Paper Mache Pitfalls and Rewards

I don’t have time to create a tutorial this week – I’m rushing to complete a paper mache sculpture for an Art About Agriculture contest sponsored by OSU. This will be the first art contest I’ve ever entered (I made my living as an artist many years ago, but no contests…) I’m making a sleeping Holstein calf on a base that represents the pasture and hills around the Tillamook valley – where they make that great ice cream and cheese. Wish me luck!

While I’m waiting for my sculpture to dry I thought I’d jot down a few comments about paper mache as an art form. Everyone experiences this material in grade school or kindergarten, but few people use it as a “serious” art form. I think there are good reasons for that.

First, paper mache, the laminated type made from torn paper and paste, cannot be sculpted by itself. It can only create a “skin” around something that has already been sculpted using another medium, or around form that is found around the house like a bowl or a balloon.

And for this reason, I think that paper mache doesn’t feel like a “natural” art medium. Give a child a sheet of paper and she will look around for a crayon to draw with. Give a child a lump of clay and he immediately begins to form it into a cat or face or train. Often the only thing people remember about their early paper mache projects is the mess.

To make it feel more natural, many people make a pulp out of wet paper and an adhesive, so the material can be used a bit like clay. This pulp can be formed (with wire or other armature inside), and some artists have created beautiful sculptures with this material. Beginners tend to find paper mache pulp frustrating as a sculptural medium because it dries so slowly – and the slow drying process can lead to the formation of mold if steps are not taken to prevent it. It is also difficult to create fine details because the paper has a fairly rough and bumpy texture. You can use this texture to add interest to your sculpture, but it can be frustrating, too. I must admit that I don’t have the patience for paper mache pulp.

To make a smoother, more finely-detailed sculpture, I find it easier to use laminated paper stripsand paste over a form. The resulting layers of paper are very strong – even a few layers will be hard enough to sand or drill, so they dry reasonably fast. But what should one use as the basic form?

If you’re just starting out with this medium, I recommend that you use something solid for your form, even if you want your finished piece to be hollow, like a pinata or piggy bank. Once several layers of paper and paste have dried you can easily saw it in two, remove the interior form, and then put it back together with more paper strips.

Why use a solid form instead of the more popular balloons? Because something solid is so much easier to hold onto.

As you can see from most of the tutorials on this site, I prefer to do my sculpting with crumpled newsprint and masking tape. I make ears with thin cardboard, and the piggy bank’s interior is made from an old salt container, but I use crumpled paper and masking tape whenever I can.

There are three benefits of using paper and masking tape for the form:

  1. You can create any shape you want, so your final piece will be a true expression of your own creativity – you aren’t limited by the shape of a balloon or bowl.
  2. Your sculpted crumpled paper will be solid and easy to hold while you add your paper strips.
  3. The crumpled paper will add considerable strength to your final sculpture, so only a few layers of paper and paste are needed unless the inner form will eventually be removed.

One problem with crumpled paper as an armature is that you will have lots of bumps and edges that you didn’t really want, unless you use lots of tape. I use tons of tape, so my crumpled paper sculpture is as close as possible to the shape I want my finished project.

Another problem is that it takes a long time before you can see how your finished sculpture will really look. There is always a point in every project when I despair that this thing can never turn out right. (And sometimes that turns out to be true – my first effort at a sculpture for that art contest ended up in the trash).

Then, usually after the second layer of paper has been added, the sculpture seems to come to life. I use brown Kraft paper for my second layer so that there will be no distracting print, and I can really see the shape and form of the sculpture for the first time.

Then, of course, comes the worry that the paint or final finish won’t turn out the way you want, but that’s a problem for another post. For now, I need to get back to my Holstein calf for that contest. I’ll put up a photo of it when it’s done.

If you have any ideas about paper mache as an art form, or if you have a favorite item that you like to use for the inner form, please let us know in the comments below.

21 thoughts on “Paper Mache Pitfalls and Rewards”

    • Balloons almost always do that. It’s the biggest reason why I never use them, unless I can cover the balloon with a layer of plaster cloth before adding paper mache. They deflate because the paste is wet and cold. The air inside the balloon gets cooler, and cool air takes up less space than warm air. You can see more about this issue if you watch my video about making Humpty Dumpty over a balloon.

