What is an armature and do you need one? An armature is the framework for your sculptures in progress. They are usually made of something like wire or wood. Their function is to give projects a more stable “infrastructure” – especially for sculptures that are voluminous, bulky, or have extraneous features such as the limbs or human figures or animals.
If it helps, think of an armature as the “skeleton” that supports your sculpture just like your skeleton supports your body! However there are always times when they are helpful, but not necessary.
In this article we’ll take a look at what armatures do, how they work, and examples of their use, as well as the kinds of sculptural objects that need them for added support. Then we’ll look at different types, some you can buy and some you can DIY. So without further ado, let’s dive in!
Framework For Detailed Subjects
Let’s say, hypothetically, you love animals, and you want to focus your main subject to be that of animals. Or you’re into human figures in various poses. Human arms and legs extend out from the rest of the body and are more delicate that the rest of the body; clay-wise, and let’s not forget that the presence of elbows and knees mean added joints- that means we have to be mindful of their fragility, and work accordingly.
With animals, same thing. Legs, front paws, maybe tails….Think of a horse and notice the unique shape of the legs while running when compared to the rest of the body. In clay form, the legs are going to be more fragile than the rest of the horse’s body. Or perhaps a giraffe…that long neck, too, needs extra support.
Animals and people in sculpture, absolutely, 100% need the assistance of an armature so that limbs will be well supported and not potentially break off. Another thing to consider, too…is the poses you choose for your work. Now me, I love cats, and if I wanted to sculpt a cute kitty cat in a sitting or crouching pose (those of you who’ve never owned a cat might wonder where this is going…stay with me for a minute, as this applies to lots of other animals. ) A sitting or sleeping cat, puppy, critter will be “still” and its limbs tucked under. Therefore they won’t have limbs extended that are delicate, and for poses like that, I probably would not need an armature…Am I making sense?
To get an idea of how a figure’s position can affect how sturdy it will be, check out my bookends post….Notice I have a sitting and a standing figure. The standing one I didn’t prepare ahead, other than to give him a base to rest on; look closely in the left image as you can see the stick in the back I glued on to prop him up.
I might could’ve avoided that at the time if I had constructed a wire armature from the start. Oh well, that’s why you need to get some practice.
Th e sitting figure (going fishing), I constructed a little mini “pier” out of clay for him to sit on. now that is another way to handle the subject of a seated figurine, which as you can see, was easier. I don’t think an armature would have been necessary for this one, as he just needed some space for his legs to dangle, and a supportive object like the one I made fit the bill.
Decreasing the Weight of an Object
Another reason to use, or build, an armature, is to take some of the excess weight out of an object.
When I was a kid I enjoyed making paperweights which of course have to have some weight to them. But let’s say you want to make something that looks very professional on the outside but without the excess weight to it.
Use of an armature to make an object hollow on the inside and as long as the amount of clay you use has the right amount of thickness to it (about a fourth of an inch is the rule of thumb) the resulting object will be viable and sturdy but without the bulk.
Take for instance the first project in class I had to do for a grade consisting of a lifesize bust. We had an armature that consisted of a wooden base with another wooden piece in the middle and a bulbous aluminum or stainless steel protrusion at the top (which is where we built up the clay for the head of the bust. It made parts of the bust more hollow (but it is still pretty heavy, though!)You can see that project on my Portfolio page if you’re curious.
Can You Make Your Own Armatures?
Absolutely, you can, depending on the project, you could also customize it to “flex” a little to accommodate different types of projects so you don’t have to recreate a new one each time. Also, some armatures are not standalone like the one I described above, they are meant to be baked or dried naturally into the clay. Wire such as that made of aluminum, if you can choose a larger gauge it will be fairly supportive as you shape your object.
Since wire will flex it is the best material to use. If you can draw a stick figure, you can construct one out of wire that will serve as the basis for all your figurines, and you can bend or pose it in any position you want. This diagram I drew here illustrates how it should look:
That’s pretty much the ballpark. Notice the gaps of wire in between each shape, this will allow you to bend your figurine at the joints, and it will do what you need it to. You can do the same thing for animals too. Remember those little wooden mannequins that you could bend into different poses used to teach figure drawing in places of academia? Same approach!
Good luck and hope this article helps enlighten you all about armatures and how they can benefit your sculpting endeavors.