Sunday, 18 December 2011

Elephant No. 77: Air-Hardening Clay

I've never tried air-hardening clay before, so I thought I'd make a tiny terracotta elephant today.

Terracotta, from the Latin terra cotta, or "baked earth", is technically any unglazed, clay-based ceramic, although it more commonly refers to porous red ceramics, whether glazed or not. In archaeological terms, "terracotta" refers to a clay object of any colour that has not been made on a potter's wheel; objects made on a wheel usually come under the heading of "pottery".

A common material in cultures around the world since ancient times, terracotta has been used in building construction, water pipes, architectural decoration, writing tablets, and sculpture.

A soldier and horse from the famous Terracotta Army, third century B.C.,
found near the mausoleum of China's first Emperor,
Qin Shi Huang, in Shanxi Province.
Photo: Robin Chen, 2006

For today's elephant, I used a terracotta clay that hardens without firing. I use the term "clay" loosely, because I'm pretty sure there's little or no actual clay involved. The material feels like clay and handles like clay at first, but after that the resemblance quickly disappears. This particular clay substance contains tiny fibres and smells like poster paint, which leads me to believe it might be some sort of amalgam.

To start, I pinched off a small amount of the clay. I had already decided that I wanted to make something small today, so I used a blob of clay almost 5 cm (two inches) in diameter.

I liked the material at first. It was relatively easy to handle, and it wasn't difficult to shape a rough head, body and legs.

After that, it got more difficult. The material develops a faintly dry skin quite quickly, which makes it difficult, for example, to attach head to body if you don't do it right away. On the plus side, the clay can be moistened again with a wet finger or toothpick or whatever, as long as it hasn't already dried. On the down side, if you moisten it, it becomes weak and floppy. At various times, as I tried to construct a whole elephant, the head fell off, the right ear fell off, the trunk broke in half, two of the legs fell off, and various parts got misshapen wherever I held the elephant between my fingers in order to reattach or remould something.

I ended up loathing this stuff. To be fair, however, I don't think it's really meant for anything small or detailed. If I'd made something bigger, it might have been easier. On the other hand, if I'd made anything bigger, the surface would still have dried quickly, which might have made it just as annoying.

After an hour, I decided that I was done with air-hardening clay, and that if I messed with the elephant anymore, it would only get worse. I actually came within a whisker of squishing this little guy to nothing and starting over. Despite the fact that this looks more like a large floppy-eared pig with a trunk than an elephant, I don't totally hate the final result. I may even try using air-hardening clay again sometime. Just not on anything small.

Elephant Lore of the Day
The first recorded domestication of elephants occurred in the Indus Valley civilization as early as 3000 B.C. Although originally domesticated for use as a beast of burden, the elephant went on to serve as a hunting platform, as a siege engine and as a wartime mount.

Of the thousand or more sites studied in this area of northwestern India and Pakistan, one-fifth include the bones of many wild animals, including the elephant. Animals both wild and domesticated are found on seals and clay pottery, and clay tablets record the local existence of many species that are now extinct in the area, including both the elephant and the rhinoceros.

Elephant seal from Harappa.

To Support Elephant Welfare 

Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

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