For almost as long as people have been around, they’ve also been sculpting clay. From simple water jugs to world-famous statues, clay has been used to create just about every type of object and decoration imaginable. 

Best of all, you don’t have to be a classically trained sculptor to appreciate clay as an artistic medium. Today, clay is as popular as ever among artists of all skill levels, so whether you want to make stylish jewelry, one-of-a-kind mugs, delicate sculptures or even unique animations, there’s a type of clay ideal for you. 

Top Types of Clay for Artists

Whether naturally produced by the earth or crafted in a lab to perfectly suit the needs of sculptors, clay comes in a variety of types. 

Earthenware Clay

A widely used type of pottery clay, earthenware clay is typically red or orange in hue thanks to the presence of iron oxide, a nontoxic and sometimes naturally occurring pigment. 

Items made from earthenware clay are commonly used to store plants due to their high porosity. Porosity might sound like a bad thing, but it’s actually what gives earthenware creations their ability to allow air and water to pass through their walls. This helps to prevent root rot and maintain soil health, a definite benefit for gardeners and plant lovers. 

So the next time you see a cactus planted in a terracotta pot, you’ll know the pot has been sculpted from earthenware clay. 

Stoneware Clay

Unlike earthenware clay, stoneware clay is non-porous after being fired. In other words, items made from stoneware clay tend to be very hard, smooth and nonabsorbent, making this type of sculpting clay an ideal choice for crafting mugs, bowls, plates and the like. 

A woman sitting at a wooden table and using her hands to shape unfired stoneware clay into the shape of a large mug.
In the Skillshare Class “Make a Clay Mug: Handbuilding Pottery for Beginners,” teacher Mia Moss makes a mug using stoneware clay.

As you may have guessed, stoneware clay gets its name from the stone-like qualities of the finished products it’s used to create. It can come in a variety of neutral colors ranging from gray to brown, but like most clay can be made to have almost any shade using ceramic glaze.

Porcelain Clay

Like stoneware clay, porcelain clay is non-porous after firing and therefore ideal for drinkware and dinnerware of all types. The difference is that porcelain clay is even harder and more durable than stoneware, and also has a beautifully glossy finish when fired.

Also known as kaolin clay, porcelain clay is often prized for its white color and ultra-fine particle size. As such, it tends to be more expensive than both earthenware and stoneware clay, and is generally used to create fine China and other delicate types of pottery. 

Air Dry Clay

While some types of clay need to be fired or baked in order to harden, air dry clay (or air drying clay, depending on who you ask) hardens on its own simply by being left out at room temperature. 

Thanks to its ease of use, air dry clay is a versatile choice for a variety of decorative projects. And since it’s usually white, this type of modeling clay can easily be painted with vibrant colors. 

A woman’s hand holding a small brightly-colored clay bird in place while she paints its feathers with a paintbrush.
In the Skillshare Class “How To Sculpt A Simple Bird for Beginners – Air Dry Clay + Acrylic Paints,” teacher Stephanie Kilgast paints a bird sculpted from air dry clay. 

Because the only requirement of air dry clay is that it be able to harden using air alone, it can be made from a variety of materials and still be considered air dry clay. For instance, some air dry clay is made entirely from natural clay from the earth, some is made from food-grade ingredients like baking soda and some is made from synthetic polymers. 

Polymer Clay

Did you know that polymer clay isn’t technically clay at all? It’s typically made from a synthetic plastic called polyvinyl chloride, or PVC for short. 

The main benefit of polymer clay is that unlike more traditional clays which require the addition of water in order to become malleable, polymer clay is almost always soft and ready to be shaped, no mess required. 

It will stay soft for a very long period of time, but when you’re ready to make your polymer clay creation permanent all you need to do is pop it in a home oven. 

Because it doesn’t require any additional tools or equipment, polymer clay is widely used by artists both new and experienced. From unique polymer clay earrings to stunning stop motion animation, polymer clay can do it all. 

A woman’s hand gesturing toward six pairs of large polymer clay earrings laid out on a pale pink tabletop.
In the Skillshare Class “Easy Clay Earrings: Learn 3 Styles using Oven-Bake Clay,” teacher Kiley Bennett showcases several pairs of earrings made with polymer clay. 

As an added benefit, polymer clay is available to purchase in a rainbow of bright colors, so no glazing or painting is required to achieve bright hues. 

Ready to Seize the Clay? 

Whether you’re an aspiring sculptor or just exploring a fun new medium, clay can provide you with hours of creative entertainment and virtually unlimited artistic expression. So don’t think that clay is all about pottery wheels, larger-than-life statues or any one thing at all. 

From tiny pieces of jewelry to stop motion movies to gargantuan sculptures, clay is as versatile as it is timeless. So don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty—we promise you won’t regret it. 

Learn How to Make Earrings From Clay

Easy Clay Earrings: Learn 3 Styles Using Oven-Baked Clay

Written By

Carrie Buchholz-Powers

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