Life-Sized Christmas Nativity Made with Paper Mache

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We have a wonderful guest post today, by Ann Halim. I’ll let her take it from here (be sure to see the gallery of photos at the end – click to enlarge):

Christmas 2011 Nativity Project

By Ann Halim

I had the idea to do a life-size interactive Nativity late in 2009, though it seemed an overwhelming job at the time. I’m not a trained artist (though definitely an artist at heart!) and really had no idea how to even start.  In early spring, 2011, I felt God nudging me again and I began to think about how such a project could be done. I decided that paper mache would be the way to go, since it is easily manipulated and inexpensive – always a consideration when you’re working on a non-funded project!

I found this website as I was researching ideas online and came across the guest blog about making a life-size person with chicken wire forms filled with plaster of paris. Then I was REALLY overwhelmed! Thinking of making several people starting from scratch-oh dear! But the tutorial about the baby elephant intrigued me and so began the process that ended with a full-size Nativity complete with a life-size camel (‘naam’ which means ‘hump’ in Arabic), two sheep, two doves, a donkey and a water pot, all made from paper mache. The Lord graciously helped me find 2 mannequins, which we transformed into Mary and Joseph. Since both were female mannequins, it was an interesting transformation to use Jonni’s mache-clay to widen -˜Josephina’s face with a manly square jaw, larger nose and thicker neck.

Enlisting the help of a good friend (who IS a trained artist), we embarked on the camel-making adventure. My friend made a pattern by projecting a camel picture onto the wall and tracing it off. Her husband cut it out, reinforced the seam (since she was longer than a piece of plywood), and fashioned her kneeling legs at the correct angles. Originally I’d wanted a standing camel, but was talked out of it for fear of safety issues with the potential of it falling over on small (or large) children. We tried very hard to make everything as sturdy as possible since I knew that inviting people to walk around and touch the sculptures would lead to some climbing on them (thought we expressly asked them not to do that!). Except for a few scratches and cracks, the entire scene fared quite well during the 6 weeks it was on display.

All the animals (except the doves) started out with a wooden armature as Jonni did with her elephant. We then used wads of newspaper and masking tape to form the legs, body and head with appropriate muscles and facial details. On the donkey and camel we used chicken wire around their midsections to hold the paper wads. We also stuffed plastic bags with paper wads and stapled them onto the legs and neck since that surface area was so great and taping the large areas was impractical. Once the shapes were defined, however, we did mostly cover them with masking tape to provide the water barrier needed to begin mache-ing.

We the used paper strips dipped in flour/water mixture to cover the masked sculptures, allowing it dry between layers. Because I was concerned about making them sturdy, I decided to add a layer or two of mache-clay over the strips. I lost track of how much clay I made and used, but it was several gallons. It provided a very nice outer surface on which to paint.

The camel’s eyes are a bouncy ball cut in half, which was painted and glazed. People were so intrigued with the eyes that they poked at them to see what they were made of and the paint cracked! I re-painted once, but it kept happening, so we just left it cracked. I think we would have used something else if we’d known! Her eyelashes came from the back of Joseph’s wig, cut and meticulously arranged in small bunches and glued on, then dry brushed with light paint to match her head hair. Her forelock hair is twine or small rope, unraveled and glued in small bunches on the top of her head. Both camel and donkey tails were made from unraveled pieces of rope.

Originally I had wanted the sheep to be soft so the children would enjoy touching them, but soon realized they were going to look like stuffed animals if we used fabric or faux fur to cover them. We tried several different techniques before deciding on paper towels dipped in the flour/water mixture then scrunched onto the sheep bodies to make their wool. I added blobs of clay here and there so their wool coat didn’t look like flower rosettes. The surface was not touch-friendly (read: prickly!), but in the end, that may have saved them from being damaged.

