Make a Great Blue Heron Sculpture with Air Dry Clay and Apoxie Sculpt

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Today we have a guest post from Kelly Richard, who shows us how she made this Great Blue Heron.

You can see from the progress photo on the right that Kelly managed to get some great feather detailing, using a unique method she invented.

The heron is made with the air dry clay recipe on this site, and Apoxie sculpt. Now, I’ll let Kelly take it from here. Thanks, Kelly!

Great blue heron sculpture before painting

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

© 2016 Kelly Richard

I am Kelly Richard, a sculptor, who primarily works in paper mache.  Living on the East coast in the low country of South Carolina, I am surrounded with a myriad of birds and creatures.   My fascination with local wildlife has led me to create several varieties of birds in paper mache.

My challenge has been how to create the feathers with paper mache.  They need to be thin and delicate yet strong enough not to break easily.  Equally challenging is how to support a figure like a heron with a heavy body and long, thin legs.

After trying many approaches, I have found techniques that solve these challenges.  In this guest blog, I will share the technique that I have developed to create thin feathers in paper mache and a few tips to ensure your top heavy figure has the strength to stand vertically.

I am creating a Great Blue Heron.  After researching the bird’s structure, I draw sketches of how I would like the final piece to look.  I begin my armature by cutting out the outline of the body in foam core.  The foam core template needs to be proportionally exact, so the finished piece is proportional and produces a convincing interpretation of a heron.

Since the heron has long legs which must support the top heavy body, I use thin steel rods to form legs.  I bend the rods using a vise and rubber mallet to make the legs look realistic.  The rods are then wrapped in copper wire and sealed in shellac to minimize any rust that occurs from seeping through the paper mache.  Once these are dry, I wrap them in masking tape to further avoid rust.  The rods need to extend an inch or two into the body and into the base to keep the bird vertical and anchor it.  This is not the time to be skimpy with the length of the steel rods.

Heron Feet

Figure 1. Steel rods wrapped in copper wire and covered in shellac form the legs.  Note the rod extends below the foot.

Looking at photos, my drawings and a simple grid which I established when I started my Heron design, I determine how far apart to place the legs.  I cut the Styrofoam blocks wide enough so they fit between the top of the legs and the pattern.  I attach each block with a hot glue gun to the inside of my Styrofoam Heron pattern.  I wrap the top of each rod first with aluminum foil and then with masking tape making it easier to attach the rods to the Styrofoam blocks.  Then I attach the steel rods with a hot glue gun making sure the bird stands up straight.

armature for great blue heron sculpture

Figure 2. Styrofoam blocks are attached by hot glue gun to the heron pattern.  The steel rods are also attached to Styrofoam blocks with a glue gun.  This is a photo of a pattern for a bird I finished some time ago using driftwood as a base. 

Once I determined how far apart the legs and feet would be I drilled holes in the driftwood to place the feet firmly on the base and secured the rods in the driftwood with epoxy.

When I have completed building the armature, I pack it with aluminum foil and cover it with masking tape to create the desired body mass.   I find aluminum foil to be the most flexible and sturdy for this part of the process.

Heron with masking tape over the armature

Figure 3. Pictured is the armature covered in masking tape.  The legs are bent slightly to make the heron look realistic.

Once the armature is complete I begin applying my paper mache clay.  I use Jonni’s Air Dry Clay and Apoxie Sculpt because they lend themselves to detailed work.  Apoxie Sculpt is a modeling compound which cures in 24 hours.

Heron sculpture covered with air dry clay

Figure 4. Here is the heron covered with air dry clay.  The heron’s head is covered with Apoxie Sculpt.

As you can see on the figure above, I suggest some preliminary feathering on the body.  One of my favorite tools is a butter knife.  Note that I positioned the legs so one foot is in front of the other.  This gives the figure a sense of motion.  Now I am ready to begin actual feathering of my heron.

For the feathers, I begin with a sheet of card stock large enough to create the feathers plus  ½” to 1” allowance for attaching the feathers to the figure.   I draw several lengths of feathers on the card stock.  I apply strips of overlapping masking tape to cover the front and back of the card stock.  The masking tape seals the stock.  I apply glue (a mixture of half Elmer’s Glue-All and half water) to the masking tape to ensure the clay sticks to the card stock.

making feathers step one

Figure 54. The card stock is marked for the approximate length of the feathers.  A thin layer of air dry clay is placed on the masking tape, covered stock.

making feathers step two

Figure 6. The clay is thinly rolled on the front and back of the card stock.  I call this “clayed” stock.

Using a small roller or a rolling pin, I roll the clay as thin as possible on each side of the card stock.  Be sure to liberally apply corn starch to the roller and your work surface before rolling.  Once completed, store the “clayed” stock in a sealed plastic bag overnight.  The next day the clay will have set slightly but can still be manipulated easily.  As long as the clay covered stock is sealed in a bag it will last a few days.  Using scissors or a utility knife, I cut the “clayed” stock the desired length and width of the feathers.  Make sure the clay remains attached to both sides of feather strips.   It is easy to press the clay back into position on the strips with your fingers.

making feathers step three

Figure 7. Thin strips of “clayed” stock are cut and ready to be applied to the figure.

I apply glue to the sculpture to attach the strips of “clayed” stock to the desired areas on my heron.  Once the strips are attached, I add additional clay and blend the feathers into the coat of the heron.  It is very important to make the feathers look like they are attached to the heron not merely sitting on the surface of the sculpture.

