What kind of clay do you use?
- That depends upon what type of sculpture I am working on (most of my full figures are mixed media, most of my busts are ceramic). So let's break the question into two parts. First I'll address mixed media, then ceramics.
Mixed Media Questions
What kind of clay do you use for your mixed media sculptures?
- EPOXY PUTTY: The closest thing I use to clay in my mixed media sculptures is epoxy putty. Mix two parts together, sculpt it like clay, and it cures on its own (and cures tough, much stronger in general than a polyer clay like Super Sculpy). I use several brands all with their own strengths and weaknesses: Magic Sculpt (my all-around favorite), Apoxie Sculpt by Aves (the least sticky, sometimes to a fault), Smooth-On Free Form Sculpt (very sticky, especially at the beginning), Smooth-On Free Form Air (super light weight, like sculpting with marshmallow, an experience in itself), Sculp-Epox (which may be impossible to get now as I think it is discontinued, but very nice if you can find it). The sculpting properties of all of these epoxies changes over time, as the epoxy cures. In general, you can work with these epoxies for two hours. Many people ask about cure times, but in my experience it just isn't that big a deal. Need more time, just mix up another batch and add on to what has already cured or started to cure. After epoxy putties have cured, they can be sanded, carved, machined, drilled, etc. Always wear latex or similar gloves when working with uncured epoxy. Even if the label doesn't recommend it, I wear gloves. Always have great ventilation or wear a proper respirator (not a dust mask) with a good filter when working with uncured epoxy or when epoxy dust is present. Don't mess with your health...long-term exposure issues are real.
Some epoxy putty tips: Water is your friend. It will smooth and lubricate, as well as clean. Many people do just as much carving with something like a dremel tool once the epoxy has cured as they do sculpting when the epoxy is workable. I don't do this very often, but for crisp details and real control, this is often the way to go.
- PAPER CLAY: I don't use it often, but I have friends who use it all the time to great effect. Try Activa La Doll Premier Air Dry Clay. This is a great material especially if you don't want to be dealing with toxic materials (so great for kids as well as pros). Very light, much stronger than you would expect, can achieve an amazing level of detail with skilled hands. I use it mostly when I need something super-light.
- POLYMER CLAY: I almost never use polymer clay. But plenty of pros do. And there are way more products than just Super Sculpy and Super Sculpy Firm. I would try doll-maker forums if you are digging for polymer clay knowledge. Again, be safe...do not bake your polymer clay in your food oven.
What other materials besides epoxy putties do you use for your mixed media sculpture?
- Sometimes just wood for a base, wire* for the armature, and acrylics for finishes. But often other materials, including aluminum foil for volume, sheet metal, bamboo, rocks, sand, found objects, and especially cloth or other flexible material saturated with glue so it cures stiff. What kind of material? Almost any kind. Old sheets, lace, washi papers, wool roving, fake fur, string, yarn, etc., etc., etc. What kind of glue? You can buy specialty products for hardening fabric, like Paverpol. I usually use Golden Soft Gel. You can even just use Elmers (but you might have to prime several times to avoid a finish with cracks unless the formula has changed since I last used it (20 years or so). I paint my mixed media sculptures with acrylics, usually using watery mixes of Golden Acrylic products. Their Fluid Acrylics line is my favorite, and they also have a great array of acrylic mediums to explore. If you aren't ready to spend lots of money on paint, you will do fine with cheap craft acrylics.
* Regarding armature wire, I usually just use galvanized steel from the hardware store. I recommend a mix of gauges 9 - 24. For 9 guage wire you will probably want to use a small bolt cutter to cut. Yes, you can use aluminum sculpting wire instead, but I prefer the rigidity of steel. For larger projects, I use steel rods and a torch, but I am not a skilled metal worker.
How do I get started with mixed media sculpture?
- You just start. Seriously. Just start. Get a coat hanger for wire, get some air-dry clay from the craft store, get an old shirt for cloth, get some craft glue and cheap paints from the hobby store, and just make something. Don't set out to make something you'll like. Set out to make something, beginning to end, in one weekend, without worrying about the outcome. Experience the process for a few hours and you will learn more in doing than in fifty hours of reading FAQs and watching videos and reading. As long as you aren't using toxic materials, you will be just fine. With that said, books and videos are good, too! I suggest Dan Reeder's Paper Mache Monsters. And youtube is chock full of great sculpting videos. If you want to watch me sculpt something from beginning to end you can on youtube. There is another video you can find on my channel that shows me painting the piece.
What kind of clay do you use for your ceramic sculptures?
