Clayton Keyes Workshop at Santa Fe Clay

Clayton Keyes Workshop at Santa Fe Clay

By Jacquita Beddo

My final June workshop at Santa Fe Clay was Rendering the Human Form with Clayton Keyes. The workshop description promised to endow participants with a simple effective approach for rendering the human form in clay. This is a pretty big promise for a 5-day workshop, but I have to admit that Clayton came through. I have taken quite a few figurative workshops in the past, but only one covered the full figure. Many promise to teach the head, quite a few endeavor to leave you with the tools to create a bust, but this was a first for me to see the whole figure constructed with slabs and fully demonstrated. Many people that teach the figure leave features that are truly very complex, like hands and feet, for one quick demonstration on the final day. Even the arms and legs are most often just glanced over, so this was a real treat to actually construct the whole figure in a workshop. The down side of course was that we had to construct a whole figure in a 5-day workshop.

Clayton is young artist who has spent his career doing the figure. While in graduate school he assisted Cristina Cordova for 8 weeks in Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. In the spring and fall, Penland has seven workshops that run for 8 weeks. These long sessions are called “Concentrations.” Clayton was chosen to be one of Cristina Cordova’s assistants for an 8-week concentration. This experience changed the way he builds the figure and for the most part that is what he shared. The other thing I should mention is that he and Cristina Cordova use paperclay, Laguna Maxs to be exact, which I was very excited about since it is my favorite pugged paperclay. Even though I love this paperclay I had never used it to build a hollow figure and found that there were definitely things I need to change in my handling of the material.

Before we came we were instructed to go to to get an account and choose a pose. We then printed out each of 25 views in 8 x 10. This is a great resource if you sculpt the figure since there are views all the way around the pose. Each pose on costs $5.99 or less. This is a great way to have reference material for the workshop.

Building a hollow figure and thinking about all components as simple shapes is perhaps the first step. There are several different approaches, but some are universal. For instance, arms and legs are two tapered cylinders put together at the elbows and knees. Different artists have different approaches that allow you to adopt different techniques, for me too most of this is a matter of being ready to accept what will work for me in my studio. One of my practices when going to workshop is to try to give the presenter a chance to change my preferred building technique. This means no matter how uncomfortable I am with the process, I make the decision to try it their way. It is only by leaving myself open to a new way of doing things that I can decide if this technique will be something I should adopt in my studio practice. This approach is complicated by the fact that I have to be willing to be a beginner again.

The first day started with Clayton demoing the first stage in constructing the full figure with slabs. He started with a slab that was rolled into a cylinder that would be the torso. The cylinder allowed us to both push in clay from the surface and push out from the inside of the cylinder. This in and out approach made for a lot of possibilities for modeling. Generally, at this stage we were using only a few tools and paddles.

Next, we made a head for the sculpture. It was started with a tapered cylinder too. The taper allowed a larger opening at the back of the head, so you could access the inside to once again use an in and out approach to the modeling. The other advantage was you could hold the head in your hands and not worry about the final position of the head on the sculpture that sometime complicates keeping features in proportion and symmetrical. We then covered the head and set it aside.

After this, we added the collar to the torso. This was a nearly round slab that was to be the shoulders and needed a hole cut where you would put the head in later. This hole also allowed you to access the inside to ensure there was a good connection made between the torso and this new area. The next slab added was what Clayton called the diaper. It was shaped very much like a diaper and folded first to create the crease in the behind then went on the bottom of the torso where it was blended and modeled to create the butt and crotch.

Normally, the arms would be added next. I had a pose of seated girl with her arms around her legs, so I needed the legs in place first. Arms and legs are tapered cylinders or somewhat cone shaped cylinders if you prefer. The difficult part for me was assuring a good joining of the slab all along the seam even though I couldn’t get my hand in there. Clayton had a long-handled tool that was essentially was a dowel on one end that he used for this.  At home I have a collection of wooden dowels that I would have loved to have had to make sure I was making that connection secure. I bring a lot of tools with me for workshops but always need something that I didn’t think to bring. For the arms and legs, we made the rolled up a cylinder and tried it next to the torso to ensure the size was correct before joining it together. Once I had constructed and added both legs and obsessed a bit about the knees the next hurdle for me was the arms. Clayton reminded us that the length of the upper arm is the same as the lower arm and the elbow should fall at the normal waist line. At this point I should talk about Clayton as a teacher. It’s always a worry that an artist that I am taking a class from might not be able to share their ideas in a way that is accessible. Clayton is a great teacher. He is the Chair of the Art Department at Westminster College, Salt Lake City, UT. All three of the artists that I took classes from in June at Santa Fe Clay teach at the college level where they live, which made them all good at explaining concepts. Clayton has a laid-back style that kept us relaxed and moving forward and was only interested in our success. I can obsess about certain aspects of my piece and on more than one occasion he had to gently remind me that aim was to finish the entire figure.


Somewhere in the midst of this Clayton demonstrated how to make hands. I have seen a few hand demos and most have some aspect that is unique. This one didn’t disappoint. The palm of the hand was built hollow which was a huge surprise.  It was modeled as much as possible with an in and out approach like the rest of the body. The fingers were inserted between the two slabs that made up the hand. Of course, his demo made it all look easy. It’s always the case that as you try and apply the technique that is new to you not only doesn’t go as well but it takes the student new to this process a lot longer to do.

I am one of those artists that avoids hands but want to repent my wicked ways and live in the light. I do the figure because of my belief that it can communicate best and avoiding making hands takes away from the possibilities of communicating through gesture.  The next demo was of feet which is another vehicle to allow gestures to speak in the sculpture. They were also constructed with a thin slab on either side and the toes attached to one slab before the other slab was attached. Just as Clayton had made each finger individually he made each toe talking about the shape and structure of each.

The final demo was about the surface. Clayton demoed his approach to beginning the surface since the piece was still green. We could only see what he was doing on greenware as opposed to seeing his whole process. He did have a couple of demo pieces that were glazed and showed us one approach to distressing a glazed surface. I have some pretty strong opinions about surfaces, so I wasn’t really going to adopt his surface. I don’t actually use glazes on sculpture. The only shiny surface you will find on my work is the eyes. Even with that said, I am always fascinated by what I can learn from these kinds of demos. I took away some things that I will try out in my studio.

This was a great workshop. Full disclosure though – I didn’t get the feet or hair on before the end of the five days, so I had to take it home to finish. I would whole heartedly recommend a Clayton Keyes workshop.


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