Art Projects in School – A Serious Question

I have some concerns about something I’ve learned from a few of the emails and comments I receive on this blog. The issue has to do with teachers, at all grade levels, assigning art projects to be done at home without teaching the students any of the skills they’ll need to successfully complete the assignments. This bothers me for several reasons, which I’ll go into below, but I’d really like to hear your opinion on the subject. What am I missing?

Here’s just two examples of what I’m hearing from readers (and I admit I have no way of knowing how common this is):

1. A high school student is studying medieval European culture in social studies class. Her assignment is to create a full-sized paper mache sculpture of a charging light draft horse, to be completed on her own time. Another student will create the armored knight to go on top of the horse. The student has never made anything with paper mache before, so she contacts me for some help.

2. A first-grader comes home and tells his mom that he needs to take a paper mache owl to school next Wednesday, and mom starts searching the web to find out how to do it.

I think you can guess from the general subject matter of this blog that I am very much in favor of art being taught in schools. In fact, I wish every student could learn art, music and dance at every grade, not only so they can have a well-rounded education, but because various art forms excite different parts of the brain than mathematics and language arts and history. Arts are important – no question about it.

However, there are two things the assignments I listed above have in common:

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How to Protect Your Hands While Working with Paper Mache?

This morning Liz left a question on a previous post, and it’s one of those questions that you may be better at answering than I am. I’m sure she isn’t the only one who has hands that get dry when working with paper mache. Here’s her question:

I have a very practical and basic papier mache question. The skin on my hands is somewhat delicate (particularly in the winter) and I try to keep it happy. I keep wondering if PM artists just sacrifice the skin on their hands for their art or just how they protect their hands from deteriorating. I can’t imagine wearing even thin gloves to do PM. What do you do?

So – what would you do? Like told Liz, I’m not into self-sacrifice, but this just isn’t a problem I’ve run into. I do use Bag Balm on my hands when they get dry and cracked from gardening, (probably shows how old this country gal is getting), but is there a way to protect your hands from getting damaged in the first place? Any products that work really well, to protect the hands without making the sculptures all greasy, and without encasing the hands in latex? Your suggestions would be much appreciated.

Fear of Drawing? Sculpture Anxiety? Creative Block?

Do you have potential paintings or sculptures in your  mind that are so real you can close your eyes and touch the surface of the canvas, or walk entirely around the piece, exploring it’s every detail? Do you have a short story or a novel in your mind that’s so real you can see yourself turning the pages? Is something stopping you from actually creating it, so other people can see it, too?

I’ve started thinking about what my next sculpture should be, now that my book project is starting to wind down. And whenever I start thinking about what I should do next, three “old friends” keep trying to get my attention. These are the three sculptures that I’ve been living with, (only in my mind, of course), for at least 5 years.

Is there such a thing as artistic phobia? Sculpture anxiety? A fear of drawing? Do you have ideas that you fully intend to pursue, but you never seem to feel the time is right?

I thought it might be fun to talk about this issue, because you, too, might have a great masterpiece in your mind that’s trying to get out. If so, maybe we could offer each other some support. I admit that I have a mild superstition that prevents me from talking about the three sculptures that I would love to do, someday. I think it was Earnest Hemingway that started my superstition when he said a writer should never tell a story until he has it down on paper. So I don’t want to describe the works that I haven’t yet created, but I would like to talk about the possible reasons why that they haven’t been created yet.

Obviously, there may be practical reasons why we hesitate to tackle a project. This is particularly true if we know we need technical skill that we haven’t yet acquired. Skills take time to develop, and it would be disappointing to see our potential masterpiece created by an amateur. That has certainly been an issue for me, since I’ve only been sculpting full-time for about 14 months. Perhaps we need to take more classes, or read more books, or just get more hands-on experience before we tackle “the big one.”

But is there something else that stops us, too? A fear of failing? The possibility of discovering that we just don’t have what it takes? Do we blame our job, or our family obligations, or our health, when there’s really something else stopping us?

There are other circumstances that might be holding us back. For instance, you may live in a small house or apartment that simply doesn’t have room to create something as large as you imagine it. The materials might be too expensive. You might need a private space that can be locked, to keep out children who could be harmed by the art materials, and you simply don’t have that space. You might need private time, so your mind will be free to think up new possibilities, work on new solutions — and you simply can’t find the time. You may have a “real” job that leaves you creatively exhausted at the end of the day.