- My ceramic sculpture (usually busts) are sculpted with water based clay. That is the only kind of clay your can turn into a ceramic. I usually use Venus White from Clay Planet. But you can get a similar experience from any fine-grog smooth water based clay...visit your local supplier and ask them what they would recommend. Please note that to turn this kind of clay into ceramic, you need to fire it in a kiln to a very high temperature (I fire to "cone 5", which is usually around 2170 degrees F). If you don't have immediate acces to a kiln, see my "How do I get started with ceramics?" below.
How do I get started with ceramics?
- Water based clay is a WONDERFUL medium. But to finish it as a ceramic, you need access to a kiln. Kilns are serious hardware, and come with serious health and safety concerns. To get started, I recommend finding a local club, studio, or clay store that will fire your work for you. It generally isn't that expensive, and water based clay itself is relatively cheap when compared with epoxies and polymer clays. So, try it out, and if you love it, then spend the time to research getting your own kiln. I use an electric, computer controlled kiln (Skutt model KM-822) with a forced air fan. Once you get everything set up, firing is a breeze with an electric kiln run by a computer. Finishing your ceramic pieces can be easy and safe, too, as there are lots of off-the-shelf products that are safe, such as AMACO velvet underglazes, which are the commercial product I use most. Be careful, though. There are also lots of products that are very hazardous. Take every step of ceramics work seriously, and do your research, so that you don't harm yourself or your loved ones.
- Ceramics is an endelss world that you could spend your whole life exploring and studying. I am a sculptor who does ceramics, not a ceramacist. The real ceramacists are on a whole other level with their knowledge, understanding, and processes.
What is your ceramics process?
- The sculpture is generally created without any armature. The bigger the piece, the more it needs to be hollowed out, especially if you want to avoid warping. But I generally don't care too much about warping, because most of what I do is already so asymetrical. So usually just shoving a stick up through the bottom of the piece works. If sculpting over several days, I use a plastic bag over the piece to manage the water level in the clay. Certain work is easier with wetter clay, and some work is easier with dryer clay.
- Once the sculpting is done, I put it in a cardboard box, or put a paper bag over it, and let it dry out slowly, which helps avoid cracking and warping.
- After the piece is (ideally) as dry as the surrounding air, I bisque fire it to about 1800F (cone 04...hey Dug, what is a cone?). I fire VERY slowly, usually holding the temperature at around 200F for 8 hours, just around boiling point, to really drive the last moisture out of the clay. And from there the temperature ramps up slowly...do it like this and the exploding clay disasters of grade school lore need not happen. This sounds hard and complicated but electric kilns with computers make it easy. Once the first fire is done, the clay is in a state where the material has turned to a ceramic (and cannot return to clay) but is still very porous and eager to receive a finish. The piece is also very fragile at this stage.
- Now I apply my first round of finish. This is usually a homemade oxide wash. You can buy commercial oxide washes, but mine are simple caveman-style...just metal powders in water, with enough additional ingredients to get the metals to melt if necessary (materials that reduce the melting point are called flux). Note, powdered metals can be dangerous. A relatively safe way to get started with homemade oxide washes is just to buy some iron oxide from your clay supply store, dump it in water, stir it up, and dunk your piece in it. Then brush off where you don't want it too heavy. Then fire it (DO NOT try this on something you are not going to fire!!!). Now you're ready to read more for safety and explore more for art! The internet and library await.
- Once the finish is applied, I fire to maturity, cone 5 or 6 for the clay I usually use. This firing can be done faster than the first, and no preheat is required. After this firing, the cermamic is much denser, much more sturdy, has shrunk maybe 15% from its original size, and is either done, or ready for another round of finishing and firing.
- How about books and videos for ceramics? I can recommend Phillipe Faraut's books, such as Portrait Sculpting: Anatomy & Expressions in Clay. And again, youtube is chock full of great sculpting videos for water based clay. If you want to watch me sculpt something from beginning to end in clay, again, you can on youtube.
General Sculpting Questions
I've tried diferent sculpting materials and I can't get the detail I want. What material will give me detail?
- Water based clay should hold lots of detail. Maybe you are working with it when it is too wet? Or maybe you are using clay with large grog (clay that has been fired, ground up, and added to fresh clay to give the clay body support, add texture, and reduce shrinking). Try a clay with very fine grog like Venus White.
- Your air dry clay may have too much fiber in it to hold detail. Try Premier air dry clay. Be patient with it...it will give detail to skilled hands.
