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We really have a treat today! Cindy Williams agreed to show us exactly how she created her fabulous paper mache dragon. She’s given us tons of photos and many detailed instructions, so this post is extended onto several pages – be sure to click on the menu at the bottom of each page to continue reading. Cindy generously shows us every detail, from the beginning steps to the final painting. Thanks, Cindy!
© 2014 Cindy Williams
So, I guess this started as a lot of big projects do – by chance and accident. I haven’t sculpted anything since I was in high school, which much to my surprise is now well over a decade ago. I always thought I’d get back into it one day when I had a kiln and a studio and that perfect set up that has just never manifested (and probably never will). Then, two years ago my roommate convinced me that Halloween wasn’t just for 10 year olds and that I should make a mask. While cruising around the internet looking for ideas on materials, I found myself pouring over paper mache sites. This thing called paper mache – why hadn’t someone told me it was much, much more than balloons and paper strips?!
That year I made a Minotaur mask. The next year I found Jonni’s website and made a much more detailed werewolf mask using shop towels. Shortly after Halloween of 2013 I realized suddenly that this medium could produce just about anything I wanted. So naturally I grabbed some newspaper and started making a dragon’s head.
Building the head:
And on a dark November night I plotted a rough plan for a flying dragon that would hang from the ceiling. I found a picture of a dragon that I liked, thought about required space (just a little), and then it was a flurry of newspaper and masking tape. In a few days I had a head and neck (picture below). The head and neck are nothing more than crumpled bits of newspaper held together with masking tape.
I would add a little paper on one side and tape, then add a little more paper on the other side and tape, which created endless layers of paper and tape. Inside the lower jaw there is a piece of wire bent in a “U” shape that gave it extra strength. The horns also have a single piece of coat hanger wire in them with newspaper twirled tightly around it and held in place with tape.
Creating the body:
The body and hips probably consumed a month’s worth of newspaper. I just kept eyeballing it for symmetry and proceeded like with the head and neck – a little paper, then a little tape. The feet were a bit more involved. Each toe has a piece of wire in it, like the horns.
I’d make each toe separately, adding knobby bits of paper on for knuckles, and adjusting for length as needed. Once I had each toe, I taped all three together, adding more paper around the junction to create the rest of the foot. The wire let me bend the toes however I wanted. Also, at this point I added what musculature I wanted to the legs (more newspaper!). And I wanted a pretty ripped dragon.
The tail, arms and fingers:
The tail was the same story as the rest – crumpled newspaper and tape and a little internal wire for strength. I also used a strip of cardboard cut from a cereal box to make a “keel” on the tail. Then I’d carefully tape the keel down perpendicular to the tail to get a nice sharp centerline edge that newspaper alone won’t accomplish.
I also did this for the center of the chest. At this point I had all major body parts in paper and tape form . You can see the wires sticking out of the elbows for what will eventually be the rest of the wings. The arms and fingers of the wings absolutely had to have wire because of how long they were and because I knew I would have to hang the dragon from the elbows.
Checking to see how the Dragon will look when it’s done :
I taped all the body parts together for a “before” picture. I could really start to see it taking shape and was excited to finally move onto mache time. I have just over a month in it at this point. Each finger on the wing is a long piece of coat hanger wire wrapped tightly in newspaper with plenty of masking tape. Like the toes on the foot, I connected the three ends of the wire in the wing fingers together in the hand to make it a strong connection.
Part 2: Adding Paper Mache to the Dragon
Now for the paper mache! I took it all apart and mached each section separately. For the body and tail I used just newspaper paper mache. I used about 4 or 5 layers all at once. Yup, that many layers all at once! Another time saving tip is don’t dip the paper in the paste, dip your hands in the paste and slather it all over being sure to squish out air pockets between newspaper layers. Then wait a few days for it to dry.
Shop towels for strength:
For more detailed parts, like the wings and legs, I used shop towels (blue parts). Shop towels will pick up so much more detail off the armature than newspaper! I was inspired by Jonni’s book on masks, and adopted this technique from her book. But instead of the special hard drying paste recipe that’s great for masks, I just used regular glue and flour.
