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Paper Mache Animal Sculptures – Some Basic Tips

Paper Mache Baby Goat

I just completed a paper mache goat kid. It’s a study for a larger sculpture I hope to do this summer. I thought it would be a good subject to use to discuss the leg bones, and how they affect the finished sculpture.

The Importance of Leg Bones…

If you find a photo of an animal you want to sculpt, but it isn’t in the right position for your project, just keep the following guidelines in mind. As long as you get the proportions right and remember how the leg bones are attached to the spine, you can position your animal any way you like.

Remember:

  • The front legs begin at the spine and float over the chest.
  • The back legs also begin at the spine, but there is no rib cage separating them. The legs will come together at the back, creating the butt crack (there must be a more polite way to say that…).

The legs really begin with the shoulder and hip bones, which cause bumps to show on the finished sculpture. The bumps show at the top of the shoulder and hip bones, where they attach to the spine, and there’s another bump where the first leg bone is attached to the shoulder and hip bones. Take a look at the next photo to see what I mean.

I’ve labeled the joints on this kid as though she was human. It makes it easier for me to remember the way the joints bend.

Leg Bones for Animal Sculptures
Leg Bones for Animal Sculptures

Note: This newborn baby goat has a pronounced curve of the spine, at the back. Most animals have a straighter spine from the shoulders to the tail, but it does vary from species to the next.

Some general guidelines:

  • The elbow and knee joints are often on a line with the bottom of the chest.
  • Humans have very short bones from the heel to our toes (our feet) and from our wrist joints to our fingers (our hands). That tends to confuse us when we look at animal legs, because we think of the hoof or paw as the equivalent of our feet and hands, but that is not correct. For instance, this goat kid appears to have a knee on her front leg because it bends in the same direction as our own knee. However, this is really a joint that corresponds to our wrist.
  • The placement of the legs can  set the overall character of the piece – playful, restful, frightened, etc. When you’re making a paper mache sculpture of an animal, it’s worth taking extra time to get the posture and proportions right before you lay on your first layer of paper and paste.

If you know how the bones fold at the joints, you can use this knowledge of very basic anatomy to build a sculpture of any animal that has four limbs.

That includes mammals, birds, reptiles, whales – and even humans.

In fact, I often forget exactly how bird wings fold up, so I simply fold up my own “wings” to remind myself which joints bend in which direction. We are all related, and nature repeats patterns that work.

How to Use This Info on Other Animals:

  • If you were to  stretch out the neck a little, you’d have an okapi. Stretch the neck a lot, and make the front legs longer, and you would have a giraffe.
  • If you made the legs much shorter, and stretched out the body, you’d have a dachshund.
  • Stand the creature up on its hind legs and fold up the front legs, and you’d have a bird.
  • Leave the animal on it’s hind legs, extend the tail to the ground, and make the front legs a lot shorter, and you’d have a kangaroo.
  • Give the animal fins instead of feet and merge the back legs together to form a tail, and you’d have a whale.

I thought about doing this with our baby goat in Photoshop, just to show you that it really works – but I think your imagination can do this much faster and better than I can.

This Even Helps With Imaginary Animals

Imaginary or mythical animals almost always have a basic form of a real animal, or perhaps two or three real animals glued together – like a Griffin made from a lion and an eagle. Some mythical animals, like dragons, have too many limbs. Usually the extra limbs are wings.

Even though mythical animals don’t follow the basic patterns that nature designed, you can still create realistic-looking creatures as long as most of the critter looks the way we expect animals to look. Knowing how their legs (and wings) would be attached to their spine allows you to build a believable, (but totally unreal) animal, from scratch.

So – have fun bending those joints and positioning the legs on your next paper mache animal sculpture!

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  • Jonni, I desperately need to make a large paper mache eagle for a homecoming float. It’s for my daughter. The most I’ve ever done is a tree. I km now it seems ambitious for an amateur such as myself. But love conquers all right. Do you have any instructions you could share? Forever grateful.

    • Hi Cherry. That is an ambitious project! I think the closest tutorial we have here on the blog is the Snowy Owl. All of the videos for that series can be found if you go to this page and scroll down. The shapes will need to change, of course. You can use a photo of an eagle to help you with the pattern. You’ll see instructions for doing that, I think, on the first post in the series. Take a look at the videos and see if you think they might help.

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