Dionysus – A Faux Marble Bust in a Paper Mache Frame

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A faux marble bust of the Greek God Dionysus is surrounded by a paper mache frame. The frame was designed to look like an open niche in a garden wall.

I started this wall sculpture of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine (among other things) several months ago. It sat on my shelf, almost finished, for weeks. Have you ever started a project that you just couldn’t make yourself finish? And then discovered that you couldn’t make yourself start a new project until the old one was done?

Well, yesterday I finally got to the point where I couldn’t stand to look at it any more, and I put the final touches on the sculpture. Now I can move on to something new, at last.

This paper mache wall sculpture actually started as a challenge to myself. I wanted to try to create a  narrative work, using a passing moment in my life – like a snapshot – and using symbolism instead of literal images. When I conceived of the challenge I was just finishing The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan. (Yes, I know it’s a kid’s book, but why should they have all the fun?) One of the main characters in the book is Dionysus.

That same day a sharp-shinned hawk perched on my grape arbor, hoping to snag another junco from the bird feeder. Or maybe I should say he was hoping the surviving juncos would be dumb enough to forget the hawk grabbed one of them the day before.

So, the wall sculpture features Dionysus, standing in for the grape arbor. I moved the hawk into the background to keep the painting from being too uncomfortably carnivorous, and moved the junco up onto the bust of Dionysus just because I think he’s cute. The dark songbird is balanced by a miniature thyrsus.

One thing that slowed this project was my curiosity. After spending hours sculpting a bust of the god out of plasticine clay I had to learn more about him. I discovered that many women worshiped him quite passionately, but the more I learned about his character, the less I understood why. Fortunately, I did not use the artistic form that was used by his cult to call the god – a giant mask – so he shouldn’t be tempted to come visiting any time soon.

This 3D painting of Dionysus is part paper mache (the frame and the little junco sitting on the god’s shoulder), and the bust of Dionysus was cast in Duncan DC100 Doll Composition. I would have preferred using the Activa Li-Qua-Che Pourable Papier Mache that I used for the Christmas ornaments, but I didn’t have enough left. (The Duncan product is hard and plastic-like, and isn’t much fun to paint).

The little junco was made just like the 7 hour bluebirds, (different colors, of course), and the frame was made out of cardboard shapes covered with paper mache strips and paste, like the Dogon mask. Because the frame is flat, there was a very strong tendency to warp. To counteract this tendency I dried it slowly between each coat, and put a weight on top to keep it flat.

I don’t know what my next project will be. If you have any burning questions about how to sculpt with paper mache, or if there is a specific paper mache tutorial that you would like to see, please let me know in the comments below.

23 thoughts on “Dionysus – A Faux Marble Bust in a Paper Mache Frame

  1. I love this so much simply for the fact that:
    1) its amazing
    2) its a greek god, and I love greek mythology
    3) You do it because of Percy Jackson! I love Percy Jackson so much!

  2. Hi Jonni,
    I want to tell you that your sculptures are amazing! I wondered if you could tell me what paint(s) and process you used to make the bust of Dionysus look like marble? All of the information on your post is invaluable. Thank you so much for sharing all the information.
    Joyce

    • Hi Joyce. Thanks for the nice comments. It’s been a long time since I painted Dionysus, but now that I’m looking at him it looks like I used a very warm white acrylic paint, and when it was dry I used a orange/brown glaze, which I rubbed off everywhere except the crevices. Not very sophisticated, but it seemed to work. (It’s still one of my favorite sculptures.)

  3. Impressive work of art. Who would have known that the materials for the frame is made of paper. How I wish I could do something like this.

  4. Question – is it necessary to prime with gesso first – then paint any sculpture made with Jonni’s great recipe? I primed my first project – but I was thinking it might be nice to paint directly on the sculpture. I know it sometimes depends on what paint is used but I usually use a good acrylic.

    • I paint right on the clay at times. The gesso gives a nice smooth finish, but sometimes I prefer to leave it off. Experiment, and see what happens.

  5. Hello…I’m helping my boyfriend with his club Luau party. I want to make paper mache centerpieces, with each one resembling a Board member. I’m not sure if you’ve done people before or only animals. I’m thinking the principals would be similar, right?

    Since it’s an Island theme, I thought I would put them in hula skirts and coconut bra’s with a distinguishing item to set them apart (i.e., their favorite drink, hobby, etc). Maybe throw in a few palm trees, too.

    I’d like each centerpiece to be between 12-18″ tall. Should I use chicken wire or would the rolled paper work? I love the use of the joint compound for the smooth finish. Some of the members have beards, so I plan to try the hair finish you used on the bunny. I want the embellishments to be of different materials, like using mop for hair, grass skirting, and silk orchids.

    This is my first paper mache project as an adult. Your information has given me valuable tips to make it a success.

    Thank You!!

    • Hi Dee. What a great project! I hope you show us how they turn out.

      I recommend using the crumpled paper and masking tape for armatures, instead of chicken wire. It takes a lot of effort to get the wire in the shape you want, but shaping the paper is easy. To make sure your paper mache people will stand up, you might want to tape their feet to a cardboard base, at least until the first layer of paper mache is dry. You might also want to consider using the Super Sculpey to form the features of the face, then add a layer of paper and paste, and dry the face under a hot lamp. (Not too close – you don’t want to burn down your house!) This will cook the Sculpey so you won’t have to remove it. You would need to make the features exaggerated so the details don’t get lost when the paper is added and the paint applied.