I used 2-3 layers of undivided shop towel at once (always rip the edges off to avoid seams) and then hung these parts up to dry for a few days, which in hind sight, looks pretty funny. I left some wire sticking out of the wings intentionally for an anchor point for the clay claws.
Adding details to the head:
It was time for some more detail on the head. I used little strips of custom fit cardboard to create the “keel” on the horns. Just like on the tail, it would create such a sharper edge than paper. Same with the lip curl, beak, nostrils, nose horn, and eye ridges.
A little cardboard edge filled in with tiny bits of newspaper goes a long way and saves trying to add those features later on with heavier materials. I threw on a glass eye for kicks, but this isn’t the eye I chose in the end. I found my eyes on Etsy.com – search under glass eyes or taxidermy eyes. I bought about 12 different kinds before I found the ones I liked.
Putting the Dragon together:
The mess of paper and tape grew to unimaginable levels in my tiny computer room, so I moved to a bigger room to assemble all the paper mached pieces. At this point all the parts are attached except for the head and jaws. To attach the legs to the body I had to carve out sockets in the hips and add nobs to the legs to make a stronger connection – don’t just try to glue/tape two flat surfaces together and mache over that.
I had the nob on the leg inserted about 2-3 inches in the hip, with wire reinforcements and tons of hot glue to boot. Then, I reinforced the connection with tape and lastly 2-3 layers of shop towel paper mache. The wings also had pieces of wire that poked into the main body. The ends of the wings were concave to fit over a convex nob on the body. Again, this creates more surface area for glue and an overall stronger connection. The tail went on in a similar way.
The head took hours to mache. I used just one layer of shop towel with regular glue and flour paste; it’s not load bearing so I figured one layer would do. Shop towel picks up the details of the head armature quite well, but be sure to really press it into the dips and valleys like Jonni says in her mask book! At this point I have the eyes I want to use embedded in a bit of clay to rotate them forward… I don’t think I’ll ever do that again, it was such a pain to fit them right.
The teeth are in now too – I used super sculpey clay and hot glued them into place. Again, surface area is key when gluing two things together – each tooth had a “root” that extended into the jaw to create a better bond. Once the teeth were dry, I wound thin pieces of shop towel mache around the bases to create wrinkly gums, which also helped cement them in place, and also made it look like gums.
Part 3: Adding Final Details to the Dragon
Now for the wings! I used Dan Reeder’s technique for dipping a piece of white bed sheet in Elmer’s white glue and draping it in place over the upside-down dragon, pressing the edges to the dragon’s arms and body.
I was working against the drying glue and kind of had to hurry. This technique is so fun because it keeps all the wrinkles and folds. I had wire strung between the tips of the wing fingers to make a crisp outer wing edge, and any extra sheet just got wrapped around this. Here it is with both wings and tail spade in place and left to dry overnight.
When it’s dry you can trim any excess sheet with scissors. At this point I had glued the clay claws onto the bits of wire I left sticking out of the wing fingers. If you’re wondering what that light is, my poor plant doesn’t get enough light, so I bought it a light and that’s the funny purple you see in the background. I’m now two months into this project.
The jaw work was a bit interesting. If you do jaws this way, I highly recommend painting the inside parts of the mouth first before final attachment.
Basically what I did here was attach the jaw loosely to get a feel for look, and once I had the desired look, used wire, tape, and hot glue to make a strong connection.
Once the jaw was on, I made a throat pouch under and around it, which helped make the jaw look more natural and also added strength. And here is it with all the parts mached on and together! If you’re wondering, newspaper and shop towel mache blend together – look at the neck where the two materials meet – seamless!
Adding scales and spikes to the spine:
And a big shifting of gears happened when the detail part began. Steps started taking longer and the dragon changed slower. For instance, it took me two nights just to figure out what shape of back scales I wanted. I used pieces of shop towel to help me measure the scales on the back, trimming them and bending them in two to check for symmetry.
Once I had the right scale shape in shop towel form, I would trace that pattern onto cereal box cardboard and start taping them right onto the dragon’s back with a nice crease in the middle. The spike bits are just cardboard triangles with tape.
Then maching those took another two nights… You can see here too that I was starting to think about colors, and those big thumb claws are made out of newspaper taped up into shape (I thought clay would be too heavy).
