Make a Pearlscale Goldfish with Smooth Air Dry Clay

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paper mache goldfish tutorial

Make a Pearlscale Goldfish with Smooth Air Dry Clay

We have a real treat today. Sarah West agreed to show us how she made the beautiful goldfish. The detail is amazing. Just take a look at the veining on that tail!

In this article she even lets us know when things didn’t go quite as planned – hey, it happens to us all!

Now, read on to see how Sarah made this amazing pearlscale goldfish with air dry clay.

Making a Goldfish with DIY Air Dry Clay

© 2018 Sarah West

Thank you very much for the invitation to do this post! I hope you all can learn something from my flailing through this project and are inspired to make your own majestic water pigs.

First thing’s first, gotta find some reference photos!

I Googled pearlscale goldfish and tried to find as many different positions as I could, to get an idea of their anatomy.

Building the goldfish armature:

After I had a nice collection stashed away, I sketched and cut out a side profile of the fish from cardboard.

For the tail I cut four pieces of galvanized steel wire, and taped them to either side of the cardboard.

It’s hard to tell by the picture, but the wire goes all the way up to the nose for maximum support. I then started plumping up the armature with phone book pages and masking tape.

Be careful with the tail wires, as you’re moving the armature around in your hands, they will take pot shots at your face and anything near the edge of your desk.

Building the Armature for the Goldfish
Building the Armature for the Goldfish

I then spread the wires as far away from each other as I could and connected them using the thickest width masking tape I had. (I don’t know if it was necessary to wrap the wires in masking tape but I figured that a little extra protection against rust couldn’t hurt.)

I didn’t plan on making the tail so big; I was trying to get lots of nice ripples in it by starting out with a large, flat surface and bending the wires towards each other, resulting in creases, but as I was looking at it, I liked it more and more.

The smaller fins needed to be tough, since they were going to be stabilizing the sculpture.

I cut them out of cereal box material and super glued them to small pieces of wire hanger.

I then plunged an awl into the sides of the armature, coated the hanger pieces in wood glue, and inserted them into the body.

Building the goldfish armature ...
Adding the fins that will hold the fish upright …

When dry, I tested to see if she would sit up and remain that way after being poked from different directions. Seems good. I then added the dorsal fin, using Jonni’s technique of cutting little flaps into a cardboard shape and taping them down, and sketched out the design of the tail.

I cut it out and then drew a silly face on the armature because why not?

The completed armature, with silly face ... :)
The completed armature, with silly face … :)

Adding the paper mache clay:

All right, the moment of truth! Clay time! I mixed up a batch of Jonni’s Silky-Smooth Air dry clay and began coating the tail. My batch was pretty wet, so there was no need to use a glue mixture to adhere it. This stuff is amazing. It went on like butter and held my marks very well.

Into the oven she went (200 degrees for about an hour.) You don’t have to do this, but I was dancing in place to get this step done.

A minor problem…

Upon taking her out, we had a problem. The weight of the clay added to an imbalance that was negligible when the armature was naked. She now lunged drunkenly to one side. Fantastic.

I flipped her onto her face to get a look at the the back fins and realized I had put one of them in slightly higher than the other. Not a problem, easy fix.

I thought I could take a shortcut and bend the wire so that the fin touched the ground at a different angle. This worked. I then coated over the rest of the body and returned her to the inferno.

Adding scales:

Pearlscales have very distinctive raised scales and they look particularly appealing from above. After the armature had cooled down, I sketched some guidelines down the back to help me place her scales.

I then decided to be lazy once again. Instead of making balls of foil, gluing them to her, and coating them with clay, I just rolled bits of clay up and plunked them down on the lines.

I absolutely should have done the foil method before clay even came into the picture but I wasn’t sure how I wanted them to look and I am extremely impatient.

Adding the scales to the Pearlscale goldfish, but we have a problem ...
Adding the scales to the Pearlscale goldfish, but we have a problem …

After about three hours in the oven, she was removed and the balls were poked. Hm. They still had some give to them. Not much, you couldn’t see your finger indenting it, but you could feel it.

I figured I’d let it sit overnight. The next day was a slight improvement but still wet. I set the oven again and decided to leave her in all day.

Another little problem…

A few hours in and the top of tail began to burn. The smell. Dear Lord, the smell. I’m glad I don’t have a pet bird because the fumes would have likely killed it.

I dropped the rack in the oven as low as it would go and threw a sheet of tin foil over the tail. I figured that if it can protect a brisket, it should be able to shield a sculpture. This worked beautifully and the house eventually aired out.

The fish exited the oven just as my husband came home. They. Were. Still. Wet.