The water pot was two baskets glued and taped together, then covered with paper wads and tape. I wasn’t happy with the shape after the first phase, so added the two extra bumps on the upper and lower edges before covering it with mache-clay, then paint.

The doves started as wads of paper with cardboard beaks, tails and wings. I formed the feet out of floral wire then taped and mache-ed them. My friend patiently cut chicken feathers apart and applied them one at a time. I, on the other hand, was making the flying dove and wasn’t quite so meticulous. My dove ended up looking like a startled chicken! With a little help from my artist friend, it was tamed down, given bead eyes instead of painted ones and looked more like a dove than a chicken (though if I were to do it over, I would try to find dove feathers instead of using chicken ones).

A week and a half before installation, I decided we just HAD to have a donkey so he was made rather quickly (the camel took about 5 weeks start to finish). In my haste I painted him a lovely gray, but failed to notice it was semi-gloss paint! He looked like a carousel horse. New paint in a matte finish rescued him from the carnival! His mane consists of bristles from 3 inexpensive brooms. The color matched perfectly, a blessing considering it was nearly time to do the installation.

From the first sheep to installation day it took about 5 months and the help of over 30 people to finish. It was a very fun and labor-intensive project.

A big thanks to Jonni for her wonderful elephant tutorial which was just what I needed to kick-start this project.

Wow – folks, are you as impressed as I am? (I love the way one of the sheep is looking out, as though he hears the people who came to see the display.)

40 thoughts on “Life-Sized Christmas Nativity Made with Paper Mache”

  1. I’m going to create life-sized nativity to our church..can you please send me more photos..i need to get an idea..

  2. Hello This is awesome
    I need to make a nativity scene and need to make lamb and donkey
    can u please send the link to the template to use and possibly a video
    Can I use the elephant template if yes, please where can I get the template

    • I don’t know if the sculptor has a template for these sculptures. This was a guest post. I don’t have a donkey template, but I do have a pattern for a lamb. I used it to make a cement sculpture, but the shapes are the same no matter what medium you use. You can find it here. And the baby elephant pattern, and how-to video, is here. You’re more than welcome to use it.

  3. Jonni,
    I am decorating a large stage for our church Vacation Bible School. I want to make a large camel like this one. I have a few questions maybe you can answer. Do you know the deminsions of this camel and how much it weighed? I would love the pattern or measurements if they have any of those. I will be attempting a few aminals for the stage. What are your thoughts on keeping the weight of the animals down because I need the scale of them to be rather large? Children will not be climbing on them (at least I pray not).
    Thank you,

    • Hi Mellisa. I don’t know if Ann is still watching for comments on her post. I don’t know for sure, but I assume she drew her pattern based on photos of camels that she found. You might want to see the baby elephant video for some ideas about the armature. The elephant certainly isn’t light, though. For lightweight, hollow, and strong sculptures, I recommend Monique Robert’s book. The next time I make something big, I’m going to follow her instructions instead of using crumpled paper that stays inside the piece, because the paper is way too heavy.

      Another option, if nobody is going to sit or play on the sculpture, is to make it out of Styrofoam from the building supply store, and then cover it with paper mache. A lot of sculptures are made that way. That’s another thing I haven’t tried myself, but someday I hope I’ll get around to it.

      And, of course, if you make the “skin” strong enough (perhaps using several layers of plaster gauze at first over the armature) you can cut the piece in half, remove the crumpled paper and masking tape from the body and neck portion, and then put it back together with a few more strips of gauze – and then cover it with a layer or two of paper mache, like I did when I made Humpty Dumpty.

      If Ann is still watching this post, she might have some better suggestions for you.

      • Thank you so much for your response. Those are great ideas. I have a lot of work to do. I will let you know how it turns out.

  4. Hi would you be able to give the pattern you followed to make te camel out of the wood? I’m working on our church nativity scene and this would be perfect for it.

    • If you want to email Jonni, she can forward it to me and I will correspond with you via email, since the answer to your request will take a bit of space.

