Endangered Tortoise Sculpture, Stage One

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Today I started a small sculpture of an endangered Ploughshare Tortoise, (Geochelone yniphora) — also known as the Angonoka, Madagascar Angulated Tortoise, or Madagascar Tortoise. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about endangered animals lately, and I found the story of this tortoise in Jane Goodall’s book Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink. There are only a few hundred left in the wild. They were put in jeopardy first by habitat destruction, but now they’re threatened by the illegal pet trade. Four of these extremely rare animals were recently stolen from their hidden reserve to sell to rich people who like to collect the last of things.

I think it’s much nicer, for many reasons, to collect images of rare species, or (even more fun) make our own paper mache sculptures of them. I did that recently with our friend the chimpanzee, another threatened species.

This morning I built an armature for the tortoise out of crumpled paper, masking tape, cardboard and old padded envelopes. I started by making a ball out of crumpled paper and tape, and flattening the bottom, as shown below:

Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Step 1
Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Step 1

Then I added the head, legs and tail. I’m not worried about details at this stage because I’ll add those when I apply the second layer of paper mache clay. (This project would work with traditional paper mache strips and paste, too, although the interesting textures of the skin and shell would be more difficult to do.)

Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Step 2
Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Step 2

Now we have a naked tortoise, so we have to add the shell. (Today I learned the difference between a turtle and a tortoise – turtles live in water, tortoises live on land. As you figured out already from reading two of his common names, this guy lives in Madagascar, a large island off the east coast of Africa, and home to many rare animals.)

I had some old padded envelopes sitting around, and I used three of them to make the upper shell. Much cutting and taping and testing was needed to make it fit. At this point it’s just sitting on top of the body, but I’ll tape it on next.

Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Step 3
Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Step 3
Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Step 3a
Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Step 3a

Now I taped the top shell onto the body, and cut a piece of cardboard for the bottom shell. I could not find a photo of a Ploughshare tortoise upside down, so I made a guess about the shape of the lower shell. However, we do know that the bottom shell has an odd horn-shaped (and uncomfortable-looking) protuberance that sticks up under the beast’s neck. That’s where the common name “Ploughshare Tortoise” comes from. I cut that into the piece of the cardboard, bent and curved it, and padded it with a little bit of crumpled paper and tape.

Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Step 4
Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Step 4

This is how he now looks from the bottom, with both top and bottom shells taped on:

Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Step 5
Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Step 5

You saw how he looks right-side-up at the top of this post. The next step is to add the first layer of paper mache clay, which I’ll start doing as soon as this post is uploaded. I’ll be creating the textures on the skin and shell when the second layer is added.

Endangered Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Ready for Paper Mache Clay
Endangered Ploughshare Tortoise Sculpture, Ready for Paper Mache Clay

Drying will take some time (it’s still raining, so I still can’t try out my new solar dryer, which is still sitting in the garage. I can’t believe how much rain we’ve been getting this month.) Since the solar gizmo is out of commission, I’ll bring a fan into the house and set the tortoise in front of it. That should help it dry faster, even in this humid weather. I’ll put up another post as soon as I have more to report…

See the next post in this series here.

31 thoughts on “Endangered Tortoise Sculpture, Stage One”

  1. Your website is so much fun to look through. My daughter needed a tortoise craft for kindergarten and so we made a paper mâché one and used your recipes and ideas. We had a great time and learned a bit about paper mache.

  2. Thanks very much for the tutorial. I’m planning to make a tortoise with a removable shell to hide the house key so when my kids forget they can retrieve from the tortoise. Can you tell me how big is your tortoise?

    • The tortoise was about 12 inches long – but I no longer have it because it died. The spar varnish cracked in the sun, and the next rain ruined the paper mache underneath. If your tortoise is going to be outside, you might want to make him out of cement instead.

  3. Hi,

    I am trying to look for ways I can make a giant octopus head….about the same size as a recliner armchair…..It is to be used for a parade our school is entering, so while large will need to be not too heavy…..any ideas? I love your turtle!

  4. Hi Jonni – I am enjoying your site here and learning so much. Thank you! I am about to start a project… making a giant sea turtle. I want it to be around 3×4′ finished. I was thinking of creating the armature with a cardboard cutout and then building it out with newspaper and tape, but after looking at this tortoise, I am wondering if I should do the entire body out of paper/tape and then add a shell like you did. It sounds a little difficult for a turtle that large. What would you recommend?

    • Ariana, I think your idea is better. The shell idea was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and I wouldn’t do it this way if I did it over. I’d do it exactly as you described. I experiment a lot, and sometimes my experiments don’t work out the way I thought they would. 😉

  5. Hi Jonni – I just stumbled across your site and I am loving watching your videos. I am so excited to try to create some paper mache sculptures. I am about to work on a giant sea turtle, and octopus, and the head of an eel for an underwater display I am doing for our church’s VBS program. I was wondering, since the turtle is going to be much larger than this little guy, and not as round, would you recommend starting with a cardboard cutout, as you did for the starfish, or should I work with paper wads and tape to build out the under shape and then fill in with paper wads? Not sure how to approach something larger. About 3×4′ is my goal. For the octopus, what would you recommend starting with for the head? A balloon or paper wads? Thank you!