      Be sure to let us know how your project turns out!

  6. “Have you ever started a project that you just couldn’t make yourself finish? And then discovered that you couldn’t make yourself start a new project until the old one was done?”

    gawd this is so true.lol..well i tried paper mache before. the shape didn’t really work out. ur site is inspiring with beautiful crafts. will be trying again.

  7. I am looking forward to trying out paper mache. I find your sculptures very beautiful. I was expecting to find lumpy childish looking crafts, what a surprise! Have you tried metallic paints/finishes to give your art a faux iron/metal look?

    • Hi Veronica –

      No, I did use copper paint, diluted, for the dragon sculpture – but no faux iron finishes. Although, now that you mention it, something in cast iron would be an interesting challenge. Maybe I’ll try it someday.

  8. Hello! I mess around with paper mache occassionally. I have looked at many, many, sites that have projects and paste recipes for this craft but I have NEVER found a site as informative & interesting as yours! Makes me want to try much more than easter eggs and pinatas! Wow! Even your photography is fantastic! I have book marked your site and will be back! Thanks for sharing your talent & skills with the world!
    ~Kristi
    MN

  9. Hi! I’m newly experimenting with paper mache, I got a sudden desire to make a paper mache moon that I can hang a light down into the inside of it, to hang beside my print of “Starry Night”.I used a blow-up beach ball (planing to cut it out after I finish) and I put a layer on using a flour/water paste and used regular paper from a sketch pad. How many layers do you think I should apply? Do you think the ball will easily withdraw from the mache? Do you think 3 or four layers will be too thick to let the light luminate through? Any suggestions would be helpful. Thank you!

    • Hi Valerie,

      The light might not get through that many layers, especially if you’re using heavy drawing paper. Two layers might be stiff enough to hold the shape – you can find out by lifting an edge off the ball before adding another layer. If your ball is plastic or rubber it should come right out. Good luck with your project!

  10. And by the way…

    There are four items in this sculpture that are used to define the portrait as “Dionysus.” One is the thyrsus, and another one is the full beard. Can you find the other two? If you do, let us know in the comments below.

    • I think I know – there seem to be clump of grapes in his hair, signifying his status as the god of wine. Also the medallion holding up the drape around his neck seems to be decorated with a panther – I read that Dionysus was also associated with panthers or leopards.

      I would love a full tutorial on this – I’ve been wanting to buy a small Grecian bust for jewelry displays at craft fairs – but even the faux ones are prohibitively expensive – I think there might be a way to prop this up on an easel, and drill holes in the frame for a necklace to drape – or, possibly complete a front and back to the bust (if I can get it to stand on it’s own).

      Thank you for all the great information you have provided on your site!

      • A tutorial would be rather difficult for this project, I’m afraid. I did it the hard way – I made a clay model of the bust, created a plaster cast, then used pourable doll composition for the bust. The only paper mache on the piece is the frame and background.

        If I did this today I’d probably do the entire piece in clay, including the frame, make a silicone mold, and then use the techniques I used for my recent cougar and hippo masks to create a thin plaster and paper pulp shell.

        In other words, if I did this over I probably wouldn’t use any paper mache at all, and I definitely wouldn’t use the doll composition, which is too slick and difficult to paint. You’re giving me some ideas, though – this piece is actually one of my favorites, but the method I used to create it was so tedious that I never made another one to display with it. Maybe I should use the ideas I just gave you and go back and make another one – Artemis, perhaps?

        • Thank you for writing back, and for your wonderful tutorials, including the mold making ones. If you ever decide to do another, Artemis would be lovely – I am very impressed by your sculpting abilities with the Dionysus bust. It really does have the look of ancient carved stone.

          I’m getting ahead of myself, anyway – I will be starting small, having no paper mache or even sculpting experience. The idea was just so exciting. I will be picking up some Elmer’s and boiled linseed oil this weekend – I can’t wait to give paper mache a try!

          • You actually gave me an idea – I’ve been trying to think of some useful product that I could make, and I’ve been considering felted hats. Hat stands modeled in paper mache would catch people’s attention at a fair, wouldn’t they? I sold at art fairs for years, and I discovered that people are almost forced to look at a display if they see eyes looking back. That should also be true for a jewelry display. If a bust was weighted so it doesn’t fall over, it could still be light enough to pack easily when the fair is over.

            And that reminds me that you might want to look at the posts I made about the chimpanzee bust I made – the techniques would work as well for a human face. The first experiment in making a hollow chimpanzee bust is here. Once I knew the technique worked, I made another one, and the final chimpanzee is here. It was much easier than the Dionysus wall hanging, by far.

            • Jonni, the chimpanzee is amazing – and thank you for the dtailled information regarding its creation – and painting! I love the life-like look of the eyes. I’m nervous to try something that big, but who knows? Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

              For your felted hats – I think paper mache hat stands would be a *fabulous* idea. They would definitely stand out from the run of the mill display stands you see everywhere. And in addition to getting people to check out your hats I am positive it would have the other crafters checking out the stands (and maybe asking could you make them one!) I think a lot of accessory artisans are looking for “something different”.

              Incidentally, I don’t know if you are familiar with her work, but Gemma Taccogna was a gifted paper mache artist who also created busts – a link to some info about her (and her creations) can be found here: http://www.papiermache.co.uk/articles/gemma-taccogna/2/ (this is page 2 of the article which has more info about her process).

              Hope you find it interesting and good luck with the display stands – thank you for all the info you provide on your site!

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