Paper Mache Head – Success!

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It worked. The paper mache head did dry, even though the paper mache was applied over a wet clay form. But that wasn’t really the part I was most interested in. I wanted to know if I could cut the paper mache into two pieces to easily remove it from the clay, and then put it back together again without the paper mache’s shape getting distorted in any way. I worked fast, and the head went back together again just fine.

We already knew that we could use a modeling clay or Super Sculpey form for the fast-setting paper mache, because that’s how I made all the masks that I teach people to make in my new mask book. And we already knew that we could also use paper mache clay over “real” clay, because that’s how I made the old lady mask.

What I wanted to know with this experiment was how the materials would work on a sculpture that would need to be cut in two in order to remove the clay. I had already done a very small experiment along these lines when I made the Plague Doctor Mask, but I only cut it down the underside of the beak – so another experiment was needed. I did know from a previous “experiment,” (my giraffe head) that if you remove the paper mache from a clay mold and allow the two pieces to dry without sticking them back together quickly, the paper mache will warp and the pieces might not fit.

I might add a bit of paper mache clay to this head to make some slight alterations to the shape. So, why not use paper mache clay entirely, instead of using the fast-setting paper mache paste and shop towels, you might ask? Because we wouldn’t be able to take the “Jonniclay” off the form until it was completely dry – and when it’s completely dry it’s so hard I’d need a power tool to cut it.

38 thoughts on “Paper Mache Head – Success!”

    • Excellent tutorial video, Brian. And the mask was wonderfully creepy – perfect for the film. Since your comment is on a fairly old post, you might want to post the link to your youtube videos on the Daily Sculptors page, too – that page gets way more visitors than this one. In fact, you can add a comment there with the links and an image of the finished mask.

  1. Hello, My name is Brian Laprocino I am using this technique to make a mask for a short film. I will be shooting it this weekend and I have sculpted and made a DEMON head. Next I did the paste wax, then used shop towels and a paper ache mix of flour and store bought mix. Now that I have added several layers I was wondering if I should use my acrylic gesso now or after I cut it in two?Unfortunately, I didn’t see that you had it in your mix. I also wanted to know how long it takes before I can cut it after I add the gesso?

    • Hi Brian. I would suggest waiting and use your acrylic gesso to cover the paper mache, and create a nice ground for painting, after the mask has completely dried and you’ve taken it off the form.

      Will you be making a mask that encloses the entire head? Or just the face? Will we get to see it when it’s done?

      • Absolutely, we have been filming the entire process (Film Students). This will cover the entire head, we had measurements to work from and so far it is incredible, the hard part is going to be the seperation. From the photo you can see our intricate detail and we hope it holds. Pray for us.

        So if I understood you correctly we should cut the paper mache from our clay mold, then plaster wrap it back together, then allow that to dry, and finally add our acrylic gesso mix?

        • Yes, that’s how I’d do it. Although, since it looks like you used the blue shop towel mache for the mask, you might want to use the same for putting it back together. The plaster cloth may not want to stick as well. Be sure to use a layer to cover the inside of the seam as well as the outside, and let it dry again before adding the acrylic gesso.

          Your design is quite creepy–perfect for its role in the production. If you put your video of the process on YouTube, be sure to let us know so we can see it. And will you be putting your dramatic film online, by any chance?

          • Yes the film will eventually be live in a week or so and I will keep you clued in. We successfully removed the mask. The clay stuck to the inside unfortunately but we were eventually able to remove it. We plastered the crack then shop toweled paper mache over the plaster wrap. Going to fill the inside with cotton, add the gesso, and fit It to my actor asap. I’ll keep you posted with video releases

          • Success. Will be posting pictures this weekend. We successfully cut, reattached, painted, and fitted the mask for use as a special effects mask behind the camera.

            • The image didn’t come through, Brian. It may have been too large for the system. Can you edit it to make it smaller, and try again? (I’ve also heard that the system doesn’t work well if you’re trying to upload an image from an iPhone, but I haven’t tested it myself.)

          • Hello Jonni,
            Sorry that image came up! I will be posting a video with the film and behind the scenes work but here is our finished product, the head is paper mache and part of the neck piece is also. The experiment worked! Total success and it looked amazing on camera.

            • Brian, the image didn’t come through – is the file size under 250KB? Sometimes it doesn’t work if you click off the page before the image has uploaded. And some people aren’t able to get the system to work if they try to upload using an iPhone. We do want to see it, so please try again. And we can’t wait to see that video!

  2. Hello, my name is Brian Laprocino. I am actually using this same process to make an inexpensive mask for a short film. The mask is actually a Demon head and I will be putting it onto my actor. Hoping this process works and I will keep you updated. I was wondering, should I put the acrylic gesso on first before I cut it? I used a mache recipe using flour and a mix. Or can I paint it on after the fact.