- All the epoxy putties I've listed on my FAQ, such as Magic Sculpt, should hold an extreme amount of detail, with the possible exception of Free Form Air. But you may need to achieve the detail by carving cured epoxy (with a knife, carving tool, or dremel tool), rather than sculpting. Or wait for the epoxy to almost cure and work in the details while it is relatively stiff. Or work in steps. Sculpt. Cure. Add more. Cure. Add more. Cure. Etc.
- Also, you can try a high quality modeling clay, like Chavant NSP, Monster Clay, or Roma Plastilina. For a durable finished product, your sculpture will need to be molded and cast, but for learning how to sculpt, nothing beats modeling clay. Note that you can actually paint modeling clay and keep it indefinitely...it just needs to be well protected and kept from getting too hot.
- If you are using quality materials and not achieving the detail you want, have patience. You have to spend time to learn the materials as well as gain the skills. And experiment with tools. Working with your hands as much as possible is a good practice, but tools are essential for small details.
What are your favorite tools?
- Many of my favorite tools are handmade. I carve a lot of tools out of wood for ceramics work. If you purchase a cheap set of wood tools you can start to figure out what works for you and modify the tools to your liking. I make tools out of epoxy and wire for mixed media work, as I don't want to mess up my wood tools with epoxy putties. I have a bunch of Kemper loops that I use a lot like this and this. I like metal ball syluses a lot for both ceramics and epoxy. Ultimately you just have to try a lot of tools to find what works for you. Buy and make tons of tools with the knowledge that you will end up only using a handful.
- What about paint brushes? In general I use really cheap brushes, like these 50 brushes for $12, and really expensive bushes, especially Winson Newton's Series Seven brushes. Keep good care of them, and a great Sable brush will last for a very long time, and give you great results during its lifetime (at least if you are painting with watery acrylics...for heavy bodied acrylics, that may be true). I use them for ceramics sculpting, too. Try a Size 2 Series Seven. You can keep your brushes clean with The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver.
Do you sell your artwork?
Do you do commission work?
- Generally, no. However, you are always welcome to ask, and if I sculpt something that is inspired by your request, I will give you first chance to purchase the piece. I will not sculpt other people's properties (Batman is awesome, but no, I won't sculpt my version of Batman for you. Unless you mean this.
I love this piece but it is sold! Will you sculpt me another one?
- No. In fairness to the original purchaser, I will not resculpt a piece. That being said, there are many themes and designs I will revisit again and again...well hello, undead aviator, how nice to see you again!
Do you mold and cast your work?
- Not personally. In general, the work I sell is one-of-a-kind. That being said, as of 2019 I am having a small number of castings made of some cermaic pieces. These may be available at conventions and in my online shop someday, probably in an unfinished state so the hobby painters can have a go at my work. Want advice on molding and casting your artwork? Molding and casting is a craft unto itself, and I have huge respect for those who do it well. If you are just starting out, you might try Smooth-On's tutorials or treat yourself to the Stan Winston Online School.
Do you varnish your work?
- My ceramics, no. If properly finished in the kiln there is no need to varnish.
- My mixed media I usually varnish using Testor's Dullcote spray. It is made for miniatures, so the mist is really fine, it is really matte (which is usually what I want), and doesn't finish tacky. If I want a gloss finish I will usually use Diamond Varathane, either brushed on or sprayed with an airbrush.
I have one of your sculptures. How do I care for it?
- Thank you so much for making my work a part of your life! Please visit my
What conventions do you do?
- I always do the Monsterpaloozas in LA (Spring and Fall), and a few small shows in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some years I do more. To keep informed on this front, I invite you to join my email list.
Do you sketch before you sculpt?
- Generally no, because I want to discover as I sculpt, but for big pieces, especially ones with elaborate suspension issues, yes.
What influences your work?
- I've always been fascinated by creatures that eat people, whether they are living today, extinct, or fictional. My childhood was filled with shark books and posters. Childhood classical influences are Bosch and Bruegel. Before the internet, how many hours did I spend looking at Triumph of Death? Many. But now there is the internet, so my modern influence is the whole internet...most notably the fantasy and dark art artists that share their work there. People often liken my work to Tim Burton, but I think that is mostly coincidental.
Where do you get your ideas from?
- I used to spend tons of time sitting around thinking about what weird thing I should sculpt next. Daydreaming, searching, imagining. These days I usually just start sculpting, sometimes with a vague idea and sometimes with no idea at all, and then I just see what happens. Creating then is more about being a director than an actor. It is watching and giving blessing to what I think is working, and squashing what is not working. Crowd sourced creativity is also great, curating ideas from viewers while sculpting live on twitch or other live platforms. For larger pieces, I will have a much clearer idea, often sketched out, as changing direction, experimenting, and exploring is much more difficult when working large.