These are real obstacles — but can they be overcome?

I’ve decided to challenge myself in the next few months: I will consider every objection that keeps me from starting at least one of those sculptures, and then find a way to work around those objections. I will commit myself to learning the skills I need, no matter how long it will take. When I think up inventive reasons to procrastinate (and I know I will) I’ll try to ignore them. I will look the fear of failure in the face, and work through it. The sculptures will not be museum-quality when they’re done — they may not even be good enough to show anyone — and that’s got to be OK.

I’ll commit myself to creating those sculptures because it will open up the possibility for new ideas, for the next great challenges.

The first thing I’ll do is ask for some help from some friends who might be willing to pose for me. Once I’m over that hurdle, (asking for help goes against my nature), I’ll see what happens next.

Would you like to join me in the challenge? Is there a short story, or a painting, or a novel, or a sculpture that’s been haunting you for years? What do you  need to do first, so you can actually get started?  Let’s talk about it…

Reader Needs Help With Pinata

I just received an urgent request for help with a pinata project on the Paper Mache Recipe page, and I don’t have the answer. I’ve never made a pinata,and I’m hoping you can help. Please read the comment below and offer your suggestions:

Hello there!

First, I must say how truly gifted you are. These sculptures are AMAZING! I am not doing anything that intricate. I have made 3 large dinosaur egg pinatas for my daughters 7th birthday party. There will be about 39 kids in attendance. I made this by covering plastic trash bags (filled with more plastic bags) with paper mache (using the flour/water/salt/cinnamon recipe). I have done 2 layers of paper mache and it’s SLOWLY drying. I plan to spray paint them, then go back and add details with a paint brush = like adding a crack and a claw sticking out, etc. My goal is to give each kid a good whack at the pinata = so each pinata should be able to withhold about 13 whacks before cracking open. What can I do to strengthen them more? I have run out of time to do a 3rd coat as it seems to take longer and longer to dry. Thank you for any insight you can provide to me. – It’s much appreciated!

(The dino egg idea is really clever, don’t you think?)

Thanks in advance for your help. I know Suzanne will appreciate it.

Mixing Color–A Short Physics Lesson

Mixing Color--A Short Physics Lesson

I accidentally discovered Blue and Yellow Don’t Make GreenMixing Color--A Short Physics Lesson, by Michael Wilcox. I ordered the book on a whim, and it has now become one of the most important resources among all the books I own on the subject of art.

I decided to tell you about it, just in case your experience with mixing colors has been as disappointing as mine.

If you’re a professional artist who figured out color mixing years ago, this post won’t mean much to you. However, I struggled for years trying to understand why the colors I mixed for my paintings and craft projects never came out right. I was obviously doing something wrong. After reading this easy-to-understand book, I now realize that I didn’t understood the basic physics of color.

This was particularly upsetting to me because the animals I like to paint are often clothed in subtle, interesting shades that I couldn’t match on my palette.

After reading Wilcox’s book, I realized that I learned to mix colors the wrong way back in grade school. That’s when I learned that yellow and blue paint make green paint. Red and yellow make orange. Red and blue make violet.

It sounded so simple. So why couldn’t I mix these colors and make the hues I needed?

Since I didn’t understand the underlying physics of color, (and neither did my grade school teachers), most of the colors I tried to mix on my palette turned into mud.

If you mix blue and yellow paint you will get green–or something close to green. But it never seems to be the green you want. It’s very often a muddy, grayish stuff with a greenish cast–or it’s a brash, neon color that isn’t at all what your painting calls for.

Yellow and red do make orange, but what if you really wanted a muted, almost brown orange–or that specific hue that you see in a particular animal’s eyes or frog’s skin pattern? Just start adding this and that–and end up with a muddy color that’s almost, but not quite, the color you wanted.

Blue and red do make violet–or a grayish mud with a violet overtone, depending on which blue and red you mix together.

When you do manage to mix a color that’s perfect, will you be able to reproduce it next week? Only if you take very good notes, and frankly, I don’t know anyone who does. But maybe your memory is a lot better than mine.