  3. oh, cant find the picture! πŸ™

    Hi Jonni, visit your site again and again. Greetings!
    You make the sculpture-head like the head oh the puppet.
    But you cut the ears, not the nose. Great idea for big head. Nice head.
    Smile and wave to you Dunja

  4. Hi Jonni,

    I’ve yet to try the new recipe but I do know that it takes a very short time before the paper clay becomes hard enough to manipulate safely. You may remember that I was making some large digestive biscuits (about 30mm thick). In order to ‘break’ them, I only had to leave them in the mold for 36 hours. By that time, they were firm but still easy to cut in two. I hope that this information might be useful. The second biscuit sculpture (which isn’t so gory!) is nearly finished and I’ll post it here as soon as it’s done. If you’re interested in looking at the progression and the final result, follow the flickr link above.

    Thanks for such a wonderful site. It’s great to see what everybody is up to!

    • Thanks, Howard. I can’t remember the specifics of this project – did you use the paper mache clay in your mold? Or did you change the recipe in some way to make the clay work better in the mold? (I should probably hit that link before asking… πŸ™‚ )

      • Yes, I used the mold to create a ‘blank’ biscuit, smoothed flat with a spatula – and then the lettering was added by poking a cocktail stick through a stencil for position and finalised afterwards. The mix wasn’t altered in any way. Whether it’s coincidence or not I don’t know but when I did the last two biscuits, I used the kind of linseed oil that you use to paint wooden fences instead of the oil painting linseed oil I’d used on the first ones. They were the only two that developed any mould on them. Next time I’ll add some bleach.

        As a matter of interest, the lettering had to be repeatedly re-done for a few hours after putting it in the mold because the paper clay had a tendency to spring back at first. As it became firmer, the lettering became more ‘set’, to the point where I was able to straighten the edges of the letters with a screwdriver(!).

        • Howard, I visited your flickr stream and love the whole series. I’ve also tried pressing letters in the clay but did not get the kind of detail you’re getting. Very impressive. Did you make letter patterns or pieces to press, or are you hand lettering them after registering the stencil? Either way, very impressive!

          I’m very fond of mixing text and sculpture … and layering text pages on a sculpture is one way, but I love the text as texture possibilities as well. Thanks for sharing these.

          — Beth

          • Hi Beth and thank you for the encouraging comments. I made a stencil from thin card and used a small, flattened cocktail stick to mark out the position of the letters. Then after removing the stencil, as I explained above, I used the same cocktail stick to form the letters. As a guide, the small letters were about 10mm high and the large ones about 30mm.

            It took me a few tries before I got it right. As the clay was still relatively wet, it had a tendency to spring back at first. However, I went over the letters again a few more times (about one hour in between attempts). As the clay dries and the water dissipates, it becomes easier as the impression becomes more permanent – you can actually start to feel the resistance as you press it down. You’ll soon get to the point where there’s very little ‘springiness’ in the clay at all and that’s the time to add fine details with a flat blade or, as I used, a screwdriver.

            I’ve attached this photo for a comparison. The top one was taken shortly after the first impression. The lower one shows a different one with lettering redone several times. You can see how much sharper it is (I hope). Another thing which made a big difference was that as I progressed, I managed to smooth the surface much better. Once again, you’ll see that the texture of the top one is nowhere near as smooth as the bottom one.

            I hope that this has explained it all adequately. If not, please feel free to ask any more questions. It’s good to give a little back on this site!

            • Wow – what an interesting sculpture. It’s really nice to see it all put together, too. Howard, did you already tell us where this sculpture will be displayed? Are they going into a gallery? (Forgive me if you already told us – my memory isn’t what it used to be… πŸ™‚ )

            • Hi Jonni and thank you for the enthusiastic comments!

              Well, I’m intending to enter this piece for a competition in London. Of course, one never knows whether the judges will give it the thumbs-up or not but I’ll keep you posted. Interestingly, the red wrapper is a bag from a company who make fertiliser. Given that the dimensions are about 60 x 60 x 60cm, I find that quite appropriate!


  5. Thanks Jonni and Xan.

    I just love the shop talk here, and appreciate all the info. Although I cannot test it now, it will inspire my future experiments.

  6. Hi Jonni.
    I’ve been reading your posts with much interest on PAper Mache Art, and just yesterday have been looking at your online blog. What fun!

    I’m too busy with other projects not involving paper mache to try more these days, but I can give you my two cents on this specific approach, as it’s become a speciality of mine over the years.

    I make masks, helmet masks, puppets and even props with the clay armatures.
    Although for armatures I mostly use oil-based clays (plasticene, plastalina), waterbased ones are used for larger sculpts, or when I’m in a hurry, as this stuff is fast to shape and even faster to smooth.

