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Different Types of Clay Used in Art

Choose the right kind of clay for your art project. Benefits and disadvantages of various kinds of clay explained.

When we speak about clay in the art world we are generally referring to a whole range of malleable product that we use to create three dimensional projects. Each product has it’s own unique properties and they are each used in different applications.

Water Based Clay

Water based clay is a natural product dug from the ground and mixed with water. Common water based clay comes in a variety of colors and consistency. You may find that sculpture supply houses have their own unique mixture with a range of additives. You will likely find a favorite if you order samples or small quantities from different shops. Common colors are red gray brown and less often cream. You will also find that some clay is more gritty than others. 

Benefits of water based clay are that it is a product that can easily be manipulated. It is soft and pliable if kept moist and this can be a real benefit for working quickly when doing quick figurative work. Water based clay is what ceramicists use when making pottery and sculptors use it for terra cotta work. It must be fired for a finished product.

The disadvantages to using water based clay is that it dries out quickly so if you are working on a project over many days you will have to keep it moist. To overcome this problem mist your work gently with a spray bottle and cover it with plastic wrap or a plastic bag. The opposite problem occurs when the clay is too wet and you may have sagging and shifting in your work from day to day. Working intricate details into water based project can be challenging. Allowing the clay to dry a bit before working details is recommended.

Oil Based Clay

Oil based clay comes in many formulas and consistencies from very firm to soft. This type of clay is made from natural clay infused with oil and wax. Some artists, in order to save money, make their own oil based clay. Again, you will find that you can order small quantities from various sculpture supply stores and try them out.

Benefits of oil based clay are that it remains malleable and it can be reused many times. This provides an indefinite period of time that an artist can continue working on a project. You never have to cover it or moisten it. It has a soft feel in your hand and unlike water based clay it will not pull the moisture from your hands. Oil based clay can be softened in a warm oven or microwave. Just be sure it is not too hot to handle. It is also a great selection for making plaster molds as it releases from the mold easily and with little mess.

Disadvantages of oil based clay include the inability to fire it or create a permanent sculpture. If doing a lot of detail work be sure to choose a very firm variety. The firmness should be shown on the product packaging and if it is not then you should ask or try out a sample.

Polymer Clay

While polymer clay is not actually clay it is still referred to by that name. Clay has become a generic term in the arts and crafts industry for any malleable product. Polymer clay is a synthetic material that comes in almost any color you can imagine.

Benefits of polymer clay are that it can be hardened in your oven at home at a low temperature and stays malleable until you bake it so you can reuse it. Polymer clay is a favorite of claymation animators. The color selection makes it an ideal choice for home craft projects such as jewelry, small projects and other ornamental applications.

One disadvantage is the expense. It frequently goes on sale at local craft stores and is a good time to stock up on all those wonderful colors.

Kid’s Clay Products

There are several companies that put out products specially for use by children. These are usually sold in the toy aisle of craft and hobby stores. The benefits of these products are that they are tested to be safe for children and usually have properties that make them easy to clean up. Furthermore, they are generally inexpensive. Be sure to read the labels for any hazard or safety warnings.

Additional information on art supplies:

Art Supplies: Different Types of Paint Used in Art

Art Supplies: Paper Used in Art for Drawing and Painting

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Comments (5)

Very informative, thank you.

ocen james

your a good writer, but i have failed to get the a clear difinitions of those types of clay.

Water based, Oil based, Polymer are the three basic clay types. Water based = Water + organic clay from the ground; Oil based = Oil + organic clay from the ground; Polymer = some sort of synthetic elastic polymer that is maleable. Clay can refer to the type of soil you dig out of the ground, or more loosely, any maleable product. There are many varieties within those general categories. I hope that helps. If you have a more specific question I would be happy to try to answer it but I cannot help you with a vague comment. This is a general overview of the art material "clay" and why you might choose one type over another. Kids clay is Play-dough type products or homemade flour, water and salt mixtures.

Excellent articles about clay. Thanks for sharing.

Great info on clay art work. Thank you Judith. 

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