How Diann Made Her Whimsical “Once in a Blue Moon” Sculpture

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How to make paper mache houseIn a recent comment on this blog, Diann McDonald showed us several of her sculptures, including this one. Because we get a lot of questions about how to make paper mache houses, and Diann’s delightfully whimsical Once in a Blue Moon sculpture includes several, I asked her if she’d be willing to show us how it was done.  Now I’ll turn this page over to her… Thanks, Diann!

©2015 Diann McDonald

Hello Everyone,

I must begin with thanking Jonni for inviting me to do a guest post on her web site. It is an honour and a privilege. Preparing this article for you was fun and a learning experience as well. I have come away learning something myself, and that is, Jonni makes giving tutorials and writing how-to articles/books look so much easier than it is. Lol!

In this how-to I will be showing you how I created my Once in a Blue Moon project. This was a fun sculpture to create and to use the mâché clay in different ways to produce the different textures I wanted for each form. I will also talk about the use of the tole paints and how I achieved the finish on the individual pieces.

Let’s get started!

Step 1

My first step is to sketch the idea on to paper so that I can see a more concrete picture of my sculpture. This helps me visualize the sculpture though I may not complete the project exactly like the sketch, it gives me a starting point.

Concept sketch of the sculpture.
Concept sketch of the sculpture.

Step 2 – I now choose which part I want to do first.

In this project I chose the moon so that I could determine how large the overall sculpture would be. I really don’t worry much about correct scale as I feel it adds a little whimsy to the over all piece if things aren’t exact.

To start I drew a crescent moon on paper and transferred that to foam core and cut them out. Next I attached the two pieces together with a strip of light weight card board ( cereal box) and masking tape along the back of the moon. I then filled the moon with crumpled up phone book pages ( I find this paper easier to crumple smaller) and then sealed the front edges with another strip of card board and masking tape. I then covered the whole moon in tape. It is 8 x7 inches.

Now comes the fun gooey part of adding the paper strips and flour paste. I know that some people will add the  paper clay directly to the structure but for some of my pieces I like to have a paper strip base for added support. Since I was going to be adding clay I only put on three layers of phone book paper. Then I dried it over night.

Starting to create the moon for the sculpture.
Foam core and cardboard moon beginning to take shape.
Paper strips and paste added to foam core moon.
Paper strips and paste added to foam core moon.

Step 3

When the moon was dry I covered it in a medium thick layer of CelluClay. This clay when dry is rougher than Jonni’s and gave me the look I wanted for the moon. I did not sand but left it as it was. Sanding after all is not my favourite part of mâché work.  Next I decided what position I wanted the moon resting in and drilled a hole for the rod. I have discovered that using the drill is quite fun! I glued the wooden rod in place with wood glue.

The dowel added to the paper mache moon.
The dowel added to the paper mache moon.

Step 4 – Time now to paint the moon.

I use the small bottles of tole paint for all my projects. They are reasonable in price and come in a large variety of colours. You can mix them and lighten or darken as you want. I do not use a gesso or primer before painting.

In order to achieve the colouring I wanted for the moon I started with a base coat of navy blue. When this was dry I covered it with a wash of turquoise. For the wash I diluted the paint with water and then sponged it over the moon and rubbed it off lightly with paper towel. The wash fills in the indented areas and gives the shadowing effect I like.The final coat of paint was again a wash but of light blue this time. I sealed the finished moon with a water based varnish.

The moon and tiny house after painting.
The moon after painting. See Step #9 for details about the little house.

Step 5 – On now to the house.

I constructed the house with foam core and masking tape. I wanted a thin house not something square and bulky so I measured it out to three inches in depth from front to back with the height to the peak of the roof 7 and 1/2 inches. The walls measure 6 inches tall to the roof edge by 5 and 1/2 inches wide. All pieces are rectangles except for the side pieces which are shaped into a point at the top to form the peak of the roof. I taped all pieces together with the masking tape to form the base of the house.

Once the sides, front and back were taped together I  attached the roof. These pieces are 3 inches by 6. Here is where it can get a little tricky to fit them to the base structure but with patience and readjusting you can assemble the roof to the fit you want.

Now that the main part of the house is completed I added the small side section. I only cut one side piece as this section is butted against the main structure. This of course measures smaller but is assembled in the same way. The front and back are 4 x 41/2. The side is 2x 5 inches to the peak with the roof 2 x 4 3/4 inches.