    I also occasionally use newspaper shapes and tape (masking for general shaping, clear packaging tape for the strength and final coat of protection) for bigger armatures of objects that will be made hollow. I’m currently working on three giant puppet heads in this method (for the core, clay will be sculpted on top). The necks are large plastic tubes, to save time and have precise fittings. Sorry I can’t show them, it’s for a show, and they probably want exclusivity.

    When your sculpt is to your (and your customer’s) liking, take reference photos, and then modify the sculpt to exagerrate some areas that would otherwise make you lose details.
    For example, the cracks and crevices are made deeper and wider, the nose is made thinner with nostrils carved more open. All the sharp edges are made much sharper. Basically, you remove enough clay to allow for(or compensate for) the thickness of the paper you plan on putting there. Paper smooths out everything, so plan ahead for that. Also, as you add more paper, you can pinch it when it’s semi dry, to enhance certain edges. Don’t overdo it, a pinch that is too obvious is a common Mistake. To me, it’s the paper mache equivalent of overusing the Lens Flare effect in Photoshop. Accompanying the Pinch, rubbing with a tool (sculpting tools, mostly smooth metal spatula is what I prefer) finishes the job. It is much easier for definition and smoothness when we use very small pieces of paper everywhere, but especially in the detailed areas. It may seem like a waste of time, initially (and wear off our patience) but it saves us time later (and we find it actually develops our patience), when doing the surface finishing.

    If a detail is too thin, such as eyelids or decorative textures like scales, I remove them fully, and use the final paper layers to remake those in a much more precise and controlled fashion.
    That’s when the reference photos come in handy: to reassure oneself that we will get the result we sculpted before.

    You can use plastic wrap to seal your wet clay. Sadly, the plastic will be wasted at every use. There may be a biodegradable version out there. I’m still looking.
    The more natural approach is to cover your entire sculpt with wet paper (no glue) and let it dry before adding the strips and paste as usual. I find that it takes a lot of time, and most of the time, it still sticks a lot to the clay form, creating more work later when the paper cast rips as I pry it out. Also, the inside will be much rougher, and the clay will requires a thorough cleaning.
    Or you can seal it with something that won’t affect your paper mache. Wax seems to work well for you, but I wonder about the residue it leaves on the clay.
    I’d scrape it off, but there might be a problem of patience (for me), and forgotten bits (annoying). Another way is to seal with dish soap mixed with rubbing
    alcohol (instead of water, it evaporates much faster). It’s a trick used by pro moldmakers.
    If well done, it can even be used as a safe release between silicones (silicone mold, silicone copy inside of it). Just make sure the dish soap you use has been tested on a sample. before you risk a whole project.
    I’ve tried 50/50%, but some say one third soap, two-thirds alcohol Two coats, each dried fully before the next.
    Another soap that is used for the same purpose is Murphy’s Oil Soap (diluted with water I was told, but I’d try with alcohol) I’ve tried it on dry objects only, but I suspect it might work on wet-ish clay, as long as the surface is not too liquid-tacky.

    Spray adhesive works well, especially acrylic-based sealers.
    But it does leave a residue on the clay.
    I’ve used this on oil-based clay, namely Chavant NSP, and Monster Clay.

    To separate the two (or more) parts,I use the same knife you did in the video, and sometimes a tougher one, when needed.

    I temporarily hold the parts together with a one-inch-wide masking tape (better control).

    I’ve tried using hot glue in small quantities to hold the more complex shapes, and it works. Just use a few dots, or squish a line as short and hidden as possible, or else it will create bumps and lines. The paper strips are the real strength, hot glue is just there as a temporary helper, but it doesn’t matter if it remains in there.

    I mostly use regular strips and paste to hold the parts together, between the tape pieces.
    A few minutes later, it’s firm enough that I can remove the tape and replace it with paste and strip, one piece at a time. When dry, I usually have to carve off the pieces that stick out, and add more paper to fill the cracks and make the two parts seamless.
    It may require three applications of strips on the seam, but it’s invisible when I’m done.
    I only ever add a texture on paper mache strips when it’s fully dry, trimmed, the cut edges are sealed with overlaps of more strips, and dry again. the texture may be paper mache pulp, or other products. but the real strength usually comes from the strips and paste.

    I’ve never tried plaster bandages for the re-assembly, simply because weight is usually an issue to avoid with my work, as I make performance masks and puppets. The exception is for very small puppets, they NEED more weight to move properly. For display pieces I won’t need to ship, I would definitely try plaster bandages, so thanks!

