How to make a Chinese dragon sculpture out of clay

Updated April 17, 2017

Traditionally, the Imperial Chinese dragon bore five claws and embodied the wisdom and power of the Chinese emperor. Empirical furniture was ornately sculpted with the dragon. There are many different renderings of the Chinese dragons. Some are highly stylised, and difficult to sculpt, while others are relatively simple in design. The most difficult part to sculpt is the head as it has numerous detailed features, even in simple designs. A successful sculpture of a Chinese dragon is a powerful decorative object.

Gather your tools at your sculpting station. Unpack and begin kneading the clay. Leave some clay in the bag for later additions. Keep kneading the clay until it has an even consistency which will make it easier to work with. Roll the clay on the table with your hands until it has the shape of a thick snake. Leave one end blunt and a little thicker than the main body. Taper the other end to a point starting in the last quarter.

Wipe a wet sponge along the length of the clay until it is even and smooth. Use the inside tip of the spoon and begin pressing it into the clay. Practice making scales on a separate piece of clay to get the idea of making them look good. Hold the spoon in the same direction as the clay snake to create realistic looking scales. Make them look even and cover the entire length of the clay on all sides. Take enough time to make these look as impressive as possible.

Pinch the clay along the spine of the dragon to create the dorsal scales. Let them dry a little and carve them in more detail with the knife

Create marks to segment the clay into four sections. Lift the first (head) section and place it on a dry sponge. Lift it up until it the first quarter is off the table and lay the head on top of the sponge to work on later.

Prop up the mid-section of the dragon using a piece of cardboard with a small piece of sponge on top. It should bend at the top at the end of the second section.

Lift the tail and place it on another sponge about half the height of the others to add more life to the form. Add the arms and legs at the end of the first and third sections, leaving the fourth as the tail.

Create slurry by mixing a little clay with water. Roll out four short pieces of clay for the arms and legs and attach them on either side at the end of the first and third sections. Press them into the sides and shape them so they look natural. Shape the toes and claws using the knife to cut away clay between the toes.

Shape the head with its open mouth and pointed features. Roll small pieces of clay between your fingers to create the teeth. Place them into the mouth using the slurry or cut away sections with a knife, if that is easier.

Make two small holes for the eyes and fill them with small clay balls. Press down on the clay above to secure them while creating eyebrows at the same time. Add a forked tongue and keep working on the head, adding detail until it looks similar to the one in your reference image.

Add small scales to the legs by carving them in with the needle tool. Use a wet sponge to give the dragon a uniform texture. Remember that the best part of sculpting is near the end, when the detail brings it all to life. Let the model dry and remove the props so it stands on its own.

Things You'll Need

  • 5.4 kg (12 lb) self-hardening clay
  • Needle tool
  • Spoon
  • Cardboard
  • Knife
  • Sponge
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About the Author

Rod Kuster has been a writer and editor since 1995. His work has been published in "Computer Magazine," "Boom Magazine" and Shock Media. Kuster holds a B.A. in international development studies from the University of Dalhousie.