Clay Fish Plaques

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Students began this lesson by sketching out a fish, using assorted reference photos and pictures to keep the fish realistic looking. We cut out our paper fish and traced it on a rolled slab of clay, using a needle tool to cut the fish shape out of the slab. Add-on additions were applied using the important “Score and Slip” method of joining clay. We also created an ordered pattern with imprinted decorations that utilized everyday objects such as beads, bolts, shells and more! After the initial bisque firing process, students applied a single color of glaze to finish the fish, which went through a second firing to mature the glaze. Aside from drawing and materials preparation, this lesson usually only takes three class periods of clay work and is very manageable with middle school students!

Read on for some more details about this lesson!

Students generally spend several class periods drawing on paper. Each table has a folder filled with fish and sea life reference pictures. I encourage the students to base their drawing on observation but do allow them to mix and match features or patterns from different fish. I emphasize the importance of drawing “actual size”, since we will be using the drawing to trace the shape of our fish on the clay. When happy with their final design, students cut their paper fish out carefully.

Some completed fish drawings, cut and ready for clay:


Day 1 of Clay: The first day of clay involves rolling out the clay to an even ½ inch slab and using a potter’s needle tool to trace around their cut paper fish in order to create the base fish shape.  Students also had the option of preparing a fin for attaching on day 2 of clay work. Prior to this class, students had also set up Ziploc storage bags with a plastic wrapped mat board “tray” which helps slide the fish in and out of airtight storage over several class periods.

A traced fish and some in overnight storage:

Day 2 of Clay:The second day of class is about adding raised elements: Eyes, fins, lines to divide areas, etc. Students are shown how to “score and slip” their attachments to create a strong bond. I require a minimum of two raised elements as a project goal. Students also spend time smoothing the surface and rough edges of their fish in preparation for adding textures.

Scoring a fin to prepare it for attachment:

Day 3 of Clay: The third and final day of clay is about creating a unique character for our fish with indented patterns and textures. On hand, we have a variety of mark making objects such as beads, shells, nuts and bolts, Legos… Anything that can be pressed into clay to make a design! I also have traditional clay tools for carving and shaping. Students are required to use a minimum of three different objects or tools for making their designs and must create an ordered sense of repetition and pattern. I also stress the importance of pressing the objects firmly to make clear indentations, but to avoid pressing so hard that they flatten the fish or change its overall shape. As a final step, I assist students in carving their name on the back as well as using the handle of a potter’s needle tool to make hanging holes. (NOTE: This is the first and only time the fish is lifted off its flat, mat board surface. During the three days of clay work, students minimize handling their fish by leaving it flat on its storage “tray”. These creatures are floppy and heavy and could easily deform and break if picked up off their firm surface.)

A finished fish, (top left,) and some in progress:

The finished fish must be allowed to air dry for over a week before they are ready for firing. For the first few days, I leave them loosely covered with perforated, flattened trash bags to limit air exposure. (Rapid uneven drying can result in warping or breakage, especially if your project has a variety of thin and thick elements.) To keep our creatures safe and organized while drying, I have collected shallow cardboard produce trays from my local supermarket. I line them with plastic and stack them to create “luxury condo high rises” for our fish! Honestly, these boxes have been a life-saver and reduce the surface area needed to safely store clay projects like these over several weeks. (I have 90-110 students doing this lesson at the same time!)

Finished Fish, enjoying their “luxury condos”!

Once the fish reach the “bone dry” phase, (—no discernible moisture left in the clay, chalky grey color and brittle consistency,) they are bisque fired. (cone 04 for the low fire clay we use). After this first firing, they will take on a bright white appearance and be noticeably stronger. They are now ready for glazing!

Fish that have been fired once: “bisque fired”

Glazes are set up with sample tiles to assist in color choice. Since the glazes go on very different from how they will look after being fired, it’s important to show a finished and fired sample. I pre-pour glaze into labeled cups that make this an easy “grab and go” station on the day we glaze. Students apply three generous coats of a single color of glaze working “nose to tail”. I give them the analogy of a car wash: they must glaze all visible surfaces of the fish, including the vertical sides, from front to end, much like how a car going through a car was would uniformly get wet slowly, from hood to back bumper. Most of my glazes are from the Mayco “Elements” series. They are low fire glazes, (cone 05 or 06) but mimic the look of some high fire glazes and often have beautiful two-tone effects.

The glaze “buffet”:

Students glazing:

Here are some glazed fish, waiting for their second firing:

Here’s a batch of fish, fresh from the kiln, after their second firing:

Working with clay is always such a hit with my middle school students— just look at the pride on their faces!

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa
    Mar 18, 2022 @ 01:26:30

    How much clay per student? Wondering how much to order. Thanks.


    • uamsler
      Mar 18, 2022 @ 06:00:59

      I use about a 1″ to 1.5″ slab per kid, cut from the bagged block, which I would estimate is 7″ by 7″ by 13″. . This is enough to roll/cut the body and save for add ons like fins, eyes, etc.


    • uamsler
      Mar 18, 2022 @ 06:02:48

      I get about ten slabs per block, each of which is 25 lbs, and thus go through about 5 boxes of 50 lb clay for 100 kids. (A lot is left over after we’re done— scraps!)


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