    If you use expandable foam to fill the inside, use a kind that won’t expand too much, and you’ll be fine.
    The neck should be wide enough to let any foam escape if the party gets too wild. I wouldn’t cut and permanently seal until I was sure the reaction has stabilized fully.
    Also, do not let the sculpture upside down while the foam is expanding without supervision. It might expand past the borders and stick to the outside of your sculpt!
    The Smooth-On company makes such foams (Foam-it and Flex Foam-it series), and they are much more reliable (and expand more evenly, and have less bubbles) than hardware store varieties.
    Just make sure to use within a year (or less) of purchase, or the product will spoil.

    A more world-friendly approach to fill the form: balls of paper, as long as it’s very clean, and very dry (I’d avoid newspapers that have been read. Brand new is fine, they even used to serve fries and deliver babies on that stuff !). Then you close the bottom with a custom-cut piece of wood, and merge it with the rest of the sculpture with more strips and paste (cover the wood completely, overlap a lot). That’s one more thing I love about paper mache: it merges with wood like magic! Once fully dried and sealed, it’s one piece.

    I hope this may bring some interesting ideas to try to some. I know these methods have brought me many new contracts that I would not have been able to do before.

    Speaking about water based clay, do you know about Philippe Faraut?
    I consider him my long-distance sculpting teacher. I have his entire DVD collection. Great resource.
    I play it while I sculpt, and it’s almost like having the teacher right here in the room, but I have the power to rewind and repeat him at will, without any harm! I learn sometihing new every time, and my skills seem to grow faster. Sometimes, I just play it in the background. The techniques soak into my mind, and the acoustic guitar music (by William Boutwell) is very nice.

    I wrote an article about the series here: http://creaturistelab.blogspot.com/2010/03/sculpture-dvd-series-philippe-faraut.html

    • Mathieu, what an honor to have you visit the site and offer such fabulous tips! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience. I do have one of the Faraut videos, and a book – but I have not yet followed the video all the way through. It’s definitely on my to-do list.

    • Mathieu, wow!
      I just spent a very enjoyable break looking at your portfolio. Very inspiring work!
      Thanks for sharing all this with us, even if some of us are mere dabblers!

  7. Hi Jonni,

    Congratulations! I’m very glad you posted this video. I was a bit confused with your last blog & video but, this one ended my confusion. As far as the expanding foam goes I have to agree with Terry (from your last blog) that it is going to be light weight and may not give you the weight you want. But as far as it expanding to the point of breaking the paper mache apart along the cut line, just take strips of cloth and tie the peice together till the foam dries. When the foam is expanding it will expand in the direction of least resistance so it shouldn’t break anything apart even without tying it with cloth strips.

    You can always go back to basics and do some experiments with balloons as the armature. That would be the fastest way to experiment with this process.

    • Good points, Teresa. I sent an email with some questions to the folks over at BrickInTheYard.com and they answered me (on a Sunday!) with the suggestion that I try their PolyFoam R2. Since it expands so much you only mix a small amount at a time – and maybe that will mean it’s also not terribly expensive per item. I’ll order some tomorrow. (They also suggested this stuff for waterproofing paper mache. The description does look promising – “Use Smart Coat 2K on your toughest jobs – counter tops, fountains, ocean environments, etc.” I guess I’ll have to order some of that, too. Sigh. I think it would be nice to be rich…)

    • I’m only just now starting to sculpt portraits, and I’ve been watching a video made by Adam Reeder. My first try really didn’t do his instructions justice – I kept stopping for days at a time to work on other projects. I’ll go over it again with a new head, and try to retain a little more of it. His teaching style is perfect for me – he talks slowly, explains everything, and shows you absolutely everything, just like having him there in the room.

  8. Spray paint! What a simple idea! Messy, and fume-y, but efficient … Guess you could use paint with a brush for the same effect though. Hm!

    Jonni, maybe there’s a way to make your seam into your PM layer, so you don’t have to cut through it. Maybe you could use foil, or wax paper … urk, how can I describe this?? maybe a visual aid:

    Hopefully this helps! If the pleated tape/wax paper (in red) stays above the paper mache skin, all the way around the piece, it should be easy to just pull the two halves (or however many pieces) apart quickly. I think. I’m pretty sure there’s a term for this kind of structure used in casting, right?

  9. Jonni,

    Congrats! This is wonderful. I use a technique similar to this when copying a form (tho I haven’t done it over clay.) I use an embedded wire vs. cutting it off, because usually I’m trying to save the form underneath as well. Also, I’m just not as good at the cutting off technique.

    And as for your release experiments … I’ve seen folks use spray paint over clay as a quick sealer / release agent. It dries super fast, and forms a thin plastic barrier. I’ve seen this done for making plaster molds … so I’d think it should work with making plaster-based paper mache forms.

    Congrats again. I’m loving the new work … and pot heads! How fun.


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