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Project Difficulty Level: Challenging.
This paper mache mask is modeled after a one that was made by a Dogon artist. There are a number of websites that show these masks, because their beauty makes them valuable works of art. I found the hyena mask that I found here. The process was challenging because I was attempting to copy an original piece of art made by a master craftsman, and that’s always a humbling experience.
I recently created another copy of an African mask, this time from the Ivory Coast. It was made by putting paper mache directly over a clay form, and the look is very different from this one. For even more posts about how to make a paper mache mask, click here.
For this Dogon mask, it wasn’t easy to fold and bend cardboard into a shape that resembled the original form. I normally use crumpled paper as the inside form for my paper mache sculptures, but in this case the mask is hollow, and needs to have strong walls. The cardboard gives the piece it’s strength without requiring many layers of paper mache, but a lot of cutting and bending and prodding were necessary to make it work.
First, I cut a long strip of cardboard about 7 1/2 inches wide, and long enough to go around my head almost twice. I rolled the cardboard into a shape that was slightly wider at the bottom than the top, and then taped it all the way around in two places to hold it solid. (I made sure it would go around my head so it would be the right size, but since these masks have ceremonial and possibly religious significance to the people who originally designed them, I think it might be disrespectful to actually wear the finished mask. In fact, is the act of making a copy of a ceremonial mask a form of cultural theft? If you have an opinion one way or another, please leave a comment below).
After the roll was taped together, I trimmed the bottom so the tube could sit flat on the table.
Now I needed a rounded dome for the top of the mask’s head. The dome sticks out further in the front, creating a deep overhang (the “hyena’s” browbone). To make the cardboard into a dome, I found a bowl that was the right size, and cut a piece of cardboard slightly larger than the bowl.
I used a box cutter to make a number of cuts in the cardboard, from the center to the outside edge. An area about two inches wide was left in the middle, without cuts, to hold the piece together.
Next, I placed the bowl on the center of the cardboard circle. I pressed the edges of the circle up around the bowl and taped them together. This took quite a bit of coordination and juggling, and lots of tape. The cardboard ‘bowl’ was then trimmed to the right size.
I taped the cardboard dome onto the top of the tube, with an overhang in the front.
I then taped short pieces of cardboard under the overhang. I eventually used enough tape to cover all the spaces between the cardboard pieces.
If you look at the finished mask at the top of this post you can see that the mouth is made of three protrusions, or “lips.” To make these, I cut six cresents out of cardboard, and taped them together in pairs so they would be thick enough.
I now taped these mouth parts to the front of the mask, about 1 1/2 inches from the bottom. Then I cut a nose piece and folded it over. It was cut so it would fit between the mouth and the eyebrow overhang, with a strip continuing up over the brow.
You can see from the photo above that I’ve now added the two pieces that make up the bottom of the nose. The original mask that I copied had a crooked nose, which gave the mask a wonderfully whimsical look. I made sure to tape the nose on my mask crooked, too. I also cut out the diamond shapes for the eyes.
The ears are each made from two pieces. The first piece is a long strip that is bent in two places to make a box-shaped piece, and this is taped to the sides of the mask. These pieces start at the top of the outer edges of the mouth and continue up about an inch above place where the curved dome is attached to the bottom tube.
After the box-shaped piece was taped on, I added the ear shape to the top. To give them a spoon-like shape, I cut them in several places and folded each cut piece in and taped them, the way the top dome was shaped.
The cardboard manipulation is almost done. The only thing that’s left is to cut out part of the back of the mask, and add a semi-circular piece to the back.
The last piece of cardboard is taped above the hole that has now been cut out at the back. Before I added any paper mache, I spent some time poking and pushing and taping the top of the mask, so it would be as rounded as possible. I also spent some time shaping the ears so they would have fairly smooth forms.
Now for the wonderfully messy part – I begin to add a layer of newsprint and paper mache paste. I used a simple flour and water paste recipe, and covered the entire mask, including all the cut edges, and the inside of the mask, too. I did this in several steps – I put the paper mache on the front of the mask and let it dry, then turned it over and did the back of the mask. When this was dry I could safely turn it upside down and put a layer of paper mache on the inside.
When the newsprint layer was completely dry, I added another layer, using brown Kraft paper. Only two layers are used, both inside and out. Since the cardboard was not as smoothly rounded as I wanted, I used extra paper in the low spots to make a more perfect dome.
After the brown paper layer dried I sanded the rough spots off and added a “skin” layer of paste made from white flour, water, and carpenter’s glue. I don’t actually measure the ingredients, but I do know that too much glue will make the mixture set up too quickly. Too little glue, and the paste will crack when it dries. I smoothe the paste on with the side of my finger.
I believe the original Dogon mask was stained instead of painted. I wanted this same look, so I mixed some color into my second layer of “skin” paste. This paste is slighly transparent, so two layers of dark grey are needed. There will still be be a bit of the light paper color showing through in spots, giving the finished mask a hand-crafted feel. I do not cover the lip area, since it is lighter than the other parts of the mask. I put the dark grey paste on the inside, too. To make this color, I used a little bit of black and a little bit of burnt sienna (brown) acrylic paint mixed in with the flour/water/glue mixture.
Holes were drilled in the back. The original mask has some ropes dangling from these holes. You won’t see the rope in the finished photo below because I need to make a trip to the hardware store to buy some.
Almost finished! I put a bit of the dark grey skin paste in two cups, and mix up the color for the spots. (Spotted hyena…) The light spots have some white acrylic paint added, making a very light grey. The ‘red’ spots have burnt sienna and white acrylic paint added to the dark grey paste. I found that acrylic craft paint actually works better than acrylic artists colors, but I don’t know why this matters. The more expensive artists colors react to the glue in the paste and cause the paste to thicken. The craft paint doesn’t do that. Go figure…
After all the spots have been added, and some red has been painted around the eyes, I sanded the mask to give a slightly ‘used’ look. Some of the paper color can be seen in a few spots, especially over the ridge of the nose and the eyebrow ridge. Then I add a final glaze. The glaze is made from water-based verathane with a very small amount of white and bronze yellow added. This glaze is brushed onto a small area and then immediately wiped off with a paper towel. I also mixed up a darker glaze to correct the color of the mouth. The light glaze over the dark grey (and all the spots) gave the mask an antique look.