Introduction: Parrot Sculpture: How to Sculpt a Bird From Clay

About: I am a seed saver, graphic designer, artist, parrot rescuer, and bulldog lover. Project collaborations welcome.
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As a volunteer for a nonprofit parrot rescue I am constantly interacting with parrots and have a very grand appreciation and knowledge of them. At the front of the sanctuary where the 90+ rescued parrots are kept is a set of pillars that hold up a fence that runs along the road.

Some time ago I drew out a set of gargoylesque sculptures to adorn the tops of these pillars; the sculpture ideas were reminiscent of the attitudes of each species as I have observed; the african grey standing with a tool on a book as they are very intelligent, the macaw with ruffled feathers and open beak as they tend to be territorial; cockatoos exhibiting playfulness and curiosity, the conures exhibiting socialness, and so on.

As a precursor to the making of the large scale sculptures that will be approximately 3 ft tall by 1.5 ft wide (and will take a lot more knowledge of clay-working than I currently possess,) I started off making a test sculpture [shown in the background], and finally a miniature parrot sculpture that I will share with you in this tutorial.

As a initiation to sculpting I went to my local hobby store, Michaels in Palm Desert, CA, USA and purchased clay- they only had the brown, terra-cotta colored clay, which I now love, even though it makes a visible orange colored mess. A 10lb Box of clay was $13+tax.

So to start off, let's go over the supplies I used to make the miniature.

Step 1: Gather Materials for Sculpting

I used the following while sculpting, not everything is necessary, but the tools help.

Clay - (I used Craftsmart, natural clay in 10lbs, ready to use in terracotta, the paint or seal when dry type)

Tools - For these birds, my main tool was my hands, That aside- I used the metal ribbon loop tool, metal brush scratch tool (scratch then slip to help clay stick together), and the needle tool.

Slip - highly wetted clay used to connect pieces of clay together

Dental floss to cut clay from slab

Squirt Bottle filled with water [keep clay wet and workable, prevent cracking]

Plastic to cover clay [I used a trash bag]

Step 2: Cut and Ready Clay, Form the Base and Body

Grab and form a 5" ball of clay and spray it with water if its hard and kneed it until it is well mixed, I consider the right consistency for sculpting is soft, but slightly harder than cookie dough. Do not over wet the clay or else it will become too sticky to work with. I spray the clay every once in a while when i feel like its drying out [just spray the clay when it feels dry to you.]

From the ball pull off and form an 3/4" ball and flatten it a bit, slam it on a table a couple time and round it to make it like a cylinder [flat can]. This will be the bird's stand, a wood stump; you can get creative and make large rocks or another type of base.

From the remaining clay ball- separate the clay in half and set one to the side. This will be the body. Form a ball and gently squeeze and work your hand down the clay, pull the lower portion of clay through the bottom of your hand and pull it gently with your other hand to form the tail.

Shape the body to be similar to a parrot use my example above, or search google for examples.

Form a ball about 1/4 the size of the cylindrical base. This will be the bird's feet.

Scratch the Log, foot, and bird's body and press together using slip, which is basically wet clay.

Cut and form the two feet showing. Parrots are zygodactylous, meaning they have two feet pointing forward and two feet pointing backwards.

Step 3: Add to the Form: Beak, Head Feathers and Feet

The Beak:
Pinch about 3/4" ball from the leftover clay, roll a ball then squeeze it to make a flatter disc shaped ball. Pull off one side and form a moon shape. Peel a portion out to make the opening of the beak and pinch the lower half of the beak to make a soft line to make the lower half of the beak.

The Head feathers:
Pinch a 1/2" ball from the leftover clay and roll to a ball. Flatten out the ball and form "fan" of the head feathers, this will be a base we add feathers to later. Put it on the parrot's head and press and drag your fingers to smooth out the clay. An additional, thin "snake" roll may be added inside the head-feathers to add support.

