How to Make a Portrait Mask

Get a fast start on your next paper mache project or hand-made gift with Jonni’s easy downloadable patterns for masks, animal sculptures and faux trophy mounts. The patterns help you create a beautiful work of art, even if you’ve never sculpted anything before.

portrait mask tnThis week I used a photo of Charles Laughton to make a portrait mask for Halloween. The photo of the actor was taken when he played the hunchback in the 1939 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As you’ll see in the video, I used almost all of the same techniques that you’ll see in my book How to Make Masks, with two exceptions:

  • I used Sargent Art Plastilina Modeling Clay instead of Super Sculpey for the positive mold, because the plastilina is so much cheaper. The plastilina cost $16.56 for 5 pounds, while the Sculpey costs $11.33 for a one pound box – it’s an enormous difference in cost. Once I got used to the different texture of the clay, I decided it wasn’t really all that bad. Which is fortunate, since it won’t dry out and I’ll be using it again for many more projects.
  • And I don’t intend to wear my mask on Halloween (I’m a few years too old for trick or treat!) so I used a plastic skull as my mask form. I really like using the skull when I’m sculpting faces – you have all the bones already set in the right places, but you don’t have any features that might get in the way. However, the mask doesn’t fit, so if you want to make a portrait mask to actually wear, I suggest you use a mask form instead.

I used slightly more than one pound of clay for this mask. If you use a mask form instead of a skull you wouldn’t need nearly as much clay.

I didn’t spend much time painting this fellow, and I know it would have come out better if I’d used some of the formulas in the Color Mixing Recipes for Portraits book. My copy is usually up in the studio, but I couldn’t find it yesterday, so I just started adding one layer of color after another, until I finally decided the mask was done. It isn’t quite human-colored, but it looks OK.

I think  my next mask is going to be a witch. I Googled “toothless old woman” and found hundreds of grinning faces that would make a nice, non-threatening yet weirdly cheerful witch. I can’t wait to get started. Maybe I’ll try and see if it’s possible to use the joint compound/glue mixture for paste on the next one, to see if it works or not. I know it would be almost impossible to use the fast-setting plaster-based paste in a classroom setting, because the paste hardens up in the bowl. If the gesso recipe works just as well, it would be really helpful for teachers. Meanwhile, if you happen to try it, please let us know if it works or not. And be sure to post photos of your own masks below – Halloween is coming soon!

70 thoughts on “How to Make a Portrait Mask”

  1. Hello Jonni,
    I just made a mask of Jigsaw, from the movie Saw. It turned out great but I need help. Once I pulled the mask off of my clay (that I had previously put a little bit of petroleum jelly on to help it come off) I rubbed it and rubbed it with paper towels to try and get the jelly off. When finally I couldn’t get any more off I painted the inside with your homemade gesso recipe. At first it dried fine and it was all a uniform white and dry. But then over the next few days darker spots started showing up in the white, and it started getting soft. Freaking out I thought maybe the shop towels weren’t dry yet before I painted it with gesso. So I put it into the oven for an hour. The coloring didn’t change back to white, but it was hard again. So I went ahead and did one more layer of gesso, just to make sure it was sealed. But the next few days it started to get a little soft again, just on the cheeks. Since the discoloration only happened on the inside I think I am correct in assuming it is the petroleum jelly that is doing it. Do you have any fixes for me? Have you ever had this happen? I painted it yesterday cause I figured if it was going to pot, I might as well get a pic of it painted lol I did a few layers of black on the inside and it seems ok, but the cheeks are still a little soft. I’m kicking myself for not taking pics of the discoloration so you could see. But I’m going to try and post a pic of it finished.
    Thank you for all you do 🙂

    • Hi Carrie. If you tried to upload a photo, it didn’t come through. It will need to be edited to make it less than 250K, or the system won’t work. As for the softness, it sounds like your mask is getting damp somehow. Was it totally dry and stiff before you painted it? Or was it a bit soft when you painted it? Paper will soak up any humidity from the air, so that might be the problem. As for the discoloration, that does sound like oil seeping through the layers put on top of it. Next time, you might try using less petroleum jelly, or remove it using isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol). It should break up the oil enough so you can blot it away, although I admit I haven’t tried it. In fact, I haven’t experienced the problems you describe, so I can’t give you a firm answer as to why it happened.

