Primitive Sculpture, How To

By Charity Crane

It is simple and interesting to work with local adobe clay. The clay is often seen along road beds in gray and green colored clays. If you have it in your yard, as I do, it's a bonus. Clay is sticky and doesn't break up easily.

Dig your clay, put it in a bucket, and cover with water.

After a few days, work the clay with your hands. Take out large sticks and stones, if there are any. Don't worry about a little grass, roots, or other small pieces of organic material. Add water to a consistency you feel you can work with. Adobe clay is very sticky! Add several cups of fire clay (available in sacks at building supply stores). Work the clay again. If it is too wet, put a glob on a porous surface such as an unglazed tile for a short time. Work it again. It dries out fast.

Make a simple form by wadding and wrapping newspaper with masking tape to form a basic shape you want to follow. You can also use regular clay armatures and wood slats or skewers. Pat your clay on the newspaper, trying to keep a somewhat even layer at least a half-inch thick. Don't try solid forms, as they will explode on firing. Poke holes in thick areas of the clay from the underside so the holes won't show.

When your sculpture is done, wrap it in a damp cloth. Then let it dry out in the shade or inside. Don't re-wet the cloth unless you are still working the clay. When completely dry--which may take 10 days or more if the air is humid--wrap in news or other paper. Leave the paper form inside the sculpture with venting air space or an open bottom to the piece.

Build a normal fire base in your wood stove, add the sculpture, and add light wood on top of it. Take not to put heavy wood directly on your piece. A fireplace also can be used, but it is more difficult to achieve sufficient heat to fully fire the clay. Or a pit can be dug and a fire built in it as in a wood stove. Keep your fire going several hours. Be careful not to under fire or the clay will dissolve when you put it in water. Let the sculpture cool naturally overnight.

In the morning carefully retrieve your piece from the ashes. It may still be hot, so handle with care. Plunge the sculpture into a water bath for a few minutes. If your sculpture breaks into several pieces when it is cool, glue it back together.

The adobe cracks and dries differently every firing. Colors range from med-umber to light sienna. It is exciting to look into the ashes and see what you retrieve!

Charity Crane may be emailed at

Examples of her artwork are available on this website.