Paper Mache Magpie Mask

This is a paper mache mask I built over a plaster face-form modified with oil clay. I used recycled grocery bag paper, reclaimed cellulose fiber, natural polymer starch, and it is painted with natural pigments. Below are fast-motion video clips, photos, and detailed descriptions of the steps I took in creating this mask.

1. Applying Paper Mache:

1.    Release layer
Tissue paper pieces (or toilet paper) applied dry then sprayed with water help prevent the paper mache layers sticking to the face form. You want to get the tissue paper evenly wet and avoid it tearing.

2.    1st layer of paper mache
Next apply a layer of brown shopping bag paper using Elmer's Art Paste (Methylcellulose), a biodegradable paste. (You can also use boiled wheat paste or diluted Elmer's Glue).  To prepare the shopping bags, tear them into manageable-sized pieces (I like about 6"x6"), being sure to remove any machine cut edges.  Torn edges stick down and blend into each other better, which will result in a stronger and smoother mask.

For the paper mache application, as you pick up each piece, dip your fingers into the paste mixture and then spread the paste on both sides of the paper. You want the paper to be evenly moist, to have enough paste to make it sticky, but not have any really big globs. Now gently crumple the paper up and then unfold it again, massaging it until it feels like flexible sticky fabric. Add more paste if it feels like it has absorbed most of the paste you initially applied. Now you can tear it into smaller pieces to apply to the mask form, over the still wet tissue paper. Use smaller pieces to cover more detailed parts of the mask, and bigger pieces for broad, smooth areas. Work across the mask form applying paper with an overlap of about half an inch to an inch around the edges of each piece. 

3.    2nd layer of paper mache
As soon as the layer is complete, apply a second layer using different colored paper. The different color allows you to see when you have covered the first layer completely. Smooth the layer down and into the details of the mask shapes with your fingers, or with a sculpting tool if needed.

4.    3rd layer of paper mache
This is the final outer layer, so make sure to apply the pieces as smoothly as possible. If the shopping bags have printed graphics, make sure the paper goes on printed side down as some printing inks will bleed through any paint you apply later.

2 & 3. Peeling the mask off the form:

Paper mache shrinks as it dries, so it can be a bit of work to remove the dry mask from the form. I often start by easing an artist's pallet knife around the edge between the form and the paper layers to help separate it.

Next I take an Exacto knife, and I choose two or three areas of the mask with limited detail where I can make zig-zag cuts into the mask that connect to the outer edges. You want to choose areas that will be easy to patch after the mask is removed.  A zig-zag shaped cut is usually preferable to a straight cut, as it is easier to line a zig-zag cup up accurately.

Now start to flex and loosen the mask at the sides, (using the pallet knife as needed), until the mask becomes loose. Ideally, it should lift right off and look something like the following picture:


4. Trimming the mask:

Now you can trim the edges and eye holes of the mask and start to see its realized shape. I like to use curved scissors to trim edges, and an Exacto knife to trim out the eye holes.

5. Rejoining the zig-zag cuts:

To rejoin the zig-zag cuts, you first need to tape them together. I like to use gummed tape, as it is easy to work with and non-toxic (lickable). You can also use masking tape.

Then you need to cover the tape repairs with more paper mache pieces. 


6. Patching the edges and inside of the mask:

Then apply paper mache pieces so they are folded around the outer edges and eye-hole edges. This helps prevent the mask from coming apart/delaminating. 


7. "Spackle" coat:

Although this is an optional step, it is worth doing it if you can, as it make the mask much smoother. I am also really excited about this step, because it uses a biodegradable mixture I came up with instead of the synthetic materials like acrylic modeling paste, drywall compound or vinyl spackle that are recommended by many other mask-making sites.

All you need is the natural polymer starch I have covered previously, and a recycled paper pulp/dry cellulose material like Activa Celluclay(TM).

Start with a cup of dry cellulose material and start adding starch a tablespoon at a time, kneading them together until the material is evenly moist. It will be very sticky, so keep a bowl of water handy to rinse fingers and to smooth out the sticky material as you apply it to the dry outer surface of the mask.


8. Natural paint:

Over the past year and a half I have experimented was many different mediums for mixing natural, biodegradable paint. But the best one I have found ended up being one of the simplest: Boiled wheat paste!

Its main draw-back is a tendency towards brittleness, which is why I don't use it for paper mache. But it adheres to paper (and burlap) well, makes a wonderful textured ground for subsequent paint layers (or you can sand it if you need a smoother finish), and appears to offer some moisture resistance (more testing of this to come).

Boiled wheat paste appears less prone to attracting rodents than does uncooked wheat paste, plus the actual amount of flour used as a paint medium is very small compared to using wheat paste as paper mache glue. (Methyl cellulose paste does not attract rodents, but it is not as durable a paint binder as boiled wheat paste). Also a batch of paste medium can be mixed up and stored in the refrigerator for convenient use over several days.

To mix the paints for this mask, I combined approximately equal parts ground and sifted pigment powder (campfire charcoal for black, and calcium carbonate for white) with paste, mixed until completely combined. I strongly recommend wearing a dust mask while you do this.

For best results in mixing paint, the pigment and binder can be ground together with a glass muller on a sheet of tempered glass. (A substitute muller may be improvised from a glass paperweight, the bottom of a stone mortar and pestle, or the like).


Recipe: Boiled wheat paste medium for natural pigment:

·         1/4 cup white all-purpose flour
·         1/2 cup water 

  1. Add water to a small saucepan
  2. Slowly add flour while stirring until completely combined into a white paste
  3. Turn heat to low and stir paste continuously until it thickens

Store in the fridge when not using. 


Here are all the fast motion video clips assembled into a single playlist:

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