Paper Mache Animals – How to Create Easy Armature Patterns

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Start sculpting your paper mache animals the easy way …

… with a custom-made armature pattern.

In this post, I’ll show you:

  • How to choose a photo for your model, or use an original drawing.
  • How to use a computer paint tool (or tracing paper), to turn your photo into an armature pattern.
  • How to use a simple grid system to copy the pattern from your small page onto cardboard, and make it as big as you want. (Life-sized bull elephant, perhaps? Sure, why not?)
  • And finally, how I use foil to put the legs in the right place.

This is the method I used for all the projects in my book Make Animal Sculptures with Paper Mache Clay.

And I know it works because of all the people who learn this method from my book, my YouTube channel or my blog, and then share the original art they create using their own patterns. You can find hundreds of their photos in the comment section on the Daily Sculptors page.

(If you’ve used this method yourself, I hope you’ll leave a comment down below and let us know.)

This is the easy way to create a life-like sculpture of any mammal, bird, lizard or fish.

In fact, this method doesn’t just help you create paper mache sculptures. When I use modeling clay, I often start with a pattern and build the clay sculpture around it. In fact, that’s how I made the original models for the animal masks and wall art behind me in the video.

(If you don’t have time to watch the video, see the screen shots and written instructions for this tutorial below).

Where did the idea come from?

I wasn’t the first person to discover the idea of starting a sculpture with a silhouette, but I can only find three other people who have taught this sculpting method in books or video.

Sadly, these are fairly obscure references, so you probably won’t find them mentioned anywhere else. And no, they aren’t using cardboard patterns, but the idea is still the same:

  • I found a one-sentence mention of sculpting patterns in an out-of-print art book called “3-D Wizardry: Design in Papier Mache, Plaster and Foam.”
  • There’s another book that teaches beginners how to sculpt a recognizable portrait in clay their very first try. It’s called “Sculpting Made Easy” by Catherine Barjansky. Also out of print, unfortunately, but still available on amazon.com.
  • And the best DVD about sculpting heads that I’ve ever watched is called Sculpting the Head and Face by Adam Reeder. (I tried it, and his method works.) The DVD is almost impossible to find, even by searching on amazon. Click the link if you’re interested.

Why are armature patterns for animal sculptures so helpful?

The pattern inside your paper mache animal sculpture creates all of the outlines for you. If you make sure you don’t go outside the edges when you add padding for the muscles and face, your finished sculpture will have the exact same outline as the one on your pattern.

That means you can correct the proportions and shapes, if you need to, when it’s easy – on a piece of paper. If you find errors later, when the sculpture is almost done, you may need to get out a saw. (And yes, I’ve done that. I’m not proud… 🙂 )

The patterns don’t do all the sculpting for you, of course. You still need to add the the face and body forms.

But if you want to start a paper mache animal from scratch, whether it’s a tiger, dog, aardvark, dragon, flamingo, porpoise, fish, or anything else, this method will give you a big head start.

Step 1: Use a photo or drawing, and trace the body shapes.

I like to use photographs from Pixabay.com because they’re royalty-free and I post things here on my blog. You can also find thousands of images by doing a Google image search for the animal you want to sculpt.

But you do have to look through them rather carefully because you’re looking for photographs that are taken from the side. If even part of the animal is not in silhouette, you need to keep looking. The kangaroo I chose for this tutorial works well, because the entire animal is seen from the side.

Once you choose the photo you’ll use for your model, you can draw it free-hand or trace it, like I did for the video.

Drawing the body form for a paper mche animal.
Tracing the leg shapes for the paper mache animal armature.

I used my Paint Tool Sai program to trace around the body shapes and legs, but you can use the same system with tracing paper, and it works just as well.

If you’re making a dragon or other mythical creature, you may need to patch several different animals together, or just make one up.

Hint – your made-up animal will be more believable if you use real animals for models. Then stretch and alter the shapes without going too far outside the laws of nature. This works even when combining two or more creatures, for a dragon or griffon, for instance.

When tracing the pattern, put the body and tail on one sheet of paper or layer, and draw the legs on a separate page or layer.

Step 2: Add a grid to the pattern.

Adding a grid to the paper mache animal pattern.

If you’re using a drawing program and you want a sculpture that’s bigger than a sheet of paper, add a grid in the background of your pattern.

You can find a grid to use in a paint program with a Google image search for the terms “grid image.”

You need a grid with fairly large squares. Each square on my grid prints out to about an inch wide. You don’t want them really tiny.

Add the grid by hand if you’re using tracing paper.

If you’re making a small sculpture, you won’t need the grid. You can just use a glue stick to attache the paper pattern to your cardboard, and cut around it.

If using a drawing program, print the pattern pages.

Step 3: Draw a grid on your cardboard.

Finding the size for the grid for your paper mache animal armature pattern.

Determine the size of your grid:

If you want your sculpture to be bigger than the pattern you just created, you’ll need to draw a grid on a piece of cardboard.

  1. Decide how long you want your sculpture to be, in inches or centimeters.
  2. Divide that number by the number of squares on the body section of your new pattern.

This will give you the size of the individual squares on the grid you’ll draw on your cardboard.

I did it the easy way – the ruler on my carpenters’ square is 2 inches wide. Two-inch squares will give me an 18″ long kangaroo body, because the body on my pattern covers 9 squares. 9 x 2 = 18.

Draw the grid on the cardboard:

Make sure the grid is square by using a carpenters’ square or the edges of a piece of letter paper or book.

Draw the grid on a piece of cardboard that’s large enough for your new sculpture. You can use cardboard from a used shipping box.

If your animal has long skinny legs, make sure they don’t cross the fold lines on your cardboard, and that the length is aligned with the corrugations. The cardboard doesn’t bend as easily that way.

Step 3: Transfer the small pattern to the large grid, one square at a time:

Using a grid to enlarge the animal pattern.

You can create an accurate copy of your small pattern on a large piece of cardboard by using the grid system.

I got this idea from a workshop I attended at the community college in Coeur d’Alene, ID. We were taught to draw a realistic portrait using the grid system. There’s even a book that teaches you how. It really does work, even with complicated shapes.

Just remember to go slow, do one square at a time, and use a pencil so you can go back and fix a line if you need to. Nobody will ever see the armature inside your paper mache animal, so don’t worry if you have to redraw a line or two.

When all the pattern pieces have been drawn onto the cardboard, cut them out with a sharp knife.

Step 4: Determine the placement of the legs.

Using crumpled foil to separate the egs from the body on a paper mache sculpture armature.

We’ll use hot glue and aluminum foil to separate the legs from the body pieces. But how far apart should they be?

To find that out, we need to do another image search to find the relative space between the legs. Every animal is different because of the shape of their rib cage and the shape of their pelvis.

The image you used for the pattern was taken directly from the side, and that doesn’t show you how far apart your animal’s legs need to be.

Go back online and find a photo that shows your animal’s chest and front legs. This will show you how far apart the legs need to be.

If the spacing of the back legs is not as obvious as it was for my kangaroo, find a photo of your critters’ rear end, too.

Use lightly crumpled foil as spacers.

Use foil and hot glue to attach the legs, and then push the legs around to change the angles until they match the photo you’re using for a model.

Adjusting the armature pattern to match the model for our paper mache animal.

The armature is still very flimsy, because the foil is so lightly crushed. This gives you the opportunity to change the placement of the legs until you have the posture or stance you want.

You can even choose to put the legs in a different position than you see in your photo, if you want.

Step 5: Reinforce the foil to make a strong armature.

Reinforcing the paper mache animal sculpture's armature with more foil and hot glue.

Use more tightly squished foil and plenty of hot glue under the front and back legs.

As you continue to strengthen the armature, it become much more difficult to move the legs. After adding each piece of foil, check to make sure your animal can still stand up. 

If you don’t want to use so much foil, you can use tightly crumpled newspaper and masking tape, instead.

Step 6: Your armature is now ready for the face and additional padding.

Paper mache animal pattern is reaady for the face and muscle padding.

The pattern is now finished, but your armature still needs a lot of work. Sculpting the head and muscles will be different for every animal, but it will go easiest if you follow these suggestions:

  1. Add shapes, with more foil or crumpled paper and masking tape, just like you would if you were sculpting with clay.
  2. Use as many resource photos as you can find. There are hundreds of photos online for every part of any animal, from tiger paws to to swordfish fins.
  3. If you want a more whimsical look, or if you’re sculpting a made-up animal, like a dragon, the photos will still help you create a believable sculpture.
  4. Make your armature as close to the final shapes as you can get it before starting to add paper mache or paper mache clay.
  5. And here’s a trick I leaned as a writer – when you think your armature is finished, set it aside for a day or two and do something else. When you come back to it you’ll be seeing it with fresh eyes.

I hope this helps you create an awesome new paper mache animal sculpture.

If you have any questions, or if you’d like to share some tips you’ve discovered while using this method, please leave a comment below.

Happy sculpting!

15 thoughts on “Paper Mache Animals – How to Create Easy Armature Patterns”

  1. Good morning. Thank for your tutorial video. This is my mini project. The color is not real. The papel maché clay wasn´t dry enough, so the blue deer isn’t smooth, but I do like. At the end, it is important that as I artist I would like my work. By the way,English is not my first languaje,and I am a little rusty. Thank….I have a Instagram page, but I think I am shy to other people can see my work. Maybe only yo, for the moment.
    https://www.instagram.com/mitzivargasdepigna/
    Thnaks

    • Hi Mitzi. Your little blue deer is very nice, and so are the other sculptures on your IG page. Did you intend to upload a photo to this blog, too? If so, you would need to make the file size smaller. I hope you’ll try again.

  2. Thank you, Jonni! I have not had time recently to do any crafting and I want a substantial project, but one that won’t leave me frustrated. Your straight-forward tutorial shows me step by step what to do to have the outcome I desire. I do have one question, though. What kind of tape do you use to tape the armature muscles to the pattern? Would painter’s tape work, or do you recommend maybe duct tape?

    • Actually, both masking tape and duct tape will work, although your paper mache will stick better to masking tape. When I’m doing a small sculpture I use foil and hot glue for all of the armature padding, just because crumpled paper un-crumples itself before I can get the masking tape off the roll… But when using paper strips and paste, you would still need to cover the foil with masking tape, because traditional paper mache won’t stick to foil. TMI? 🙂

      I’ll put out another video soon, showing how to add the muscles and how to make sure the legs are strong enough – but it probably won’t be online until sometime next week. Have fun!

  3. Wow thanks Jonnie. Your a great teacher. I have learned many things about sculpting from you. You are one of the few that puts in 100% when they do a tutorial.

    Thanks again
    Tracy

  4. Jonni, what a well thought out tutorial! You really crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s. I use the crumpled newspapers and tape mostly for my paper mache projects but definitely use foil for a Pal Tiya sculpture.
    The only other thing I would do if I really want an accurate animal is to google a picture of the anatomy of the animal. Sometimes if you use a profile pic of a furry animal like a fox, the fur distorts the profile a bit and the sculpture looks strange when done. I definitely have utilized a saw and redid various parts. You are such a good teacher, I get lots of info from your tutorials to use when I teach. Thanks for that! Now I can refer them to your video on making an armature. That really is the most important part because if that isn’t right, your piece will not be right!

    • Eileen, excellent suggestion for using the anatomy images to get the pattern to the shape of the body, and not the fur. That would be especially helpful if you’re sculpting a long-haired dog, for instance. Thanks!

      In fact, if you do a lot of animal sculptures you might want to pick up a copy of An atlas of Animal Anatomy for Artists by W. Ellenberger. I’ve had my copy for years, and it’s sitting on my desk right now – I’ll need it soon for the 3-D deer head pattern that a number of people have asked me to design. It’s especially useful when you start adding the muscles and head shapes, because it clearly shows where the bones are and how the skull is shaped.

      • And while I’m on the subject of books, another great resource is a good animal drawing book. For this purpose you’d want a book intended for adults, not kids. You’ll see animals in dynamic poses that would translate well into sculptures. Start with the pattern drawn from the side, and then adjust it when you put the armature together to make the sculpture more interesting. After you’ve sculpted a few animals using the standard method shown on this page you can get a bit more adventurous, and alter the pattern like I did in this video so you can twist and turn the parts into a more dynamic pose.

  5. Olá! Não entendo inglês, porém consegui entender esta etapa da construção das esculturas.
    Muito obrigada!

  6. This is a great post. It is a far cry from blowing up a balloon and taping on toilet paper rolls for legs and a cup for the face! Using aluminum foil is genius. I can’t say how many hours I spent cutting out Styrofoam hip and leg bones attempting to get the correct width, an accurate angle, etc. Not saying anything about making certain all the legs touch the ground while gluing on the Styrofoam. Foil makes all of that easier.

    Thanks for the “new” tutorial. I won’t say anything about becoming a surgeon or trying to paint! I love the kangaroo and can’t wait to see it finished! Another thing to add on my list of things to try.

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