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odelling in clay is a very agreeable change in one's artistic occupation, for it is quite unlike other branches of art, and calls into play a different set of faculties for its performance. It needs a greater amount of "hand cunning" than does painting, and is in that sense akin to wood carving, to which delightful craft it is, indeed, almost indispensable, and, I might add, part of the necessary training one has to undergo to become a carver in wood. And as on another occasion I am going to write a few hints on wood carving, the present article may be taken as a prelude to the one on that subject.

The materials necessary to try one's hand at modelling are very inexpensive. The clay is the most essential thing, and this can be purchased at one or two artists' colourmen, or, better still, at any pottery. I have had clay sent me from the potteries in Staffordshire, and those of my readers who live near a pottery would have no difficulty in supplying themselves with clay. The clay used for flower-pots does for coarse work, but is not sufficiently carefully prepared for fine work. It burns a rich red colour, and is, of course, terra-cotta. The clay used in making the terra-cotta plaques and vases is what you require for fine work. There are two or three firms who supply London shops with terra-cotta vases, etc., and I have no doubt that clay might be purchased of them.

The clay used in making tiles does for modelling, but perhaps the best is that which burns a cream colour. It is a dull grey colour, rather dark before it is fired, and it should be noticed that it is difficult to tell the colour clay will burn by its appearance when unbaked. Thus a grey clay may burn a rich red or pale cream. The qualities necessary in clay for modelling are plasticity, which enables it to be worked without falling to pieces, and fineness—a perfect freedom from grit, small stones, and other impurities. It should be quite soft to the touch, and when pressed and kneaded should feel smooth and silky. Old clay is more plastic as well as being tougher than new, and in potteries clay is often kept a considerable time before it is used. The clay should not be allowed to dry when it is not in use, and to prevent this it must be wrapped in wet flannel. Should it dry quite hard, there is nothing to do but to put it into a vessel and pour water on it, allowing it to stand until the clay becomes soft. Some of the moisture must then be allowed to evaporate, otherwise it is too soft for use. This is another point to be observed in clay used for modelling. It must not be too damp. If it sticks to the fingers it is too wet, and if it resists the pressure of the fingers, too dry. The state between stickiness and stubbornness is what is wanted.

Now as to the tools. Wooden modelling tools can be purchased at some artists' colourmen, and also at some tool shops. You must choose those tools you think look handiest. A little practice will soon show you which are the best to have.

Each modeller has a predilection for certain tools, and it will take my readers very little time to find out which tools give the best results. I often shape those I buy myself to fit them for particular work. In addition to these wooden tools, it is necessary to have a fine steel one to work the clay when it is dry. Modelling tools are very inexpensive. You really require no other tools but these wooden ones and a steel one, but it is necessary to have a few boards to work your clay upon. They should be strong, with battens at the back to prevent them[Pg 52] warping, which they are liable to do owing to the dampness of the clay.

We will start our work with a very simple design, for our aim should be to overcome the difficulties by degrees. The design I have chosen (fig. 1) was modelled as a tile about eight inches square, and the first thing to be done is to roll out a piece of clay about half an inch thick, and fairly flat all over. It is as well to work the clay up in one's hands, damping it occasionally if too dry. If clay be allowed to remain untouched for any length of time it gets set, and does not work easily; therefore, thoroughly work it up with the hands. It may be made into a ball, and can be rolled out flat with a thick ruler or rolling pin. The clay has a tendency to curl up round the rolling pin, and care must be taken to prevent this. If the rolling pin be covered with leather, this is to a great extent prevented. The design can be made on tracing paper, and by marking over the tracing paper placed over the clay with a hard point, an impression sufficiently distinct will be left to guide one in doing the actual modelling. The first thing is to build up the oranges, which can be done by sticking little pellets of clay on to the slab, pressing them down with the fingers, and rounding the oranges roughly into shape.


Our First Experiment.

Don't be too particular about this part of the work; be content to get some approximation to the shape, leaving the finishing to be done with the tools. Build up the stem in like manner, or you might roll out a thin piece of clay and stick this on to the slab. In sticking clay on to clay, it is always advisable to wet both the clay and the slab to ensure thorough adhesion, and in working the design into shape it is even a good plan to dip the fingers into water, as the extra moisture makes it easier to press the clay into the requisite shape.

