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Paper Mache: The Ghoul Friday Way

For those of you new to creating paper mache (or papier mache) props of your own, the idea might be exciting but daunting. Where to start? What materials should I use?

Let me begin by sharing my own techniques. I will post about other approaches and recipes later on. Be warned all you papier mache aficionados: I don't boil, blend or add flours to my mache.

The following article outlines what I like to call the basics.

Section 1 - Preparation

Materials I have on hand for any paper mache project:

  • Newspaper
  • Paper Towels/Toilet Paper
  • Damp Cloth/Rag (for a quick cleaning of my hands should I need to handle something)
  • White Glue
  • Wooden Skewer or Japanese Take-out Chopstick (for stirring the glue)
  • Tinfoil
  • Modeling Clay
  • Acrylic Paint
  • Paint Brushes

Work Surface:

Make sure you have plenty of space to lay out your materials. Most often, I cover the work area in a few sheets of newspaper or flattened cardboard boxes. Some people use garbage/plastic bags, but they tend to slip, get rolled up and wavy, and generally irritate me. Paper and cardboard will also absorb some of the droplets of glue (be sure to layer newspaper!), while plastic bags collect them in sticky puddles.

The good thing about using layers of newspaper is that when your work surface is a complete mess, you can just roll up the top layers and it's a brand new workspace in an instant.

The bonus of using cardboard is the you don't have to muck about, worrying about the glue or paint getting between layers. Most glue that falls on it will dry on the surface anyway. I can also swivel the cardboard easily to get my prop facing a different way as I'm adding mache to it. And finally, when you put your sticky hand down on the table, cardboard won't become attached to it like paper and plastic will.

Recently I've been using a large sheet cut from a roll of thick plastic vapour barrier. We had extra after laying a floor, and it's great for protecting surfaces while you work. If I could swivel it like cardboard, it would be my number one choice for all projects.

Newspaper:

Tear the newspaper into strips of different sizes. Don't fuss with scissors or try to be neat about it. I find torn pieces tend to give a nicer finish.

I try to avoid using glossy paper. You can use it - and some people say it produces a tougher end product - but I find it isn't as friendly a medium to work with.

I like to spend five minutes tearing up the newspaper all at once and putting it in a big ziplock bag. This way, I am not running out of paper midway through a project and having to stop and wash my hands to rip up more. If you take out handfuls at a time, the rest are protected inside the bag from flying droplets of glue. Plus, if there's extra left over you'll have it all packed up and ready for use next time.

If you're using paper towels or tissue, I would have that torn into different sizes and put aside ready to use as well.

Some people use basic paper for their mache. They even will do one layer in one colour of paper and the next layer in a different colour of paper so they can see if they've missed anything. I don't use paper because a) I like to recycle and b) I'm cheap; I can use the free publications I pick up at the subway station after I've read them.

Glue Mix:

There are countless glue recipes out there for paper mache. Everyone has their own preferences for different reasons. I will go into detail about them later, but for now, here's what I use: approximately 2 parts white glue to 1 part water. That's it. The fanciest I would get is perhaps to buy craft-specific type white glue, but normal glue works just fine. Be sure to play around with the ratio as you go along. You'll figure out what works best for your own preference.

I make my glue mix in plastic containers that have lids (like a margarine or yogurt container. I happen to use an old potato salad container). This way, if I take a break or have extra left over, I can seal it up and save it for next time without it all drying out on me.

I use wooden barbeque skewers or chopsticks you get with take-out to stir my glue because they are cheap (or free) and I can throw them away after they get gummed up. Be sure to give your glue mix a stir every now and then since the water and glue tend to separate after a while.

Update: Since writing this tutorial, I've stopped using large containers for my projects.

My personal techniques for paper mache change as time goes by and I experiment more. This certainly isn't a tutorial tip on the ultimate must-do technique, but rather what's working for me right now. Tomorrow may be a different story.

I've Abandoned Using Large Containers for Glue

There are benefits to using a container to mix your water and glue in, and I'm sure if I end up working on some project that requires a majority of the newspaper pieces to be 4"x4", then I'll go back to using a container to store my glue/water mixture.

Now I use a regular sized glue bottle. You know, the kind in classrooms handed out to the kids? The size you might keep in your desk at work. I pour the glue and water into the small bottle from my industrial sized stock bottle. Give it a shake, and I'm off to the races.

What's the advantage to that? Let me tell you.

  1. Eventually the glue and water separate while you work. Instead of having to use a chop stick or some other disposable stick-shaped item to stir, I simply cover the tiny hole on the bottle and give it a shake. Easy-peasy.
  2. The longer you have your container of glue open, the more the water evaporates, the more you have to stop what you're doing to add more, and the more glue you waste. The glue bottle solves this problem.
  3. I have total control over the amount of glue/water mix I'm putting on a strip. This is a huge plus for me, especially when working with smaller pieces.

As for the technique, I essentially lay the paper strip in my hand, squirt a line of glue/water mix on top of the paper, massage the glue mix into the paper by placing my other hand against the first (creating a paper sandwich) and gently rubbing them together/along the paper. I then flip the paper over and rub it again.

Do yourself a favour and get a big ol' jug of white glue. It can be Elmer's glue or a generic brand (don't you be scared off by 'professionals' telling you regular white craft glue won't work. I use it all the time with this layering technique and my props are solid). Just get a lot of it. There's nothing worse than running out of something in the middle of a project.

