I thought it would be fun to take another look at one of the first projects I ever posted on my blog. I don’t have this whale any more, (I sold her to a friend), but it has some sentimental value for me. This is the very time I used joint compound on a paper mache sculpture. No, I didn’t use it in paper mache clay (I hadn’t invented that recipe yet), but if it hadn’t been for the paper mache fix, this baby whale wall sculpture would have ended up in the trash.
I first posted this project back in 2008. I can’t believe I’ve been writing for this blog that long – where has the time gone?
And why the heck did I make the images so small? And why didn’t I save the original photos?
The baby sperm whale wall hanging was easy to make, once I figured out what to do about the lumps, and I like how it came out. However, if you’re looking for a truly impressive wall sculpture of whales, be sure to check out Basil’s guest post, too.
To get started on this project, I found a photo of a rare white baby sperm whale in the wonderful book Sperm Whales by Jonathan Gordon. I couldn’t resist the idea of doing a sculptural portrait of this rare baby – maybe we could pretend she’s Moby Dick’s grandaughter.
During this project I encountered some challenges, and found a new solution that I’d never tried before (the joint compound). I’ll show you what went wrong, and how I fixed it, in this post. I’ll also tell you how I’d change the process if I did it again, just to make the project even easier.
The project starts with a scrap piece of 1×4 board. I attached two picture hangers to the board, and then used plenty of carpenter’s glue to attach a piece of cardboard that has been cut to the general shape of the baby sperm whale. (After the tail has been attached, the wall hanging is about 25 inches wide.)
Elmer’s glue would also work, but I had carpenter’s glue on hand. I left the glue to dry overnight, to make sure the bond was tight before continuing on to the next step. (And yes, my helper the cat that intrudes on so many of my YouTube videos. She looks so young in this photo below. She’s now eleven years old.)
After the glue dried, I cut a piece of cardboard in the shape of the baby sperm whale’s tail flukes, and cut a short notch in both the flukes and the end of the body where the tail will be attached. As you can see, I’m getting a lot of help.
I used plenty of masking tape to attach the flukes to the body. I also bent the tail portion of the body towards me while I was working so the whale’s tail would stand away from the wall. This gave the whale a sense of movement, but the whale could still hang flat against the wall.
I now added crumpled newspaper to round out the whale’s body. I also added a few extra balls of paper to give the baby whale her characteristic bump where the eye will eventually go, and the bump at the top and front of her head. There is also a slight bulge below the eye, in what would be the cheek area. I kept the form very simple. Later, I discovered that the paper was too loose, and it was difficult to make the final paper mache layer as smooth as I wanted it to be. I’ll show you how I overcame that problem a little later.
I used plenty of masking tape to smooth out the whale’s body, and added her front fin, which was cut from a piece of cardboard.
I started adding torn newspaper, using a simple paste made from flour and water. I covered the cardboard at the back of the wall hanging first, and then turned her over and covered the front. This layer was then left in a warm place to dry completely. Doing both sides of the cardboard at once helps to reduce the warping that often happens when you try to use flat cardboard with paper mache. However, you still need to watch it closely, and prop it up so air can reach both sides and dry them both at the same time.
I added another layer of paper, using torn brown paper from a paper bag. There were lots of extra bumps and dips in the surface that I didn’t like, which I tried to fill with extra paper – but there were still too many bumps. I allowed the second layer of paper to dry (the whale fit, just barely, into my oven, so I left her for several hours at 200 F. Paper burns, of course, so you must always use caution and never leave your paper mache projects in a place where they could get too hot).
I was really discouraged at this point – the whale was really lumpy because the underlying armature was lumpy, and way too soft. I was doing one of my home remodeling jobs at the time, and it occurred to me that joint compound is used to repair holes and dips in walls, so why not paper mache?
After the second layer had completely dried, I used a knife to spread joint compound in the low spots. Joint compound is found at the hardware store. It is normally used to finish new walls that are made from plasterboard, or to repair holes in old walls. It gets hard after it has been spread on a wall (or on a baby whale) and left to dry. It has no strength of its own, however – it smooths things out, but doesn’t hold things together or make them stronger.
After the joint compound on my whale was dry, I used fine sandpaper to make it completely smooth, but if I did this today I’d use a damp sponge. It’s a lot easier and less messy.
I now covered the whale completely with a layer of torn paper towels, using my flour and water paste. This protected the fragile layer of joint compound and gave it an interesting texture. I also decided to add her lower jaw. (In the original photo, this rare white sperm whale baby seemed to be smiling. It was such an endearing characteristic that I decided to include the smile in my wall hanging. To do this, I added a roll of paper and attached it with the paper and paste strips. This is the last layer of paper. Now the wall hanging is left to dry completely before finishing.
Paper mache projects must be completely dry before you add any water-proof finish, like paint or varnish. The outside can feel hard and dry when the inside is still damp. If you don’t give the project enough time to dry, the sculpture can rot from the inside out. This can be extremely discouraging. However, mold can only live in the presence of water, so you can avoid this problem by drying your project over a radiator or in a warm oven. (I don’t use products that kill mold, like some wallpaper pastes, because I don’t like to dip my hands in poison.)
For the final finish coat, I created a thin paste using white flour, carpenter’s glue, a small amount of antique white acrylic paint, and water. This was one of my first attempts to create a home-made gesso to smooth out the piece and make it nice and white. Since then, I discovered a better recipe that sticks better, and it won’t flake off, like flour paste might. You can find that recipe here.
I added the glue/paste mixture to the whale with a wide brush, and smoothed it on with the side of my finger. I added three coats, sanding lightly between coats. I left a bit of the texture that was created by the paper towels, because sperm whales aren’t smooth, like killer whales, but are actually a bit wrinkly. I think the texture makes the finished wall hanging more realistic.
The paste/glue/white paint mixture was used instead of just painting the whale white, because it has a deeper feel to it – it looks richer than plain paint would. But, like I said, I would achieve the same look today using the newer recipe.
**Here’s another thing I would do differently if I made this whale again. Be sure to keep reading to see how I would do this today,
I mixed up a small amount of satin water-based Verathane with a little bit of brown paint. I put this “antiquing” mixture on the wall hanging, a little spot at a time, and then rubbed it off with a paper towel. The brown color was left only in the small dips in the texture, and in the mouth area. Almost all the rest of the color was wiped off, leaving the whale white. I tested it on a hidden spot first, to make sure I liked it. (This process was only possible because the carpenter’s glue in the previous coat is water-proof. Without the glue, the paint/Verathane mixture would sink in, and I couldn’t wipe off the excess color.)
I don’t have a brush that is small enough to paint the eye, so I used the tip of a sharp cuticle stick as a ‘brush’ to add the details around the eye, using the same mixture of brown paint and Verathane. The eye is the only dark spot on the wall hanging, and I didn’t want it to draw too much attention.
Today, I would use a product called Glazing Liquid instead of mixing the brown paint with varnish. The glazing liquid slows down the drying time of acrylic paint, so you can wipe it off much more easily, without creating streaks or lines. It’s still true that you need to seal your piece first to make this work, especially when you’re working right on top of unpainted paper mache, the way I did for this project.
I then finished the wall hanging with a final coat of water-based Verathane. It’s what I had on hand, but today I’d use an acrylic varnish from the art store, because it would be less likely to yellow over time.
The finished Baby Sperm Whale wall hanging: