Reef Fish Made with DIY Air Dry Clay


Photo 8: The fish after painting and varnishing.
Photo 8: The fish after painting and varnishing.

Rex Winn recently showed us his delightful school of reef fish on the Daily Sculptors Page, and today he shows us how he made them. This would be a perfect project for a class or group of friends because all the fish are made the same way but they all look dramatically different. Thanks, Rex, for writing this post for us!

Rex’s Reef Fish Made with Air Dry Clay

©2018 Rex Winn

My baby brother’s birthday is coming up, and beach-combing is one of his favorite activities. A cabinet contains his treasures, and he needs a few fish to liven it up. (So I say.) Here are the six little creatures I’ve made him.

I used two reference sources: (1) the instructions on making a fish from Jonni’s book, “Make Animal Sculptures,” and (2) her video on William the Hippo. I had great fun doing these, and I used a few of her attitudes, processes, and psychology from her latest book, “Fast Faces“: I asked myself throughout making these, “What did I learn?”

Starting with sketches:

Sketches for the fish sculptures.
Photo 1: Sketches for the fish sculptures.

I created patterns from photographs and drew them on tracing paper (photo 1). Then I copied the patterns onto cereal-box type cardboard (in other words, thin). (I have old carbon paper I used, if you’re old enough to know what that is.) I cut out pelvic and pectoral fins using the same method, leaving a “wedge” on the fins that was glued onto the fish later.

Creating the armatures for the reef fish sculptures:

Photo 2: The cardboard and foil armature for the fish.
Photo 2: The pattern transferred to the cardboard.

I crumbled foil and glued it to one side of the fish using a hot glue gun. The purpose of photo 2 is to show the pattern on the cardboard. I wanted to keep the pattern visible while working on the other side (where there was no pattern to follow). This worked out well later when placing the eyes and fins.

NOTE: What I learned here was I wish I had been aware if the fish were going to be standing on a shelf or hanging (or something else). This particular fish is the Damsel, the black-and-white striped fish. If I had one fin about 1/4″ longer, the fish would have stood on its fins. (I have to add that my fish rarely stand straight by design. I like them leaning to the side because I like the attitude.)

Photo 3: The fish armature covered with foil, held on with hot glue.
Photo 3: The fish armature covered with foil, held on with hot glue.

I crumpled aluminum foil and, using a hot glue gun, glued the foil onto the cardboard. I kept Jonni’s words in my head, “Don’t squeeze it tight.” In other words, you can work with the shape if it has give. One wonderful thing about using foil is you can roll the side of the fish on a surface and the foil takes a rounded fish-shape instantly. (Much easier than paper and masking tape, especially on something this small – 4-6″.)

I then covered the remaining fins with a single layer of foil and glued them on. A wonderful surprise was when I pushed the “wedge” into the foil, a hole remained. Not only did I know exactly where to place the hot glue, but the cardboard on the fin disappeared into the body left by the hole, and I did not have to “fix” this with clay later on.

Adding the paper mache clay, then the air dry clay to the fish sculptures:

Photo 4: A thin layer of paper mache clay has been added to the fish.
Photo 4: A thin layer of paper mache clay has been added to the fish.

In photo 4, I added a very thin layer of paper mache clay. I tried to barely cover the fins, letting the foil show through rather than make the covering thicker.

Let it dry.

Photo 5: All six fish, partly done.
Photo 5: All six fish, partly done.

Photo 5 shows the six fish with fins attached. One fish has clay on it. All fish have foil on just one side. I added a small round ball of foil for the eyeball using the placement from the pattern on the opposite side.

Photo 6: Another view of the fish in progress.
Photo 6: Another view of the fish in progress.

Photo 6 is a top view of all fish after foil was added on the second side. I glued the fins and eyes using the pattern on the other side. Every fish had very different placement of eyes and fins.

Added paper mache clay to second side. Let dry.

Photo 7: Adding the air dry clay to the fish.
Photo 7: Adding the air dry clay to the fish.

Next I added a thin layer of Jonni’s smooth air-dry clay making certain all aluminum foil was covered. This photo shows me adding texture to the fins.

Photo 8: The fish after painting and varnishing.
Photo 8: All six fish after painting and varnishing.

Painting and varnishing.

For the yellow fish, I used a warm yellow (Cadmium Yellow Medium) and white paints. On the cool-colored fish, I used a cool yellow (Hansen Yellow.) I think this helped keep the colors in harmony. The Convict fish I added a thin layer of silver before painting the black stripes (using Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna, perhaps Raw Umber).


Relax and learn.

Reef Fish Made with Air Dry ClayReef fish made with DIY Air Dry ClayFinal thoughts …

One thing I did not learn until finished was I did not think about whether the fish would stand or hang. Four of them stand, and two of them need a leaning post. If I had considered the engineering in making the pattern, I think I could have made them all stand. My brother will have to decide for himself what he wants to do with them, but I am going to tell him if he wants them to hang just drill a small hole in the top fin and add a swivel hook so the string will not get tangled. I have to give credit to someone on this site for that, but I can’t remember who used that technique. Thanks to her, I have swivel hooks on hand!

9 thoughts on “Reef Fish Made with DIY Air Dry Clay”

  1. They. Are. Perfection. I LOVE THEM! Look at those faces! They each have their own personalities. The yellow tang is my favorite, I love his slightly worried expression.

  2. Rex, your fishes are gorgeous and your process is so doable. I am glad you got inspiration form Jonni’s book : Fast Faces. It really teaches us to be more into the process and worry to much about looks. Yours look fantastic.

  3. Nice tutorial Rex, now I see how you got them done so fast….you had an assembly line of fishies! While one was drying, you could start on the next. Very nice gift for your baby brother!

  4. Very nice. I’m wondering how you get your clay so smooth. Mine is always a bit rougher than that. Also, what varnish are you using? I’ve generally sealed my items with Modge Podge but I like the way yours look.

  5. Dear Rex,
    A true fishy adventure and a real treat for me to look at whilst following your process!
    My favorite is the first one shown on the last photo (the sluggish one) but they all look lovely, thanks for sharing!

  6. The fish look great and your teaching methods are excellent. Very clear and easy to follow. Thank you for taking the time to share this with us!!

  7. Absolutely Won absolutely wonderful!
    Love you hem all. Especially the yellow one & the black & white on.
    Thank you & Jonni for sharing this project

  8. They are wonderful Rex! Love everything about them. The colours are beautiful and your sculpturing is great. Thank you for sharing your technique. It will make my fish making easier.

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