Once the whole house was assembled I measured and cut out the windows ( 2in x 2in for the main house and 1.5 x 1.5 for the add on ) and then applied Jonni’s clay to the roof. To create the look of shingles on the roof I used a paring knife to score lines in the soft clay to resemble the shingles. The roof was painted a light grey colour and then a wash of black was applied twice. Hint- If you find you have added two much of your wash simply repaint it in your base coat and start again. Sometimes a darker shade of your base for your wash rather than black may be what you need to achieve the results you are looking for.

Foam core pieces taped together for house.
Foam core pieces taped together for house.

Step 6 -Adding the cobblestones.

This step is the most time consuming part of the whole sculpture. I did not realize how much clay or time it would take to cover the house but I soon found out. Make sure you have a full recipe of Jonni’s clay ready as these stones use up a lot. I started off by applying a thin layer of water diluted white craft glue at the bottom of the house in about a 1 inch strip. Then I took a small piece of clay ( about the size of a bean) and rolled ever so slightly into a ball. I did not make the ball perfectly round as the stones would look too uniformed. I then pressed this lightly to flatten it to the glue area to create the stone. Working from one side to the other I created a row of stones that were just touching each other slightly. On the second row I placed the stone above the space where the bottom two touched. I continued in this way of first applying glue then stones and row by row filled in the house. Sometimes smaller stones were needed to fill in areas around the edge of the roof or windows.

To form the window and door frames I rolled clay logs and placed them around the opening against the stones. I then flattened these to  create the look of wood. The house was now set aside to dry.

Paper Mache clay applied to house, and texture added/
Home-made air-dry clay applied to house, and texture added/

Step 7 – It is now time to paint.

For the base coat I used a light tan colour with dark brown for the windows and door frames. This was then covered in a black wash and I was disappointed at how it looked. It was not what I was after and was too dark. So I applied a medium grey wash and rubbed it off removing some of the black with it. I was now happy with the results. It seemed to me that windows made the house look vacant and deserted so I glued a plastic sheet to the inside. This gave a bit of reflection and gave the house a more lived-in look.

House is now complete or so I thought when I realized that I had not added the chimney. That led to step 8

Stones and windows have been painted, and plastic added to windows.
Stones and windows have been painted, and plastic added to windows.

Step 8

Using an old piece of bamboo that I had in my found-object stash, I cut this on my miter box with an angle at the bottom so it would lay flush with the roof and painted then red. Voila! I now have a chimney.

Cutting the bottom angle on the chimney.
Cutting the bottom angle on the chimney.

Step 9 – It was time now to construct the little cottage on the moon for the man who lives there.

This was created in the same way as the other house with the foam core. It measures 3 inches high and 4 inches wide and is only 1inch in depth. The roof is 21/4 x 3. To achieve the brick look I scored the clay with the knife. It was painted in red with a black wash on top. The window and door are painted tissue paper and glued on. For the chimney I again went to my found objects stash and used a hex key or Allen key as some call it. I drilled a hole in the side and glued the key in place. For the cap I used a self covering button.

I drilled a hole in the moon and one in the bottom of the house and used a wooden dowel to attach the house.

Little house covered with paper mache strips and paste.
Little house covered with paper mache strips and paste.

Step 10 – It is now ready to assemble.

I painted the base black with a very light coat of blue to represent the glow of the moon and added a bit of glitter to the roof and base. I hammered two nails from the bottom of the base to the top at opposite corners of the house, added glue to the nails and placed the house over the nails. The nails went into the foam core to secure the house in place.

I drilled a hole for the moon’s dowel and glued in place with wood glue. Did I tell you I love using the drill? Now for the last step.

Step 11

The tree was made by wrapping three pieces of 18 gauge wire together for the trunk and then taping smaller pieces on for the branches. It was covered in full masking tape and then in mâché paste and paper strips from a novel. The leaves were painted using tole paint, cut out and glued in place. A touch of glitter was applied.  I again drilled a hole in the base and glued the tree in place.

The star garland was make with stars cut from card stock and 26 gauge wire wrapped on the pole. The completed base, garland and tree were given three coats of varnish.

The completed sculpture: Once in a Blue Moon.
The completed sculpture: Once in a Blue Moon.