Of course, if you’ve taken a university-level course in color mixing, you’ll think this whole post is silly. Your paintings and craft projects will be filled with exactly the right colors, both bold and subtle, and those colors make your creative spirit soar.

But you only have to stand in front of the display of artist’s paints at the art store, or the acrylic craft paints displayed at your local WalMart, to see that I’m not the only one who can’t figure out how to mix colors. Manufacturers make hundreds of different hues, just for us poor folks who can’t quite figure it out.

Even the vast array of pre-mixed colors available at the store won’t help you get those muted grays that are so important in many paintings.

So, if you’re anything like me, you seem to have several options:

  1. Never start a painting or craft project that doesn’t use pre-mixed colors available at the local store; or,
  2. Find a book that shows swatches of thousands of colors, along with the formula for each, and thumb through it endlessly to find the color you need; or,
  3. Start an ambitious project that requires subtle, interesting colors and then try to mix them on your palette by adding a bit of this, a bit of that–and then decide the muddy color you end up with is “close enough;” or,
  4. Just give up and announce that you can’t paint.

I’ve tried all these options, and none of them has been been very satisfying.

That’s why I’m so excited about the book Blue and Yellow Don’t Make GreenMixing Color--A Short Physics Lesson. Mr. Wilcox explains exactly why my previous attempts to mix colors was so often unsuccessful (his explanation goes against everything you learned about color in school), and then he shows how to mix exactly which colors you need–including those elusive grays–every single time, using a very small number of pigments. It’s not only easier to get the colors you want, but it’s also less expensive than buying a new hue every time you run into a difficult color.

Let’s talk about green, since it’s mentioned in the title of the book:

When blue and yellow light lands together on a white surface, green light bounces back. So it really is true, when speaking strictly of colored light, that blue and yellow make green.

However, a painting (or the surface of a painted craft project or paper mache sculpture) is not made up of light. It’s made from colored pigments that absorb or reflect light, which is an entirely different thing.

And that’s why trying to mix paint as though it were pure light simply doesn’t work. Your grade-school teacher may have insisted that it would work, but it won’t.

Mr. Wilcox explains this problem with a short physics lesson, which I’ll try to recreate here.

When white light hits a surface that has been painted blue, every color except blue is absorbed into the surface, and blue light is reflected back to your eyes. You knew this already, of course.

When white light hits a yellow surface, the same thing happens–except this time every color except yellow is absorbed, and yellow is reflected back to our eyes.

Mix all the colors on your palette together to make black, and the paint will absorb every color of light, so no light at all is reflected back to our eyes.

If colored paints were actually pure color (which they are not), every time you mix any two “pure” colors of paint together you would get black. The bits of blue in the blue paint would absorb the red and yellow light, and the bits of yellow paint would absorb the red and blue light. No light would escape from the paint, and you’d see a perfectly black surface.

This doesn’t really happen because paints aren’t pure. Some light does escape when we mix two colored paints together. The problem is, the color that escapes is often not really the color we wanted or expected.

So, let’s mix two colors that really do make green:

A greenish blue, like Cerulean blue, reflects mostly blue and a little bit of green.

A greenish yellow, like lemon yellow, reflects mostly yellow and a little bit of green.

Mix them together, and the blue and yellow (plus any red, purple, and orange) will be absorbed, just as one would expect. However, since both colors also a bit of green, the green from both pigments is able to escape from the paint surface and is reflected back into our eyes. You have just created green paint.

It isn’t the blue and yellow mixed together that made green–in fact, the blue and yellow cancel each other out. However, we do see green because green was reflected by both pigments.

This seems so obvious to me now, but until I read the explanation I just didn’t get it.

So what happens if we mix together a blue and yellow that reflect only a very tiny amount of green?

When you mix a violet blue, like Ultramarine, with a orangey yellow, like Cadmium Yellow Light, you end up with grey. There will be a greenish cast to your grey, and it may be exactly the grey your painting needs. However, if you didn’t want a muted gray with green overtones, you’ll end up adding a bit of this color and that color in order to “fix” it, and end up with mud.

Since no paint color is pure blue or yellow or red, every paint color will reflect a tiny amount of the other colors in the spectrum. Even Ultramarine blue and Cadmium Yellow will reflect a little bit of green. That’s why the grey or brown you end up with when they’re mixed will be a very muted green. There are times when that’s exactly what your painting needs.