It’s about this time that I started to freak out. I had a life-sized image of going to bed and waking up to my sculpture looking like a chia pet or Cousin It. He asked me why I couldn’t just drill holes down the center and bake them again. God bless this man, I don’t know what I’d do without him. I did just this and the next time I took her out the oven, they were dry.

Resculpting the face:

It was at this point that I decided that I hated her face. There was something wrong with it. Whenever I tried to position the eyes, a creepy baby doll looked back at me.

Consulting the references, I realized that it just wasn’t pointed enough.

I began hot gluing foil to the front, since the masking tape wasn’t adhering to the hardened clay very well, and build up a little pointed face.

It was during the process of pushing and molding the foil that I cracked the tail in a big way. I ignored it, finished the face, and clayed over the crack and the head.

Glass cabochons were then pressed into the still-wet clay so they would create an indent and keep the real eyes from looking like they’re hovering on top of the skin. The oven might as well have a bed and a television in it because at this point, she practically lives there.

Space made for eyes in the new face.
Space made for eyes in the new face.

Another little problem … :)

Upon removing her for the jillionth time, it appeared that the hot glue had been remelted and was oozing out of the neck slightly. Nothing more clay can’t fix! I smeared over the glue dots and the holes left in her pearls.

I set her down and… she tipped over. The extra weight of the face had thrown her out of balance again.

The more I make these things, the less fussy I am about tearing them apart. Using a box cutter, I carved a hole into the side of her belly, pulled out as much paper as I could, and inserted several river rocks that I had picked up from the dollar store a few years ago.

These were packed in with some of the remaining paper, taped over, and clayed.

During this process I broke the tail again. (It should be noted that throughout this whole thing experience, I was cracking and dinging the areas where the tendrils extend from the fin.)

Patch it. Move on.

The rocks made her very stable. I’m not surprised. I wouldn’t be very inclined to move if I had a belly full of rocks either.

More oven and then a three day break from her. We both needed it.

I picked her up and pressed my hands all over her body. Good balance, smooth… and then suddenly it had give in two places. How even?

I needed a moment to collect myself. All things can be fixed if you get to them in time. I cut open one of the soft areas and shoved her into the oven. She was in there for a very long time. Upon removal, the spots were hard, with zero give. I closed the wound I made with joint compound because I was out of clay and didn’t see a point to making another batch for this small patch job. Any hot glue droplets were cut away with a craft knife.

A few days of observation were in order. The soft spots didn’t return.

Almost there! Now, back to the tail.

She didn’t really need sanding, but I did it anyway. If you’re going to sand, make sure you go outside and position yourself where your neighbors can see you through the slats in the fence. If you’re lucky they’ll ask you what you’re doing and you can get them addicted to paper mache too!

I then made the lips and nostrils from some Sculpey I had laying around and baked it as the instructions tell.

After I removed her I gently touched the mouth… and it fell off. Lesson learned, if you’re adding Sculpey to the silky clay, put a glue mixture down first.

Adding DIY gesso before painting:

I made some of Jonni’s gesso with slightly more glue than compound. Fish don’t tend to have a lot of texture, but the tail needs it.

I used a cheap chip brush with rough bristles and began painting the gesso on in long continuous strokes. This is relaxing.

You’ll be doing this until the gesso becomes tacky and decides to hold the brush strokes. Don’t forget the dorsal and smaller fins too! They also want some texture love.

The rest of the body was gessoed with a smooth bristled brush.

Make a Pearlscale Goldfish with Smooth Air Dry Clay
Detail, showing the goldfish’s tail.

Painting the goldfish:

I coated the sculpture with two layers of white paint and started adding the colors in layers. The white area shows off this the best, I think. It’s not just white, there are pinks and yellows, and bits of creamy orange.

If you decide that you can’t stand the color that you’ve put down, remember this: Acrylics cover a world of sin. (My art teacher used to say this.) You can always go over it with white and start over.

Doing this too many times may affect delicate textures like the fin-lines, though.

After the painting and varnishing, I glued the eyes in and added the little crystals. They were originally supposed to be for the pearls only, but she wanted more than that.

I know it sounds weird, but sometimes the sculpture has its own idea on what it wants, so she got a forehead gem, a little beauty mark, and… well, you’ll see the last one.

Air Dry Clay goldfish, painted, with crystals.
Air Dry Clay goldfish, painted, with crystals.

I’m showing off her behind not because goldfish have cute bottoms (they do!) but because you can still see pretty clearly where I broke the tail and how I altered one of the fin’s positions.

Most people just think it’s just a maker’s mark kind of deal. Now you all know the truth. ;)

That’s all there is, really. Thank you all for your time, and thank you Jonni, for starting me on my sculpting journey. It has improved my life in every possible way. If you all have any other questions, please do let me know! I’ll try to answer them as best as I can.

Have a great day and God bless!