      One other possible cause for the softness and spots would be mildew. I don’t know how humid it is where you live, or how quickly you dried your mask. Is it possible that this is what caused the discoloration?

      • Hi Jonni,
        Thanks for the quick reply! It was totally dry and hard when it came off the mold and I let it dry for many days in front of my fan. The color weirdness and softness didn’t show up until I put the gesso on. I live in Oregon around Portland and it is really wet here and it is humid a bit. I’m going to start making another mask today (but have 3 kids so things take me forever to finish) so I will try it with no jelly and see how it goes. I really like making these so I hope it isn’t just the stupid weather here that is ruining it.
        I tried again to post a pic so hope it goes through. I haven’t finished making the eyes i’m going to glue on yet, but other than that it is done. I’ll let you know how the next one goes!
        And thank you again for your wonderful site, I spend a lot of time on it reading and watching your videos. My kids also love it!!

  2. Hi Jonni,

    Thank you for taking the time to show us your techniques and sharing your recipes with us. I am currently making a wall sculpture face (like the mask, but without the cut outs). It will be a clown when finished. I used your new clay recipe for the first time and really enjoyed it as I covered the outside with it. I just wanted to share with you. Can’t wait to paint it!!

  3. Hi Jonni,
    Just stumbled upon your wonderful website and was riveted to this video. Its amazing; I teach art at a primary school and hope to learn from and teach this at my school someday. Love your work

    • Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed the video. I’m going to be starting a new book in a month or so, after I get moved into my new house. The subject will be “Paper Mache Faces.” If you have any suggestions for what I should put in the book, I would love to hear them.

    • Hi Jonni! You are so talented and inspiring! My son and I made a mask of a character from the game Legend of Zelda. I loved using the shop towel method although I went through many batches of the paste. It took a while for me to get the hang of it but I persevered!! It came out lumpier than it probably should have but not bad for a first try I think. Thank you for making it easy for anyone to feel like an artist!!

      • Hi Tam. Did you try to upload a photo of your mask? If not, it didn’t come through, but I know we’d all love to see it. If you did try, it was probably because the image was too big, but you can make it smaller with this free tool, and try again. I do hope you’ll let us see that mask.

  4. Here is my attempt at a portrait mask–Groucho Marx. It was fun to do and I finished it in about one day.

  5. Hi, I’m planning to do a series of expressions for my project and it’s going to be my first time trying out paper mache so it’d be great if you could answer some of my questions (-:

    1. Can I use either plaster, newspaper or paper towels for this tutorial? Because I’m not really familiar to what a blue shop towel is.
    2. Does any modeling clay work for this? Would the clay ever stick on the paper mache?
    3. What’s in the mixture of the glue?

    And I really appreciate your tutorial, the portrait mask looks amazing!

    • Hi Nicole. Most of your questions are answered in the three videos about the Pantalone mask, which you’ll find at the top of the Extended Paper Mache Tutorials page. You could use newspapers and a paste made with flour and water, if you prefer, but the shop towels are nice to work with. They’re stretchy, and thick. You can also use a variation of the fast setting paste by mixing white (Elmer’s) glue with pre-mixed wallboard joint compound. You can usually find the blue shop towels, the glue, the plaster if you’re using it, and the joint compound in the painting section of the hardware store.

      Any oil-based modeling clay will work, but do be sure to give it a thin film of petroleum jelly before adding the paper mache. That will make it much easier to pull off the paper mache when it’s dry.

      The recipe for the plaster-based paste is in the Pantalone videos. I think it’s in the second one of the series. If you use the joint compound instead, there’s no real recipe – just mix the two ingredients until it’s a consistency that you like working with.

      Be sure and let us see your project when it’s done!

