Paper Mache Masks

Make a Ceremonial African Mask with Paper Mache

Paper Mache African Mask

Project Difficulty Level: Challenging.

This paper mache mask is modeled after a one that was made by a Dogon artist. There are a number of websites that show these masks, because their beauty makes them valuable works of art. I found the hyena mask I copied here.  The process was challenging because I was attempting to copy an original piece of art made by a master craftsman, and that’s always a humbling experience. The original, I admit, is much nicer than mine. You can see the original mask here. My copy is shown above.

The second challenge was to fold and bend cardboard into a shape that resembled the original form. I normally use crumpled paper as the inside form for my paper mache sculptures, but in this case the mask is hollow, and needs to have strong walls. The cardboard gives the piece it’s strength without requiring many layers of paper mache, but a lot of cutting and bending and prodding were necessary to make it work.

Dogon Mask, Step 1

Dogon Mask, Step 1

Step 1:

First, I cut a long strip of cardboard about 7 1/2 inches wide, and long enough to go around my head almost twice. I rolled the cardboard into a shape that was slightly wider at the bottom than the top, and then taped it all the way around in two places to hold it solid. (I made sure it would go around my head so it would be the right size, but since these masks have ceremonial and possibly religious significance to the people who originally designed them, I think it might be disrespectful to actually wear the finished mask. In fact, is the act of making a copy of a ceremonial mask a form of cultural theft? If you have an opinion one way or another, please leave a comment below).

After the roll was taped together, I trimmed the bottom so the tube could sit flat on the table.

Dogon Mask, Step 2

Dogon Mask, Step 2

Step 2:

Now I needed a rounded dome for the top of the mask’s head. The dome sticks out further in the front, creating a deep overhang (the “hyena’s” browbone). To make the cardboard into a dome, I found a bowl that was the right size, and cut a piece of cardboard slightly larger than the bowl.

Dogon Mask, Step 3

Dogon Mask, Step 3

Step 3:

I used a box cutter to make a number of cuts in the cardboard, from the center to the outside edge. An area about two inches wide was left in the middle, without cuts, to hold the piece together.

Dogon Mask, Step 4

Dogon Mask, Step 4

Step 4:

Next, I placed the bowl on the center of the cardboard circle. I pressed the edges of the circle up around the bowl and taped them together. This took quite a bit of coordination and juggling, and lots of tape. The cardboard ‘bowl’ was then trimmed to the right size.

Dogon Mask, Step 5

Dogon Mask, Step 5

Step 5:

I taped the cardboard dome onto the top of the tube, with an overhang in the front.

Dogon Mask, Step 6

Dogon Mask, Step 6

Step 6:

I then taped short pieces of cardboard under the overhang. I eventually used enough tape to cover all the spaces between the cardboard pieces.

Dogon Mask, Step 6

Dogon Mask, Step7

Step 7:

If you look at the finished mask at the top of this post you can see that the mouth is made of three protrusions, or “lips.” To make these, I cut six cresents out of cardboard, and taped them together in pairs so they would be thick enough.

Dogon Mask, Step 8

Dogon Mask, Step 8

Step 8:

I now taped these mouth parts to the front of the mask, about 1 1/2 inches from the bottom. Then I cut a nose piece and folded it over. It was cut so it would fit between the mouth and the eyebrow overhang, with a strip continuing up over the brow.

Dogon Mask, Step 9

Dogon Mask, Step 9

Step 9:

You can see from the photo above that I’ve now added the two pieces that make up the bottom of the nose. The original mask that I copied had a crooked nose, which gave the mask a wonderfully whimsical look. I made sure to tape the nose on my mask crooked, too. I also cut out the diamond shapes for the eyes.

Dogon Mask, Step 10

Dogon Mask, Step 10

Step 10:

The ears are each made from two pieces. The first piece is a long strip that is bent in two places to make a box-shaped piece, and this is taped to the sides of the mask. These pieces start at the top of the outer edges of the mouth and continue up about an inch above place where the curved dome is attached to the bottom tube. (You can see this more clearly by looking at the side photo of the original mask here.)