For the tail scales, those were just cut out pieces of shop towel folded in two, paper mached on and pinched a little in the middle to make that centerline ridge.
Adding more scales:
More details followed with some arm scales and belly scales.
All the big scales with numbers on the arms and belly I meticulously measured out and marked beforehand. The actual scales I used are folded up shop towels overlapped slightly to produce an armored look (folding them makes them stick up more off the dragon). So of course the legs needed scales too – the big ones are more like plates, just doubled up pieces of shop towel and the little ones I cut from folded pieces of shop towel into various shapes and sizes of scales. All of these were then mached on.
I thought the face needed some details so I made little clay eyebrow scales. Once they were baked, I just glued them on.
Then I went totally nuts and decided the face needed scales. This took so long, but the gist of it is I first traced the outline of the places I wanted to have scales on a piece of shop towel. Then I sketched out scales on this outline, used rubber cement to glue another shop towel to it (for more thickness), cut the scales apart, and carefully mached them on the head one by one. Took forever, but I had a plan.
Part 4: Painting the Dragon
Once I had glued on more little tiny scales than I can count over most of the body, it was time to paint! It was about time too, I have 5 months in at this point.
I bought some Golden liquid acrylic paint – it’s a bit spendy, but a little goes a long way and the quality is well worth the money. This will blow craft paint out of the water. These acrylics offer a wide variety of beautiful colors as well and some neat iridescent and interference colors, which add metallic qualities to other paints.
Before I started painting I primed the whole thing white and off I went, for some reason jumping right into the orange wings. At this point you can see that I have drilled through the elbows to hook hanging wires into the coat hanger “skeleton” of the wings. I later filled the holes with Jonni’s paper mache clay recipe (no cracks!). In hindsight, I should have just made the loops from the start. Also, there’s two more hanging connection points by the hips made of wire loops.
My standard method of painting is to pick a few colors for each part, whether it’s a horn, tooth, leg, or wing. Put the lightest color on first in places you want to have stick out or to have accented. Then add the next darkest, wiping it off the lighter areas to create fade. And finish up with the darkest color, using it almost as a wash over the lighter areas and really pouring it on in the places you want to have nice shadows.
I wanted a metallic look to the big plate scales on the legs, toes, wing hands, back and tail so I first used an iridescent pearl color.
A wash of the darkest blue was neat and also simple. The most time consuming part was wiping it off the parts I wanted to remain mostly pearl. I got the golden, shiny effect on the tail spines and horns by first using three paints – beige as my light, nutmeg brown as the medium, and burnt umber as the dark. Then I applied interference orange paint over the whole thing and boom! – Looks like golden horns and tail spines. I like interference colors.
I realized how badly I needed some more space, but my small room had to do for the painting step as I had recently got a new puppy, who wasn’t to be trusted with a dragon out in the open. I did a lot of flipping and flopping to get at it all. In this picture it’s hard to see, but I have finished the wings using a yellow, orange, and dark rust color for the different shades – it was fun to use the natural wrinkles in the wings to figure out which color went where.
Here I have applied the light blue to the body…
…soon to follow with a medium and dark blue. Here is the head with just two lighter blues, and you can also get a good feel for the interference orange effect on the horns:
Painting the Dragon’s head:
This is what the head looked like when I applied the darkest blue wash.
All those little scales I said I had a plan for, well this was it. When wiping off the dark wash, the cracks between the scales held the dark blue for a really neat effect.
Painting the belly:
Last was the belly. Right at the very end I couldn’t decide on color. I went back and forth for a few days, then finally I thought simple is better and chose iridescent pearl with a black wash and lastly, a little interference blue, which makes it shine when the light catches just right.
And with just a few more details here and there, though I could barely believe it, I was finally done.
Time in total was 8 months and probably well over 400 hours (more than I can recall for sure), but it held my interest all the way through. With masters of mache like Jonni and their helpful websites that share ideas and techniques, I was able to get back into sculpture and turn an idea into a big blue dragon.
My message to you is whatever you want to make, don’t wait for the perfect someday, do it now! For me, it was just knowing that my idea was possible – thanks Jonni for helping me out there. I’m already scheming for the next project, which has a high probability of also being a dragon. Thanks for reading this, I hope it has helped you in some way.