Sculpting Creatures and Critters : Bringing Your Ideas to Life in Clay

Neal Coleman, Professional Sculptor

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28 Lessons (2h 35m)
    • 1. Trailer

    • 2. Welcome!

    • 3. Introduction to Materials

    • 4. Sources of Inspiration

    • 5. Materials and Planning

    • 6. Building Your Armature

    • 7. Advanced Armatures

    • 8. Posing the Armature

    • 9. Using Foil and Apoxie Sculpt

    • 10. Wire Mesh for Wings

    • 11. Blocking Out with Clay

    • 12. Sculpting and Smoothing

    • 13. Sculpting Anatomy - Dragon

    • 14. Sculpting Anatomy - Gryphon

    • 15. Secondary Forms

    • 16. Detailing the Face

    • 17. Sculpting Horns and Fur

    • 18. Detailing the Hands

    • 19. Detailing Dragon Wings

    • 20. Detailing Bird Wings

    • 21. Environments

    • 22. Finishing

    • 23. Primer and Repairs

    • 24. Intro to Painting

    • 25. Secondary Colors and Details

    • 26. Dry Brush and Wash Methods

    • 27. Patterns and Fine Details

    • 28. It's A Wrap!

16 students are watching this class

Project Description

Sculpt an Original Character or Creature Maquette

Materials and Inspiration

  1. Gather Reference


    Once you have decided on an idea for your sculpture, you will need to gather plenty of reference material.  This should range from photographic reference to antomy books to your own sketches and artwork.


    You can do as much sketching as you'd like.  Feel free to experiment with pose ideas, layouts for your sculpture, and different varations on your character.  You don't have to be an amazing sketch artist; these drawings are for your own reference and ideas.

    For the class, you will need at least one image like this one seen above.  This image will be used in creating your armature in the next lesson.  It should be an orthographic side view of the character or animal.  Basically, you want the character just standing there, looking straight ahead, with all details visible.  

    If you aren't comfortable with creating your own design, I recommend working to create a naturalistic animal based completely off photo reference.  Perhaps create a sculpture of your dog or your favorite sea creature.  This is a wonderful way to learn anatomy and proportion.  The more you work with real animals, the easier it will be for you to invent your own fantastic creations!


  1. Plan!


    Start out with the orthographic image of your character or animal that you want to sculpt.  The image should be printed or drawn at the actual size that you want the sculpture to be.


    Lay a piece of tracing paper overtop of your image.  Using a pencil, draw out the layout for your armature.


    Here, you are drawing out a very basic skeleton for your character.  Include the neck, torso, and all the limbs.  Be sure to map out this "skeleton" in the center of each area of the body, leaving equal amounts of space on either side of the lines.


    Your finished armature layout should appear as such.   It's nothing fancy; just a basic layout to help you with proportions when working with the wire.

  2. Build!


    You will need your armature layout as well as a 6-8 foot length of medium gauge aluminum armature wire, folded in half.  We will be using the twisting method to create this armature.  Pinch the wire with both hands, several inches apart, and twist in opposite directions to create tight coiling of the wires.


    Measure out the length of the neck by using your armature layout as reference.  Stop twisting at the shoulders.


    Split the wire off to either side of the neck and create the front legs using the same twisting method used previously.  Use your layout as reference for the length of the legs and make sure to add extra compensation for the ribcage.


    Once both front legs are created, twist the wires back to create the torso, stopping at the hip.


    Create the back legs in the same way as you did the front legs, this time adding extra compensation for the hip area.


    Twist the excess wire back to create the tail, if your character has one.


    If your character has dragon or bat-like wings, these can be created separately using thin gauge wire.  Bundle four or five wires that are cut to the full lenth of both wing arms combined.  Twist them together, stopping at the wing hands on either side so that the fingers remain free.


    Once twisted together, the wings can be attached to the main armature through the use of a little bit of thin gauge wire to hold it in place.  Hot glue may be used for further support.


    Your finished armature should be propotional and able to stand upright, as seen here.  If any of the limbs are too long, carefully trim them down with wire cutters until they match up with the other limbs.

  3. Pose and Reinforce!

    For more extensive information on creating strong poses through the use of line of action and silhouette, check out the "resources" of this section.


