Today’s guest post is by Kristin Jansson, who showed us her faux agates a few months ago, and agreed to let us see how they’re made. Thanks, Kristin!
©2021 Kristin Jansson
I was a prop and costume maker my whole career, working for theaters, museums and ad agencies in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I specialized in off beat items: voodoo dolls in business suits, live chickens wearing trapper hats, fossilized Barbie dolls among them. These jobs required use of many disparate materials, from foam rubber and leather to plumbing supplies, developing the skills to incorporate them on the fly. You can see some of them on my website, www.kristinjansson.com
Completed professional projects often influenced my handmade Christmas gifts. These faux agate ornaments, for example, were inspired by a Lake Superior agate necklace that I made for a Minnesota State Fair play produced by the Minnesota Historical Society.
To make my gifts look like they came from one of those quirky western rock shops, I packaged them in boxes with a logo I designed from free clip art.
I share these directions as thanks to Jonni for her fantastic website and welcoming community.
If you struggle against perfectionist tendencies as I do, this is a good project to loosen up your hands and mind. They are rocks after all–pretty much anything goes! And regardless of your skill level, they look great because the photos give them a realistic look.
For my original ornaments, I covered the cardboard/Styrofoam surface with paper towels and glue, but I wasn’t happy that the embossed pattern of the paper detracted from the organic look of the rock. This photo shows the simpler, earlier version.
Always one to challenge myself (what better way to learn) this time I decided to enhance the rock texture by using toilet paper for the paper mache. That way, every little Styrofoam and pebble detail would show. It’s tricky though because it gets sticky fast. Using toilet paper increased the difficulty level, but I personally liked that aspect because I couldn’t obsess about details. Move fast and then hands off! Tissue paper is another option, but avoid the heavier mediums like brown paper because it blunts details. Of course, Jonni’s numerous paper mache recipes provide ample options! Choose what works best for you.
Print the supplied agate faces with a laser printer or have them printed at a print shop. Ink jet prints can smear if they get wet. I like to print duplicates as cheap insurance in case something goes awry. If you prefer to find other agates, there are lots of Creative Commons images that you can download for free from Wikimedia. Please don’t use copyrighted images without written permission. Artists work hard for their money!
Laminate 3-4 layers of corrugated cardboard for a base to glue the rock faces, alternating ribbed grain-lines.
This will provide a firm, smooth surface for gluing the Styrofoam rock base. I used spray adhesive, but you can use Contact Cement, Mod Podge or other liquid craft glues. Avoid hot melt glue guns for this step because it is hard to cut through. Use a smoother cardboard for the top layer so that obvious ribs aren’t visible on the rock surface.
Glue printed agate photos onto the smooth cardboard face
You can cut out the individual rock faces from your printed sheet (cut out with about ¼” excess for ease in cutting) or glue the whole sheet onto the cardboard.
Helpful hint: I like to use PVA bookbinder’s glue, applied with a stiff bamboo brush, for paper items. You can find them where they sell bookbinding supplies. Bookbinding glue is applied from the center out. It remains “position-able” for a while so that you can move it if necessary. After positioning the image, layer a piece of waxed paper over the surface and roll with a brayer to smooth it and ensure the glue is evenly distributed.
Helpful hint: A prop maker at The Children’s Theatre Company taught me to use magazines to keep glue surfaces clean. After gluing, rip off that page to reveal another clean surface. It’s a great way to keep glue off the face of your project. And keep a damp washcloth handy. If you do accidentally get glue on the front of your image, you can gently wipe it off with your cloth. The photo won’t smear. But don’t worry if you don’t catch it in time. You can always glue one of your duplicate prints over the top, says the voice of experience….
Use a jig saw, or coping saw to cut out the cardboard rocks.
I can tip the base of my jig saw to cut at an angle, tapering the sides slightly toward the back so the rock gets smaller as it moves away from the face. I tried to get close to the edges of the rocks but you can leave a little extra.
Glue chunks of Styrofoam to the back of the cardboard to add depth to your rocks.
White craft glues, like Aleene’s Tacky Glue work well. Let dry before carving.
Shape the Styrofoam by cutting with a serrated knife …
making sure you don’t leave a ridge where the cardboard meets the Styrofoam. For authenticity, use real rocks as your guide. You can also sand the Styrofoam to shape. but wear a dust mask!
Helpful Hint: Line a big box with newspaper and cut or sand over that to corral the scraps and flying static debris. If the humidity is low, spray a light mist of water to counter the static charge as you clean up. (That also works for foam rubber if you ever use that for projects.)
