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Clay Sculpture - Earth Clay and Christmas Crib Figurines

Updated on February 14, 2015

The Sleeper for the Christmas Crib

a stand alone but easier to do in bas-relief
a stand alone but easier to do in bas-relief

Clay Sculpture and Figurines

Clay Sculpture is my current hobby together with Pencil Drawing of course. Since I am now retired after many years in the Civil Service I have ample time on my hands to indulge and mess with clay. I said messing because clay sculpting could be a little messy especially with the kind of natural earth clay that I use. However all that is needed is a square sheet of plastic of about 2ft x 2ft to protect the work surface, that is being used, like for example the kitchen table and a rag ready at hand to wipe and clean as necessary.

The plastic sheet is wiped clean after use, folded and stored in a box or plastic bucket together with the clay and tools until the next session. A plastic bucket is always the best option since it prevents the clay from drying.

Below I have some examples of my work. I started quite a few years ago. I was sick once and had to stay-at-home for a month or so and I asked my brother to bring me some clay. The first ever clay figure I made was of a fishmonger walking along, the left hand to his mouth shouting his wares and holding a large fish basket against his hip with his right arm. This figurine was about 12 inches and I really was surprised at myself, having never done anything else in clay before. I liked it and so did my brother but alas, since the clay was not well prepared (just gathered raw) the sculpture cracked all over as it began to dry and broke into little pieces. Then I quit for years, I don't know why. It could have been that this disappointment made me lose heart or owing to my other hobbies, like pencil drawing or playing the guitar, etc.

I took up clay sculpture again about 2 years ago and do not intend to let it go this time. One learns with experience and through one's own mistakes. The more one works, the better one becomes. Where there is a real will to succeed and we forge ahead and persist no matter what we'll see positive results in the end. One never stops to learn and this applies to all themes and situations. Perhaps I love the smell of freshly prepared clay, an earthy smell resembling that of newly ploughed land. Above all I like using my hands and doing things. I say this as an encouragement to those who would like to take up this wonderful, creative and absorbing hobby.

One of my favourite bas-reliefs (see below) depicts the Godess Calypso, hungry for Love as she was, living alone in a 'luxury' cave with her hand-maidens on the small Isle of Gozo. In fact Gozo is known as the Island of Calypso. Calypso is shown here warmly welcoming Ulysses to her island home after his galley was wrecked by a savage storm. His ship is seen aground In the upper left hand corner.

I later moulded and cast this in plaster which I will colour with acrylic paints. Plaster of Paris is so much stronger than clay and can last forever. Some people even like making a plaster cast of their friends' or partner's face in profile or their torso.


I would now like to try a clay bust of my grand-daughter, for instance. She is almost 4 now and very sweet. I know that this is not easy because to bring out a likeness is easier said than done. Precision is the secret. One has to pay particular attention to the eyes and the mouth and everything else for that matter because the hairline, the cheek bones and the chin are also very important as is the position of the head on the neck and shoulders.

Great patience, perseverance and attention are needed. First I will take a couple of close-up photos of her, one profile and another from the front. I would also need good close-ups of the eyes, the mouth and the nose. Working from photos is the best option since I can work in peace and at my own pace. Imagine having a child like Krista to sit quietly and pose for hours on end. I have done some busts before (at random, from memory) but have never tried to bring out a likeness or any kind of resemblance. The good thing about working with clay is that if things do not turn out as expected you could just mash up everything and start over. Obviously it is easy to correct mistakes by adding and slicing and shaving away as required. You do not need special tools to start clay modelling. In fact the hands and fingers are our best tools. Some people only use a kitchen knife and a teaspoon.

The Tools for Clay Sculpting

Initially I bought a set of plastic tools from the hardware store for a few cents but later learnt that a dentist's tools are ideal for clay sculpture, especially if you need to work on small figures like crib figurines (see below). It was not easy to find these in my locality so I decided to fashion some myself. I used a brass rod which is used for brazing. This rod is about 1meter long and about as thick as a match-stick or slightly more. I bought it from a tool shop. I cut it up into 4 pieces of about 8 inches, heated one end and hammered it into the shape I wanted. This is quite easy, because brass becomes very soft when redhot. One has to wear gloves and glasses and take the usual precautions when doing this sort of work. Also, it requires a strong work surface and a flat iron bar on which to hammer out the pieces.

I fashioned a straight tip like a well sharpened pencil; a curved pointed tip like the letter J; another curved tool but with the tail flattened and sharpened like a knife and a fourth tool right-angled like an L to reach into corners and awkward places in the sculpture.

Earth CLay

I gather the clay myself. It is fun really and part of the hobby - a chance to get out of your studio or workshop and head for the open spaces. To think that you are working and creating things with a medium that is free and so abundant acts as a re-enforcement. I used to think that the earth clay of Gozo was not good for modelling but I learnt that if it is well prepared it is very good. So once in while or as soon as I notice that my stock of clay is dwindling I grab a strong plastic bag and a small spade, secure them on the carrier of my bike and head for the foothills on the outskirts of Victioria.

