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How to Make a Paper Mache Giraffe

I’ve mentioned my giraffe in a previous post, but I skipped over the directions because this was an experiment for me. This is the largest paper mache sculpture I’ve ever done, and part of the process wasn’t very pretty. In fact, I stopped taking pictures before the project was complete.

There were many times during this project that I didn’t believe it would ever work. I’m glad I kept going, though, because I’m very happy with her.

Today a reader  asked for more detail about how this project was done, so here goes. I’m afraid you’ll have to use your imagination towards the end, because I don’t have photos of all the steps.

Making the Neck

The project began with a cardboard tube that I made from pieces cut from a cardboard box. I cut several notches out of the tube in the areas where I wanted the neck to bend, and then taped it all back up again. You can see the progression from a straight tube to a curved “neck” below.

Step 1 - Paper Mache Giraffe
Giraffe Neck, Step 1
Giraffe Neck, Step 2
Giraffe Neck, Step 2
Giraffe Neck, Step 3
Giraffe Neck, Step 3
Giraffe Neck, Step 4
Giraffe Neck, Step 4

Before adding the head or any paper mache, I needed to weight the neck. Otherwise, the head would cause the sculpture to fall over. To do this I cut a circle of cardboard and cut notches into it, then folded it up to make a bottom for the tube. I then cut the tube almost all the way through about eight inches from the bottom, and taped the new circular piece inside.

I put some plastic cut from a kitchen garbage bag into this bottom piece of the neck and poured in some plaster. When the plaster was hard, the bottom piece was taped back onto the rest of the neck. The photos below show how this was done.

Giraffe Neck, Step 5
Giraffe Neck, Step 5
Giraffe Neck, Step 6
Giraffe Neck, Step 6
Giraffe Neck, Step 7
Giraffe Neck, Step 7
Giraffe Neck, Step 8
Giraffe Neck, Step 8

Modeling the Neck and Head:

As you can see in the photo above, a lot of crumpled paper and masking tape was added to give the neck its tendons and general shape. Once I was reasonably satisfied with the shape, I added several layers of paper mache. The first layer was made with strips of newsprint and flour and water paste, and the second layer was made from brown paper and paste. Some additional smoothing was done with joint compound, not shown.

– When I first discovered that you could use joint compound to smooth a paper mache sculpture, it made things so easy I thought I was “cheating.” Now I can’t imagine not using this inexpensive product, which you can find at any hardware store. You can see this being used on several other tutorials on this site.

Giraffe Neck after Adding Paper Mache
Giraffe Neck after Adding Paper Mache

The photo below shows that I first tried to add the head, made from crumpled paper and masking tape, before adding any paper mache to the neck. I can’t remember why I removed the head, although I believe it was because the shape wasn’t quite right and I wanted to do it over.

Anyway, at some point a basic form for the head was added using paper and masking tape, and I then used Sculpey modeling clay over this basic form to build up the details of the head.

In the second photo below you can see this in process. Unfortunately, this is where I stopped taking photos. I had decided at this point that I wouldn’t be writing a detailed tutorial. And frankly, it was so exciting at the moment when the Sculpey suddenly became a giraffe that I didn’t want to stop and take photos. The sculpture was finally working, after spending days wrestling with the cardboard to form the neck.

Giraffe Head, Step 1
Giraffe Head, Step 1
Giraffe Head, Step 2
Giraffe Head, Step 2

When I was satisfied with the clay sculpture, I added several layers of paper mache and allowed it to dry.

I then performed a very delicate operation to remove the clay from inside the head. I felt the weight of the head would make it too easy for the sculpture to be knocked over by one of my playful dogs, even though the bottom of the neck was filled with plaster.

The head was cut in half, the clay and crumpled paper was removed, and the head was immediately put back together with strips of brown paper and paste. If the pieces are not put back together immediately they warp as they dry, and the two halves will not fit together.

With the underlying Sculpey and crumpled paper removed, the head is completely hollow.

Finishing the Giraffe

The ears were then added,  using cardboard pieces cut out of a cereal box. I made the mane from four long strips of corrugated cardboard. I spent a long time cutting “hair” into the strips by cutting almost all the way through the strips a few hundred times. I then notched the side of the two outside strips that would attach to the giraffe, so I would have tabs to tape over. The two inside strips were cut narrower, and glued to the outside pieces. The mane was then attached to the neck with strips of brown paper and paste.

The sculpture was then covered in several layers of glue based gesso, which I made from:

  • 2 parts PVA glue (Elmers or Carpenter’s glue)
  • 4 parts water
  • 8 parts calcium carbonate (marble dust)
  • And 1 part titanium or zinc white pigment, by volume.

Don’t feel you need to run out and buy these items. Ordinary gesso from the art store would work fine.

I then added the spots by mixing some home-made gesso using natural pigments – but acrylic paint would work for the spots. The eye was painted black with acrylic paint, and then a finish coat was applied.

You can see the mane a bit more clearly in the photo below, plus the odd shape that the head has when seen from the top:

Giraffe Mane, Ears and Horns
Giraffe Mane, Ears and Horns
Giraffe Head, From Above
Giraffe Head, From Above

She looks very strange from the top.You can see that the eyes bulge a lot, and you can’t see the actual eyes at all from above. I think this allows the giraffe to have eyes focused on the ground, where their natural enemies might be lurking.

I used a lot of photos from the Internet to see how giraffes are built. I learned some interesting things while doing my research. Of most importance to me as an artist is that every species of giraffe has a different pattern of spots. My giraffe is a total mutt, and does not reflect any particular species or geographic area.

I also learned that biologists are still arguing over how many vertebrae giraffes have in their necks. You would think they could just count them after a giraffe dies in a zoo, but what do I know?

If you make a giraffe of your own, please let us see how it turned out.

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  • Hi Jonni,
    My lovely giraffe made in Kenya has lost one of his ears. Do you have a pattern from which I could construct a new one?
    Thank you.
    Megan

    • Hi Megan. That’s too bad about your giraffe. Their ears are long triangles. The bottom of the triangle is curved into a circle, with the top edge folded more than the bottom edge. You would want to cut your new ear to match the one on your sculpture, so I’d suggest using a piece of copy paper, place it around the remaining ear, and trace around it. Then both ears will match.

      Good luck with it! I hope your giraffe gets well soon.

  • Hi ma’m,
    Im a great fan of your work its so inspiring!! Ma’m need i help in making a wearable giraffe and jackle masks.

  • Hi again. I prepared another email and don’t know if it was sent. I just reviewed part 2 of your giraffe and neck and was impressed. My home is decorated in safari style. I had a life-sized, realist giraffe head and partial neck sculpture. Unfortunately, last week, a cabinet installer caused it to fall from its 8 foot high perch and shatter.

    I need to replace it but do not have the skills to do so as a craft. I would greatly appreciate any information about who may be available to replace my giraffe. My telephone number is 561 742-9400. I thank you in advance for your early reply.

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