Wow! I had no idea that I had that many steps in creating my project! I guess when you enjoy something you don’t stop to think about what it takes to get there you simply enjoy the journey. I hope you have many wonderful art filled journeys ahead for you. Take care and make art!

Just Me ,


34 thoughts on “How Diann Made Her Whimsical “Once in a Blue Moon” Sculpture”

  1. Hi Jonni, thanks for your info. I’ve got this reply. Yes, I must admit the challenges here go on… we have broken our backs trying to find clove oil, but it all goes to cigarette manufacture here. I don’t know if we will ever be able to find even a drop of it. Those drill bits online aren’t available to Indonesia, and delaers in the US tell me they are prohibited from selling to a US address for forwarding overseas. Mind you, import regulations here are massively tight so we can’t import a drill bit or clove oil either without great effort and cost. I appreciate your help and we will keep on trying. I’ll speak to you again soon then. Have a good start to the year… Alastair.

    • Good luck, Alastair. It’s been quite an education, learning about the difficulties you’re having, finding the tools and materials you need. I hope you’re able to be successful with your project, anyway.

      • Hi Jonni, no worries, and thanks for your guidance. We will succeed, but for sure it’d be a lot easier and faster in your part of the world. Mind you, once it’s done, can you imagine how satisfied and pleased we’ll all be at having overcome the challenges? It’s going to be wonderful. Speak to you soon 🙂

  2. Hello everyone, I’m leading a team to attempt to produce a giant-sized replica of a felled jungle tree.

    I hope to make this scene 3 metres tall with a bit of a tropical forest scene around the base. The contrast I hope will be pronounced: forest beauty surrounding a massive tree stump – another jungle giant cut down for profit, leaving Indonesia’s wilderness denuded. I’m doing this for a reason: to create a public display to draw attention to deforestation and the unwise goal of seeking immediate profit over long-term environmental health.

    I’ve collected as much (suitable) scrap paper as possible, from schools, off the littered streets, out of garbage bins, from jungle river banks and elsewhere. My goal is to use ONLY garbage; no new paper at all.

    My questions …
    What’s the best way to incorporate all the following: cardboard stripped of all packaging tape, tissues, office paper, newspaper, egg boxes, and other odd bits of paper such as carton inners with the aluminium / plastic laminate removed?

    I’m in a humid environment (Borneo) and the wet season is due soon. This means torrents of rain. Mold is a serious problem here because people don’t clean their homes well. But the sun is very hot and very powerful here most of the time. I wonder what I must do to get the best results in such a climate. The sculpture will be hollow but that still means some parts of it will be 60cm thick in places, I guess. I will also make the tree stump in sections which will be fused later on – this will allow faster drying, and because that’s easier.

    I’m looking for the easiest recipe. I want to involve children since that helps them realise recycling can be fun. Many have never heard of recycling and that’s got to change. I don’t want to use new flour since that’s not recycling behaviour. There’s a lot of expired flour out there, which usually gets thrown away. I am looking for some. In the meantime, I have 1kg of stale flour and about 4 cubic metres of assorted garbage paper. Does anyone have a recipe that uses minimal flour and no heat?

    I’m not sure about how much salt to add, and when. Does anyone know? Also, is there anything else I can use to make the sculpture more mold-resistant?

    Besides any of the above, does anyone have any tips they want to offer? All contributors will be listed in the credit list, but sure, that’s not really going to benefit you if you’re far away! If you’ll be in Banjarmasin over the next few months, come round and you can help if you like.

    Alastair Galpin

    • Hi Alistair. I’ll jump in with some suggestions, and I hope other readers will, too. First, the easiest way to use all that paper is probably to soak it in water and then use it as a mash. Remove as much water as you can and then add some form of paste to it, so it will all stick together. I don’t know what materials you have available for that purpose, but a local artist should have some ideas for you. Or take a look at this video from India.
      2. I do hope you didn’t really mean that the paper mache itself will be 60cm thick. That would literally take years to dry. It would mold even in the desert, I’m sure. I recommend keeping the paper mache under .5 cm if at all possible. needs to be placed over an armature so it will have support behind it, or be made so it can be applied and then cut apart and the armature removed to make it hollow.
      3. You can test different ratios of your flour to water. I usually make my raw paste rather thick, but it might work to use less flour. You’ll just need to experiment a little.
      4. Not sure about the salt. I don’t use it. Can someone help with this one??? Many people use oil of clove to stop mold.