Dogon Mask, Step 11

Dogon Mask, Step 11

Step 11:

After the box-shaped piece was taped on, I added the ear shape to the top. To give them a spoon-like shape, I cut them in several places and folded each cut piece in and taped them, the way the top dome was shaped.

Dogon Mask, Step 12

Dogon Mask, Step 12

Step 12:

The cardboard manipulation is almost done. The only thing that’s left is to cut out part of the back of the mask, and add a semi-circular piece to the back.

Dogon Mask, Step 13

Dogon Mask, Step 13

Step 13:

The last piece of cardboard is taped above the hole that has now been cut out at the back. Before I added any paper mache, I spent some time poking and pushing and taping the top of the mask, so it woudl be as rounded as possible. I also spent some time shaping the ears so they would have fairly smooth forms.

Dogon Mask, Step 14

Dogon Mask, Step 14

Step 14:

Now for the wonderfully messy part – I begin to add a layer of newsprint and paper mache paste. I used a simple flour and water paste recipe, and covered the entire mask, including all the cut edges, and the inside of the mask, too. I did this in several steps – I put the paper mache on the front of the mask and let it dry, then turned it over and did the back of the mask. When this was dry I could safely turn it upside down and put a layer of paper mache on the inside.

Dogon Mask, Step 15

Dogon Mask, Step 15

Step 15:

When the newsprint layer was completely dry, I added another layer, using brown Kraft paper. Only two layers are used, both inside and out. Since the cardboard was not as smoothly rounded as I wanted, I used extra paper in the low spots to make a more perfect dome.

Dogon Mask, Step 16

Dogon Mask, Step 16

Step 16:

After the brown paper layer dried I sanded the rough spots off and added a “skin” layer of paste made from white flour, water, and carpenter’s glue. I don’t actually measure the ingredients, but I do know that too much glue will make the mixture set up too quickly. Too little glue, and the paste will crack when it dries. I smoothe the paste on with the side of my finger.

Dogon Mask, Step 17

Dogon Mask, Step 17

Step 17:

I believe the original Dogon mask was stained instead of painted. I wanted this same look, so I mixed some color into my second layer of “skin” paste. This paste is slighly transparent, so two layers of dark grey are needed. There will still be be a bit of the light paper color showing through in spots, giving the finished mask a hand-crafted feel. I do not cover the lip area, since it is lighter than the other parts of the mask. I put the dark grey paste on the inside, too. To make this color, I used a little bit of black and a little bit of burnt sienna (brown) acrylic paint mixed in with the flour/water/glue mixture.

Dogon Mask, Step 18

Dogon Mask, Step 18

Step 18:

Holes were drilled in the back. The original mask has some ropes dangling from these holes. You won’t see the rope in the finished photo below because I need to make a trip to the hardware store to buy some.

Dogon Mask, Step 19

Dogon Mask, Step 19

Step 19:

Almost finished! I put a bit of the dark grey skin paste in two cups, and mix up the color for the spots. (Spotted hyena…) The light spots have some white acrylic paint added, making a very light grey. The ‘red’ spots have burnt sienna and white acrylic paint added to the dark grey paste. I found that acrylic craft paint actually works better than acrylic artists colors, but I don’t know why this matters. The more expensive artists colors react to the glue in the paste and cause the paste to thicken. The craft paint doesn’t do that. Go figure…

Dogon Mask, Step 20

Dogon Mask, Step 20

Step 20:

After all the spots have been added, and some red has been painted around the eyes, I sanded the mask to give a slightly ‘used’ look. Some of the paper color can be seen in a few spots, especially over the ridge of the nose and the eyebrow ridge. Then I add a final glaze. The glaze is made from water-based verathane with a very small amount of white and bronze yellow added. This glaze is brushed onto a small area and then immediately wiped off with a paper towel. I also mixed up a darker glaze to correct the color of the mouth. The light glaze over the dark grey (and all the spots) gave the mask an antique look.

