Paper Mache Dragon, Revisited

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How to Make a Paper Mache Dragon

This dragon is the very first project that I created for this blog, back in November of 2008! I can’t believe it’s been that long. Even after all that time, this dragon is still one of the most popular projects on the blog.

For months now I’ve wanted to go back over some of the older posts and projects and show how I would do things differently if I did them over. Now that all my art supplies are in boxes, waiting for the final papers to be signed, it seems like a good a time to revisit some of these old post and see what we’ve learned since they first appeared. (I decided to rent a really cute house in South Dakota, by the way – I know some of you have been wondering where I would end up. And yes, I know it snows in South Dakota, and it gets really cold – that’s why I’m renting. I thought it might be a good idea to check to place out for a few months before making a final decision. 😉 )

I’ll put the original instructions in regular font and add my revised suggestions in red. Since this dragon came out rather nice, there’s really no reason to change anything about the methods unless doing it differently would make it easier. (If you have any suggestions of your own, please let us know in the comment section of the post).

Making a Paper Mache Dragon

This dragon is made from newspaper, paste, masking tape and paint. The total cost was under $5 – an art project for the true cheapskate!

Step 1:

The first step in making a small sculpture from paper mache is to create the basic form. For this project I used newspapers twisted into a general shape and then wound together with masking tape. For inspiration, I looked at the beautiful drawings of dragons in the book Dragonology: The Complete Book of DragonsPaper Mache Dragon, Revisited.

Note: Be sure to keep any books or other items a – l o n g – way away from your paper mache projects – you’ll be making a big mess, and you wouldn’t want to ruin a nice book.

Paper Mache Dragon, Step 1
Paper Mache Dragon, Step 1

I create both hind legs before attaching them to the body, so I’ll know they’re both basically the same size. The legs are attached so the top (hip) is near the dragon’s backbone.

I don’t pay any attention to details, like toes, in this stage. I’m just trying to build the general shape of the dragon, and give him (her?) an interesting posture.

How I would do it now: I had real problems when I made this dragon, because the weight of the wet paper mache caused the crumpled paper forms to sag. I kept propping it up so that the legs would hold their shape, but it was much more work than necessary. If I did it again, I’d make a cardboard pattern to go inside the crumpled paper. The cardboard creates a template for the finished form, and adds strength to the armature so the paper mache won’t weigh it down. I think my echidna was one of my first projects using a cardboard pattern. And I posted a pattern for a different dragon here.

Step 2:

The back legs are taped on, and now the front legs are being attached. I include the shoulder section in the leg, and I continue to add masking tape to cover the paper. The masking tape helps make the inner form stronger.

Paper Mache Dragon, Step 2
Paper Mache Dragon, Step 3

Step 3:

Now the tail has been added, along with some spiny points along the backbone. Then the tail and hind legs are taped securely to a board. (The wooden base would not be needed if the armature was stronger and balanced – another good reason to use the cardboard pattern).

Paper Mache Dragon, Step 3
Paper Mache Dragon, Step 3

Step 4:

The wings have been added. The wings are first made with a twist of paper in the same shape as a front leg (arm?) and attached to the body. I then cut some cardboard from a cereal box and folded it like a fan. This has been taped securely to the wing’s ‘bones’.

Adding wings to an animal that already has front legs is a real challenge, because the front legs are attached in the place where wings would go. (Wings are front legs, with feathers added). One can only hope that the final sculpture will look halfway reasonable.

Paper Mache Dragon, Step 4
Paper Mache Dragon, Step 4

Step 5:

Now for the fun, messy part. I dip each torn piece of newspaper into the flour and water paste, and then wipe off the extra paste against the side of the bowl. Then the paper is laid on the body and pressed down as smooth as possible.

This is continued until the entire dragon has been covered. I also covered the masking tape that holds the dragon to the board.

Paper Mache Dragon, Step 5
Paper Mache Dragon, Step 5

How I would do it now: I don’t use paper strips and paste very often now, since I developed the paper mache clay recipe. However, if you don’t mind making a bit of a mess, laminated paper is very strong when it’s dry, and you can make beautiful things with it. I posted recipes for several different variations of paper mache paste here. (I like the easy one, plain raw white flour and water.)

Step 6:

The weight of the wet paper will cause the form to lose it’s shape, so a paper roll props up the dragon until the first layer dries. (Again – this would not be needed if the armature was stiffer.)

Once the first layer is completely dry, another layer is added, the form is propped up again, and allowed to dry again.