The leaves can be modelled separately, and stuck on to the clay slab one by one. Do as much of the work as you can with the fingers. In modelling, the fingers are the best tools, after all. They do their work so much more expeditiously and effectively than the so-called "tools" do, and, depend upon it, the more the preliminary work is done with the fingers the better, as the use of the fingers tends towards boldness of design and vigour of execution. People, in starting a new employment, are very apt to be finiking owing to timidity, and this must be overcome from the outset—this tendency to pettiness—and in the case of modelling, the best way to overcome it is to do all the preliminary work with the fingers. Build up the design boldly and freely, studying only the principal masses and most important forms. When this is accomplished, let the clay stand a little time uncovered, as the use of water will have made it very sticky, and the modelling tools cannot be used as efficiently when the clay is in this state as when it is drier.

The modelling tools will enable you to begin to finish up the design, for at present the design exists only in its rough state. Pick the clay out of the interstices of the design, and begin to refine the different forms by putting in the more delicate curves. It very much depends upon the nature of the design as to how far in the direction of finish you carry the work, but as your modelled tile will not be exposed to rough usage, you may under-cut it, as modellers say. Under-cutting is the taking of the clay away from the back of the various forms. In the leaves, for instance, instead of leaving a solid mass of clay at the back, this should be carefully cut away underneath, or under-cut, so as to give lightness and delicacy to the work. Of course, it is necessary to leave some clay here and there to attach the various forms to the slab. The under-cutting may be carried to such a pitch as to make the design look weak, and as though it would fall to pieces with a puff of wind. When this is the case, I reckon the finishing has been carried too far. Clay should always look strong enough to hold together, and I may say I never thought much of that fancy china one sees which is covered with flowers and foliage modelled as delicately as though wrought in some precious metal. Sooner or later the edges get chipped off, and the charm of such work is immediately gone. Of course we know that an accident may destroy work that is not wrought in this delicate manner, but modelled clay should be delicate without being weak—it should at least look as though it could hold its own with fair usage.

Get as much of the work done as possible while the clay is plastic, and with a little practice a modelled design can be finished entirely while the clay is damp. In fact, the work is better when wrought from the plastic clay than when finished up with steel tools after the clay is dry. There is a certain crispness about the modelling when wrought from plastic clay, which is often wanting in work tooled up when the clay is hard. To my thinking, the best work is always that which looks as though it had been thrown off in a happy moment, and which has a certain number of the tool marks showing, as though the worker were not ashamed to let his craftsmanship be seen. Work which has been touch and retouched, and rubbed down and smoothed until all life, vigour, and crispness have departed from it, looks what it is, amateurish (in the worse sense) and weak.

I have had many opportunities of seeing amateurs work during the years I have been teaching, and I have noticed that they have a mistaken notion of what finish really is. It certainly does not consist in smoothing the work until it has the texture of a wax doll, and I have often noticed that work is often wholly spoilt in the so-called finishing.

In the subject I am dealing with—modelling in clay—this is particularly the case, and, reader, I pray you avoid it. I would sooner you leave the work rough, with all the marks of the tools showing, so that you get vigour and crispness in your work, than that you should in your endeavour to efface the marks of the tools make your work tame and effeminate.


In working up the leaves, don't attempt to put many veins in them. Hardly do more than indicate the centre vein. Nothing looks worse than to see the various forms covered with a network of minute markings. You will find, if you try and put in the veins in your modelled tile, your leaves will not look as though[Pg 53] they were veined, but as though some stiff-legged insect had crawled over the damp clay, and had left its trail behind it. In putting in the stamens in flowers, you will have to have recourse to an expedient, for it is evident that you cannot copy every individual stamen in clay any more than you can make your clay petals as thin and delicate as nature. You must translate the effect of nature into clay, and in the case of the stamens you will find it a good plan to build up the centre of the flower, and then press into it a pointed stick, repeating the operation until the whole of the centre is perforated, as it were, like a grater.