  1. Hi Jonni
    I was looking for an area to ask and comment on the topic of “fast drying paper mache” –or should I say faster. But on your site you don’t have categories for topics of comments like other sites. I kind of know why but wish you did.
    I was thinking about when I was a child at school.
    We use to cook a turkey on a box lined with foil and a 100 watt bulb.
    Are you getting where I am going with this?
    This is a two fold perception thinking .
    If I made the foil lined box ,included the light bulb(maybe a lower watt)(on a socket and an extension cord).(Not too close to the object ,don’t want to start a fire)
    Then fashioned a piece of hose ,with a large cone shaped out of card board ,directed at a fan . I envision ,heat and air flow .
    Does this make sense?
    Waiting for my creations to dry is worst than watching water boil or painting dry.
    Feed BACK bring it on!
    Oh by the way …if I hadn’t already told you how much I LOVE YOUR SITE !
    I DO!
    Thank You for your patience

    • Hi Wendy. It sounds like your oven idea should work. If you try it, please let us know if it helps. You’ll get the most feedback if you put your comments on the Daily Sculptors page. I’d be interested to see those sites with categories for comments – I haven’t seen that on a blog. Could you point me towards one, so I could see how they make it work?

  2. Hey! Wasn’t sure where to post this. I am thinking of making wings made of foam board covered in paper mache? I think it’ll be an interesting project. What would you suggest and/or do you have anything to consider

    • Hi Breanna. This sounds like a fun project. The only think you need to worry about is the foam warping as the paper mache dries, but this could actually give the wings a nice, natural curve. Good luck with it – and be sure to show us how they come out.

  3. I find that a good armature for my projects is commercially available wire mesh – the kind that comes in rolls. Once the form is molded with the wire and taped into position, I stuff it with newspaper. Final step in my process is pasting one layer of plaster impregnated gauze over it for strength and rigidity. When you are positive this layer is dry you can brush/glue over with water/Weldbond mixture (TO HELP PREVENT THE MOLD AND MILDEW, although I sometimes skip this step), and when this is dry you use your clay or strips of choice. Hope this helps someone. Yours, Joanne.

    • thank you for the post regarding using wire-I am not an artist but want to make a grotto and can’t afford the 200+ price for a concrete one…thanks so much! just what I needed to read!! LynnAnn Hyde, Bend, OR.

  4. HEy! πŸ˜€
    so update πŸ™‚
    okay well i know that my last question/post was quite a while ago….but thats because i’ve been working on this egg since then….don’t think i forgot all the help you were πŸ™‚
    Well anyways, I attempted making the egg built around the balloon, and well frankly it didn’t work, i first started like you would with a pinata. I then after dried started adding the cellulose/drywall compound mixture, but for some reason it kept of falling/crumbling off and also it was getting near 20lbs and wasn’t even that think yet….so by the time it was done it would be super heavy. I tried a couple other variations that I found, like making a metal skeleton first and covering it with the drywall/cellulose mix…yeah that didn’t work…it kind of “melted” through the wire. My father came up with the idea of making it out of hydraulic cement. And I tried this….but since the product is extremely strong I realized that it was ruining my skin…even after three layers of work type gloves….some dust was getting on my arms and almost sucking the moisture out…it wasn’t nice πŸ˜›
    Finally my father once again came up with an idea for me….so make it like they do sides of buildings with stucco but only with drywall cement instead since i had already purchased a huge tub of it for the cellulose/drywall compound mix.
    So how i ended up making the egg was taking construction Styrofoam, the blue stuff they use under stucco, cutting and forming it to look like an egg and covering it with drywall compound. I finally finished it last week and had my presentation at school. Along with the egg I presented three portraits that are 4x5ft each an a shroud that was about 10ft long. I felt terrible that i bothered so much and did not even end up using the paper mache method. But i though that i would update you as to what happened with me and the egg.
    If you’d like pictures i would be more than willing to send some your way…i just have to take them on monday πŸ˜€

    ~Jonathan H Alfaro

    • Hi Jonathan. Yes, pictures would be great. It looks like you didn’t see our discussions about the new paper mache clay recipe — I think it would have made your project much easier. Ah well… Maybe next time. It sounds like you came up with a very creative solution, anyway.

      We’ll look forward to seeing your finished egg!

      • Oh my, that definitely would have helped a lot! Well i was thinking of remaking it again, because I feel as though it could have turned out better. Also I’m hopefully starting art school next year for a bachelors of fine arts so I guess I could use it for then πŸ™‚

  5. Honestly Jonni thank you SOOOO much. You’ve been such a help πŸ˜€
    I was thinking of using that instant paper mache recipe you have…the one with the glue, compund, and cellulose.
    the joint compound will be amazing for a final coat :D. Honestly thank you so much, you totally made my life SOOO much easier.

    the balloons are super cheap…you can get a pack of three at the dollar store πŸ˜€

    I will for sure send result/in progress photos of the project πŸ˜€

    Oh and sorry for being all over the place….but…this will actually be part of my art project for school….it’s part of an installation πŸ˜€ it’s not due until January…which im guessing will be just enough time to build the egg in layers so that it will actually dry πŸ˜€

    once again thank you so much πŸ˜€

    -jonathan alfaro

    • Ooops! I intended to edit that post about my DIY instant paper mache recipe today. Now I have to do it fast. I only got that recipe to work once. Ever since then, whenever I combine all three ingredients – cellulose, joint compound and glue – it instantly turns into rubber. I have no idea why it worked once, and doesn’t work any more. However, the joint compound with cellulose is very nice to use. But if you need the eggs to be close to unbreakable, use the toilet paper, glue and joint compound recipe instead. A 1/4″ layer over your balloons is all you need, and it is amazingly strong. You won’t need any layers if you use this recipe, and it will dry quickly if you put it over a heat register or some other warm place.