One of the reasons that I’m so excited about this book is that it opens up many more species for me to sculpt with my paper mache clay. In the past I tended to avoid any critter that has a fur or skin pattern that I knew I wouldn’t be able to paint correctly. Now that I understand the basic physics behind colors, (and with the help of the color swatches in Wilcox’s book) I’m confident that I can move forward with my chosen medium.

Do you know of another book that helped you understand how to mix or use color in your crafts or paintings? If so, I’d love to hear about in the comments below.

Storing Paper Mache in Hot, Humid Climate???

How can you store paper mache Christmas ornaments so they’ll still be beautiful next year? Your suggestions are welcome.

Hi Everyone. A reader sent me a question I can’t answer, and I’m hoping you can help her out. She lives in Texas, and she wants to know the best way to protect a pair of paper mache snowmen she just found,. She normally puts her Christmas decorations in the attic, but she worries that the paper mache won’t survive the heat (or the humidity).

I live on the edge of a desert, so I am not the expert here. If you have any ideas at all, please post them below. I know Mary Jane will appreciate any help you can offer.

My New Makeshift Photo Studio

This post shows the new tabletop photo studio I set up for taking pictures of my paper mache animal sculptures. The total cost includes a new Fujifilm FinePix S1500 camera, new daylight florescent bulbs and colored fabrics to be used as “seamless” backdrops.

My little makeshift photo studio seems to work quite well for close-up photos of my sculptures. Since I spent the smallest amount of money I possibly could and still ended up with a very workable setup, I thought you, as a fellow artist, might be interested.

The total cost of my new “studio” was $247.55. Some of the parts were rummaged from my garage, so the costs of those items are not included in that total.

New Tabletop Studio for Photos of My Animal Sculptures
New Tabletop Studio for Photos of My Animal Sculptures


Before I could even begin setting up my little table-top studio I needed to buy a new camera. My old one couldn’t take photos at a high enough resolution for large prints, which are needed when taking photos that will be printed in a book. My 4 megapixel Canon Powershot A520 My New Makeshift Photo Studio simply wasn’t up to the job, and its limitations were slowing down the creation of my new how-to book about using paper mache clay to create animal sculptures. (13 completely new projects planned – stay tuned…)

According to Steve Meltzer’s book Photographing Arts, Crafts & CollectiblesMy New Makeshift Photo Studio, (a great book – highly recommended), I needed a camera with at least 8 megapixels, but my Canon has only 4. Some online research pointed me to the Fujifilm FinePix S1500My New Makeshift Photo Studio, a 10 megapixel camera that has some of the automatic features that I really need.

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Seattle’s Mystery Sculptor

Mystery Sculpture

A mysterious artist left a rather elaborate multi-piece paper mache sculpture at Gas Works Park in Seattle last night. The newspaper sent me an email just a few minutes ago to see if I knew who the artist was – which I think is rather flattering. Unfortunately, I don’t know who created this piece, which:

…consists of several pieces: a full-size gold-plated man standing on the waterfront surrounded by what appear to be shells, some with the heads of people emerging from them…

Ideas for a Cheap and Affordable Artists’ Community

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I thought it would be fun to digress a bit from my usual posts. Today I offer my somewhat Utopian idea for an artists’ community based on the all-American concept of the trailer park. Odd, yes, I know. And, of course, that means this post has no new tutorials or finished sculptures, but paper mache isn’t the only thing I’m interested in, you know…

Why I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately…

With the current economic crisis and an increasingly disturbing political climate, it just seems time to circle the wagons. Going it alone works great when times are good, but during hard times it makes sense to band together with others who have similar interests in order to protect those things we value most. And for artists of any stripe, whether they’re painters, sculptors, writers or bloggers, one of the things we value most is the time and security we need to make creative endeavors possible.

With the recession affecting so many people, many of us are already being forced to take roommates just to keep the rent paid. Others are suddenly finding themselves jobless, homeless, and pension-less through no fault of their own. These personal tragedies could be the basis of a strong community spirit if there was a place where people could come together for mutual support. After all, history has shown us that a community is most creative when faced with adversity. And right now, there’s a lot of adversity to go around.