    • Hi again. For the octopus head, I’d go with the crumpled paper. Balloons are really difficult to handle – but in this case a balloon might be exactly the right shape. If you do decide to use one, I’d recommend covering it with a layer or two of plaster cloth first, then do the paper mache. To see why I suggest this method, see my video about making Humpty Dumpty using a balloon.

  6. I am interested in whether you think a homemade paper mache project would work for using as a “water soluble biodegradable urn”. My mother in law passed away this last November and she loved turtles (she was cremated). I want to make small turtles that hold 2-3Tbsp ashes and give them to family members at the Memorial Service being held on the family land this May that has a river to “send her off”. The idea is to have the turtles float for a few minutes and then take on water and sink, which will break down over time and not hurt the environment. Do you have any thoughts or tips?

    • Hi Amanda. What a nice idea for a memorial. Yes, I think that paper mache would work well as a memorial urn, as long as you make it with a few layers of newspaper and flour and water paste. Maybe you could use colored paper as the last layer, if you want the turtles to have a more natural color. I believe that the inks used in newspaper are made with soy, so there shouldn’t be anything toxic in the turtles.

      • Thank you for getting back to me 🙂 I am really excited to get these started for the memorial, I know she would have loved this!! Thanks again

  7. Hello Jonni, My name is Deirdre and I love your paper mache animals and I wanted to ask you if you could post videos on your tortious and draft horse projects. I am a visual learner so that would help me to see how you do them. You did such a great job on these and I wanted to give them a try. Thank you very much.

    • Hi Deirdre. I actually posted all the photos I took of those two projects – not nearly enough to actually call them tutorials, though. There is a horse (colt, actually) on this site. You can find the links to all the posts on the extended paper mache tutorials page. (And there’s a horse in my book, but not a draft horse.) One of these days I’d like to make another tortoise, and if I do I’ll be sure to get better pictures and do a video.

  8. Thank you so much! I needed help thinking of a way to make a Galapagos tortoise for school and this really helped! Can I post the finished project when I’m done?

  9. Did you ever test out your solar dryer? Because I’ve been wanting to make one but I was not sure if it worked.

    • Monica, thanks for reminding me – I did use the dryer, and it worked OK. But our weather turned so nice right after making it that it turned out to be easier to just sit a wet sculpture in the shade where the moving warm air could dry it. I think if I’d used one of the plans available for the collector, instead of cobbling something together out of available parts, it would have worked better.

  10. Hello Jonni!!
    I would like to know how you actually MAKE the paper mache clay (ingredients that go into it)? Do you have to purchase it somewhere? Is there a cheaper way of making it at home? I live in Brazil, and materials here aren’t really cheap. I feel like people would be very interested in this.

    thank you!

    • Hi Jessica. You can find the recipe and mixing instructions on the paper mache clay page. You will find frequently asked questions (and answers ), on the new paper mache book page, including a list of product names used in other countries. Unfortunately, Brazil is not yet on the list, so we don’t know what “joint compound” is called there. If you find out, please let us know.

  11. Hello Jonni!! I would love to see how you start with the paper mache clay, and if you can sell it for how much would you do it???

    Thanks, and congratulations for your creativity!!

    • Hi Olivia. I’m not quite sure what you mean by how I start with the paper mache clay. Do you mean how I apply it to the armature? I just mix some up and then spread it over the crumpled paper and masking tape with a knife. I really don’t think anyone would be interested in buying my tortoise, since it would be so much more fun to make one than buy one. However, I have thought that a high school business class should take up the idea of mixing the ingredients of the clay and selling it as a fund-raising project. They’d have to learn about labeling laws, marketing, etc. Is that closer to what you meant?

  12. He is adorable, or is it a she ? – I’m going to try it but using, the new method I have learned using casts as the armature. I have recently completed my own snow leopard using the casted armature method, and he came nice. If you want to see it at this stage (unpainted) I think it looks interesting. But the turle would come nice either way yours or hers – I’m forgetting the author’s name at the moment.

  13. I love the idea of a series of endangered animals, Jonni! This guy is cute. So domed. Must appeal to our neotenous tendencies, you think? Like a big, round baby’s head.

    I looked him up to see what the finished project would be aimed at, and found this picture of the underside . Might help with the painting and final sculpting.

    • Ooh – and his tail, too! I made mine too stumpy – but it’s easy to fix. Thanks, Xan. And yes, they must appeal to some primal instinct in us – otherwise, why would people be willing to steal the last ones from the wild when they know their actions are dooming the poor critters to extinction? Are our instincts more powerful than our intelligence? I often think so….

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