      I hope this helps a bit. It sounds like a fun project. Keep us posted on your progress.

      • Thank you. Ok, when the tarpaulin is up, I’m starting. I’ll keep you posted, yes, and thanks for the tips. Much appreciated.

      • Hi Jonni and others,

        Jonni, you wrote, “… the easiest way to use all that paper is probably to soak it in water and then use it as a mash”. Would I be right in understanding I’d soak the mixed types of paper in pure water until soggy and a sort of mash. Then I should remove all the mash in clumps and squeeze it out / drip-dry it in manageable amounts, and then mix in flour at a consistency I’ve got to test for myself.

        If this is what you meant, then would I apply handfuls of the flour-and-water-and-wet-paper “mash” to the sculpture and spread it on the existing surface so it smoothes out and sticks?

        If this is what you suggest I try, it is sure to be far easier than dipping a strip of paper in a flour-and-water mix, and then just applying that strip – and repeating that process. That’d take forever. This will be much quicker, I think, but I just wanted to check if I’ve understood you correctly. If so, I’ll experiment.

        Thank you. Alastair

      • Hi Jonni,
        I have located some gluten-free white flour near to expiry. Next I have to try to get it!
        Please let me know if I am able to use gluten-free flour? If so, do I need to add anything to make it work, or should it work as normal?
        Thank you, A.

        • I have never tried gluten free flour in a paste recipe. If you can get a cup or two of the flour, you could whip up a bowl of paste and see if it works. I think it’s the starch that is sticky, and gluten-free flour would have plenty of starch. But you’d still want to test it before bringing home a large amount.

          • Thank you Jonni. Another question: what is the most I can do to prevent mold? I know I can add a little salt to each bucket of the pureed /paste mixture (which I will be using), but is there something else? I looked into acetic acid – basically pure vinegar – but it seems that stuff’s potentially dangerous to health. Mold is a serious problem here, made worse by locals with no idea that it’s unhealthy. Houses are covered in it, and there’s often a breeze. Regards.

            • You can add a bit of chlorine bleach to the water that the paper is soaked in, which will kill any mold spores that come attached to the paper. It will evaporate quickly, though, and any new mold spores that land on wet paper will grow. You would need to be very careful with the bleach, of course, since it kills things. Regular vinegar from the grocery store will also kill mold spores, so you could do the same thing with the vinegar in the soaking water, and it should achieve the same result more safely. To prevent mold from growing in the wet paste and paper before it has a chance to dry, you can add a few drops of oil of clove to each batch – I don’t know if it’s available there, or how much it costs. The best way to prevent mold is to dry things quickly in front of a fan, but with a high humidity environment like yours, drying is going to take longer, and you will probably have some mold problems.

              If you can find a paper mache artist from your country online, that would be the best source of information about the mold problem. You can also read through the comments on this article, where a lot of people from humid environments gave some ideas for preventing mold. Good luck with it!

      • Hello Jonni, I hope all is well there for you. Since we last spoke, I have tried to work out a recipe, bearing in mind Borneo is a biological hotspot. Things decay here super-fast, termites eat through things in hours, ants devour small dead animals in minutes sometimes and there is mold almost everywhere etc. To protect this sculpture, I plan to use what may seem like excessive amounts of anti-biological activity agents. Would you let me know what you think? I realise you’re in a totally different environment so I will have to make the final calls, but your experience counts for a lot. Regards.


        “Recipe for the high-humidity tropics:

        For each batch of mache, you want to end up with a container filled with a manually compressed mix of 50% egg boxes, 20% newspaper, 15% cardboard, 10% paper and 5% tissues. The volume should be 20 litres. All plastic and metal must be removed, and all ingredients must be torn into small pieces.
        Once this has soaked to saturation in tap water, drain the excess water and mix in 500 grams of salt, 330 grams of bicarbonate of soda and 330 millilitres of acetic acid.
        Thoroughly liquidise this with a cement-mixing drill attachment, while adding white flour until a workable consistency has been reached.
        Pure clove oil can be added if available.”