  6. Dear Jonni!

    Thank you for this wonderful website. I read your comment that the Plastalina was reusable (even with the Vaseline that had been put on it). I’m considering three different clays: Plastalina, Sculpey III, or AMACO 25 -Pound Air Dry Clay, Moist, Gray, which I found on Amazon.com.

    Could you give me your advice as to which you think would be best in sculpting facial features (over a mask mold or skull) — and which would hold up best being re-used for the same purpose over again?

    Thanks a ton. You are wonderful. :o)

    Alex

    • Hi Alexandra. I’d choose the Plastalina (because it’s cheap) or the Sculpey (because I like working with it and it releases the paper mache very nicely if you put a thin layer of Vaseline over the finished sculpt.) The air dry clay will slow down the drying time of the paper mache, I assume – and if it’s allowed to dry you wouldn’t be able to use it again for another project. You might be able to use it again to reproduce the same mask, though, if you don’t have any undercuts and if you use a good release that keeps the paper mache from sticking to it.

      • Have you ever tried Premo Sculpey? I am thinking that if I can re-use it multiple times, it could justify the cost — that is, if it is reusable. Right now the PolymerSuperStore has 1 lb bars at $13.02.

        Or…. would you still stick with the Plastalina?

        And you’d use Vaseline for the release, and work it back into the clay when re-using it?

        Alex

  7. Hi Jonni,
    Would it also work with regular paper towel, the ones you use in the kitchen? I’m not sure we have these shop towels here.
    And I was thinking of using plastic instead of vaseline, like you did for the chicken-clock. This way the plastiline doesn’t get mixed up with the vaseline. But maybe there’s a good reason why hou didn’t use a plastic layer with the mask?

    N

    • Hi Nancy. The kitchen towels will work, but you’ll probably need a few more layers. If they’re two-ply, the plies may need to be pulled apart, to avoid having them separate on their own. The paste can’t penetrate through both layers. I didn’t use the plastic because I had too much detail on this mask, but if you’re really careful and use a very thin plastic wrap, you might be able to get it to work just fine. I tend to do things a bit differently every time – but not because one way is better than another. 😉

  8. I am so inspired to try paper mâché for sculpting after watching this! So glad I found you. I have a few questions. If I want to use the clay form for many masks would I just bake the clay to harden it? I want to try my hand at these guys- https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8IoeoBD_ha8 – So once I get the face like I want it, I would like to duplicate it for several figures. Do you have any good resources for creating larger figures and possibly some on making them mechanical? Thanks again. Can’t wait to get your books.

    • Hi Becky. I used Plastilina for the form for this mask, and you can’t bake it. You might be able to make a permanent form out of Sculpey, which you can bake. If you make a hard form, you’ll need to be careful to not use any undercuts that would keep the paper mache from coming off, and you’ll need to use a release so the paper mache won’t stick to the form.

      I haven’t used molds very often with paper mache, but Adam Shaw recently wrote a guest post about how to make masks using a mold, and he’s been really helpful to everyone who asks him questions. You can see his guest post here.

  9. Hi Jonni! Thanks so much for your inspiration! I just discovered your website and books, and am very excited about starting with paper mache.

    I made a mask for Halloween using your techniques. I live in France, so I had to order the Scott Shop Towels online. They didn’t come in before I needed them, so I used paper towels instead, which were hard to work with. I’m looking forward to using the Shop Towels for my next project.

    I wrote a blog post about my experience here:
    http://www.garlandsinparis.com/garlandsinparis/making-a-papier-mache-mask

    Thanks again!

    • I’m using Scott shop towels, which you can get in the hardware store or big box store. There are other brands, too, and all of them seem to be blue. They’re made of paper, and they’re thick, strong and stretchy.

  10. Hi! I love your site and all the work shown here. It makes me realize i’m not the only one who appreciates the possibilities papier mache has to offer. If you are interested, please check the video of my pieces on youtube: http://youtu.be/RAkN4qgc3iM 
    And thanks for all the goodies you share.