The Feet:
For the birds feet I added a couple balls of clay to extend the toes off the side of the stump. I moulded them a bit more using the needle tool and my fingers. For texture I used the side of one of the tools and then a ball tip tool. you can use the ball side of a ball pen if you dont have this tool. Further texture may be added to the feathers for more realness. I just decided to stop here because my fingerprints left a soft set of line on each feather and i liked the looks of it.

Step 4: Add to the Form: Wings

The Wings:
From the Leftover clay you will need to make two things: the feathers and the wings.

Use about 1/3 the amount of clay of the body to make each wing. Use the 'pinch and pull' method for the wings. Make sure your clay is moist when you're working or else it will crack!

Protip: If you want to really be good at sculpting the form of a bird, understand the skeletal system of a parrot!

Step 5: Forming the Feathers

Protip: Know your parrot feathers. :)

You may begin by rolling small balls of clay for the feathers or you can just roll as you go.

To make feathers, Start at the ends and layer the feathers upwards and inwards. You will be working from tail to head so the feathers overlap and finish cleanly at the nape / back and at the crown.

Roll a small piece of clay and press it to make it a flat disc. There will be a couple different types of feathers, so the size of the roll can be different varying on the size of the feather.

KEEP IT MOIST! Spray as needed, but dont over-spray.

I would start with long tail feathers, work up through the back, then work from the tips of the two wings with long flight feathers and meet the feathers at the back. Then work the front from the two tips of the inside wings and upwards and inwards towards the neck making sure to cover the side of the wings and overlap and cover back feathers of the wings fully and cleanly.

Small feathers like those located the face, the small of its back, and towards the tops of its wings will be very small balls pressed out on one side like the other feathers.

Flight Feathers such as those at the ends of wings will be large balls, made to be long, somewhat rectangular-ovals pressed out on one side to form a long flight feather.

Its good to remember the size of the ball and keep the size similar in the specific areas and taper in between areas.

Softer feathers such as feathers along the back and shoulders of the wings are made by pressing the feather balls harder to make them flatter. Try to keep the feathers pressed closer to the body at the exposed end to keep support and lessen the likeliness of the thin feather breaking off.

Continue up the side of the neck towards the top of its head.

The Face
The face is a bit tricky, I tried to keep the feathers towards the mouth going forward [they puff these feathers out often], downwards the sides of his neck with the flow of feathers, then horizontally as it goes up his crown to cover the fan on its head. See the picture for how I did it. Smooth out feathers to finish where eyes will be.

Add feathers on the back of the cockatoo's head. Leave the inside of the crest bald [yes, umbrella cockatoos have a bald spot! Its very soft, just skin.]

Step 6: Eyes, Nostrils, Stand and Textures / Details

The Eyes
Determine where the eyes will be. It might help to look at a real parrot, although I didn't- I just went by imagination and what I remember :).

Scoop out a small hole/indent where you wish the eye to be then make a ball with a tiny piece of clay- scratch and slip the hole and press onto the hole and form an eye, repeat for the other side and try to make it in the same place on the other side- it helps to look at level from the front- beak side.

I do have to admit there are some better techniques for sculpting eyes out there.

The Nostrils
The nostrils should be at the top of the beak a bit deeper on the outer side that smooths out as it goes upwards and inwards.

The Stand
For the log the bird is standing on, I used the metal loop tool and drug it along the outside from left to right to form the bark texture of the tree. It was a bit difficult along the nubs of the stump, so I just drug the loop tool outward and tried to make it mesh-up with the lines of the stump and tried to mesh it with the rest of the lines.

The Details
I added a mailbox to the side of the stump with "TLZPS" on it.

I went over the entire sculpture again with a needle tool and pushed out any little loose balls of clay of debris that accidentally got stuck on it as I was working.

Step 7: Closing Remarks

And that's it! :) If you made a parrot sculpture please share!

In the future I'd like to share about my trials in attempting to cast the mould using plaster and waxes (for a candle). I am working on a limited budget, and tried using this casting method that uses silicone and mineral spirits and so far its been more trail and error than success.

I will be working on making the Parrot Gargoyles for the wall along the road the rest of the summer.
:) Wish me luck!

by Chelsea Lee Gilbert
for, 2015

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