Texturize the surface by gluing Styrofoam scraps, a paste of sand mixed with glue, or actual pebbles to the surface
(I’ve done this step two different ways, either before or after the paper mache step. It all depends on how much texture shows through the material you’re using for paper mache—and how much texture you want.
Paper mache the rock back.
I painted matte Mod Podge on the Styrofoam/cardboard surface first before I layered torn pieces of toilet paper over the glue. Just paint a little bit of glue at a time and work your way around the rock. For ease in gluing, I stuck a couple of shish kebab skewers into the cardboard to hold and dry them.
Extend the paper beyond the rock face in order to get the paper flush against the edge.
(You’ll trim it after it dries.) Don’t fold it over the edge. Remember, a polished rock face is one flat plane. I only had to use one or two layers of toilet paper. The Mod Podge creates a plastic-like surface that is surprisingly firm.
Trim the excess paper around the perimeter of the face after the glue has dried so that it’s flush with the edges.
If you accidentally trim some of the printed edge, it’s ok because you can paint the edge when you paint the rock back. You might need to add a little glue along that edge if it’s not completely stuck.
- Paint the back of the rock to enhance the texture. This is my favorite part of any paper mache project. The inherent texture of the rock gives you clues how to paint it; low areas are darker, high areas that catch the light are lighter. I use matte finish acrylic paints to contrast with the reflective rock face. Even inexpensive craft store acrylics work well.
I like to start out with a couple different blobs of paint in a dish—both light and dark to complement the colors of the rock face. I start to grab color from more than one color on my brush, and without mixing the colors, dab them on the back of the rock.
If you look at real rocks (and it helps to have actual samples or good photos for reference) they are made up of many colors, even if the all over color is grey, for example. As you start to paint, you’ll begin to see areas that could be built up, or areas that could look like another layer.
Don’t be too critical at this point. As the color layers begin to evolve, you can add in other colors, or paint over areas that aren’t working to your liking. I like to add in watered down washes in a couple places with unexpected color, like pink or phthalo green mixed with grey.
Don’t cover the surface completely—leave some empty spots. I was delighted to find that some unpainted spots could be brushed lightly with a fine brush and pink wash to create a granite effect. Try adding spots of metallic pewter or silver to some of the pebbles.
I paint several different rocks at once, dabbing paint on one, and then on another. It’s a way to keep loose in your creations, of allowing the surface itself to guide your choices. And it’s always good to walk away for a bit–mid-paint and unfinished. Come back later to find new ideas and discoveries. It’s the “play” in creation, the “making-without-conscious-thinking” that I find so absorbing and freeing. It’s what some people refer to as “the zone” or “the flow”.
When you’re nearing completion of the painting, that’s the time to add some very fine, white horizontal lines applied with a fairly dry brush. That makes it look like there are layers of rock, areas formed by geologic time and pressure.
Helpful hint: Some of the agate faces have areas that look like crystal formations. I thought that maybe some fine grain glitter, like some of Martha Stewart’s, would work. Good idea in concept, not-so-good in practice! When I sprayed the front, the gloss got bumpy in that area, and it didn’t even cover the glitter. Turns out pearlescent or iridescent paints (Golden Fluid Acrylic “Iridescent Pearl Fine”is a good one) work great! You can even mix those with other acrylics. Don’t go overboard with those accents. A little goes a long way.
Turn this lump of glued paper and paint into an agate!
I’m a cheer leader for a Rust-oleum product called “Triple Thick Glaze”. It is easy to use and provides a mirror smooth, super glossy surface for just about anything from paper to wood, metal and plaster. I accidentally damaged one of the finished agates I was giving to my family. After it was thoroughly cured, I sanded the face down with 600 grit sandpaper, wiped it off and re-sprayed the surface. Good as new.
Helpful Hint: Protect the sides of your agate from the glossy spray by taping off the edges with blue painters’ tape. Make sure it’s firmly attached so that the paint spray doesn’t get on the rock base. You can even tape a paper towel around the base if you think there will be overspray.
To keep the rocks level, prop them on an egg carton, or make a little nest out of a rope of craft clay or Play Dough. (However, that ends its useful life as modeling clay. Sorry kids!) Make a spray booth from a large box to contain the overspray. Follow the directions on the can to spray 3-4 coats. 8” from the surface seems to yield a good, glassy result. After a day, when completely cured, insert a screw eye if you’d like to hang the agate as an ornament
That’s it! Commemorate your Covid year “faux vacation” by adding these faux agates to your vacation rock collection. “Having a great time! Wish you were here.