In order to make a contrast between the design and the background, you can dot or line over the slab upon which the design is lying, so as to make the surface rough in texture. When the clay is quite dry, which will take some week or more to effect, you can put any further work into the design with the steel tool, which must be used to scrape the clay; for if you exert any pressure upon the dry clay it very soon chips, and it is almost impossible to repair such damage, and for this reason: that if you stick on a piece of wet clay to the dry clay, the moisture of the wet clay is soon absorbed by the dry, and the piece stuck on immediately falls off. The only chance is to keep damping the part damaged until the clay all round gets quite moist again, and you must then model another piece on to the broken part. Dry your work very slowly at first, to prevent it cracking or warping, and when it seems quite hard put it into a warmer place, for, though clay may appear hard on the surface, there is sure to be a good deal of moisture inside, especially if the clay be thick, and should it be put into a kiln before the moisture is entirely evaporated, the modelled clay will fly into minute fragments, and cause incalculable damage to other work in the kiln. I recommend my readers to put their work into a hot oven two or three times after it has been drying for two or three weeks, so as to insure the clay being quite hard. I lost several works through firing them before they were dry enough.[2]

The heat that china is put to fix the colours is not sufficient for baking clay, and it must be sent to some place where underglaze pottery is fired. This first firing turns[Pg 54] the clay into "biscuit," and if any painting is to be done on it, now is the time to do it. Underglaze or Barbotine colours should be used, and they should be put on in thin washes. The whole work must then be glazed and fired. But I shall not touch further on this part of the subject here, for I must say something about modelled decoration applied to vases and plaques.

The plaque or vase to receive modelled decoration must be of the same degree of dampness, or nearly the same degree of dampness, as the clay used in modelling, for reasons already stated. You cannot put modelled decoration on to clay that is dry, or ware that has been fired. To make a plaque, it is almost necessary to have a plaster mould. You might make this for yourself by buying a china plaque the shape and size you require, and filling this plaque with plaster-of-Paris, being careful to let the plaster come to edge of plaque all round. When the plaster is dry, trim the edge round, and take it out of plaque. You must now roll out a flat sheet of clay sufficiently large to cover this plaster mould, and, by pressing the clay evenly all over the mould, and trimming round the edges with a knife, you will get a clay plaque sufficiently good to answer your purpose. Don't attempt to remove the clay immediately from the plaster, but let it remain on a few hours, to enable the clay to set. The surface of this plaque may be kept moist by keeping a damp flannel over it. When the modelling has been started, the damp cloth must not press upon the modelled portions, but be supported on a wicker frame.

It is always better to model direct from nature—and for this reason. By taking a leaf and pressing it into a piece of clay, and marking it round with a darning-needle, you get the exact shape of the leaf, and by pulling off the leaf you can bend the clay impression into any form you like, and put it upon your clay plaque or vase, pressing it into the curve you wish it to take. A little very wet clay should be put on back of leaf, to ensure it sticking to plaque. I have taken as my illustration (fig. 2) the garden poppy, and if I were modelling it direct from nature, I should first of all roll out a strip of clay for the stem, and put this on the plaque so that it makes a graceful curve. Strip off the leaves one by one, and take impressions in clay, and then fasten them to plaque, following the natural growth, and yet arranging them so that the leaves fall into their places agreeably. The back leaves, instead of being modelled, might be just marked in outline on the plaque itself. This will give depth to the design. The leaves should not be put on the plaque flatly, but should be bent and twisted as is necessary to suggest the growth of nature. The flower will present the greatest difficulty, as the serrated edges of the petals must be carefully done.


In the case of flowers like chrysanthemums, it is necessary to build up the most prominent flower solidly in clay, putting on the outer petals separately. The back flower can have the near petals modelled, while the distant ones can be just indicated on plaque with incised lines. Don't attempt to copy every petal in clay, which is an impossibility, but try and get the general effect of the flower in your modelling. Take the prominent petals first, and put them on in their proper positions, and the less important petals can then be filled in in the intervening spaces. This is the plan to adopt in all intricate work. Put down your principal forms first of all, and you will have little difficulty in getting in the less important ones, for the principal forms act as measuring points to the rest of the work, and enable you to preserve that pro[Pg 55]portion between the various parts of the design which is essential in all good designs. It is necessary in modelling to simplify nature somewhat, for we cannot imitate nature in clay. What we have to do is to seize upon the principal points, the curves of the stems, the position, form, and characteristics of the flowers and leaves, and put them down intelligently and in as telling a manner as possible. Let the work dry carefully before having it fired, and you can either finish it up in colours, and have it glazed, or let it remain as it is. I often used to use my Barbotine colours (see articles on "Barbotine Painting," in Nos. 440 and 584, vol. iv., of the G.O.P.) for colouring modelled work and glazed it with my soft glaze. I have also sent some work to the potteries, and had a coloured glaze put over the whole work. I may here say that much may be learnt by studying good modelled work, and even copying some stone or wood carving in clay. The pottery of Della Robbia and Palissy should be studied whenever the student has the opportunity of so doing.