What is your work about?
- The most consistent theme in my work is meeting horror with humor, for without humor we are truly lost in horror.
Your sculptures are very vertical. Is there a reason? Or is it just your style?
- Most of my work is pushed vertically, not only in composition but design. It is part of my style, certainly, but the style follows reason. In my visual vocabulary, vertical is less stable, and therefore more exciting, than horizontal. A static vertical pose can much more easily imply imminent movement, creating more tension and life. A very vertial form that is in balance is always only just barely in balance. The sykscraper is more exciting than the warehouse.
How did you get started as a sculptor?
- After graduating from college with degrees having nothing to do with art, I found myself spending all my free time sculpting. I started with Dan Reeder's book, The Simple Screamer, and quickly evolved to be working on a smaller scale with somewhat different materials. Soon I was showing in small local galleries. Then came 3D graphics addiction and DreamWorks. And now I'm back to the real world.
How can I get started as a scuptor?
- See the answers in the left column. But in general, just do it. Just start. You will learn so much the first time you sculpt, and you'll be better equipped to ask and learn. Also consider joining the fabulous and friendly Shiflett Brother's Sculpting Forum on Facebook. Feeling ravenous to learn? You might try shelling out some bucks to gain access to all sorts of tutorials at the Stan Winston Online School.
I want to make my living as an independent artist. What advice do you have for me?
- Every artist walks a different path, not only because our circumstances are different, but also our work is different. Most of those paths are difficult. Do not be deterred, because for those of us who walk the difficult path, it is still probably the best path for us...we probably wouldn't be happy doing much else. So if you're still with me, my best advice is use your time as wisely as you can. Make time for art, and use your art time to grow as an artist. For me this has meant living frugally so in the early years I didn't have to work much to support myself, and in the later years so if I have a lean month, things are still OK. Cook your own rice and beans so you can sculpt freaks and monsters! But that is just my version. There are so many ways to be an independent artist. If you are serious about making a go of it, I highly recommend listening to One Fantastic Week, a podcast about the business of being a fantasy artist. Seriously...if you are thinking about becoming an independent artist, start with the current episode and then continue with back issues for as long as you can stand it.
How can I get a job at a studio like DreamWorks? What is it like? Why did you leave?
- Getting hired at a big studio is not an easy task. Many people start at smaller studios and move up. I am so out of the loop at this point that I can't really offer any advice except unless you really love the work (whatever part of the pipeline you are interested in), it probably isn't for you. And, if you're making a demo reel, keep it short and sweet. Better to have 30 seconds of great material, than 30 seconds of great material followed by two minutes of mediocre. At DreamWorks I worked as a Character Technical Director (fancy title for "digital puppet maker"). It was a good job working with great people. But it isn't as sexy as it sounds, and ultimately you are doing other peoples' art, and that is why I left...so I could do my own art again...
Where should I buy my art supplies?
- There are plenty of specialty sculpting stores. The one I use, both online and brick and mortar, is Douglas and Sturgess. They are the best place I know of to purchase Magic Sculpt.
- For ceramics supplies, having a local store is very nice given that generally shipping 25 lb bags of clay is expensive. My local store, Clay Planet, is awesome, and you can order online from them, too. Want to use exactly the same kind of water based clay I use? Order Venus White.
- Dick Blick online and brick and mortar stores for huge selection and good prices.
- Michael's and Joanne's brick and mortar for local convenience, especially if you have coupons
- And of course Amazon works for almost anything. You can even sometimes find 25 lb bags of clay that will ship for free with Amazon Prime. If the bag is less than $20, that is a pretty darn good deal...
- Note that if you are buying high quality brushes, it is best to buy them in person so you can check their condition.
What are your favorite reference books?
How long does it take to make a sculpture?
- It ranges from a few minutes to several months. A quick ceramic sketch might be sculpted in an hour or two, but then needs to go through the drying, finishing, and firing process. A super quick mixed media piece could be done in half a day, but a week is more typical.
How do you price your art?
- Some of the factors I consider include time, pain, size, difficulty, uniqueness, materials, and quality of piece. It is a tricky, prickly, somewhat random process. If you are a new artist struggling to price your work, I think the best advice I can give is be true to yourself and do not be afraid to ask for a living wage.
Why is your art so expensive?
- Because I place value on my time, skill, knowledge, and vision. Because the business of art requires far more time spent than just sculpting, and many more skills than just sculpting. With a price range of $5 to $10k, I hope I have something for everyone :)
Why is your art so inexpensive?
- Because not everyone has the understanding that you do, my friend :)
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