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TOTEM ANIMALS - Clay Sculpture

MODULE:  Sculpture  |  GRADE LEVELS:  1 - 6  |  DURATION:  1 Hour

PROJECT 20  |  01.03.22

PROJECT GUIDE PDF - Click to Download


Video Editing by Jorge Davies, Graphics by Melissa Sabol




Clay totem animals are miniature sculptures that have special meaning to you and are made of stackable clay forms. Learn how to model clay, form skeleton-like armatures, and keep pieces of clay stuck together. Pinch, pull, push, wet, scratch, and bond your clay using simple tools to create your unique animal totem.


Challenges students to work in three dimensions and think about how an object looks from all sides.

Requires exploration of construction methods, i.e. using armatures to build a structure that can support its own weight.

Encourages a tactile experience through the use of touch and texture, which has a calming effect, and is a soothing stress reliever.

Strengthens fine and major motor skills as well as the connection between mind and body through the physical manipulation (poking, pinching, pulling, etc.)

Provides a sense of control over materials. Clay is highly responsive to touch, forgiving, adaptable, and easy to reshape. 

Extends attention spans and longer than normal play periods because kids are naturally drawn to clay.

Creates a connection to natural resources.



  • 1/2 lb. Air Dry Clay (2"x2")

  • Water

  • 2 Skewers

  • 3 Toothpicks

  • Plastic Knife

  • Rag Towel




  • Divide clay into 2 parts

  • Set 1 part aside

  • Roll the other part into a cylinder 

  • Separate the cylinder into 4 pieces

  • Roll each piece into a ball 

  • End up with 4 clay balls

  • Break one bamboo skewer into 4 pieces or desired height of sculpture


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BASE - 1st ball of clay

  1. Place largest clay ball on table.

  2. Press edges firmly down using your thumbs.

ARMATURE - Internal support or “skeleton”

  1. Push skewer down through center of base.

  2. Pinch clay around stick, making sure that the sculpture can stand up.

Totem animals_mas-07.png

LEGS & FEET - 2nd ball of clay

  1. Gently, squeeze and pinch the clay to create feet.

  2. Score the clay surface of the base with a toothpick where it will be attached and the underside of the feet. Dab with water where you have scored.

  3. Slide the feet onto the base, over the skewer.

Totem animals_mas-08.png

BODY - 3rd ball of clay 

  1. Shape the midsection of your animal.

  2. Score + wet both pieces.

  3. Slide ball over skewer onto base and use fingers to blend the clay where they connect.

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HEAD - 4th ball of clay

  1. Push, pinch and pull to make face.

  2. Score + wet both pieces.

  3. Slide onto the skewer and blend. 

Totem animals_mas-10.png

ARMS - Using extra clay

  1. Break a toothpink in half and stick into side of body.

  2. Form arm, score + wet both pieces, slide onto toothpick, and blend.

  3. Repeat steps above to create an arm on the other side.

Totem animals_mas-11.png

TAIL - Using extra clay

  1. Shape a tiny piece of clay for a tail.

  2. Score + wet both pieces.

  3. Attach tail to body and blend.

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EYE Details

  1. Use a plastic knife to create brows.

  2. Use a toothpick to make eyes.

Totem animals_mas-13.png


  1. Insert a small piece of toothpick.

  2. Form snout, score + wet both pieces, slide onto toothpick, and blend.

  3. Use a toothpick to make nostrils and mouth.

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  1. Create texture for the fur by using the rough edge of a knife or toothpick.

  2. Use a toothpick to add definition to paws. 

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Create Totem Sculpture:

Using the skills you just learned and extra clay, experiment with making another sculpture. It could be an object or animal from real life, make believe, or even something abstract! Use your imagination and have fun working with the clay!!



Beth Cavener L’Amante, stoneware, 2012.png

Beth Cavener
Beth Cavener is an American artist who creates dramatic animal sculptures. Her work manipulatively applies human behaviours and features onto animal bodies. Her sculptures are often posed in positions of discomfort.
Beth Cavener L’Amante, stoneware, 2012

Website >>

Peter Voulkos, Tiento, clay, 1959.png

Peter Voulkos
Peter Voulkos was an American artist of Greek descent. He is known for his abstract ceramic sculptures, which crossed the traditional divide between ceramic crafts and fine art. He established the ceramics department at the Los Angeles County Art Institute and at UC Berkeley.
Peter Voulkos, Tiento, clay, 1959



Armature: A skeleton-like framework that provides support inside a sculpture molded of clay or a similar material.

Clay:  A moist, sticky mud made of a fine-grained earthy material that is plastic when wet, brittle when dry, and hard when headed. Air-dry clay dries through contact with unheated air.

In the round:  To be viewed from all sides; free-standing.

Maquette:  A sculptor's small preliminary model or sketch.

Modeling:  Modeled sculptures are created when a soft or malleable material (such as clay) is built up (sometimes over an armature) and shaped to create a form. Modeling is an additive process.

Score:  To scratch marks into clay as a means to join clay pieces together.

Slip:  A glue made from clay and water used to bond pieces of clay together.

Sculpture:  A three-dimensional work of art made in a variety of materials by carving, modeling, constructing or casting.

Three-dimensional:  Having, or appearing to have, height, width, and depth.

Totem:  An animal, plant, or natural object that is adopted as an emblem of special significance by an individual, family, or group.

Texture:  The visual feel or appearance of a surface or substance.

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