How Cindy Made Her Paper Mache Dragon

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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.

Dragon's Head
Dragon’s Head

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.

Dragon Body and Legs
Dragon Body and Legs

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.

Dragon Parts, Body, Legs and Tail
Dragon Parts, Body, Head, Wings, Legs and Tail

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.

Dragon Parts, Taped Together
Dragon Parts, Taped Together

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.

This is something I learned from Dan Reeder at gourmetpapermache.com and it’s right on. Try it if you haven’t already. (Also, check his website out … it’s pretty cool).

Adding Paper Mache to the Dragon
Adding Paper Mache to the Dragon

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.

Dragon wings covered with blue shop towels and paste
Dragon wings covered with blue shop towels and paste

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.

Paper Mache Dragon Head Details
Paper Mache Dragon Head Details

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.

Putting the Dragon together.
Putting the Dragon together.

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.

Dragon head with paper mache added
Dragon head with paper mache added

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.

Using bed sheets and glue for the Dragon's wings
Using bed sheets and glue for the Dragon’s wings

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.

Drying the dragon wings
Drying the dragon wings

Mouth details:

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.

Inside of the dragon's upper jaw
Painting the inside of the dragon’s upper jaw

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!

Lower jaw attached to the dragon
Lower jaw attached to the dragon

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.

Spikes on the Dragon's spine
Spikes on the Dragon’s spine

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).

Dragon's spikes with paper mache
Dragon’s spikes with paper mache

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.

Dragon's tail scales
Dragon’s tail scales

Adding more scales:

More details followed with some arm scales and belly scales.

Scales on the Dragon wings
Scales on the Dragon wings
Scales on the dragon's underside
Scales on the dragon’s underside

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.

Dragon's scales on legs and body
Dragon’s scales on legs and body

I thought the face needed some details so I made little clay eyebrow scales. Once they were baked, I just glued them on.

Adding polymer clay bumps to the dragon's head
Adding polymer clay bumps to the dragon’s head

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.

Scales on the Dragon's head
Scales on the Dragon’s head

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.

Beginning to paint the Dragon
Beginning to paint the Dragon

Choosing colors:

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.

Iridescent color on the Dragon's back
Iridescent color on the Dragon’s back

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.

Dragon's tail
Dragon’s tail

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.

More painting...
More painting…

Here I have applied the light blue to the body…

Light blue on the Dragon's body...
Light blue on the Dragon’s 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:

Medium to dark blue added...
Medium and dark blue added…

Painting the Dragon’s head:

This is what the head looked like when I applied the darkest blue wash.

Beginning to paint the Dragon's head...
Beginning to paint the Dragon’s head…

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.

Dark blue wash outlining the scales
Dark blue wash outlining the scales

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.

Dragon belly, painted
Dragon belly, painted

And with just a few more details here and there, though I could barely believe it, I was finally done.

Paper Mache dragon, view from below.
Paper Mache dragon, view from below.
Paper Mache dragon, on it's stand.
Paper Mache dragon, on it’s stand.
Paper Mache dragon, closeup of the head
Paper Mache dragon, closeup of the head

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.


50 thoughts on “How Cindy Made Her Paper Mache Dragon”

  1. Cindy, I loved being able to follow the steps of your creation! Your dragon is fabulous and he really comes alive with your expertise. I love his muscles the details you added, both in paper and paint. SO MANY hours of dedication to this project! Thank you so much for taking the time to document these steps. It was so enjoyable to read through and (as your cousin) I loved this little view into your life, too. XOXOX ~Tash

  2. Wow Cindy! You did a fantastic job with your dragon! Congrats! Your painting, colors and techniques really made it pop. I enjoyed reading your article. Good job.

  3. Stupendous paint job…
    A Herculean task, and such a success for a first foray into a project of that scale.

  4. Thanks for all the wonderful comments! I don’t often get to show my projects to many people – I live in a very small town.

    Michele, it was probably more of an organic process once I had a rough idea for each step. A lot of it was learning/trial and error, as I had never done something this big before. The main blue and orange colors sorta hit me one day at work. I remember I just couldn’t get orange wings out of my mind! On the other hand, I debated at length on other parts, and re-did parts of it or radically changed ideas now and again. Maybe controlled chaos is the right word for it all :)

    Liz, I’ll check that out – what a blast, large scale paper mache! Also, a bullet proof weather proof coating for this medium would be astounding! It would also probably lead to a yard dragon.

  5. http://www.mardigrasworld.com/tours/sneak-peek/
    Here’s a link to the Mardi Gras world shop. Look at the YouTube videos at the bottom where they show how the floats are sculpted with styrofoam & paper mâché! I am on a mission to see if I can find out what the final coat they use is on it to weather proof the final sculpture! Hopefully it’s not a family secret. Will keep everyone posted.

    • Liz, here in Australia we have a product called Paverpol which is used to coat fabric etc and make it weather and waterproof. I haven’t used it myself but have seen cloth figures made with it and they are very firm. Not sure about long term weather exposure or where you would buy it in US, but could be worth investigating for what you want to do

  6. This just took my breath away! You have found a niche my friend! Fantastic job on the construction and the colors are outstanding! What a piece of work. I live in New Orleans and the floats at Mardi Gras used to be a lot of paper mâché work. Your dragon is definitely something that would be a great idea for a float at Mardi Gras! Check out this link to their site!
    Congrats, congrats, congrats!

  7. Oh also, looks like you can sit down to eat once again! ha! After 8 months I bet your family is relieved. Unless now you’re onto another project… you need a Studio with this amazing work! wow!

  8. Amazing work! Thank you for sharing your process and the finished work is a piece of art. Awe inspiring!!! It appears getting back to your roots has been a very good thing! Congratulations, looking forward to seeing more of your work.

  9. Absolutely stunning!! Your diligence is inspiring! Thank you so much for including your time points. I am cursed with a desire for instant gratification and usually assume that others proceed with ease and speed. This is truly a lesson in patience and its reward!

  10. I agree with Christine…your dragon is absolutely AWESOME! Thank you so very much for sharing so much of your work with us! One of the best looking dragons I’ve ever seen! And I love your choice of colors–wow.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing! And your dragon is not only a gorgeous piece of art, but a marvel of creative and ingenious engineering. I am so inspired!

  12. Cindy, wow and rewow!

    Jonni was absolutely right, what a treat it has been to follow your journey from the idea to that fabulous dragon! You did an amazing job and your dragon is greatly exceptional and unique! Great artistic work and amazing minutious work! Your attention to each detail make a perfect unity. If I may ask, when you had your plan in mind, did you have all the details and the color in mind or it came along as each part were connected? Thank for sharing of your process and can’t wait to see your next projects! Highly inspiring!

  13. Very good job.thanks for sharing.jonnis work always inspires me and makes me feel I can do it .thank you for all your great info on your dragon.great job.

  14. Wonderful Dragon. The colors, shapes and details are super. You can tell all the dedicated hours you put into it. I loved seeing all the process photos. All those scales! I have never been able to spend that much time on any one project. But, they are sure worth it!

  15. Cindy, my gosh, your dragon is AWESOME! Thank you for the detailed description on how you did it. It is really a work of art and a labor of love. the eight months I am sure were worth it. Your dragon is gorgeous.


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