  5. Hello Ann, great stuff. I have a question. 90 to 100
    years ago hollow statues came from Italy. I was
    called to a church to repair one of these. I was
    blown away with the beauty of it. I looked at it
    under a magnifier. It was hollow and made to be
    carried on streets. What did they use to make
    them…………any history would be helpful…
    Thanks Sam

    • Hi Sam,
      I have no idea about the statues you were asking about! I’m definitely an amateur on the subject of paper mache, although I would wonder if those statues were made of something like paper mache just for the weight and ease of transport. Maybe Jonni would have additional info…

    • I’m sorry that I haven’t checked this site for probably a year. Because of some weddings in the narthex of our church (where the Nativity was displayed), we didn’t set up the scene last Christmas. Needless to say, there was quite a bit of complaining, so it will go up this year! Seva, I’m sorry that the display is not for sale, although I have thought it would be several thousand dollars if we actually wanted to sell it. It was an immense investment of time and talent by so many people.

      This year we are thinking about adding a Lion (representative of Jesus, the Lion of the tribe of Judah). Time to get started on it…which brought me back to my favorite paper mache site to look for a lion model. Thanks Jonni, for inspiration in your concrete lion head model. You are amazing with sculpting!

  6. Hi,

    I would like to make a paper mache head for a snowman costume. This is for my daughters school so it has to be durable and fit an adult size head. Do you think I should use a large balloon? Should I sculpt a carrot nose with the clay recipe? Any advise will be greatly appreciated. Thank you!!

    • Laura, a balloon might work. Your local craft store might also have plastic mask forms, which are usually really inexpensive. Sometimes they’re hard to find in the right size, though. If you do add a carrot nose, I worry that it will be attached only at the base, so it would be fairly easy to knock it off. It might be better to make the nose out of aluminum foil, then cover it and the rest of the mask with either the clay or paper strips and paste. That way there would be a strong bond between the face and nose.

      Be sure to let us see it when it’s done.

    • Thanks Nancy…
      hhmmm…still thinking about the next project. I have a little clay left so if it doesn’t spoil I might make a (small) elephant…:)

    • Thanks to all of you for your kind, encouraging words. I’m so glad you like the Nativity. It was kind of like giving birth…well, I guess it WAS a snapshot of a birth. 🙂

  7. This is awesome! OMG! I can’t get over it! I don’t believe I would ever again call myself an artist at heart because this my friend is ART. Thanks for sharing. I’m encouraged.

  8. wow!!!!! really really beautiful! i love the way you arranged things, and like jonni said, the way the sheep is looking up, it feels like a snapshot in time!!! super amazing!

  9. Wow this is just a gorgeous set Ann! I am so inspired that without artistic training you took on such a challenging project and just look how beautiful it is! I am going to endeavor to be braver – fear of failure holds me back so often. I know it’s just a small part of it, but I just love the dove! The sheep are amazing too – it all is! Thanks so much for sharing!

  10. I had encountered this on a recent search for paper mache nativity scenes and was totally awed. Words cannot adequately describe the magnitude of the vision and the impressive finished product. Fantastic! I am certain that all involved will receive a true blessing.

  11. Wow, I’m almost speechless (I don’t think I’m ever totally speechless)! I’m wondering exactly how long all of this took, and is there an estimate of how much papier mache Jonnie Clay was involved? I’m amazed that Ann flinched over a couple of people, since she wasn’t too worried about taking on a dromedary! Quite a project — I too was impressed with the sheep, but then, the whole thing just about blew me away!

    • Thanks for your kind words. We worked on the project about 5 months – of course, most focused the last couple of months. The camel took 5 weeks. I think I made 5 or 6 gallons of mache-clay.

  12. Very nice Ann!

    Thank you for posting such a large, impressive, first time paper mache project for you, here on Jonni’s site for all of us to see.

    Huge endeavor and it looks amazing.


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