I learned this technique at an American Indian Heritage festival at my college about 8 years ago. At the time I was searching for meaning, as I had just lost my mother a few months previously. I found a woman from the Lumbee tribe who was selling and leading instruction on creating clay turtles. Through creating and conversation I learned that the symbol of the turtle is longevity of life and was a simple start to my healing. I'll do my best to recount the steps in the way I was taught, and the philosophy behind it.
Each time you choose to work with clay, your heart, feelings and emotion go into the clay as you work it in your hands. Every creation is unique and will reflect your heart in the process.
Besides that, turtles are awesome!
Clay (any type will work, I used Amaco air-dry clay)
Bowl of Water
Toothpick (or other pointed object)
Your imagination and spirit!
Place mat or other cleanable surface
About 1 hour ( one hour with stops for pictures)
*Note: Using air dry clay is fun but it is messy and will get on things if you aren't careful. Rest assured it is washable, so it can also be a fun project for kids! (with adult supervision of course)
Step 1: Step 1: Get Some Clay
Choose your clay.
I used a grayish clay to create the turtle. You can also use terracotta clay (which I love) or other colors as well.
Also keep in mind: More clay=larger turtle
This turtle I started with a clay ball about the size of a lemon.
Take your clay and kneed it into a ball until it is smooth and easily manipulated. Add water as needed to make it easier to work but not too much at a time, it will make it too pliable. Flip side, too little moisture the clay is hard to kneed and will get small cracks. Both are remedied easily and as you work the clay. (This balance is crucial while you kneed. You'll quickly get the feel of the clay and know what you need.) Each creation is unique so inconsistencies are just marks of beauty!
Step 2: Step 2: Divide and Conquer
Another key to creating is how you divide the clay. Dividing correctly makes the process much smoother.
Roll the clay ball into a long cylinder and divide in half. (does not have to be exact)
One half will become the turtle's shell, the other half will become the legs, head, and tail.
Step 3: Step 3: Shell Shaping
Use one section of clay to create the shell. Work the clay in your hands and use one palm to press and shape the shell.
Create a bowl and work the clay, spreading and forming it slowly. Too fast and it will tear. Press firmly and make sure the clay is even and not too thin or thick in places. Add small amounts of water to ease the shaping.
Shape the clay bowl into an oval bowl and decide which end you want to be the head and tail. You can slightly turn them upwards to accommodate for the head and tail. (steps to come)
When satisfied, set aside and move to the head, legs, and tail. You've created your first shell!
Step 4: Step 4: Shape a Leg!
Well, legs to be exact.
Take the other large section of clay, roll it into a cylinder and divide in half. One half will become the legs, the other half will be the head and tail.
Roll one section into a thin cylinder about 1/2 to 3/4 in thick. Divide it in half, then divide each half....in half. So essentially dividing the cylinder into quarters. Gently shape each section to create a 'foot.' Place each well formed mini cylinder into the shell in the place where you would like the legs. At this point it kinda reminds me of a mortar and pestle.
Take legs back out and flatten one end of each leg to be pressed into the underside of the shell. Here is where you will need to add extra water to create a 'slip' that will be pressed into the shell to get it to stick. Otherwise it will be too dry and will easily fall off when the clay dries.
Re-position the legs if needed and repeat the above steps for all four legs. Make sure to press and smooth to ensure the legs will stick.
*Note: The separated sections of clay, besides the ones I used, were determined to be too much and I decided to remove them before creating. I left them in the pics as an example if you have too much clay.
Step 5: Step 5: Head To...tail
Next comes the head and the tail.
Take the section that was set aside before the dividing of the legs. Shape and add water as needed and prepare to divide. Through practice I found that here it is easier to divide the cylinder into 1/3 and 2/3 pieces. Other words, more than half for one section. This allows for larger turtle heads and a smaller tail. My first turtles had massive tails and little heads.
Shape the tail using the slip method to ensure it sticks. Make one end pointy as turtles' tails taper to a point. Add and press into the underside, melding into the legs at the center.
The head will be larger and flatter but don't feel bad to test, shape, and experiment to get the head right. It's the second most important point (in my opinion) besides the shell. The head is slightly snake shaped. Think of heart shaped with a stubby end (the nose). Use the slip technique to attach to the underside of the shell.
You may need to stretch the shell upwards on the head side to point the turtle head up. Otherwise it may be too low or touch the ground.
Step 6: Step 6: Thirteen Moons on Turtle's Back
I can't create or think about a turtle without thinking of this children's book. I'm a teacher as well so it resonates with me even more. Plus I think it's one of the coolest aspects of dividing on this turtle. *Note-If you prefer a smooth shell turtle you can skip this step.
You can use water and gentle pressure to smooth out the shell. It doesn't need to be too smooth though. Naturally, turtle shells are bumpy, asymmetrical, and imperfect. So the rougher the clay, the more realistic the turtle.
Here is where you use the toothpick or other pointed object.
Trace a thin line on the outside rim of the shell. This creates the rim of the turtle shell. Then draw four lines equally across the turtle's back, going across the shell as shown in the pictures. Connect the four lines on the back creating three adjacent or touching hexagons.
From there, draw three lines on both sides from the hexagons down to the rim of the shell. Draw the remaining lines at the head and tail at an angle to make the sections semi-equal. Even if they are not exact, you should have thirteen 'moons!'
*Note: When I say draw or trace, you are dragging the toothpick or pointed object through the clay. It will pill up creating burr like debris on the outside of the shell. You may be able to see in the pics. You can take the time to remove them before they dry or you can wait till after it dries. After it dries, they easily brush off and the lines should be clean. I got excited and ahead of myself when drawing the lines so you see the after effect of drawing the lines.
I should also mention that this tutorial is for air-dry clay. If you leave the burrs on the shell with any other type of clay (over baked or fired) they will stay or be harder to remove.
Step 7: Step 7: Finishing Touches and Thoughts
Congrats! You've almost completed your first turtle!
Here you can add designs to the shell or add eyes to the turtle. (I leave the eyes off now-personal preference. Reminds me of the Willow Tree figurines) Deepen and clean the lines if you intend to paint. Makes it much easier but paint will cover some irregularities.
Air dry clay will take a day or two to completely dry, depending on the thickness of the clay and humidity of the environment. Air dry will need to be sealed with polyurethane, lacquer, or paint to prevent moisture from getting into it or the clay rubbing off with touch. Not to mention if it gets wet again for too long it will revert or melt back into clay. Spray paint works well. You can use brush paint but the clay might come off a little while you paint. Not really a problem but can affect the color of the paint you are using.
Pictured are two turtles, both created using air dry clay. I used terracotta clay for the reddish one (I really like terracotta and the effects it gives but did not have any the time of the tutorial). I painted the back of the shell using glow in the dark paint, really giving the effect of 'moons' on turtles back. Made it for my wife. If you use terracotta clay and seal it with clear polyurethane it will become marbled. It is a cool effect but will not affect the quality of the clay.
Make sure to press gently down on the turtle as it is drying to help level the legs at least once. If not then the turtle may have a wobble.
Experiment and try different clay types and refine your technique. Each turtle will be different and unique so keep that in mind and stay positive as you create and craft. I hope you enjoy creating turtles as much as I do!
Big thanks to my wife for taking the pictures as my hands were covered with clay!