    Your armature is probably not looking too exciting at the moment.  While that was ok when you were figuring out proportions and building the intial structure, you will want to create a dynamic pose for your sculpture that is interesting to look at on multiple angles.


    Adding s-curves or zig-zags to the armature motion can really help add a dynamic feel to your pose.  You may want to use some real life reference of animals in motion if you are having a hard time coming up with a solid pose.


    Once your armature is posed how you want it, you will need to attach it to a wood base for stability.  Simply drill a hole for each attachment point.  In this case, only one hole was needed for the the tail.  If you had all four feet touching the ground, you would be drilling four holes in the base.  Make sure the drill bit you are using corresponds with the thickness of the wire.  This will ensure easy removal and attachment of the armature to the base.


    Aluminum foil can be used to bulk up thicker areas of your sculpture such as the torso.  This will help conserve clay and will help to keep your sculpture lightweight.  Be sure to leave enough room around the foil for about 1/4-1/2" of clay.  And no need to use foil on thin areas like wrists lest they become overly bulky.


    When bulking out with foil, be sure to turn your sculpture as you work so it fills out evenly!


    If you have your character balancing on one limb (or a tail, like this sculpture), you will want to reinforce your armature with Apoxie Sculpt.  When mixed together, this clay gives you a few hours of working time and cures rock hard in 24 hours.  It is great for adding stability to sculptures.  Make sure to wear rubber gloves when mixing the two components of Apoxie Sculpt together.  Once combined, you can remove the gloves.


    Apply the Apoxie Sculpt to the areas of the sculpture that will see stress from the weight being balanced on one point.  Here, the tail needs to be reinforced all the way up through the hip.  


    You can use water to keep the stickiness down on Apoxie Sculpt.  It will also help you smooth out the clay.  Just be sure to not smooth too much as you will be applying clay later and you want it to have something to grab on to.  Much like the foil, be sure to leave room around the Apoxie Sculpt to add clay overtop later.

  4. Add Wings! (Optional)

    If your character has dragon (bat-like) wings, membranes can be created with wire mesh.


    Start by slightly spreading out the wing fingers.  Lay a piece of wire mesh over the first wing "segment", between the outer two fingers.  Trace the contour with a Sharpie pen, leaving a little excess on each side.  Carefully cut out the segment with scissors.


    Wrap the segment edges around the two fingers, securing the mesh in place.


    Create the next segment in the same way as you did the first.


    The edge touching the more inner finger can be wrapped around the wire.  However, the edge touching the last segment we made will have to be hot glued into place.  Take care to use as little glue as possible and watch out for heated metal.


    Create the remaining segments of the wing using the same procress.  Be sure the last segment attaches to the body.  Repeat the entire process for the second wing.


    Finally, add a little shape to the wings by carefully folding in the membranes and creating natural creases.

Building Form with Clay

  1. Block Out with Clay!

    It's time to start putting clay to armature!  In this intial sculpting phase known as the "block out" or "rough sculpt", the main goal is to get the armature covered with clay in a way that resembles the anatomy and pose of the character.  


    I always start with the torso since everything on the body grows out from this point.  Use flattened pieces of clay and press them into shape on the armature, smoothing them together as you go along.  Be sure to follow the contours of the body as you are laying in clay and smoothing.


    Try making shapes and then pressing them onto the armature.  Make sure the clay isn't shifting around.  Limbs like this arm should taper from thick to thin.


    Notice that I am not bothering with details yet but instead going for the overall shape and form.  These paws are a great example as there is no toe separation at this point.  Also notice that while the surface of the clay is far from pristine, I am smoothing as I go along to keep out the large bumps and seams.


    Don't forget to sculpt areas like the inside of the legs, where they attach to the underside.


    The head should also be very rough at this point, with no features unless they are an extremely prominent element of your character.  Even then, they should remain as rough shapes only.


    Already the sculpture is taking form, just with some basic shapes laid in.  The more sculptures you do, the faster you will get at blocking.  I normally spend no more than an hour on this phase.

  2. Smoothing and Anatomy!



    Work to smooth out all of the large lumps, bumps, and cracks in your sculpture.  You can primarily use your hands for this.


