Project Difficulty Level: Intermediate
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 – is she Moby Dick’s grandaughter?
During this project I encountered some challenges, and found a new solution that I’d never tried before. I’ll show you what went wrong, and how I fixed it, in this post.
I had all the materials on hand, but if you purchase everything starting from scratch, the project should cost less than $15. Step-by-step photos after the jump.
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.
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 use plenty of masking tape to attach the flukes to the body. I also bend the tail portion of the body towards me as I’m working, so the whale’s tail will stand away from the wall. This gives the final wall hanging a sense of movement.
I now add crumpled newspaper to round out the whale’s body. I also add 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 keep 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.
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).
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. After the joint compound on my whale was dry, I used fine sandpaper to make it completely smooth.
I now covered the whale completely with a layer of torn paper towels, using my flour and water paste. 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 create a thin paste using white flour, carpenter’s glue, a small amount of antique white acrylic paint, and water.
I add the glue/paste mixture to the whale with a wide brush, and smooth 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.
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.
I then finished the wall hanging with a final coat of water-based verathane.
The finished Baby Sperm Whale wall hanging:
The wall hanging is now hanging in my sun room.