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. Hi Jonni,

    Like many others have said, this is truly a remarkable resource and I’m very grateful for the myriad of tutorials / tips and general information sharing on this site. I’m a newbie to PM and have a question regarding the original mould you make from the oil-based clay. In this video you cover it with a thin film of vaseline so that the mask form comes off easily. Are you able to reuse the plasticine clay form with all the Vaseline, do you have a way of cleaning the vaseline off so the clay is reusable or is it only good for the bin after that? I ask as I’ve made a couple of masks from Monster Clay which I had from another project which I was going to use as the base for some masks I’ve been asked to make for a school play, but they wouldn’t have the budget to pay for me to make moulds from them using silicone/resin etc, so ideally I’d like to paper mache over what I’ve made already, but of course without making the Monster Clay unusable after! Or am I best off remaking the masks again from plasticine so I don’t wreck my Monster Clay?! (I think plasticine is exactly the same as the Plastilina you use? I’ve not seen that brand in the UK!) Thanks, Liz

    • Hi Liz. I like a soft clay, so I don’t bother trying to clean off the Vaseline when I use Sargent’s plasticine. It’s much softer than Monster Clay to start with. The added oil ccan make the plasticine slightly softer, but that does’t matter to me. Monster Clay is a wax-based clay, I think, so I don’t know how the added oil would affect it. If you don’t have a lot of details to worry about, another way to protect the clay is to cover it with a sheet of cheap plastic wrap. Then put the paper mache over the plastic. (That’s what I did to protect the WED clay when I made my African mask). If the plastic doesn’t stay where it belongs, a fine mist of water might help. But test this first to make sure the water doesn’t have an effect on the Monster Clay. It’s expensive, after all.

      • Thanks so much for your swift reply, Jonni. That’s useful to know for next time re the plasticine (which is how I will do it in future…wish I’d discovered this resource first!).

  2. Hi Jonni! Cannot wait to use these techniques to for my 2018 Trunk or Treat display (you might remember my massive T-rex from last year?) This year we’re going in a different direction with a Frankenstein theme! I will try to take a lot of step by step pictures and keep track of the whole process to share! Thank you for all you do…you have been an amazing resource!

  3. I made a witch mask using the pastelina modeling clay. I formed the mask on a styrafoam head and then put the shop towels with the glue recipe from this video. It has all dried and looks great but I can’t get the mold and the clay off the styrafoam without ruining the mask. Help! Any suggestions?

    • Marie, is the paper mache formed over the entire head, or just for the mask part? Although I don’t think it would matter if you didn’t use any form of release on the Styrofoam, I haven’t tried using Styrofoam for a base for paper mache, but I would think the paste would sink down into the small holes and get stuck on tight.

      If it does seem to be loose around the edges but it won’t come off because there are undercuts, you would need to cut the paper mache in half and take it off, then put it back together.

      The plastelina is an oil-based clay, so it should be possible to get the paper mache off without doing too much damage to the design, even if the paper mache has to come of in pieces. You could then fix any damage to the clay, add a thin film of Vaseline to both the clay and the Styrofoam, and try again with the paper mache. Good luck with it!

  4. Hi Jonni, I’ve just discovered your website and bought your mask making book on Amazon. Over the years I’ve done a lot of costuming for a middle eastern dance company, at times involving masks. I’ve used both celastic and traditional paper mache, using newspaper and a mix of Elmer’s and water. I’m anxious to try your fast setting approach on a lion mask I’m currently making. I have the clay sculpture ready to go, but wonder if the result would be more brittle or fragile than the traditional approach. The mask will be used in at least 8 performances. I’m really enjoying exploring your website. Thank you so much for your generosity in sharing your ideas and work! Eileen

    • Hi Eileen. I haven’t tested the two methods side by side, but others who use masks made by this method, and who have used them in theater production, have had good results. The back side does need to be carefully sealed if they’re to be used so often, and you should add foam strips or felt to the back to allow for air flow and to keep the masks from becoming damp from perspiration. Also, the very best way to know if this method will work for you would be to try making a mask, and see what you think. Since writing the book, I discovered that a paste made with joint compound and white glue (any joint compound except DAP brand) will make a mask that’s just as strong, and it won’t harden in the bowl like the plaster-based paste. You might want to try that, too, while you’re experimenting.