My sculpture will not be played with, so it only needs two layers of newsprint and paste. Once these layers have dried, the form is strong enough to stand on it’s own.

Paper Mache Dragon, Step 6
Paper Mache Dragon, Step 6

Step 7:

Now the features are added with tiny bits of paper towel dipped in paste. In this photo you can see I’ve added the mouth, eyes, nostrils, ears, and chin whiskers. (The technique of wetting paper towels with paste and using the mushy goo as “clay” works really well. If you decide to use the paper strips and paste, be sure to try adding the features this way. For even finer details, you might even try toilet paper and paste.)

The toes have also been added, and a layer of paper town has been added to the rest of the dragon, because it produced a very nice leathery texture. (I used this same technique to make the leathery skin on my baby elephant. Textured paper towels are fun to play with.)

The features are left to dry, and then the entire sculpture is covered with a layer of paste, diluted with a small amount of carpenters glue. This helped to smooth out the texture and gives the dragon a smooth, slightly bumpy skin. Once the top layer of paste is dry, the dragon is covered with white primer.

How I’d do it now: OK, this is something I’d definitely do differently. The layer of paste tends to crack, and a lot of people who tried this method were not happy with it. I would now use one of the gesso recipes here, or a commercial gesso from the art store.

Paper Mache Dragon, Step 7
Paper Mache Dragon, Step 7

Step 8:

The dragon is now painted with antique copper paint, which I purchased from the crafts section at the local Walmart. The base is painted black.

Paper Mache Dragon, Step 8
Paper Mache Dragon, Step 8

Step 9:

Using a fairly dry brush, I start to add the color to the dragon. The first layer of green has been added in this picture. Some of the copper still shows through. (I could have stopped at this point – but I’m not too excited about the bright green as a color for a large, imposing and scary creature. I thought he (she?) needed some more work.) As I continue painting, I mix some of the green with silver paint, and I add some copper, black and silver spots along the dragon’s side. I paint the eyes last.

Paper Mache Dragon, Step 9
Paper Mache Dragon, Step 9

The finished paper mache dragon:

After all the painting was done, and all the paint was dried, I finished the sculpture with water-based Verathane mixed with a small amount of copper paint. This protects the sculpture, and the copper helped pull the colors together and made the skin patterns more subtle. The dragon is finished – now, on to my next project! (I still really like the way the painted finish came out. I do wish I had a closeup photo of the face, because the copper-colored eyes and the metalic shimmer over green really came out nice. )

Finished Paper Mache Dragon
Finished Paper Mache Dragon

Thanks for taking this little walk down memory lane with me. If there’s an old project that you’d like me to post, along with some suggestions for making it easier, please let me know.

23 thoughts on “Paper Mache Dragon, Revisited”

  1. Hi Jonni, My name is Faith Wixon and I am a senior in Palmer High School Alaska, and I want to analyze this artwork of yours. I have a few questions for you if you would be willing to answer them please get back to me as soon as you can.

  2. Wow! This is amazing! I’ll have to try this. 🙂

    A couple of my friends are moving away in a couple of months, and I wanted to make them some gifts from hand. The 11 year old GIRL wanted a dragon. So I went searching for a really good version, and this one will be perfectly! Is there any way I could simplify this that you could think of? I’m only a teenager, there is only so much I can do. Haha! 🙂 I’ve made some other things out of paper mache, like this mace that I attached a picture of that I made for the 11 year old’s older brother. But this dragon is waaayyyy more advanced than the mace. But is there any way I could simplify this?

    Thank you! Great job, I love all of your projects!

  3. Hi, i was wondering which type of dragon you used for a model, in the book “Dragonology”. also could you send me a pic of the type of dragon?
    Thank you so much!!!

  4. Funny that…I came to your site for various reasons…sculpting ideas for events in the Twin Cities (I live in Sauk Rapids, MN now), I was actually going to sculpt an *sheepish grin* Alice In Wonderland themed Battleshots board’s pieces for a big multi-birthday party we had last month (I took on far too many projects and events that few weeks and ended up just making it out of cardboard and paint), and now checking in again for a much simpler project…my son’s 1st Birthday pinata in a few weeks.

    But I thought it neat that you’re moving to the Brookings area. We just recently moved here from there (sort of…2 years ago). We only lived there 5 years (I moved there in 2005 to live with my, then, boyfriend that I met at AIT in 2004, from CT), but my, now, husband was born there.

    Small details, but on the internet randomly like that…I love those little small world its and bits in life.