Great blue heron sculpture before painting
feathers added rear view

Figures 8 and 9.  Feathers have been applied to the figure.  The feathers are applied on the front, the head and the back of the heron.

While the feathers are drying, I lightly wrap my sculpture with paper towels or bubble wrap to make sure the feathers stay in position.  The “clayed” covered strips of paper are unstable until dry.

Great blue heron sculpture made with air dry clay

Here is a picture of my finished heron.  By experimenting, I was able to create thin feathering made of thin strips of “clayed” card stock.  The feathers are thin and delicate but will not break easily.  The steel rods supporting the legs ensure the bird remains upright and doesn’t fall over.  Truly necessity is the mother of invention.

32 thoughts on “Make a Great Blue Heron Sculpture with Air Dry Clay and Apoxie Sculpt”

  1. This is a beautiful statue. Is there a treatment that can be put on this material to make it water proof so I could make this heron for my dry streambed garden?

    • Hi Tracy. I didn’t make this heron, but I’ll jump in with my 2 cents worth. Air dry clay can be coated with a waterproof product, but no matter how good the product is, if it cracks in the sun or a bird pecks a tiny hole, your sculpture will be ruined the next time it rains. However, the Apoxie Sculpt that Kelly used is completely waterproof. I would suggest using it for your entire sculpture and not just a portion of it. That way, you’ll know that your beautiful sculpture will last for years. I’ve made a squirrel, a rooster, and the face of a garden gnome with various brands of epoxy clay, all in different ways. One of those videos might give you some ideas for your heron. Have fun!

    • Hi Tracy,
      I have gone through the process of making blue Heron. I like it very much. It is very nice and proportional. Few years ago I have tried this sculpture. I used the cement and steel as a basic materials so as to keep it in open Air. I was somehow successful in this. I had shared the photographs of the heron with Jonni Good. She appreciated that sculpture and gave her precious suggestions. Thanks once again for sharing the making of heron.

  2. Beautiful heron!
    Question – do you mix the Apoxie sculpt with the air dry clay, or do you do a layer of each, or use the two on distinct areas? I’m having trouble with cracking air dry clay when applied over foam.

    • Hi Jen. I don’t know if Kelly is still watching this post for comments, so I’ll try to answer your question. If you look at the photo called Figure 4, the Apoxie Sculpt portion is the grey part, on the head and neck. The white part is made with the air dry clay. She isn’t layering the two materials.

      Your air dry clay might be cracking because it shrinks slightly when it dries, and the foam doesn’t. A lot of people use one thin layer of the original paper mache clay on their armatures first. The higher paper content helps prevent cracks. Then a thin layer of the air dry clay can be added to make the surface smooth and add details.

  3. I have some interesting thoughts and ideas on constructing a project like this. Do you ever do workshops?

  4. Kelly, both you and Jonni Good are an inspiration with your wonderful sculptures using such an everyday medium as paper. Thank you so much for sharing how you have created the feathers.
    I have been dreaming of making a standing kangaroo but have been concerned at how to strengthen the long back legs. You have shown me and I much appreciate your generosity in sharing information. Bless you.

  5. I stumbled upon this when I was looking for a stalk to make for a baby shower. I will use this but modify it slightly ( fingers crossed it works out) Amazing work btw.

    • Tina, may I please correct you? A stalk is what holds a flower up. A stork is the bird that is said to bring babies. I certainly agree with you that the heron is amazingly done. I hope your stork turned out really well too.

  6. Kelly. what a beautiful Heron. looks so realistic. It has given me ideas on how to improve my sculpting. thank you for sharing and found the clayed card stock idea great for an upcoming project I have.

  7. Kelly, What a great blue heron!(sorry for the pun) It is truly a triumph! I have made a blue heron myself and had all sorts of problems with the legs, it didn’t help that it was only my second project! I wound up having a local welding shop bend some rebar for my legs. That did work perfectly and the legs are going nowhere now! I did what you did, made it 2 inches longer to attach to 2 drilled holes in a piece of wood. For my feathers, I used thin wire covered with masking tape, then with regular newspaper strips in order to keep them thin enough. That worked well enough but I like your “clayed stock” better. My heron wound up going to my first local art show where they featured it on their invitational postcard. What an honor it was for me. It did not sell but now happily resides on a shelf in my living room.
    Thanks for sharing, you really have a gift- for sculpture and for teaching.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience in creating your heron. You were extremely ambitious for your second project! No matter how many times we do things, we learn something new each time.

  8. Your blue heron is wonderful, Kelly! I love the pose and sense of movement you’ve captured. Thanks so much for sharing your process. I want to make one!

  9. Kelly, muchas felicidades!!! lograste un hermoso y bien explicado trabajo!! parece tan real!! yo espero crear algo parecido a tu garza, aunque me temo que debo hacer varios intentos para lograr algo tan realista!! bien explicado y muy hermoso!!! un abrazo bien fuerte!!

  10. Absolutely fantastic Kelly. I wish I had seen your, well the heron’s legs before i started my rabbit. Truly wonderful looking bird. My guy will have BIG feet to keep him up.
    Thanks for the ideas, very well explained.
    All the best

  11. Kelly, while walking with my dog, we saw Blue Herons out in a field hunting quimps (a type of gopher that lives here in Utah). Thank you for your great tutorial, and I hope to follow your instructions when I finish my current projects. I love your heron. It is beautiful. I’m in awe!


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