 




Section 2 - The Base

 

People often use balloons as their base for paper mache because it gives them a basic shape to build on and they don't need the balloon back. If I used a balloon, I would poke my eyes out. Seriously. It's slippery, it can be hard to keep still, and I hate the sound of balloons popping. If you do use a balloon, I suggest you make a little nest for it like an open container or roll of tape where you can sit the base of the balloon inside the opening. But I say skip the balloon entirely.

Tinfoil:

Tinfoil is a gift from craft deities to paper mache people. It enables you to make a cast out of almost anything without locking that item inside one project forever. Think of it is a poor man's casting mold. You can create a copy - or cast - of an item by covering it with sheets of overlapped tinfoil before you start to mache. If you find the tinfoil won't lay flat at the edges, you can use masking tape to encourage it to behave.

I have done this with styrofoam wigheads, mannequins, skulls and even bowls. Depending on the prop, I tried to find a solid item resembling the desired shape I had in mind and used it as a base.

When the final mache layer is dry, you simply cut a slit along one side of the cast and ease your cast off. You then use strips of paper mache to seal the slit (it might help to tape the cast in one or two spots to hold the slit closed while you mache).

This step (removing the cast from the original base) is also important if you are using modelling clay to build up details or facial features. Modelling clay isn't cheap if you ask me, and I want to reuse it as many times as possible.

Be sure to smooth the tinfoil along the contours and bends of the features you've built with the clay.

If you aren't going to free the original base or modelling clay for reuse, there is no need to cut your cast.

You can actually use balled up tinfoil as your entire base for small items. We'll get into more details on base alternatives soon.

Modeling Clay:

Modeling clay is great. You can use it over and over as long as you take care of it (i.e. keep it clean and sealed in a container when not in use). It's heavy enough that even if it gets warm, it generally keeps its shape beneath the tinfoil. Since it is so bulky, remember this: once you add two or three layers of mache, converse items (shapes like bumps and cheekbones - anything that's raised or sticks out) will be bigger; concave items (like eye sockets or hollowed cheeks) will be filled in more than your original sculpted shape. So the rule of thumb is to slightly exaggerate openings, holes and divots, while holding back a little on bumps. You can easily make bumps bigger later.

I use modeling clay to build up cheekbones, eyebrows, noses, you name it.

Modeling clay also helps you to plot out a face. For example, when I made my ghoulies, I put modeling clay over the face of a doll, stuck the eyeballs and teeth in place (adjusting it to experiment with different placements), covered it with tinfoil and then layered my mache over top. The modeling clay kept the eyes and mouth in place throughout the entire process, giving me raised eye sockets to use as eyelids and a curved mouth as a reference for where the lips will be.

Sometimes modeling clay likes to hold onto the cast. Don't panic. Ease your fingers or the handle of a paint brush (or the edge of a butter knife) between the clay and the tinfoil layer. Gently wiggle it free a little section at a time. Be patient. In some situations it's easier to remove a stubborn cast and the clay together. Worst case scenario is that you may have to cut the cast into two complete halves in order to ease it off.

 

Alternatives:

I mentioned earlier that you can use crumpled tinfoil as a base for small items. Wire works well too.

For medium sized things, I've used crumpled newspaper. If you look at the picture of the 'Hell Well' ground breaker, you'll notice rocks forming a circle around the figure in the middle. These are large balls of newspaper taped down to a cardboard base. I then put larger pieces of paper mache over top (to smooth the surface) and spray painted it with speckled concrete paint.

For larger items, you can use chicken wire to create armatures/shapes to mache over. The thing about chicken wire is that if you're not mindful while using paper mache to cover it, you could end up with the outlines of the octagon shapes showing through (I discovered this the hard way). And please, anytime you use chicken wire, wear long sleeves and gloves. Those cut ends are sharp.

There's the trusted and true method of pvc pipe frames, but I think we're getting ahead of ourselves.

I've used boxes for a torso, paper towel rolls for arms, and fleshed them out by taping rolled up plastic bags around them. The example directly right is my prop 'Bubblehead'. I used a box and paper towel rolls for the 'Hell Well' prop too.

You still might want to cover some of them with tinfoil for two reasons: 1) plastic can be slippery and I find tinfoil helps to give the mache something to stick to. 2) Sometimes having all those different mediums and colours all mashed together makes it hard to see the actual shape you've created. It's distracting to the eye.

 


 




Section 3 - Application

 

Newspaper:

  1. Dip the strip of paper into the glue mix, covering it completely.
  2. Squeegee off the excess glue by gently running the dipped strip between your thumb and index finger.
  3. Lay the strip flat against the tinfoil (or whatever base you are using) and smooth the edges down. Make sure you work it into any crevices.
  4. Overlap the edges of each strip of paper you add.
  5. Use smaller pieces of paper for divots and bumps.
  6. Make sure you let the first layer of paper dry completely before adding a second layer. If you rush ahead and keep piling up wet newspaper, you'll end up with mushy areas and encourage mildew.

With smaller to medium sized items that are built on something solid that I won't be removing from my prop, I find two to three layers is good enough. For items you've removed from a solid base, you may wish to do three to four layers. Use your best judgment.

After you remove the cast from the base (so now you have a hollow form), you need to stuff it. If you've got cash, use expanding spray foam (also good for intestines, by the way). If you have only a little bit of cash, use a combination of spray foam and crumpled newspaper. If you're broke, use whatever you have: crumpled newspaper and plastic bags are usually what I choose. Styrofoam from packaging works well too to bulk up the middle. The stuffing material should be somewhat light in weight but fairly solid once it's crushed together.

Whatever you use, make sure you get into the crevices of your prop. You don't want him to topple over or get bumped into and suffer a dented head or pushed in nose.