      • Thanks so much for your quick reply! I like the idea of the joint compound/glue paste, since the approach is new to me, and I’m less likely to get rattled without plaster setting up in the bowl and needing to mix a new batch. Would I start with glue and add a bit of water, then add joint compound to the right consistency? And thanks for the heads up about perspiration and sealing the inside. Glue and water alone are pretty impervious to moisture, so I hadn’t thought about protecting the mask, only the face. I will be lining the mask with a generic flexible, lined face mask so that it can fit snugly but allow for larger proportions of the lion face. There should be spacers between the lining mask and paper mache mask, at least at certain points.
        Again, thanks so much! This is really helpful. Eileen

        • Hi Eileen. I put some joint compound in a bowl and add glue until it seems to have a nice consistency. Some added water will thin it a little more, and make it easier to use as paste. There’s no real recipe, but it seems to work no matter what proportions you use.

          I sure hope you’ll let us see your masks when they’re done.

      • Hi Jonni, I have followed your mask making method and love it. Now that the mask is off the mold, I am wondering how to line the inside since there is a film of vaseline on the papermache from the mold. What can I use to get the felt or foam to stick to this slightly greasy surface? Thanks!

        • Hi Jonah. You might be able to brush on a very light layer of the paste over the back of your mask. The paste I use with shop towels soaks up the oil – both the plaster and glue paste and the joint compound and glue paste seem to do this, so if you’re using one of those recipe it should help. Make sure you don’t make the mask wet with the paste, though, or it will soften and you’ll lose some of your shapes.

          • Thanks! I will try that :-). I’m so grateful for your tutorials, they turned a very week first mask into a very cool second mask.

  5. Hi I’m from South Africa. I’m recreating a paper macho mask of my face for art at school. I put plaster Paris bandages on my face and did a mold of it, but there’s no detail to mold and I’m not sure how to get the detail and then how to paper Mache it with the detail still in tact. I would really appreciate any help you can give me!

  6. Hi, I am a paper mache artist, trying to set up a blog. I love yours and learn something every time I check in. I love how generous you are with your info and hope to do a very simple version myself. I am doing narative reliefs. I just finished one on a tarot card of thè fool. My computer is down but when I am up and running I will send a picture. I have made many masks with all kinds of materials but never over a scull like that,only a Halloween scull which seemed rigid. I usually use a plastic form. I will try your method over a mask form. Let you know how it turns out.

  7. Hi Jonni! I am a drama teacher and I wanted to do our fall performance in mask. However, after pricing it, I soon realized that I had nowhere near the budget to do so. After finding your tutorial and reading several of your articles, I decided to proceed and with the help of my students, over the course of the semester, we made 20 paper mache masks. Thank your for your clear and inspiring posts!

  8. Hi Jonni! This tutorial was beyond helpful! I lead a drama program and wanted to do our fall performance in mask but after pricing it, I realized I did not have anywhere near the money to do so. After watching your tutorial and reading many of your articles, I felt that we could make them ourselves successfully. Over the course of the semester, my students helped me and together, we made 20 masks for our performance. Thank you for making this information available in such a clear and inspiring way.

      • I just posted again, this time with a picture. Sorry for the duplicate (or almost) text. I didn’t see that my first attempt went through because the first picture I attached was too large a file. Thanks again!!

  9. hi Jonni! I’m so glad I found your site. You described the exact process I imagined must be possible (sculpting with clay and then using plaster) but you weren’t easy to find! I’m going to try my hand at it this week and if it turns out, I’ll share a photo! Thank you for putting these tutorials together.

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