Monday, April 9, 2012

Terra Cotta Warrior Disaster (or DON'T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU!)

The famous Terra Cotta Warriors of China

Each sculpture is unique
Do you know about the wonderful Terra Cotta Army? These incredible life-size sculptures were built in China during the 3rd Century BC and were discovered in the 1970's by a group of farmers who were digging a well. They had been buried with the first Emperor of China to protect him in the afterlife. THOUSANDS of statues of soldiers, each unique with it's own details, clothing, ranks and facial features.

At Barnes & Noble I found a wonderful kit on sale that not only contained a small book with wonderful photos of the Army but also had a small reproduced figure. I showed them to my 3rd-5th Grade art group. They were completely taken by the figure. Everyone wanted to hold it. All of them asked to keep it.

Rest assured, I told them, you will be making your own! We will use this wonderful new air-dry terra  cotta colored clay, I told them! You will amaze your friends!

Warriors under construction
And so the artists worked hard to create their own figures. They were detailed. Some were crouching like warriors at battle, some stood proudly holding weapons. One looked comical but charming. Use a little slip (wet clay) to smooth out the rough patches and allow the appendages and facial features to stick better, I told them.

 Leave them to dry, I told them, and you will take your masterpieces home next week!


When the students came back the following week this is what they found: 

Terra Cotta apocalypse. Bases had fallen off. Weaponry had broken off and cracked. 
Arms, noses and hair buns all fell off with the slightest touch. Sadly I sent my artists home empty handed and I refrained from repeating the project with my younger group. 

So if you artists and art teachers and parents can recommend a good sturdy easy to use air-dry clay I'd appreciate a recommendation! 


  1. Perhaps they can now be sent to be fired and the battle worn pieces reattached afterwards with some good epoxy glue.

    As for air drying clay, but there will be shrinkage when dry.

  2. Thank you, I'll look at that clay. Shrinkage is certainly preferable to Broken!

    I'm not sure if the clay I used CAN be fired but that's a good thought. I do wish I had a kiln, I suppose that will be my next big expense!

  3. Paula, I use air dry clay, but I really limit what I do with it. I have used a lot of Amaco's Marblex and Mexican Pottery Clay, but I do not recommend either for a project like this. For those clays, I do only very simple forms with no appendages. Definitely not arms, legs, weapons, or anything slender at all. We make pinch pots, coil pots, and simple slab forms, and variations of all 3, but again, nothing that sticks out to make it breakable. We do use a slip and score to attach coils or other parts, but we do a minimal amount of assembling. I don't think these clays can be fired.

    Amaco also makes Stonex,which is slightly better quality but still limited in durability. You get what you pay for.

    A more expensive air dry clay like Sargent Art's Sculpt-it will give you a much more durable product in the end, though you have to have the budget for it. I find it pretty strong in comparison with the other air-dry clays. Definitely do NOT NOT NOT get the cheaper "store" brand air dry clays. They do not hold together at all.

    One more thing - we PAINT all our air-dry clay projects with school-grade acrylic paints. The plastic skin of the acrylic paint definitely adds strength. When something breaks off (such as a coil on a coil pot) you cannot glue it back on, but you can, when painting, use a thick layer of the paint to "glue". It works well. I hope this helps!

  4. Thank you Phyl for being such an amazing wealth of information. This particular group was very small and I probably could have benefitted from a small amount of Art's Sculpt. I've used a few clays in the past and this was my first try at the cheaper store brands. Lesson learned--you are quite right, it didn't hold up at all.

    The painting tip is a big help. In this case it couldn't even get that far. The second I shifted the pieces from their drying spot to a container they just crumbled. Most of the kids made very sturdy pieces and I was amazed at what broke off! UGH! Now I truly understand why most teachers make pinch pots and other similar forms. The road from Artist to Art Instructor definitely has some bumps along the way. So glad you are one of my readers!

  5. I had the chance to go to Toronto to see a few pieces of the Terra Cotta Army. If one day I can go to China, I really want to see the all army; it must be very impressive!

  6. Joelle, I did see that it was touring. We're planning to go see it in New York. Unbelievable that they can transport them! I can't wait to see them.