      Now I’m off to edit that DIY paper mache post.

    • OK, one more comment. You might want to mix up a small batch with all three ingredients, and see what happens. Some people get this to work just fine, and are very happy with it. It’s possible that my brand of insulation has the offending chemical, and other brands don’t. So experiment on a very small batch and see what happens. I’d hate for you to end up with all that insulation and have nothing to use it for. However, the joint compound/insulation recipe by itself is also a very reasonable option, and cheaper than the toilet paper recipe.

      Good luck with it. I hope I didn’t confuse things too much. I can’t wait to see the finished eggs.

      • well tried it last night right before i went to bed and it worked out fine….it didn’t seem rubbery….i made little pebbles so im just waiting for those to finish drying…but i just bought the balloons so ill get started on that with a layer or normal paper mache strips then coat it with the toilet paper mix…then build up the insulation mixture….and at certain amounts of thickness ill add the toilet paper mix…and for the last layer of insulation mix ill try to do it smoothly so i can coat it with the toilet paper mix so when its done it will look like a real egg πŸ˜€
        oh im so excited…im getting started on it….literally right after i finish this post

  6. Hello, well i’ve been working on putting together a exhibition and well i want to make a series of eggs that would be around 3 – 4feet high. But i was thinking of using paper pulp as my medium. i want the eggs to be very smooth in the end, so i was wondering if it was at all possible to sand down the paper pulp after it has dried. If you could help me out with this it would be great, thank you.

    • Hi Jonathan. Pulped paper mixed with flour paste will sand very nicely, but that’s an awful lot of pulp you’re thinking of using. My new paper clay recipe would make a smooth finish that is very egg-like, but it’s very hard when dry so you wouldn’t want to have to sand it. And besides, you’d need a big pile of toilet paper.

      I would suggest that you make a form out of crumpled paper and masking tape, and get the form itself nice and smooth with lots of tape. Then use paper strips and flour paste to make your egg shells. You would only need four or five layers, and they would be quite smooth. And the last layer will sand down just as smooth as wood.

      Good luck with your project. Send us a picture when it’s done.

      • oh…thank you so much.
        the only thing is that i got a little excited…and i went out to buy a bag of that cellulose insulation so make some paper pulp. It was only $8. So i was thinking of what i could use for an original support…and i thought that one of those big balloons might work well, you know the ones that come with an elastic band that you can use to play with the balloon, they’re almost a perfect circle when blown up. So i was thinking of doing that and paper maching it…kinda of like a pinata…and then doing what you said with the crumpled paper…to make the peak of the egg…would it work well to start applying pulp after the initial structure is completed?…because otherwise im going to have a big 25lb bag of this cellulose stuff lying around πŸ˜›

        • OK – now I’m catching on! Yes, you can mix up some cellulose insulation with some joint compound to make a nice spreadable mixture and put it over your balloon. I’m not sure how well it will stick, so you might need to do it in sections. This goo won’t have any structural strength, the way pulp mixed with paste or glue has, but it’s easy to use, and it gets quite hard – and it’s easy to sand. Use a mask whenever you think you’ll be getting dust in the air, to keep the chemicals in the insulation out of your lungs.

          If you don’t intend to throw your eggs around – I assume they’re going to be props or decorations – this mixture should work just fine. It isn’t officially papier mache, but who cares, right? I would also suggest that you use plain joint compound as your final skim coat, applying it as a film over your paper to get a nice smooth surface. You can then “sand” it with a damp sponge and get it as smooth as you like. Some white latex paint over the dried joint compound should protect your project.

          If the goo doesn’t stick to your balloon, you might experiment with covering it first with masking tape, although I’m not sure that would work. If the balloons aren’t terribly expensive it might be worth a try.

  7. Hi Mika,

    Thanks for visiting. I checked out your website, and I love your paintings. If you make any paintings that include paper mache, please let us know – we’d love to see them. You can add images right to your comments by clicking on the link below.

  8. I am so pleased to find such a source of inspiration and obvious skill and creativity. Great work on this website! I am an artist who has a unique idea that requires several small (1-2 inch) forms, such as people, houses, cars, babies…My background and education is 2-D, but I consider myself a Mixed Media artist. Regardless, this project is a challenge. My first attempts were in clay, but I found them to heavy and solid…I want to make them in paper mache and I marvel at your detail. I will study this sight closely and I am sure the questions will start to roll. Again, wonderful work…it is truely fine art.

    my artist website:


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