I need not say much as to modelled work or vases. You must have some shapes sent up from the potteries in the "green" state, for it is almost impossible for amateurs to "throw" their own vases on a wheel. Space forbids me to describe the potter's wheel, but visitors to the Health Exhibition two years ago had the opportunity of seeing a potter at work, which is much better than reading about one. Those adventurous spirits who wish to try "throwing" vases, should get a small wheel from the potteries (it will cost, including carriage, about £8), and have a few lessons from a practical potter. In the meantime, get some firm to procure for you a few unbaked vases, and when you receive them it will be necessary to wrap them up in damp flannel for a day or two, so that the modelled work will stick on the vase. Let the shape of the vases be very plain and simple, with a good broad surface to receive the modelled decoration. I have chosen as the illustration (fig. 3) the blackberry, as it is a very ornamental plant and one familiar to all readers. Throw on your stalk first of all, letting it wrap round the vase, and so place it that the leaves, flowers, and fruit can spring from it so as to be seen to the best advantage. The stalks might be placed in such a way as to form handles. Get a certain quaintness into the modelling, and don't be too intent upon imitating nature, for, do what you will, you will find it impossible to accomplish this. Therefore, be content to decorate your vase with a graceful spray of bramble, with all essential characteristics of the plant indicated, and the general "swing" of the plant expressed in your work. Model each part separately, either by pressing the leaves into clay and marking them round, or by modelling pure and simple, and then fasten the various parts on to the vase with diluted clay. Don't let any part of the work stand out too prominently; for not only will the shape of the vase be destroyed, but there is always much more liability to damage if the design be very prominent than when it just lies, as it were, closely to the surface of the vase. And yet it is not necessary to put everything perfectly flat on the vase. The stems, for instance, can be raised in places, so that there is a space between the stem and vase; and so with leaves, flowers, and other details.

It will be seen that I make the stems form an ornamental rim round the vase and also round the neck. Dry the vase very slowly, and in sending it to be fired, wrap plenty of cotton wool around it so that no pressure can be exerted upon any portion of the modelling. This applies with equal force to all modelled work. Red terra-cotta vases decorated with modelling, and merely baked, are most effective. Terra-cotta vases should not be too small; the larger they are the more effective is appearance in a room. I have some more than two feet high, and when filled with dried rushes, etc., they fill up a corner charmingly.

As a general rule let your modelled work be drawn to a natural size, and let it be rather over than under the natural size, for if modelled work is smaller than nature, the effect is apt to be petty and insignificant. Birds and insects can often be introduced with advantage.

I have recently been modelling some large works, using clay employed in making drain tiles, and having them fired in an ordinary brick kiln. In fact, I started some of my work with large size drain tiles, which I obtained when they were quite wet, and by pulling up the top and spreading it out a little, and putting a slab of clay on the bottom, I obtained cylindrical vases, upon which I modelled some decoration; but as the subject is one of peculiar interest, and is somewhat new to my readers, I must just reserve a few remarks upon this subject for another occasion, when I will give sketches of some of the vases I have recently been modelling. This work is within the reach of everyone, especially my country readers, for there are few villages of any size that have not a brick kiln in their vicinity, and for large work, such as ornamental flower-pots, vases for holding bulrushes, and garden vases, this is most admirably adapted.


[2] As will be seen, the tile design, fig. 1, is what is termed a "bas relief," i.e., the forms in many cases are only just relieved from the ground, and only here and there are any of the forms in entire relief.

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