Beginners Workshop

Sculpting Resources

Tips and inspiration for figurative sculptors

What Clay is Best for Sculpting?

figure sculpting how to sculpt sculpting for beginners
Sculpture in Clay

Air Dry, Water-Based, and Oil-Based Clay: Pros & Cons

When it comes to sculpting, choosing the right type of clay is essential, especially for beginners. With a wide variety of options available, it can be overwhelming to decide which one to use.

In this guide, I'll compare and contrast the pros and cons of three popular types of clay: air dry, water-based, and oil-based. I have personally used all three and will share some of my tips for beginners.

Whether you're just starting out or looking to enhance your sculpting skills, this article will help you make an informed decision based on real studio experience.


Air Dry Clay for Beginners

Air dry clay is commonly chosen by beginners and hobbyists who are looking for convenience. It does not require any firing or baking and dries naturally when exposed to air. However, it can be prone to cracking, shrinking, or warping, limiting its potential for complex works of art.

It is more suited to simple projects without complex forms (like portraits and the human figure). This is why professional figure sculptors often opt for other types of clay that provide better control and consistency.

There are also variations of air dry clay, such as polymer clays like Sculpey, which are baked to harden. These clays offer a different set of characteristics and are favored by many hobbyists and artists who prefer the convenience of baking to achieve a permanent sculpture (over kiln-firing or mold making). Polymer clays can be expensive and are most often used for small sculptures.


Tips for Using Air Dry Clay:

  • Keep your sculptures small and simple to minimize the risk of cracking or warping.
  • To prevent drying too quickly, cover your sculpture with a damp cloth and cover with plastic.
  • If you are using a polymer clay like Sculpey, follow the manufacturer's instructions for baking times and temperatures to ensure proper hardening.


Water-Based Clay for Beginners

Water-based modelling clay, also known as earthenware or pottery clay, is a versatile option for creating both simple sculptures as well as intricate details and complex shapes.

Its working properties are controlled by moisture which allows you to create forms very quickly when it is soft and pliable, and to refine details as the clay progressively hardens. It needs to be kept at the right moisture level to keep it workable and prevent cracking during the sculpting process.

Water-based clay requires firing in a ceramic kiln to achieve permanent durability. It can also be molded and cast to create an edition in another material (such as bronze or plaster). 

Professional sculptors often prefer water-based clay for its malleability and its ability to hold fine details. It arguably has the best "feeling" when you are working with it, due to it's natural qualities that are responsive to the touch.

It also offers a wide variety of surface finishes, as fired ceramic can be be left natural (such as terracotta), glazed with a multitude of colors, or cold finished with acrylic paint and pigments.

My online figure sculpting courses teach you how to sculpt in water-based clay and how to prepare it for kiln firing, as I personally believe it is the best type of clay to learn sculpting. It's easily accessible, quite affordable, and very satisfying to work with. PLUS if you learn to hollow and fire it can result in permanent artwork (without the complication of molding!) 


Tips for Using Water-Based Clay:

  • Keep a spray bottle of water nearby to mist the clay as needed to prevent it from drying out and cracking.
  • Maintain the moisture of the clay by covering your sculpture with a damp cloth when not working on it.
  • Beginners are recommended to choose a low-fire sculpture clay with a fine grog for maximum stability and workability.


Get the Sculpting in Clay Tool Guide:


Oil-Based Clay for Models and Maquettes


Oil-based clay, also known as plastilina or modeling clay, remains pliable and never dries out, making it ideal for creating clay models for moldmaking, and maquettes.

This type of clay is popular among professional sculptors due to its flexibility and ability to hold precise shapes. However, it's important to note that because oil-based clay does not harden, it requires the additional process of mold making and casting in order to create permanent sculptures. The complexity and expense of the molding and casting process can be daunting for beginner sculptors.

The pliability of oil-based clay depends on heat (instead of moisture). Each brand offers variations in hardness or melting points, allowing you to choose the clay that best suits your specific sculpting needs.

Some of the top brands that offer high-quality oil-based clay options for sculptors include Chavant NSP, Van Aken Plastalina, Monster Clay, and Roma Plastilina. These brands are trusted by both professionals and enthusiasts alike for their consistent texture, pliability, and ability to hold intricate details.  


Tips for Using Oil-Based Clay:

  • Keep your workspace clean and free of debris, as oil-based clay can easily pick up dust and dirt.
  • Use a heat box, microwave, or heat lamp to warm your clay as you are sculpting.
  • Be mindful of clays that include sulfur, as it can inhibit the curing of some types of silicon rubber during the mold-making process.


How to Choose the Right Clay

If you are a beginner getting started in sculpting, choosing the right clay is very important. Consider the pros and cons of each type to determine which one aligns best with your sculpting goals. 

Air-dry clay offers convenience but at the cost of less malleable working properties. It is best for simpler forms and sculptures. Polymer clay is often preferred by those making small sculptures who want to bake them into a finished artwork.

Water-based clay allows for both loose and impressionistic sculptures, as well as intricate details. It also offers the most pleasant sculpting experience due to the tactile sensation of working it with your hands. It is the most responsive material to learn to create forms with. It does require maintenance and creates some dust.

Oil-based clay never cracks and does not need to be covered in plastic in between sessions, providing flexibility in the sculpting process. It can feel waxy or sticky depending on the brand. It is often preferred when the final sculpture will be molded and cast into another material, or there is a long timeline for a project (ie: public commissions). 


More Figure Sculpting Resources

No matter which type of clay you choose, whether it's air dry, water-based, or oil-based, developing good working methods and honing your artistic observation skills are essential for sculpting success.

An excellent way to develop your skills from the comfort of your own studio is to join an online sculpting course for expert guidance and practical sculpting techniques!


Learn to Start Sculpting (for free):

Intro to Clay Sculpting: Free 3-day online workshop for beginners to learn how to set up, what supplies you need, and step-by-step instructions for your first project.



Sign up to get my best sculpting tips and inspiration delivered to your inbox each week!

You can unsubscribe at any time.

You might also like...

How to Sculpt a Portrait in Clay (Beginners Guide)

Improve Your Artistic Eye in 10 mins

Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now (book)


Get Sculpting Tips & Inspiration

Sign up for my Studio List to get my best sculpting tips and inspiration delivered to your inbox.

We value your privacy. You can unsubscribe at anytime.