    Implement the use of tools to help clean up and smooth seams, like this separation between the jaw and the neck.  Sometimes, you may need to add strips of clay to help fill in large gaps.


    Use ribbon tools for subtractive sculpting.  This is where you remove some of the clay from your sculpture.  This is a great way to lay down the foundation for anatomical details.  Be sure to smooth out your rake marks as you go.


    Define the separations between different areas, such as the arm and torso seen here.  I like to use my needle tool for this.  Adding deep areas on your sculpt will add nice contrast.


    Once your sculpture is smooth (or while you are smoothing, depending on your preference), you will want to start adding anatomical details.  One of the easiest ways to build up muscle structure is by creating flat shapes that are in the shape of the muscle, applying them to the sculpture, and smoothing them in.  This is the additive method of sculpting.


    Another great way to create definition is by pressing in "seams" with your rubber tool and then smoothing them out to create the impression of muscles.  Try smoothing out from the seams, in either direction, to create a rounded look.


    You will also want to add in rough fingers and toes at this point.

  3. Add Secondary Features!

    Secondary features are large aspects of the character that aren't part of the main structure or anatomy.  In this case, it will be the large chest scales on the dragon as well as his wing membranes.  This will likely differ for you or you may not even have secondary structures.   

    You will want to sculpt secondary structures in the same manner as you did with the anatomy details.  


    For large scales, I start at the bottom of the stacking order.  Here, this is the base of the neck.  I create flat, vaguely heart-shaped pieces of clay and lay them in place on top of each other.  I make the scales smaller and closer together as I move up the neck.  I am also certain to keep the centers and edges of each scale lined up with the ones next to it.


    Here are the finished large scales.


    To create membranes for the dragon's wings, I use a pasta machine to roll out thin, even sheets of clay.  I can then cut these down as needed with my tools.


    I create each segment of the wing at a time, pressing each into place on the wire mesh.  Try to keep everything smoothed together with no large gaps in the membranes.  Use small pieces of clay to fill in any holes or tears.


    Once you are done covering both sides of the wing, it will appear similar to this.  Notice that the wire has helped form the beginnings of the wing fingers.  We will worry about finishing that detail later on.


    The blocking phase is now complete!  Your sculpture is ready for some detail!!

Detailing and Texturing

  1. Sculpt the Face!

    The face of your character will likely differ from what I have demonstrated.  However, all faces have some basic structures in common.



    Eyes are set deep into the head.  Because of this, you will first want to carve out two, deep eyes sockets.  Make sure they are level with each other.


    Use balls of clay or beads as the eyeballs.  You can then build up the eyelids around the eye.  In the gryphon character, a fleshy patch is seen around the eye.


    Use small strips of clay to build up the eyelids.  You can do the same for the cheekbones and brow.

    Noses and Mouths


    The mouth can normally be drawn on with a metal tool.  Clay can then be applied to the upper jaw (or beak in this case) to give the appearance of mass.

    Nostrils can be created in a similar manner by first drawing them on with a metal tool and then building up a bit of clay around them.


    Adding Horns


    Pre-baked horns can be added to your sculpture with ease.  Bake the horns for 10 minutes, allow to cool, and then press into your unbaked sculpture.  Wrap strips of clay around the connection points and smooth in to create a "cuticle".


    This same method was used to create the crest of spines here.  Teeth can also be made in the same fashion.

    The basic details of the face are now in place!  Let's move on!

  2. Detail the Hands and Feet!

    Be sure to use plenty of reference when detailing the hands or paws of your sculpture.  Hand structure will vary greatly depending on what animal you are basing them off of.  For my dragon's hands, I am using a bird-like or lizard-like structure.

    Remember to add in details like claws, toe pads, tendons, and scales.  It's all the little things that are going to make your piece come to life.


    Adding pre-baked Sculpey claws to your sculpture's hands is quick and easy.   Bake the claws separately for about 10 minutes.  Once they cool, they can be inserted into the unbaked sculpture.


    After claws are inserted, shape the fingers accordingly with your tools.  I like to use an xacto knife and small wire tool to do this.  Add small strips of clay around each claw and smooth in to create a "cuticle".


    Accent scales can be created with small pieces of clay, pressed onto the sculpture.  Be sure to increase/decrease the size of the scales accordingly.

