What is an armature and do you need one? This article is for those of you interested in free-standing sculpture that you plan on painting later, such as paper-mache (something I really want to get into, but mostly I’ve worked with clay!) 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!
Simply put, an armature is the framework for a piece of three-dimensional artwork. It can include sculpture, paper-mache, and other artforms. They are usually made of something like wire or wood, or a combination of both. Their function is to give projects a more stable “infrastructure” – especially for sculptures that are voluminous, bulky, or have fragile features such as the limbs of people or animals.
If it helps, think of an armature as the “skeleton” that supports your sculpture, just like your skeleton supports your body.
Armatures are Used to Support Fragile Objects
Let’s say, hypothetically, you love animals, and you want to focus your repertoire on sculpting a cadre of critters. Or you want to depict 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 the presence of joints like elbows and knees. Same thing with animals, too.
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. Giraffes have long necks and elephants have trunks – again, extraneous parts that need to be handled more delicately.
That means we have to be mindful of their fragility, and work accordingly. Another thing to consider, too…is the poses you choose for your characters.
For example, when I see one of my cats in the “loaf” pose (those of you who’ve never owned a cat might wonder where this is going…stay with me for a minute) Her limbs and tail are tucked under. And this inspires me to want to sculpt a replica of her. Because her limbs are hidden, the resulting sculpture may be less delicate, and I may 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 this 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!
The sitting figure (the one I call “going fishing”), probably did not need an armature, as I created a “base” for him out of clay, to sit on that is supportive.
Reducing the Bulk of an Object
Another reason to use or build a sculpting armature, is to reduce some of the excess bulk of an object. If said object is hollow on the inside; as long as the amount of clay you use has the right amount of thickness to it (about 1/4″ is the rule of thumb) the resulting object will be viable and sturdy, but it will weigh a lot less.
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 represented the head)
It made parts of the bust more hollow (but it is still pretty heavy, though!) You can see that project on my Gallery page if you’re curious.
Here are examples of ready-made armatures – the one on the left is made for a lifesize bust, and pretty much the kind I would have used in class. The middle product is ready-made wire to DIY your own (keep reading…) All are on Blick Art Materials:
Professional Armature for Sculpting Lifesize BustFlexible soft wire metal rods for crafting armaturesWire Figurine Armature with Support
Can You Make Your Own Armatures?
You certainly 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. Here is a diagram I created, to show a good wire armature for a human figure, and then what it looks like when you start working the clay and building up a figurine that is proportionally correct.
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 used to teach figure drawing in places of academia that you could bend into different poses ? Same approach!
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Do You Need an Armature When Working with Polymer Clay?
Absolutely. The same rules apply regardless of clay type. Your approach may differ, however. Lots of random objects can be used as a supportive form. For example, a glass bowl can be used to create a decorative dish. Depending on the material makeup of the object, it can go straight into the oven along with the raw clay project.
Things like glass, ceramic, metal and wood have all been proven to be heat safe so if you’re using any of these to bake around your object to set its final shape, you should be fine.
One example of a good use is to create a “core” from aluminum foil, that is easy to do and will help maintain the structure. The addition of wire can help, and be combined with foil, for smaller or more delicate parts. Pictured above is an example of one I made in the shape of an airplane.
Not only did it make the resulting clay airplane more lightweight, it made it a heck of a lot easier to shape too. Here is another example of a straightforward and simple figure armature I made:
Because I had a form to follow, and this is important whether your objects are simple or complex. The only thing I had to watch for, is to make sure I was distributing the right amount of clay – if it’s too thin, the foil or wire may show through.
Good luck and hope this article helps enlighten you all about armatures and how they can benefit your sculpting endeavors. And if you have any experiences you’d like to share on working with them, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!