There’s another thing that got me thinking along these lines. I’ve  recently read a book called How the Scots Invented the Modern WorldIdeas for a Cheap and Affordable Artists' Community, by Arthur Herman. There’s one section in the book where Herman describes the community of Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment, when philosophers and tradesmen, professors and waiters – people from all classes and occupations – all lived in such close quarters that their main form of entertainment was an evening at the local bar, rowdily discussing current events, literature, and the arts.

I found this truly inspiring, simply because I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by people who make fun of me because I read books. I realize that I have no-one to blame but myself, since I’ve chosen occupations outside academia, but still – wouldn’t it be fun to have a place where it was common to have enthusiastic discussions about things beyond the latest celebrity’s antics, or what we’re having for dinner?

And to be able to do it in real life, instead of an online forum where the discussions are interesting but there is no real human contact? You may live in a community where that sort of thing happens all the time, but I do not.

(The book I’m currently working on is When Corporations Rule the WorldIdeas for a Cheap and Affordable Artists' Community. It would make a great subject for a good, lively debate at the local pub).

And lastly, I’ve always felt nostalgic over the idea of a commune, even though my own experiences in this form of social organization were total failures back in the ’70s. It just seems like communes should work, even though most don’t.

So I realize that the following idea is Utopian, and probably impossible. But it could at least be fun to talk about it, don’t you think?

Here’s my vision for an affordable arts community:

First, someone, (or a group of people), purchases a few acres of good land near an existing small community. (It’s amazing how cheap land and houses are outside the big cities.)

Next, the new owners get a local permit to set up a trailer park. Yes, that’s what I said – a trailer park.

The land is divided into areas for communal gardens and lots for small well-insulated manufactured houses or hand-made dwellings built on wheels. (In the US, a trailer park is one of the few places where people can choose to live in a small home – most neighborhoods have minimum size requirements that make owning your own home impossible for millions of people.)

I’m suggesting a size limit for the dwellings in order to reduce the amount of land required for dwellings and to  reduce the amount of energy needed to keep the dwelling warm or cool. Couples who can’t share such close quarters could always have two houses – it might actually improve some relationships to have a bit more personal space.

At the heart of the community would be a simple structure, perhaps an inexpensive steel farm-type building insulated with straw bales, that is divided into studios and offices for the use of people who live in the park. This building would also house a community lounge where people can come together to share their artwork or latest writings, and to discuss politics or philosophy or whatever excites them at the moment.

Why set it up as a trailer park?

Most intentional communities tend to end up with people of similar political or social interests. This requires that newcomers be judged based on the purity of their ideas, and this does not appeal to me.

However, I’m definitely drawn to the idea of living cheaply with others who may not have accumulated a lot of money in their lives, but who have lots of interesting ideas and creative energy to share with others. Their religious or political persuasion doesn’t matter to me, as long as religious and political discussions (arguments?) are possible without resorting to violence. To me, it’s the differences between people that make them interesting. How boring to be surrounded by people who all think alike!

We could get that interesting mix by simply renting to anyone who wanted a space for a small home and the use of a studio or office and a small garden plot. This idea might appeal to many baby-boomers who have been dreaming about living “beyond the sidewalks” or becoming full-time artists for most of their lives, but who have never accumulated the money or partners that are needed for homesteading or a purely creative life in the city.

Getting in wouldn’t cost much – and people would have no trouble leaving if the community no longer met their needs.

I know you’ve probably found a number of flaws in my reasoning, but to me it sounds like a wonderful way to live – but it wouldn’t be all perfect, of course. For instance, I think how hard it would be to give up my current home, and I worry that my new neighbors would start having community meetings where rules and regulations are developed by committee, and where laws are decided by those who shout the loudest. (Do I have too little faith in human nature? Can you tell I hate meetings?)

Or the park’s owners would decide it would be more profitable to sell the land for development, as often happens, leaving all of us to scramble to find another place to live. Since the land and park would be the property of the owners, and that ownership could change, there would be an element of insecurity built into the plan. But then, nothing’s perfect.

So now it’s your turn. Have you ever dreamed about creating a community where living is cheap and where creativity is encouraged even if it has no economic purpose? What would such a community look like, and how would it be regulated to protect the independence and creativity of the inhabitants? Or am I just being silly, as usual?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.