  3. Add Texture!

    Probably the most important thing to remember about texturing is to not over-texture.  You don't need to sculpt every scale, every strand of hair or every tiny wrinkle.  Selective texturing will be your friend here.  

    While I can possibly cover every texture, I will demonstrate selective texturing with fur.  This is one of the more difficult textures to master and many of the ideas demonstrated can be applied to creating other textures.


    When sculpting fur, I start with the longer areas first.  I build up the fur "clumps" with strips of clay and then tool in hair detail.


    I like to use my small wire loop tool to sculpt hair detail.  Remember to vary the length of the hairs, depending on what part of the body you are sculpting.  Here, there are shorter hairs around the feet and much longer hair on the tail.

    As I work, I selectively smooth away some of the detail so it doesn't get too busy.  Some areas get built up further with strips of clay; I then tool detail on top of the strips.


    Selectively adding these thicker areas of fur really helps sell the idea of depth and movement to the fur.

  4. Detail the Wings! (Optional)


    If your character has dragon or bat-like wings, you will first want to add mass and shape to the wing fingers.


    Additionally, you will want to add some wrinkles and folds as well as a little bit of tattering.  Build up wrinkles with strips of clay and smooth them in.  Fine details can be created with a metal tool.


    Bird wings are very complex!  Start with a base shape like this one for your feathers.


    Feathers can be created with flattened pieces of  clay.  Smooth each one into the base wing shape.  Build up the large secondary and primary feathers first, starting at the bottom of the stacking order and taking care to layer them in the right direction.  Proper reference is essential here.


    The covert feather can be created with a solid piece of clay, tooling in the individual feathers with a wire loop.


    Smooth the edges along the feather, but be sure not to lose the edges completely!


    Here is the finished wing.  You can texture further if desired, but a smooth wing can be a nice touch to an already-textured sculpture!

  5. Detail the Base! (Optional)

    The character's environment should tell a little story.  It doesn't need to be overly complicated; even a simple patch of grass or rocky cliff can be more than enough.  You don't want the environment to outshine the character, after all!

    Be sure to do your research and get plenty of reference images for the environment that you want to create.  Start with large details and then move on to smaller details, just as we have been doing with the character.  I will demonstrate on the rock base for my dragon character.


    I am starting on my rough blockout of the rock.  I work with the shapes that were created during the blockout phase, leveling out surfaces of the rocks using my metal loop tool.


    I deepen and add cracks into the rocks using the same metal tool, making sure to keep variety in my linework so it doesn't look man-made.


    I use my rubber tool to add in fine cracks, scratches, and divots, smoothing with my finger as I go along.


    Deep cracks and crevices can be pressed in with the rubber tool, adding depth and contrast.


    Once I am done texturing, I go back and add smaller rocks around the main rock, in order to tie everything together a bit better.

Smoothing and Finishing

  1. Smooth!

    Your sculpture should be as smooth as you can get it, just with the use of your hands and tools.  However, tiny imperfections can be removed with the use of isopropyl rubbing alcohol.


    Apply the rubbing alcohol to your sculpture using a clean paint brush.  I like to keep a paintbrush set aside that I use only with rubbing alcohol.


    Only use alcohol in areas that need cleaning up.  You don't want to use too much alcohol or you risk ruining fine details and/or drying out the clay.


    Some areas can be smoothed using your fingers.  In other areas, tools can be used with the rubbing alcohol to help clean up edges and details.

  2. Bake!

    Official Super Sculpey and Sculpey Firm Baking Instructions

    275 °F (130 °C)
    15 minutes per 1/4 inch (6 mm) thickness

    I tend to bake for 20-25 minutes at the recommended temperature.  I try not to ever go thicker than 1/2 inch of clay in any area.  Thicker areas will be bulked out with foil and/or Apoxie Sculpt.

    Make sure your oven is in proper working order before attempting to bake your sculpture.  Keep the sculpture away from the heating elements during baking.  

    So long as you follow the proper baking instructions, wood bases are perfectly safe to put in the oven.  However, never leave your oven unattended while your sculpture is baking inside.

    Be sure to preheat your oven all the way before placing the sculpture in the oven.  You can put the sculpture directly on the oven rack so long as you use a sheet of foil in between.  You may also use a baking sheet, again lining with foil first.