    • Yes – I agree that it’s a small world, especially now that we can “meet” people from all over the world, and still find people online who live almost next door. Will you be attending the Arts Meander this weekend?

      • Unfortunately, no. This is a weekend I’ve already had to cancel several sets of plans to stay home sick. Thank you for sharing the event though. I didn’t know about it before now 🙂

  5. Exciting for you!
    Ok, I have my fingers crossed you and kitty will be heading out on Thursday…on both hands for double impact. I will anyway when I get off this computer. BTW, your dragon is awesome. I’m not going to mention it to my grandson tho, or let him see yours. (I just might surprise him come December 25th.) You mentioned this was a project (under $5 to create) for the cheapskate! I’m sure that $5 was eaten up, doubled, tripled, plus more in time spent working on him.

    Keep dropping a note here for us when you can as you journey through this exciting venture you’re diving into.

    • Hi Sharon. Yes – one must never count the time when adding up the cost, right? Besides, it’s all for fun, anyway. Nobody every counts the time lost when skiing, or scuba diving, or camping, do they?

      I will definitely let you all know how things go. I am leaving tomorrow, and should arrive in SD by Sunday. Cat yowling all the way, of course.

  6. Jonnie,

    Thank you so very much for your openness in sharing your talents and experience. My desire to create has hit an overwhelming growth sput recently and I’m so eager to get to work on paper mache. I’ve just discovered your site and am delighted to hear of your move to South Dakota. I moved to Sioux Falls about five years ago and have found something very magnetic about this place. I hope you will find the same beauty here and believe your art and willingness to help will be much appreciate. Welcome to South Dakota.

    Thank you!

    • Hi Lisa. It sounds like we’ll almost be neighbors! I’m so glad you like it there. Jessie has only been in Brookings for a few months, but she’s met so many artists who have been very welcoming. I’m really looking forward to my move. It should happen on Thursday. Or Friday, or Monday. (I want it to be Thursday, so keep your fingers crossed for me.)

  7. I love this Dragon. What about your paper mache mask recipe, would it work ok for the dragon?
    Wow, I’m surprised you picked South Dakota! Do you have friends or family there? Is your new home going to be near Mt. Rushmore?

  8. LOved this post as I missed the first dragon! Loved the redo and your expert work. Always inspiring! Blessings on your move! Your paper may not dry too fast but I know you will love it. We live in the country but I long for the mountains. Don’t forget to keep us up to date!

    • Thanks, everyone. In a few weeks I should be heading to South Dakota, assuming all goes well. One never knows until the papers are signed. I’m a bit nervous about traveling for three days with a cat in the car – you’ve all heard how loud my cat can be if I ignore her while filming a video, so just think what it will be like on the road. She’ll probably be hoarse by the time we arrive. And I may be deaf!

  9. Hi Jonni! I’ve been missing your newsy posts. I’m glad you have a place to light and will be closer to your daughter for now. I hope the cold doesn’t get too severe! I hope the art community there is fun and welcoming.
    Thanks for the post about the dragon. They are not my cup of tea, but you did a beautiful job on that one and the update was informative.
    Have a great life in S. Dakota and I look forward to your future endeavers!

  10. Hi Jonni,
    I’ve been hoping we’d hear something from you about your plans. South Dakota. That’s a far distance from Oregon…in more ways than just miles. I’m glad you’re closer to your daughter and grandkids. Hope it works well for you.
    I planned to move up to the mountains when I moved, but I’ve not regretted one minute of making the move to be closer to my kids. Regardless of how much I dislike living in a city.
    Can’t say I don’t miss the peace and solitude and quite of the country. Some days are hard because I miss it so much…but, I’m glad I made the decision I made.

    Keep us updated my friend.

  11. Hi Joni!

    I’ve been following your blog for awhile now and I’ve really been inspired. I teach visual arts and one of the highlights of my student’s experience is making a paper mache helmet mask. I can’t wait to try a dragon with them this year!

    I noticed you moved to South Dakota. It is a bit personal but whereabouts? The reason I asked is that I would like to move up there (I’m in West Tennessee) So I’m curious about how you are liking it.

    • Hi Theresa. I’m glad your students are having so much fun with paper mache. What grade do you teach?

      I haven’t arrived in South Dakota yet. In fact, I’ve never been there (or, perhaps I drove through 40 years ago, but who can remember that long ago?). My daughter lives in Brookings, on the far eastern edge of the state. I’ll be renting a small house in a nearby town called Volga. I’ve heard very nice things about the arts community there, and I’m looking forward to seeing the nearby towns, too. I’ll keep you all posted.


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