Sculpting Clay Master Mouldings – A “Tail” of Two Fishes

Sculpting Clay Master Mouldings

This is a bit of a “How To” for sculpting clay master mouldings. As my propmaker friends know, because I declare it regularly, I am not a natural sculptor. However, since I took on Chic Mouldings, I decided that  I really wanted to bring some more unconventional appliques to the collection, and the best way to do that was to make them myself. Cue panic mode.

I’ve done a bit of sculpting in the past, but I’ve never been confident about it, and since I often work alongside  people who are very good and quick at it, I don’t get to practice much. That said, I have had to do some sculpting in the past, when a job calls for it.

I worked in theatre in New Zealand for a long time. Budgets are sometimes tight, even in professional theatre companies in New Zealand, so it’s not always possible to afford a subcontractor –  you just have to get on with it and do it yourself.

I’ve worked a lot with polystyrene, which is very forgiving (if you chop too much off, you can just stick it back on and start again!)

Here is a piece I sculpted many years ago for a show. Yes, it took me ages, but I am nothing if not tenacious.

This was for a show called “Female of the Species” by Auckland Theatre Company, and it was a fairly technical set prop. It was to be hung as per the original image (seen centre below). It was also going to be “shot”. This required rigging the bar it hung from to be able to be dropped on one side. The prop needed to be structurally strong but lightweight.

The brief was for the sculpt to be similar to the image on the cover of the book “The Female Eunuch” by Germaine Greer. I was OK with how it turned out, but it was a huge challenge. Organic, 3-dimensional forms are not easy!

I have not sculpted much in clay until recently, however, and clay is a completely different beast. Yes, it is very forgiving, because if you chop too much off you can easily add it, but it is a much softer medium and has its’ own little idiosyncrasies that I am still getting used to. I really wanted to have a go at sculpting clay master mouldings for my shop, so I gave it a go.

So here’s how I progressed with these fish….

I used a product that is similar to plasticine, but a little firmer (you can actually get it in different level of hardness) and is sulphur-free (sulphur messes with silicon and causes it not to cure properly – that’s the last thing you want  when you’re trying to make a mould from something you’ve just spend hours sculpting!) It is called Chavant NSP – Medium – Brown – Sulfur-Free Plasteline.

I started with a template. I found an image that had a shape similar to what I was after and used adobe illustrator to reflect the image so I had a mirrored pair to work from. I then taped the image to a flat board.

Then I got to it. Now, I’m no expert, but I simply laid down clay as I needed it. Sometimes I squished a big piece down and then removed bits, sometimes I added little tiny bits to build up where it was needed.

I have a bunch of sculpting tools (you can find basic sets of tools inexpensively in all good art shops, and craft stores) but I mainly used a pointed spoon shaped tip (shown below with the red handle) some ball tips and a rubber-tipped clay shaper – both of which are in this handy set here. I also found the digital calipers handy so I could position things into the right place once my reference was covered up.

One of the annoying things I found was that when you scrape away clay, you sometimes get a little ball that builds up alongside the sculpting tool. Patience is useful. I just kept at it, removing excess clay and smoothing off any messy bits with my rubber tipped tool. Any tiny bits I didn’t worry about – I took care of them at the end (will explain later).

So once I had the general form down, I carved detail into the fins and tail. The scales were done using a thin clear polythene on the sculpt, and a half-moon shaped tool that I made out of some brass pipe and thin dowel. In fact I made 3 tools for 3 different sizes of scale.

And then it was just a matter of using my reference and keeping at it until it was finished. Phew!

To do a final clean-up, I used some turps and a small (approx 10mm) flat, firm paintbrush to smooth out any bits that needed smoothing (including some of those annoying raggedy little balls I mentioned earlier). Then it was just a matter of making my mould and casting my first set of fish.

Of course, me being me, I couldn’t help but have fun with some colours. Here is a pair I painted in a standard orange acrylic paint, then used my favourite gold wax, rub n buff to highlight.

I really enjoyed this project and I love the little fish I made. I think they’ll make a really interesting, contemporary addition to up-cycles. You can get your own set of fish here: