Chimpanzee Bust – A Paper Mache Clay Experiment

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I seem to be in the mood for experiments this month. Most of my experiments have been out in the garden (no results to report yet), but yesterday it was cold and wet, so I decided to stay inside and do an experiment with paper mache clay. This experiment actually started a few weeks ago when I posted an article suggesting that very small children would have more fun with real clay (with paper mixed in) than with paper mache, simply because working with pottery-type clay is more intuitive. I pinched together a silly imitation toddler’s bear with some clay I had on hand, just to have a photo for the post.

That made me wonder if I could use paper mache clay over a pottery clay armature that could be made easier, faster, and more intuitively than the crumpled paper and masking tape forms we normally use. After all, why should little kids have all the fun? That pottery clay was sitting there, whispering “play with me, play with me…” How could I refuse?

So here’s what I did yesterday, with the help of some ordinary pottery clay and a helpful chimp. It’s an experiment, not a tutorial, but I’m sure you’ll immediately think of ways that you could use the same techniques in projects of your own. I was so happy with the results that I’ve already started a “real” sculpture, since the “experimental” sculpture worked so well from a technical standpoint.

Chimp Bust – the Experiment:

Chimpanzee Bust, Step 1
Chimpanzee Bust, Step 1 (photo ©istockphoto.com/GlobalP)

For the first step I used pottery clay to form an armature for my chimp. I wasn’t paying much attention to proportions or anatomy at this point, because I just wanted to know if the process would work. Like any armature, it needed to be made slightly smaller than the finished work because the paper mache clay would be applied over it.

Paper Mache Clay Chimp Bust, Step 2
Paper Mache Clay Chimp Bust, Step 2

Next, I put a very thin plastic bag over the wet clay. I used the kind of bag you get in the grocery store’s produce department. The plastic stuck to the damp clay, so no tape or other fasteners were needed. I used the plastic so the clay would stay clean and I could use it for another project.I completely surrounded the clay, including the bottom, to keep it from drying out.

Paper Mache Clay Chimp, Step 3
Paper Mache Clay Chimp, Step 3

I applied the paper mache clay directly over the plastic. Since I knew I’d be removing the supporting armature, I applied the clay more thickly than usual – about 1/4 inch.

Paper Mache Clay Chimp, Step 4
Paper Mache Clay Chimp, Step 4

I used expanded aluminum gutter screening for the ears, and continued to build up the details with the paper mache clay.

Paper Mache Clay Chimp, Step 5
Paper Mache Clay Chimp, Step 5

I cheated a bit and dried the chimp in the oven, at 200 F. It has been cold and damp in my part of the country, and it would take ages for the thick paper mache clay to dry on it’s own. I do not advise drying the clay any hotter than that, because it will make your house smell like hot plastic.

When the paper mache clay was dry, I turned the piece over and removed the damp pottery clay and the plastic bag. If the clay on the inside dried out, it would be almost impossible to remove. You can see in the photo below that the walls of the bust are fairly thin, but it was quite strong. I continued to build up the paper mache clay over the first layer, to add details like eyes and lips.

Paper Mache Clay Chimp - Inside View, with Dog
Paper Mache Clay Chimp – Inside View, with Dog

Once the second layer, with the details, was dry, I could see the potential of this technique (see photo below). Of course, the experimental bust was never intended to be finished, but I have already started a new one, which you can see in the background. This time I’ll paying attention to things like anatomy, proportions and design. He should be dry and painted in a few days. I’ll show you how it turns out.

Paper Mache Clay Experiment - Chimp Bust
Paper Mache Clay Experiment – Chimp Bust

I think this method would also work with traditional paper strips and paste, although I’m too lazy to try it. If you do, or if you’re experimenting with any paper mache project this week, be sure to let us know.

14 thoughts on “Chimpanzee Bust – A Paper Mache Clay Experiment”

  1. I want to make a hollow oversidzed volleyball for guest to put graduation cards inside. I need a method that will dry quickly.

    • Hi Penny. I suggest that you find a cheap ball of the right size, and cover it with paper mache clay. (See the Paper Mache Clay tab at the top of this page). Give it a thin coat, perhaps 1/8 to 1/4 inch. Let it dry completely, then cut out a hole for the folks to put the cards in. If you leave the ball inside (you’ll have to cut through the rubber or other material that it’s made out of) the ball should dry quickly and still be strong enough for your purpose.

      But that’s only a guess – I have never made anything like that. It sounds like it would work, though…

  2. Thank you.I look forward to seeing the final chipanzee sculpture.I will try my best to post pictures of what it looks like and a litle on how I’m making it .
    Thank you

  3. Hallow. I watched your’e videos on youtube and I was amazed.I didn’t know that paper mache could make that good of a scuplture until I saw your’e videos.I have been making puppets since I was eight and I made only a few marionetes I was wondering if I could make holow puppet heads that were detailed with paper mache. I have been having a hard time on doing so thow. I once used a ballon to put paper mache over ,but I would like this method better .Is thier a lighter clay to use I’m trying to make a biger marionete than usual.

    • Hi Ben. Yes, you can get very detailed sculptures with both traditional paper mache and the new paper mache clay that I’m using in this experimental chimp (the “real” chimp sculpture is really close to being done). Since the clay on the inside is just temporary, you could use crumpled paper for most of the head, add some water-based or oil-based clay for the final armature, and then use your paper mache over that. Then make sure the paper mache is completely dry before pulling the armature out. Let us know how your marionette turns out.

  4. Jonni,
    I think I may have asked this before, so if I did, I apologize! Can you put the paper clay over styrofoam? Or does it react chemically to it? I was thinking of making an ornament and leaving the styrofoam inside the form. Any assistance you can provide would be most appreciated!

  5. Oh, I love this idea. I have a box of clay sitting around that I was getting ready to donate to the local art center, but maybe this method will get me going with my paper mache. I can feel the rusty wheels in my head just starting up…

  6. For Pam and Joni:
    I want to try this clay/mache clay idea! I am new at this so am hoping to get a few questions answered. How long in the oven at 200 to get the mache clay dry? About the two kinds of clay…which was used for chimp? Is what you call pottery clay oil based clay? Is “sculpty water based clay?” I think that is how you spell it. Thanks in advance! Royane

    • Hi Royane. The pottery clay I used is the water-based kind that comes out of the ground, but oil-based clay would work just as well, except you can’t put oil-based modeling clay in the oven. As for drying the clay in the oven, even at 200 degrees it does have an odor. It will take several hours to dry. I much prefer letting it dry naturally, but sometimes I get impatient.

  7. The paper strip method does work.
    That’s how I did some of my masks with my plaster head that I have. I made the shape I wanted in water based clay and used the strips over the clay. Any exposed plaster was coated with petroleum jelly so the paper mache wouldn’t stick to it.

    However, I didn’t use a plastic bag over the clay like you did. I pretty much let the water-based clay dry all the way through out before taking the paper mache shell off. I have a feeling that the plastic covering would make shapes and lines you wouldn’t want doing the strip method.
    Oil-based clay doesn’t dry out so you can re-use it again. It’s more expensive, but I’m very interested in how it works with paper mache applied to it compared to water-based clay.

    If anybody doesn’t have a plaster head or find it hard to make one yourself: You can get Styrofoam wig/hat model heads from salon stores for cheap to make paper mache masks/busts on. However, Styrofoam can be fickle. Thanks to a prop I did for Halloween, I know that superglue will eat away at Styrofoam!
    If you get one also know how wide and tall your head is with a measuring tape, so you don’t end up making a mask that will not fit.

  8. How would it work if you cut the paper clay off the armature–then mended it back together with more paper clay–or even traditional strips and paste. Then added the ears and refined the bust. Then you would be able to reuse the armature if you wanted more than one.

    • Pam, that’s a good idea. I haven’t gotten that far with my experiments. If I did “glue” two pieces back together, I think I’d use the expanded aluminum gutter guard material embedded in the new layer of paper mache clay. That would thicken the piece a bit, but I think you’d get a very secure bond that way.

      If you were to cut the piece away from the clay armature, you could let the armature dry out – as long as there were no undercuts that would snag the paper mache clay after it dried.


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