Finished goldfish, from the front.
Finished goldfish, from the front.
Space made for eyes in the new face.
Goldfish sculpture, complete.
Completed Pearlscale goldfish, from the side.
Completed Pearlscale goldfish sculpture, from the side.

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25 thoughts on “Make a Pearlscale Goldfish with Smooth Air Dry Clay”

  1. First, I love your goldfish. That said, I really appreciate you detailing the problems you encountered while sculpting her and the solutions for each problem. Most of all, I love that you did not give up and noted that anything can be fixed. Thank you for sharing your creation, the process to create it and your humor.

  2. Gosh, you certainly persevered with this little fish. I think I would have given up!! What a little beauty you have created and thank you so much for the tutorial (some of which made me laugh) Hats off to you!

  3. Hi Jonni and Sarah,
    I thoroughly enjoyed this post and think the goldfish and the writing-humor is just wonderful! Thank you for sharing!!

  4. Hall , my name is Anna Collabolletta . I live and borne in Rome (Italy) . I have buy book of make animal sculpture and i made this , two blu birds. I am very happy to i know jonny good.

  5. Hey all! I just wanted to say thank you for all the kind words! I’m so glad you guys enjoy her (It blows my mind, to be honest!) and the story attached. There will be more in the future, I think… Anyway! Have a wonderful day and stay creative. :D


    • Sarah, we don’t want your job to be too easy because we would miss out on the instruction, creativity, and the humor. Thanks!

    • 342am and I’m surprised the hubby didnt wake up from my laughter! I had a s okmilar experience with Louis and feel your anguish, even if it wasn’t spelled out!
      Loved your story and she is such a beautiful fish!!! What’s her name???

  6. Who would have thought reading a blog post on paper mache could be so enjoyable? Your power of deductive reasoning and resulting solutions was fabulous. There is nothing like a paper mache artist to find solutions! I think it will keep us all young. The sculpture itself is incredible, more even since we know the growing pains. Where will this little beauty reside?

    • Aw, thank you! Currently she lives on the fireplace hearthstone in the living room, but I’m thinking eventually I’ll have to find her a proper shelf. ;)

  7. Your perseverance is a crown earn…I love your life experiences and challenges…but mostly your hard work….absolutely love your fish…great job…

  8. Nice job Sara! I loved that you included what went wrong and how you fixed it. Your goldfish is beautiful. I have had many learning experiences myself and it’s all good. Some I should write down so I don’t repeat! Thanks for your post.

  9. Sarah, you win the award for the best post ever. As a reader, I’m always hoping for a little instruction and some entertainment. You did both in a big way. Thank you beyond words. If I were to begin making comments, I’d be typing all day. What a history of a beautiful piece of art.

    If you’re going to do surgery (which I always do), you might consider buying yourself a Dovetail Pull Saw. They are great for sawing through paper mache, although I have to buy one every two years. A little safer than box cutters, of which I have four!

    I love everything about your fish. The coloring is great. I laughed until my dog began to wonder what was wrong with me, and gasped in horror. What a great writer. Suspense, everything. I am not giving advice, but now I always do ears next to last and tails last because I break them. I love your rise to the challenges and your solutions were spot on. Okay, I’ll stop here, although I may be talking to myself the rest of the morning.

    • Rex, I’m trying to talk Sarah into writing a book, or at least a blog. I would love to read anything she writes, no matter what subject she chooses. (Her sculpting skills are very good, too. :) ) Of course, I tried to talk someone else I know (ahem) into writing a book, and still no luck, but maybe if we ganged up on her?

      • I’m definitely into gang warfare! One of the hundreds of comments I wanted to make was that she works “clean.” I didn’t know quite know how to define that, but I knew it when I saw it.

        There were many aspects of her post (as if she’s not going to read this) that I have been through, but her approach to resolving the issues were genius. What I wanted to say is that what she wrote here would be an excellent chapter in any of your books, especially in how to create animals, but writing her own book sounds like an excellent alternative. Everything about the post was a hook that did not give up. It was not only what she said, but her approach to it. (I still don’t see the crack on the fin.)

        So, what’s our next step . . . (Sarah, do you hear whisperings?)

        • Haha! You all are too funny. :) Thank you for the advice! You best believe I’ll take it to heart. Looks like a trip to the hardware store is in order!

        • Many wonderful books are compilations of essays written by different authors, individual perspectives and all with a common theme. I can see that happening here. A good editor would probably enjoy the joy the job!

  10. Absolutely beautiful! I loved the story that went along with her creation– I could relate! I love working with Jonni’s clay as well! Look forward to seeing your next project.

  11. Gosh, you certainly persevered with this little fish. I think I would have given up!! What a little beauty you have created and thank you so much for the tutorial (some of which made me laugh) Hats off to you!


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