Paper Mach Dogon Mask

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45 Comments

  • Jonni, I just adore you! I was blessed with a flare for art. I literally stumbled into your website, when I did, a whole new world opened up for me….Thank you! For the last 3 months I have been creating African animal heads. I have the substrates finished for a 20″ zebra head, a 20″ giraffe head and a 4’x 5′ elephant head. All were created out of cardboard (they now call me the cardboard queen at work as confiscate all the card board boxes). I will post pics later. The surfaces are already smooth. My question to you is….should I use your paper mache clay to cover them or use the paper strip method? I am leaning toward the clay. What are your suggestions?
    I was asked at work how did I create dimension in a flat cardboard box? I replied: it is a combination of years of sewing skills (darts, seams and pattern making), geometry and love of art.

    • Hi Judy. I can’t wait to see your animal heads. It sounds like you’ve found a unique way of making the armatures, too – I hope you’ll be able to show us some of your techniques. As for which to use, paper strips or the pm clay, it’s totally up to you. I came up with the pm clay recipe just because I had a lot of sculptures to make quickly for a show, and I needed a faster way to get them done. Since the paper mache clay is a substitute for the paper strips and paste, either one will work. It just depends on which one you happen to be in the mood to use. I do both, sometimes even using both on the same project.

  • Well, here it is!

    paper mache mask

    I may still do some more painting on it…but I had to present it this evening…so this is how I presented it.

    Paper mache was an interesting experience. Not really sure it’s my thing…but I would LOVE to try to replicate your baby sperm whale wall hanging. Not sure I could pull it off, though.

    Thanks for the tips and encouragement along the way!

  • Jonni, I put up photos of the mask in progress. I linked them on your FB wall. I will post a photo of the finished project, but I think you should check it out so far! I’m super excited about it. It is not only the first paper mache I have done, it’s the first 3-D art project I’ve done. Hope you enjoy!

    • That’s a nice mask. I think I’d use the cardboard for the basic head shape, like I did in the post above, and then crumple some aluminum foil to shape the muzzle. If you crumple it hard enough, you can get a fairly smooth surface, and then cover that with masking tape.

      I hope you’ll let us see your mask when it’s done.

  • I like you Dogon mask…I have made over 25 African masks and sculptures out of paper mache and I have to say it is awonderful medium to work with! A great way to recycle paper and endless uses…I have even repaired a piece of furniture with it.. (I use wood glue, not flour)….Cool site, glad I stumbled upon it!

  • hi. i absolutely love your masks! i own a small mosaic shop and would like to do mosaic masks with the kids this summer. i purchased paper mold masks with the intention of mosaicking them. however, they are not sturdy enough and the grout would crack due to their lack of stability. (not to mention that they are too realistic looking and not so imaginitaive) i’m thinking of using the masks as a base for paper mache and then mosaicking them. any suggestions? i would appreciate any help.

    thank you!
    lisa
    lisa

    • Hi Lisa. If the masks you bought are made of paper, adding paper mache paste will soften the masks. That just means that you’ll probably need to create some sort of support beneath them before you start adding your paper mache. Crumpled paper and masking tape formed to the right shape should work.

      You might also want to consider using the paper mache clay recipe, because just one layer will dry very hard. It would be faster, and you might get better support for your mosaics. You would still need some sort of support while adding the clay, because there’s water in it, and that would soften the paper masks.

      Let us know how your project turns out. We’d love to see the masks when they’re done.

  • I am so excited to have found this — I have this drawing up on my wall of a zebra mask I would love to make, but I had no idea how to even begin. This method is absolutely perfect, the EXACT thing I was looking for! I will let you know when I get started and how it turns out!

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