  11. Hi Jonnie! I have been reading on your website here for a few days now, your work is awesome and very inspiring! I am about to dive into my first paper mache project and need your input. I am making my sons halloween costume which is going to be Leo the Knight from the teenage mutant ninjas turtles. So I am going to need my form/mold to be removable. What do you suggest I use? I’m sure if I kept browsing through your site id find my answer but thought id ask. Thank you!!

    • Hi Liz. If I was making a teenage mutant ninja turtle, I’d use the same techniques that I used in the video on this page (and in my book). Except that I’d use a plastic mask form as the base instead of a skull, so the mask would actually fit.

  12. Jonni,
    Your work is awesome. =D
    I was wondering if the Sargent Art Plastilina Modeling Clay you used to make your paper mache mask was reusable?

    • Thanks, Lara. Yes, the plastilina can be used again. It doesn’t dry out. In fact, I’m working on a witch mask right now, using the same clay that I used to make Quasimodo. I was worried about the Vaseline getting mixed in with the clay, but it just seems to make it a bit softer.

  13. Hi Jonni!
    I love your mask! You are an exceptional sculptor! Can you please point me to a place where I might be able to order a plastic skull? I appreciate all of your handy tips!
    Blessings,
    Janet

    • Hi Janet. I ordered mine several years ago from amazon.com. You can also just use Halloween skulls that are sold in big box stores, and they would probably work just as well. The only problem with using them for masks, of course, is that the resulting mask might not fit your face unless you make sure to measure your face and make adjustments to the sculpture as you work. I wish plastic mask forms were built as simply as the skull, though – the molded features really get in the way sometimes.

      • Hi Jonni and Janet, one idea came to me. Many years ago, when I lived in Illinois, a group of us had a mask making party using the plaster cloth. It was fun and I am sure if you or anyone who made faces of your families male and female you will have not only life size masks to work from but you will be able to tailor your masks to different face types. All you have to do is make sure that you really cover up the holes in the plaster cloth and waterproof up to a point. Those molds will last you a long time and give you lots of creative enjoyment.

    • Hi Genie. As I mentioned just now to Janet, I bought my skull from amazon.com. Since it isn’t entirely symmetrical, I assume it was cast from a real skull. Around this time of year you can get foam and plastic skulls in the department stores, too, but they probably aren’t as sturdy and might not hold up if you want to use them for a lot of different sculptures. Amazon has plastic mask forms, too, but if you order one, be sure to get one with dimensions that actually fit the face your mask is intended for. A lot of them are made for kids. Which is fine, of course, if you happen to be a kid…

  14. Hi Jonni I love the mask video. What an artist you are. Looks like you’ve been keeping yourself busy. I’ve been up to my eyeballs with a native american Fancy Dancer this summer. On top of that our oldest son got married and since they have everything they need for house keeping I offered to do a sculpture for their yard. They chose a howling wolf that I was pleased to do. It’s also still in process. I’ll get you picures when my summer projects are completed. I have to go out and see what the other artists have been posting this summer. Thank you again for being so giving.

  15. I loved watching this video…learned a lot of things! Thank you so much for going to such great detail for us *scared beginners*.

    How would you go about making a mold for something…..I have a small, intricately
    detailed cross that I would like to copy in plaster or something and don’t know quite how to go about it.

    Also, I have an old doll head made from celluoid(sp?) and would love to make some masks from it to paint roses upon….what would you suggest using so that I don’t destroy the original doll head?
    Thanks again for all you do! Have a great day!
    Marilyn

    • Hi Marilyn. The best way (I think) to make a mold with intricate details is to use a silicone product. I like the brush-on type because it uses less of the expensive materials. The Smooth-On company has some excellent tutorials on brush-on silicone molds out on YouTube. Since the silicone doesn’t stick to anything, it shouldn’t harm your doll heads – but test a small area first, just to make sure!

  16. Jonni, that mask turned out great. I do not have your sculpting talent and I am one who does things in broad outlines, but I would like to try the Sargent Art Plastilina Modeling Clay as a form to make my own version of a Halloween mask. I love your work and ideas for us less talented to get our feet wet so to speak.

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