Introduction: Ceramic Sculpture for the Absolute Beginner - Cookie Cutter Fish

About: Liked to draw and paint when I was growing up. Switched to carving and sculpture in my twenties. Work in wood, stone / marble, plaster, and ceramic clay.

Introduction to sculpting. Using the needle tool.

These are simple, fun to make, and do not require a lot of clay, or time.

Cookie cutters provide an easy way for the beginner to start working with clay. A needle tool can be used to define the features and add eyes, hair, fins, etc.. This is a good approach for those who have never worked with clay before. You will soon learn how to define features and smooth them out using water and a paint brush.

If your first attempts seem crude or rough, go for a folk art look. As you make more, your skill will build and they will look more refined.

Repetition builds skill.

Cut off a piece of clay and roll it flat with a rolling pin. I am using a white stoneware clay that I will only fire to earthenware temperatures.

A needle tool can be made by gluing a needle in the end of a small dowel or chop stick. A finishing nail in a drill makes a hole in the wood or you can split it and clamp it until the glue sets. You can also buy commercial needle tools at sculpture supply places or ceramic supply stores.

Press the cookie cutter into the clay and remove your shape. For these types of things I like to work on a small piece of wax paper or parchment paper.

Step 1:

Define the features with the needle tool.

Use your fingers to round the edge of the figure so it looks a little three dimensional.

In this case holes are made for hanging the object. You can use a small straw to cut the hole or just shape it with the needle.

Step 2:

Use a paint brush and water to smooth out the tool marks and soften the edges.

Set aside to dry.

Step 3:

I single fire these. Meaning there is only one firing. I glaze the raw clay and fire.

Paint with under-glaze color.  The dry clay is very absorbent. If you find your glaze is hard to apply, thin a small amount with water so it soaks into the clay. You can make under coats of one colour, and cover with another colour as I did with brown and green cod fish. You can add speckles by using a tooth brush to spatter on thin colour. Try different approaches. These small sculpts are a good way to learn about finishing affects.

Apply a top coat of clear glaze.

Be careful not to get the glaze on the underside of the piece. Glaze melts and it can stick to the kiln shelf when it is fired. If you do get any on the bottom, just wipe it off with a damp sponge or scrape it off with a utility knife.

Fire to cone 06 if you have your own kiln. Bisque fire to Cone 04 if your things are being fired by someone else.

Step 4:

This is the basic approach I use to make sculptures in ceramic clay.
Create a shape.
Define the details.
Smooth and soften the edges.
Set aside to dry.
Finish it with colour and/or shine.

Making up a number of these cookie cutter figures will give you a feel for working with clay. Learn by doing.

In this case I have only carved one side. I plan to use the fish as part of a set of Christmas ornaments that will have a maritime theme. The brown and green colours are meant to suggest cod fish.  Making them this way allows me to make up a bunch very quickly and have a low cost item that will add a little character to the set. I like the fact that one side is unfinished while the other side is bright and shiny. I also like the fact that they are not cast and each has it's own character.

If you want to finish both sides you will need to suspend the figures for firing or make a base. I'll show an example of this in a later instruction.


Christmas ornaments.

Wall decor for a child’s room.

Make teddy bears or toy shapes and glue to a small canvas for a baby's room.

Glue them to an inexpensive box form the dollar store to make a kids jewelry box.

Hang them along with pieces of wood dowel to make a simple wind chime. The ceramic against the wood makes a nice sound.

I am sure you can finds ways of using these sculpts and they are appealing in their simplicity.

Have fun.