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Figure Sculptures

Updated on July 2, 2015

Intro to Figure Sculpting

Think of these sculptures as the acceptable face of the garden gnome, kitsch to the point of good taste, we want them gaudy and tastelessly ostentatious.

They are three dimensional cartoons performing one-liner jokes. Basically it is art that is understandable – and affordable – to the man/woman in the street. A backlash against the stuff that passes for art in fancy galleries that costs thousands.

I have made some of these sculptures life size but that starts to get a bit expensive and they can take over the house. These we are about to make are no more than 21cm (12 inches) in height and the materials are cheap and easily obtained. Pick a subject where the person in the sculpture is doing something unusual; remember we are not after Michelangelo type accuracy here, the more like a caricature the better.

I hope the tutorial makes sense, the illustrations are in chronological order but the items are different unfinished pieces.

Supplies and Tools

As you go along you will accrue and adapt tools but these are the basics.

Photographs of your subject

Wood for base, approx 14 cm square x 2 cm deep

Paints, acrylics, enamels or decorating left-overs

Paint primer

Gloss varnish

Wire mesh: approx 5mm gauge

White washable glue

2 cm (1 inch) panel nail

Scrap jewellery. Bits of old toys (look in the bottom of a kid’s toy box!)

Various wire oddments, i.e. cables, fuse, picture hanging, clothes hangers etc

Strips of cloth (lots, cotton is best for soaking up the glue)

Good paintbrushes

Quick drying modelling clay (air dry)


Wood drill


Utility knife

Wood chisel

And bags creativity, not pictured (if I could create this I would be very rich)

Bending the Coat Hanger

Make an approximation of the figure shape and cut wire to separate the legs. Make sure the leg sections are longer than the finished sculpture; the excess will be bent under the base for stability later.

If the figure is doing something complicated, like the juggler - pictured in intro - now would be the time to string the objects together and secure to the arm wire.

They do tend to get in the way as we progress through the different stages, but it is more secure than trying to glue them on later. There is nothing more soul destroying than making something and then a few weeks’ later bits start falling off!

Constructing the Armature

(A fancy word arty types use for a framework that supports a sculpture while it is being modelled). Twist the wire around the coat hanger, build this up until you have something approximating the human shape, or inhuman, depending on your subject matter.


Twist the wire mesh around the armature to add bulk, secure with thin wire. Then begin wrapping the rags previously coated in white washable glue. Put plenty of cloth on, keep it tight and smooth it out as you go along.

Because you will be using lots of cloth I usually get a bowl of glue and soak the strips until you need them. You can dilute the glue slightly to make it go further but not too much otherwise it takes ages to dry.

Hang to drip-dry somewhere warm for 24 hours or as long as it takes. Then give the sculpture a few coats of paint primer. This will stop the subsequent paints soaking into the cloth. Later (step 10) there is a neat technique were we rub away the paint to reveal that colour underneath.

Head and Hands

Any modelling clay that dries without the use of heat will be fine. I use milliput, the putty-like substance plumbers and builders use, mix it half and half with kids modelling clay, this makes it go further and it still dries rock hard.

I prefer to sculpt the head around something, it saves on clay. Those plastic ping pong balls or wet tissue squeezed to a hard ball are good; they also have a hole in them for attaching to the body later (But remember folks, don’t drink and sculpt at the same time, you know it makes sense!). Wet tissue or paper squeezed to a hard ball will do, have a look round, see what you have handy.

Don’t worry too much about detail first time round, just have fun. Pens/pencils, small screwdrivers or matchsticks make good modelling tools. Make them as you go along then save for your next sculpting project.

Make the head and hands big and chunky, with just three or four fingers sticking out from the palm, we are talking bunches of bananas here, (like in cartoons) so try not to get too fiddly with them. Push hands and head in place while still soft and position as desired.

Dressing the Figure

Use bigger pieces of cloth for the clothing, but not like a tailor, just bigger strips. Don’t worry if the cloth sticks out in places or is not smooth, when the glue dries just cut the offending bits off with a sharp craft knife or rub with sandpaper (white washable glue soaked cloth dries like cardboard).

Use small pieces of modelling clay to smooth out the gaps where you have trimmed away the excess, unless you want to make a feature of the ragged clothing, like zombies, tramps, Egyptian mummies and sculptors who give away their ideas to instructables, that sort of thing.

For detail like lapels collars, ties etc use the modelling clay and smooth into place while still soft. The Mad Hatter shown here has a hat made from an old 35 mm film canister.

As you can see, the boots are in place before he is attached to the base; to my cost I have found out this is a mistake. By the time you have pushed the wire through the base, bent it and knocked in the panel nails, the feet have usually broken off. I recommend you make shoes in two halves and push them together while still soft after fitting the base.

Fixing to Base

Pictured is the underside of base, first drill holes where coat hanger leg wire will come through. Then chisel the groves, the wire will bend into these so the base does not wobble. Hammer and bend over panel pins around the wire to flatten and secure.

When the sculpture is finished you can glue felt over this to hide the wires and protect furniture from scratches.

Small Details, the Fun Bit

This is where your old bits of jewellery / odds and ends are used. Small chains and bracelets make excellent.. er.. chains and bracelets! Look closely at any small plastic objects; you may see something different in them.

If you have the facilities have a go at turning some chunky furniture like Alice in Wonderland on the left with the white rabbit. This Saxon princess’s table and chair legs on the right were salvaged from some cheap lace making bobbins. Her foot is on a treasure chest, just visible. That is a small ring box filled with small beads and tiny trinkets. The base was covered in lollypop sticks for a floorboard effect then stained with acrylic paints.

The rest of this instructable has photos of finished sculptures, I point out some of examples of the smaller details used on them. Have fun!

What figure will you make first?

See results

Chuck Berry - Buddy Holly

Chuck Berry’s guitar, on the left, is a cardboard cut-out with fuse wire for strings. Buddy Holly’s microphone is a tubular earring, a plastic pearl pushed into the top and the rest are bits of wire with a bottle top base. Paint the relevant bits black, and et voilà, we have a 50s stage microphone. By the way, these were commissioned sculptures, I’m not that old!


These are great for this project, all those capes and flowing robes. After you have painted the wizard, just before the paint is completely dry, (enamel paints are best for this) buff the figure lightly with a soft cloth. This gives a worn appearance to the clothing. The hats on these two show off this technique quite well.

The gnarled walking stick on the right is a pipe cleaner with fuse wire wrapped round. Painted brown it passes for a neat wooden branch.

Varnish, Varnish and Varnish Again

From the very beginning try to keep in mind the stance the figures are going to take and exaggerate it. Same with the face, and slap on plenty of gloss varnish, it cannot be too shiny! Remember, we are talking kitsch, kitsch, kitsch!!

If you have trouble getting the features of a famous person to look right, just call it an impersonator - like the Elvis sculpture – it works every time!

An Elvis impersonator and Van Gogh on the same bill, what a show! Vincent’s ear has now left the building…


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