Practiced for centuries and in many forms and mediums, clay modeling continues to be a way to create art as well as useful things while enjoying a relaxing, engrossing creative activity. While true mastery of clay modeling can take years of practice and refining of skills, a few basic modeling clay techniques can help a beginner get started with this art form on the right foot.
All clay needs to be thoroughly and properly conditioned before use. This requires kneading and softening the clay in your hands. If you're working with a tough clay, or just find that your hands are getting tired, start with a very small amount and gradually add more as you go. In the case of air-dry clay, it's best to keep a bowl of water close by to constantly moisten your hands and work the water into the clay as you go.
Work Surface and Shapes
A flat, smooth and hard work surface is essential for many clay-shaping techniques. Using a flat surface is the best way to form smooth and uniform shapes like snakes and balls by rolling the clay between a flat hand and a tabletop. It's also essential for rolling out even strips of flat clay using a rolling pin and for building flat-bottomed pieces that can stand on their own (simply press the piece down against the tabletop -- if it stands when it's wet, it will most likely stand when it's dry).
When joining two clay pieces together in a sculpture, it's important to blend the clay fully at the seams. Smear clay with your tool or fingertip from one side of the seam over the crack and onto the other piece. The more you do this, the more stable your sculpture will be.
Much clay shaping requires the use of tools other than your hands. Clay tools come in many shapes and sizes and may also be improvised from household items like screwdrivers or knitting needles. The tools you choose will be largely a matter of personal preference and trial and error, but you will generally have the best luck with tools that are firm and smooth, since these will not leave unwanted marks and textures on the surface of the clay.