    After baking is done, turn off the oven and crack the oven door to allow the sculpture to cool in the oven.  After 30 minutes or so, you can remove the sculpture from the oven CAREFULLY and allow it to finish cooling in open air.  This will prevent sudden temperature change that could cause breaks or cracks on your sculpture.

  3. Sand!

    For sanding, I like to use 180 grit sandpaper as well as 220 grit sanding pads.  I will also use fine steel wool to add a final polish to the surface.  A dry paintbrush can be used to help remove dust from the sanding process.


    Use a circular motion while sanding to help avoid scratches and to help keen the surface as even as possible.  Smooth surfaces will need more sanding than textured ones.


    The above photo shows the wing after a quick sanding.  You can se darker areas on the feathers where the sandpaper didn't reach.  Work on getting the surface to be an even coloration.  Run your fingers over the surface as you sand to check for divots and bumps.


    An xacto knife can be used to clean up edges.  You can also fold sandpaper in half and use the crease to help clean up messy edges.


    Stubborn divots or cracks can be filled with small amounts of Apoxie Sculpt.  Once cured, these spots can be sanded down to match up with the rest of the sculpture.

  4. Prime!

    Be sure to follow the instructions listed on your particular can of primer.  

    I use Plastikote Sandable Primer in the Grey coloration.  Primer is essential to even out the surface of your sculpture and get the surface ready for paint.

    Spray primer must be used in a well ventilated area, preferably outdoors.  


    Hold the sculpture in one hand and spray primer with the other.  Remain 8-12 inches from the sculpture and spray in quick bursts, continuously turning the sculpture.  Don't spray too long or to close to any particular area or the primer may get too thick, sticky or runny.

    Apply several thin layers, allowing to dry in between each application.


    I like to use steel wool to clean up any residual graininess left by the primer.  This graininess can get worse in humid environments.


  1. Base Coat!

    To start, a base coat of paint must be applied to the sculpture.  This is an opaque, even layer of paint that covers the entirety of the surface of the sculpture.  It should be the "main" or most common color seen in your character.


    Acrylic paints are the best paints for sculptures.  I recommend Delta Ceramcoat or Cel Vinyl brand paints. 

    When mixing, always mix the darker color into the lighter color.  Here, I have mixed small amounts of orange and yellow into a large amount of white in order to create a cream color for my base coat.


    Water the paint down slightly before applying it to the sculpture with a brush.  Work the paint over the surface of the sculpture, making sure that the paint gets into all cracks and crevices.  Also be sure to not let the paint build up too thickly in any area.


    Keep working the paint over the surface until you create a nice, even layer.  The primer will still be showing through, most likely.  That is fine for this first layer.  Just make sure to keep it clean of brush strokes and debris.


    Continue painting until the entire surface of the sculpture is covered with the base color.  Allow this layer of paint to dry completely before applying additional layers.


    Base coats will normally take 2-3 layers of paint but can take up to 4 or 5 depending on the opacity of the color and the quality of the paint.  It's better to slowly build up the color in thin layers rather than globbing on thick paint all at once.

  2. Secondary Colors!

    Secondary colors are other "main" colors that are featured on the character.  You will want to build these colors up in multiple thin layers, just as you did with the base coat.


    Start with the lighter colors first and work up towards the darker ones.  It's much easier to clean up any mistakes this way.  Here, I am creating a gradient between the bright orange and white feathers.   This was done with a few watery layers.


    The black paint is now carefully applied.  I use a smaller brush to define the edges of the area that I will be painting first.


    Once the edges of the area are defined, I can easily go back in with a larger brush to fill in the rest of the color.


    Here is a portion of the finished paint job, with 3 main base and secondary colors.

  3. Shading!

    When painting any type of shading (or shadows and highlights), it is important to remember that you are not painting actual lighting.  Instead, you are painting areas that are inherently lighter and darker.  

    Why not let the natural lighting on the sculpture do this for you?  Simply because you want the sculpture to resemble the textures you replicating; you don't just want it to look like painted clay.


    Seams and creases can be defined with a fine paintbrush, using a color that is a few shades darker than the one you are painting on.  Here, I am using a dark brown to define the edges between the orange feathers.