        • Interesting. With the addition of bicarbonate of soda and acetic acid, can you apply the material to an armature with bare hands, or do you need gloves? And have you tried it yet to see if the critters leave it alone?

          • Hi Jonni, there is no worry using bicarbonate of soda with bare hands, but I will wear a glove/s and a mask so I don’t breathe too much of the acetic acid’s fumes over the weeks or months to come (this will take time). I’ve also got 4 ml of pure clove oil per litre. I can’t be sure it will be impenetrable for critters and mold, but it’s a very strong mix, isn’t it? If mold can live in this, I’ll be surprised. As I think you said, I may need to coat the sections afterwards; what with, I don’t know yet. Thank you and I will keep you posted as things develop. Alastair

          • Dear Jonni,
            I hope you are well.
            Please may I ask you 2 more questions about my giant sculpture in Borneo – we have battled and battled to get these things right.
            Firstly, apparently it’s impossible to get pure clove oil here. Many dodgy traders, yes, but nobody with the real article. Is there an alternative that will work just as well at the same job?
            Secondly, finding a small cement-mixing drill bit attachment / paint-stirring attachment is tough here. People don’t know how to make them either. I’m stuck and am now trying to make one myself with no experience at it. Do you know of something else that will mix the mixture just as well with a medium-power electric drill?
            Perhaps these are difficult questions, but we did try to solve these issues ourselves before I wrote.
            Thank you Jonni.
            Regards, Alastair

          • Dear Jonni, I emailed you over the Festive Season. I hope to hear from you shortly if you are back to this now. We have a massive stock of torn up used papers now, and once I find the last 2 things I need, I can go ahead. Regards, Alastair

            • Alastair, I don’t think I received your last email, or it may have been deleted by mistake. What two things are you still looking for?

              Also, I thought I should mention that we have a new forum. I’m still working on it, trying to make it easier to use, but it would be a great place for you to show off the progress of your project, and tell people about it. There’s a special section called “Your Projects,” and you’re more than welcome to join us there.

          • Hi Jonni, thanks for getting back to me. I will wait until you have finished your new page, but am looking at it now. In the meantime, I got someone to make the drill bit I asked about below, but I have no idea if this home job will work. I hope so.

            Here is the email I sent you, in between these rows of asterisks:

            Dear Jonni,
            I hope you are well.
            Please may I ask you 2 more questions about my giant sculpture in Borneo – we have battled and battled to get these things right.
            Firstly, apparently it’s impossible to get pure clove oil here. Many dodgy traders, yes, but nobody with the real article. Is there an alternative that will work just as well at the same job?
            Secondly, finding a small cement-mixing drill bit attachment / paint-stirring attachment is tough here. People don’t know how to make them either. I’m stuck and am now trying to make one myself with no experience at it. Do you know of something else that will mix the mixture just as well with a medium-power electric drill?
            Perhaps these are difficult questions, but we did try to solve these issues ourselves before I wrote.
            Thank you Jonni.
            Regards, Alastair

        • Hello Jonni, I’m sorry to bother you with this, but I did repost my enquiry 2 days ago. I wonder if you’ve seen it? Regards, Alastair

          • Hi Alastair. Oops – I was sure I answered your comment, but I must have hit the wrong button. Sorry about that. Unfortunately, I don’t have any real suggestions for you, though. You can buy a cement mixing attachment for a hand drill online, but I don’t know how much shipping would cost. You could try if the one your friend is making doesn’t work. As for the clove oil, I had no idea they made artificial clove oil. I just buy mine down at the local grocery store. Sorry, but I can’t be very helpful. You live in a very different part of the world than I do.

  3. Diann, what a wonderful piece. I loved seeing your progress pictures. There sure was a lot of work put into your house. I hope we will be seeing more of your progress pictures on your next project. Thank you for sharing with us 🙂

  4. Diann, thanks for the referral to this post. I see, now! I understand. I have a few projects in the works, but I will definitely keep this in mind. I love your solution to the windows. The plastic really does help with the visual depth of the house. (I did a camper once that this would have been a good solution for the round windows.) Hope to see more of your projects.

  5. Diann, that is a wonderful tutorial, and should give a lot of paper mache artists incentive to create their own sculptures.

    • Thank you Christine. I hope it does encourage others to work with mâché. I know it was Jonni’s tutorials that gave me the incentive to go forward.

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