculpture, F. J. Glass. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 1929.
A comprehensive treatment of the art of sculpture. Some chapters helpful for beginners working on a small scale.
Milton Bradley Company, Springfield, Massachusetts. Branches in all large cities.
Talens School Products Inc., Chicago, San Francisco, New York. American Art Clay Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. All dealers in artists' supplies.