how to use air dry clay: the basics

Mentions of air dry clay are often met with pure confusion as to what the stuff actually is, or the sense that it doesn’t count as proper ceramics because it’s not fired like normal clay.

Sure, you don’t get to apply glazes and washes and get that shiny just-fired finish, but what you get in return is the ability to incorporate clay into your art practice without the need for specialist equipment or a large studio space.

Air dry clay is really easy to find online and it’s not too expensive either. I like the Gedeo brand, which comes in a 1.5kg block. It’s a ‘natural’ colour (the colour you’d expect clay to be) which for some reason I trust more than the stuff that’s dyed white or grey.

Like most things in art, the use of air dry clay needs to be experimental. You can pretty much sculpt anything you want, but there will be probably be a few occasions where you press out the clay too thin so it cracks, or the surface ends up lumpy. It’s all about going with the process and seeing what works.

Here are a few basic instructions and rules to follow to become a clay-sculpting professional in no time:

  1. Make push pots and dishes by hand

I think technically these are called ‘pinch pots’, but I always thought the name push pot made more sense.

Start with a reasonably-sized ball of air dry clay (obviously the bigger the ball of clay, the bigger your finished pot will be). Knead it in your hand for a while, to make the clay more pliable and to get rid of some of the moisture (the more wet the clay, the more chance it’ll crack when drying).

Push your thumb into the centre of the clay ball, and begin to ‘push up’ the sides of the indented ball, until it starts to form something like a bowl shape. Keep making indents with your thumb, and smooting out the sides of the bowl as you go, until it’s at your desired thickness. I’d recommend leaving it a bit on the chunky side, otherwise the weight of the clay might cause your pot to go a bit floppy when drying (less bow-shaped more pancake-shaped).

If you’re making a trinket dish, keep pushing out the clay from the centre, onto a flat surface, until you get a flat disk shape. Think of it as shaping a little pizza base, if you will.

While you’re shaping the pizza base, try to keep a chunky rim or ‘lip’ of clay around the outside circumference. This will give your dish a nice raised edge.

It doesn’t have to be a perfect neat circle. Remember you can jazz up your creation and hide any imperfections when you paint it later.

2. Make pots and dishes with moulds

If you’re not sure whether your hand-moulding skills will be up to task, you can always use a mould as a guide.

You don’t need to go out and buy anything special for this, simply collect some used yoghurt pots or ramekins of a decent size. Turn them upside down, and line the base with some damp clingfilm.

Then, squish or roll out some clay to about half an inch thick (remember, don’t roll too thin or your pot is likely to sag or break completely), and drape over the base of the mould. Smooth out the clay, until the whole surface is nice and neat and the same thickness all round. Pay extra attention to the area where the base of your pot will be - if you’re too heavy handed or your clay is rolled too thin, this part could tear.

If there are any lumps and bumps as you’re moulding, try smoothing them down with a damp spoon. Also, a non-sharp knife works well for trimming jagged edges, and for carving patterns into the surface of the clay while it’s still damp.

Once you’re pot is looking good and nicely proportioned, leave it to dry a little on the mould. After a day or so, turn the mould right-side up and, using the clingfilm, pull the mould out from the centre of the clay. That’s it! Just be sure to give your pot plenty of time (usually about 3-4 days) to dry before decorating.

It’s best to dry your clay on a piece of newspaper, in a well-ventilated space.

3. Decoration

When finishing off your clay masterpieces, I find acrylic paint works really well.

It usually takes a few coats to get an even finish, then you can add whatever extra patterns or prints you feel like. If you find that your pots are drying a bit blotchy, put them aside and let them air out a bit more. There really is no shortcut for letting they clay dry out thoroughly.

For the final stage of the making process, I ‘varnish’ my creations with a clear gloss spray paint. This is one thing you may not have lying around at home, but you can easily find in hardware stores.

The one I use is called Rust-Oleum Painter’s Touch. It’s pretty inexpensive, really easy to use, and gives the clay a shiny finish. This makes it more durable, and protects the paint from chipping or smudging. Just remember to only use spray paint in a well-ventilated space (outside is best), and allow for a few hours to dry completely.

Things to remember:

- The clue is in the name - air dry clay will harden and become unusable if left out in the open once you open the packet. If you want to store your clay for later use, wet a sheet of cling film and wrap it tightly around the exposed clay, then put it into a plastic bag and set aside.

This should keep the air from totally drying out your clay. However, I find that no matter how hard I try to preserve it, the clay is never as smooth and workable as the straight-out-the-packet first use.

- When sculpting your clay, it can be handy to wet your finger and smooth the edges of the clay to give a nice even finish. However, don’t go overboard, as too much water will upset the composition of the clay and could make it crack or flake while it’s drying.

- As far as I know, air dry clay is NOT watertight, and the gloss spray paint used as a varnish is not safe for use with kitchen utensils or bowls. Remember to take your plants out of the pots before watering, and stick to decorative items (not mugs or dinner plates) to be on the safe side.

Happy sculpting!

Small push pot, made by hand

Small cactus pot, made using air dry clay over a mould

A clay dish made using the push pot method, decorated with acrylic paints


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