The clay is best gathered when it is dry, so the best time is in July and August when the rain is still far away and the clay is cracked and dry. First I clear a small area and dig down about 6 inches of so to eliminate the stones and to arrive at the 'clean' clay layer. I take as much as I require and then duly cover up the hole. At home I start by pounding the clay into a fine powder and then by passing it through a sieve I eliminate the stone particles as much as possible. The stone fragments need to be removed because they make cracks in your sculpture which are not easy to repair.

The next step is obviously to add water a little at a time and knead the mixture with your hands until the clay becomes like putty, soft but not sticky. Knead and pound it well to remove air bubbles and ensure that no dry clots remain in the mixture. Next divivide the clay into lumps and wrap each one in a plastic bag or sheet. In this way you only open one lump at a time. This ensures that your clay does not dry out and retains the consistency that is required for easy handling.

In the same way at the end of a session cover your work with a damp cloth and wrap everything in plastic. This ensures that your work-in-progress remains damp and fit for further development.

Clay Figurines

nude woman, colored bronze
nude woman, colored bronze
Samson looking up into the face of Delilah
Samson looking up into the face of Delilah
Holy woman praying to God, the creator
Holy woman praying to God, the creator

Christmas Cribs and Crib Figurines

Christmas Crib Figurines and Pasturi are fun to make. I have made one set so far of small stand alone statues or figurines measuring roughly 5 inches in height, sometimes a little more or a little less. They are made to represent the characters that are usually found in a Christmas Crib (Presepju). The set contains 17 persons and 12 sheep. The sheep are standing and some are lying down and they are only 3 cms. The main characters include Baby Jesus lying in the manger, the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, the 3 Magi, an Angel of Goodwill, a shepherd tending his flock, another shepherd asleep, yet another broadcasting the good news, a person walking with a lantern, yet another carrying firewood on his back, a woman walking with a package on her head and of course the Cow and the Donkey.

In fashioning the crib figurines (pasturi) one can be as creative as one likes. For example I have made the sleeping shepherd (above photo) almost naked to show the muscles although Christmas comes in December. The figurines are made in terracotta clay which becomes brown when dry. Instead of painting them I dyed their faces, hands and feet with a mixture of blue clay and water to make them greyish, thus giving them an antique look - brown all over with paler faces, hands and feet. At the same time this saved me the trouble of painting them in various colours. As can be imagine these figurines require much patience and hard work, because you are working on a very small subject, faces of less than 1 centimeter square and the same regarding the hands and the feet.

I like the 'Sleeper' best. I spent quite a few hours making it. You may leave a comment if you wish or 'Like' the page if you find it at all interesting.

Main characters in the Crib.  Baby Jesus, Holy Mary and St. Joseph.
Main characters in the Crib. Baby Jesus, Holy Mary and St. Joseph.
Some Sheep. Small, only 3 cms
Some Sheep. Small, only 3 cms
The Sleeper.  The Crib always has a sleeper..........
The Sleeper. The Crib always has a sleeper..........
Man and wife
Man and wife

Painting the Christmas Statuettes

I have finally found the time and patience to colour the clay figurines. I first coated them with 'gesso' which is white of course. The gesso dries very fast so I started using an assortment of acrylic colours the same day. I finished them all in about 5 days, a week or so before Christmas (2014).

I like them very much more now and I will post the photos here very soon. The colour makes all the difference, I think that you will agree :) I have about a dozen sheep which I have left white, but they are more cute now.

Coloured with Acrylic paints

Jesus, Mary and Joseph
Jesus, Mary and Joseph
The 3 Wise Men or the Magi
The 3 Wise Men or the Magi
Various Characters, shepherds who are on their way to adore Jesus or to present their gifts.
Various Characters, shepherds who are on their way to adore Jesus or to present their gifts.
Man and wife, the cow and the donkey and the sheep
Man and wife, the cow and the donkey and the sheep
An angel and the sleeper
An angel and the sleeper

I notice that on the photos they are a little out of proportion, a few millimeters short. Maybe I held the camera too close to them. The last photo of the angel and the sleeper seems ok though.

Next Christmas I'll give them a coat of thin varnish before I place them in the crib. They will look better still. Moreover I think that by the time that next Christmas arrives I would have made another set of Christmas Crib figurines, maybe a couple of centimeters taller.


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    • NewHorizons profile imageAUTHOR

      Joseph Attard 

      11 years ago from Gozo, Malta, EU.

      As you can see the crib figurines are not very refined. I could have spent more time on them but I remember that the ones I used to buy for a few pence when I was very young were very crude. So I kind of copied the style of the old 'masters'.


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