    Washes can be used on heavily textured areas, like this rock.  Using a very watered down and dark shade of the base coat, brush the paint over the desired area.  Quickly wipe off the paint with a dry or slightly damp paper towel.  The color will be removed from the higher areas but will remain in the cracks and crevices.


    This will create a shadowed look and will help define your textures.  You can build up washes in layers, letting each one dry before applying the next.


    The dry brush method can be used to create highlights.  For this method, you will need to mix a lighter tint of your base color.  Brush off almost all of the paint onto a clean paper towel.  The brush should be fairly dry as you brush the color of the desired area.


    The raised areas will pick up the dry brush while the recessed areas remain dark.  Applying a few different dry brush layers will help push the depth even further.

  4. Detail and Finish!

    Fine details should be painted with your smallest brushes.  Learn to keep a steady hand while painting linework; sometimes a little breath holding is necessary!


    Eyes are one of the most delicate details.  Here, I have painted the base coat of the eye, rimmed the eye in black, and then painted the pupil.  

    Notice that I am angling the sculpture differently in each step.  Don't be afraid to turn your sculpture as you paint to help you come in on a more convenient angle.


    Gloss varnish is added to the eyes, crest, and beak for a nice textural contrast.


    Patterns like stripes or spots can be drawn on first with a watercolor pencil and then painted over.  The watercolor pencil is nice as mistakes can easily be erased with water.


    For stripes like these, I like to use multiple strokes to build them up so the edges remain natural rather than crisp and clean.


    Spray varnish can be used to seal in your work.  This will help prevent paint chips and will protect your piece against the elements to some degree.

Additional Resources

  • The Making of Shadow Dragon - From Sketch to Sculpt - This walkthrough shows one of my sculptures from concept sketch all the way through a painted and finished piece.  This is the process you will be following in this class.

  • The Making of My Neighbor Totoro - A walkthrough featuring my fan work of Hayao Miyazaki's amazing film.  This is another great example of the process shown in this class.

  • - A wonderful and free collection of human anatomy reference, geared towards sculptors.  The people behind the website also sell books of their reference material.

  • Creature Sculpt Artist - A group I run on deviantArt for sculptors of all skill levels.  Feel free to join and upload your work-in-progress images as well as your finished works.  This is a great place to meet fellow sculptors and share tips and tricks.

  • Bird - Andrew Zuckerman - A beautiful collection of high quality bird photos, wonderful for inspiration and reference.

  • Creature - Andrew Zuckerman - Another amazing collection of photography, featuring a variety of wildlife.

  • Wildlife Stock Photos -  A wonderful collection of photo references featuring a large variety of animals and plant life.

  • Posing, Sihouette, and Line of Action - A great animation-centric collection of articles that discuss creating stronger poses.

  • The Making of Survival - This shows another example of creating a dynamically posed character and using Apoxie Sculpt for reinforcement.

  • The Making of Xerneas and Yveltal -  This walkthrough shows a few examples of complex armatures and touches a bit on reinforcement as well.

  • Sculpey FAQs - All of your Sculpey questions answered, direct from Polyform (the makers of Sculpey products).

  • Aves Studio - This is the website for the makers of Apoxie Sculpt.  You can read more about their clays here as well as order from their online catalog.

  • The Making of Toothless - This walkthrough shows how to use glass taxidermy eyes in your sculpture, rather than using clay or beads.

  • Skin Sculpting Tip - How to create soft wrinkles with the use of plastic wrap.

  • The Making of Eeveelution - A walkthrough showing what a huge difference sanding can make with the surface quality of your sculpture.

  • Plastikote Sandable Primer - Find a vendor near you!  Plastikote can also be purchased at many online shops including

  • Painting a Parasaur - A walkthrough of my painting process, demonstrated on a winged dinosaur character.

  • Painting Tutorial - Another tutorial showing my painting process, this time on a warrior tapir!

  • Cartoon Colour - The makers of Cel Vinyl paints, a top quality professional brand of paints.  Since the making of this class, I have since switched to this fantastic brand.

  • Delta Ceramcoat - The makers of the high quality craft acrylics seen in use in this class.

  • The Stan Winston School - Take your sculpting to the next level with classes and videos by the VFX industry's top sculptors and visual artists.

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