Plague Doctor Mask

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Plague Doctor MaskThe Plague Doctor Mask wasn’t originally designed to look funny (although it does) and it wasn’t intended to be worn to parties or for Halloween – it was part of the 17th and 18th century’s version of a Hazmat suit. But, in keeping with the original spirit of Halloween, I thought it might be appropriate this year.

The mask first appeared in my book How to Make Masks, and the photos in the video were taken from the book’s files. It would have been a better video if started with a new mask, but I’ve been kind of busy with other things, and haven’t been up to the studio in weeks. I’ve been thinking about moving again, and I’m trying to finish up all my many projects on the house. And I’ve been spending many hours designing tiny houses, (something I’ve been obsessed with for years) even though it isn’t really legal to live in one so I’ll probably never actually build any of my designs.

The full instructions for the shop-towel and fast-setting paste can be found in the videos about the Pantalone mask. You’ll find links to all three videos on this page. And you can find the portrait mask video here. To see a mask that was made with the joint compound/glue combination instead of the fast-setting paste, check out the green witch that I made a few weeks ago. And the cheap plastilina clay I mentioned is available on amazon.com.

If you’ve made a mask for Halloween, we would all love to see it – be sure to post a photo in the comments below, or on our Daily Sculptor’s page. Quite a few people have already posted masks on that page, so be sure to check them out.

32 thoughts on “Plague Doctor Mask”

  1. Hi Jonni. Last year Halloween i made a plague doctor mask (hope the image uploads), thanks to your tutorial. This year i want to make an oni mask ( onis are devil spirits from japan folklore). Any suggestions on how to make the fangs and horns? Maybe using the pape mache clay?

    • Unfortunately, the image did not upload – it may have been too large. Could you edit the file so it’s smaller, and try again? I’d love to see it.

      You can certainly make your fangs and horns with the paper mache clay. Don’t use linseed oil, though, for a mask that will be so close to your face. I would make the shape of the fangs with crumpled aluminum foil, and press it down nice and smooth, before adding a very thin layer of pm clay or paper strips and paste. It will keep the mask from getting too heavy.

  2. Hi Jonni,

    I recently made my first mask for a ballet production. I used your technique outlined in your “How to Make Masks” book (love it!). It turned out exactly as I was hoping and I took it to the studio for the girls in that role to try on. They loved it and were very careful when handling it. I then took it with me and stopped for a brief visit to the grocery store…the mask was in the car for no more than 30 minutes. When I next looked at the mask, I could see some areas where there were tiny hairline cracks (like you might notice on a very old china doll). They appear to be beneath the paint. I know they were not there earlier in the day because I had been finishing up the decoration. I am not sure if the hot car could have caused this? I had used the sun to help dry the masks while I was making them and experienced no cracking.

    I am trying to figure out what caused this to happen and how I can prevent it from happening on my next 2 masks I need to do this week. I used your recipes from the book and a few areas with some joint compound (I am wondering if the joint compound is what is cracking). I painted with acrylic paint, waterbased varnish for acrylics, and used E6000 glue to glue decorations to the mask. I am not sure if I need to be concerned about more cracking and eventually flaking occurring. I also am wondering if I dare try to fix the cracked spots. I don’t know if I can paint over the varnish or if I would have to sand all the way down.

    I would appreciate any help/advice you could give me. I really enjoyed doing the mask, but now I am very concerned about how they will hold up. Please help!!

    PS. I posted this exact correspondence on your Facebook page but was not sure the best and quickest way to get a question to you.

    • Hi Dawnn. I’m glad you reposed your comment here – I’m not very good about keeping up with Facebook. Unfortunately, I don’t know what caused your cracking problem, other than the obvious issue of heat. If you used the gesso mix just under the paint, and you can see the hairline cracks, the problem is probably the gesso. There may have been a minute amount of water left in the gesso before painting – not enough to notice, but enough to cause shrinking when the mask got hot.

      This might sound silly, but my first suggestion is to put your mask on a shelf in the house, and go back and look at it in a day or two. If you don’t see any change, and if the paint and varnish appear to be in good shape, you’ll probably never have another problem with it. Just to be on the safe side, though, you might want to use an acrylic gesso next time, instead of the glue and drywall joint compound version.

      By the way, would it be possible for you to take a photo of the mask and upload it to a comment, so we could see how it came out? And it’s possible that someone else might recognize the hairline cracks and have some better advice for you.

      • Thanks for your reply! I hope the pictures are clear enough for you to see. The cracks are subtle and most definitely beneath the paint and varnish. They are at the top of the ears, near the hole, and on the front of the face between the eyes.

        The gesso is directly beneath the paint. I do not completely understand the difference between an acrylic gesso and the glue/drywall joint compound version you spoke of. I used the recipe in your book. The joint compound I used was just to fill in small areas that needed it, I did not make gesso out of it. Is the gesso from your book the “acrylic” version? Do you think I should try to sand the cracks down and repaint the areas?

        Thanks again for helping me try to figure this mystery out.

        • Hi Dawnn. The image didn’t get uploaded, unfortunately. It was probably too large for the system. Acrylic gesso is a commercial product that contains the same ingredients as normal acrylic paint. Drywall joint compound has no acrylic in it, and it can crack if it’s applied thickly. The addition of the glue usually stops it from cracking, but a few people have had it happen. Usually, though, it shows up as the joint compound and glue gesso dries, and it is easy to repair before painting. You mentioned that you didn’t make gesso, though, so I assume you didn’t add any glue – but the cracks should still have shown up as the joint compound dried. In your case, the cracking happened after the paint was applied, and the only cause I can see for that would be something in the mask, probably the joint compound, was not fully dry before it was painted.

          If the cracks are visible enough to cause the mask to appear damaged, then sanding and repainting would be needed. If they’re really hard to see, and most people wouldn’t notice them, it would be up to you – it’s a personal decision.

          • Thanks Jonni. I actually did use your gesso recipe (with glue) as well as a little joint compound. From what you are saying, I think possibly the joint compound cracked a bit. I probably should have allowed it to cure a bit more before painting. Hopefully that will prevent it in the future. I really appreciate your time and comments. I think your work is amazing and feel fortunate that you would try to help me out. Thanks again!

            I am going to attempt to attach the photos one more time. I don’t seem to be able to send all 3 at once, so I will post 2 additional comments that will be only photos.–Dawnn

          • Hi again. I seem to be having computer trouble as well! Am trying to send this yet another time…hope there are no duplicate posts.

            I actually did use gesso (your recipe from your book). I used glue, plaster, vinegar, water and added the acrylic paint as well. The joint compound I also used was more of a filler for areas that did not come out as well as I wanted with the paper mache. I think from your comments that it makes sense that I probably did not allow the mask to cure enough and that the higher heat of the car caused it to dry/crack. The more I think about where I placed the joint compound, I believe that is probably what cracked as opposed to the gesso. I don’t see any further cracking, so I will cross my fingers for the next two masks and really make sure to dry them out before painting and embellishing. I haven’t decided whether to try and fix this one yet. I know people won’t be able to see it from the audience, so I should probably just leave it alone…I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist though.

            I really admire your work and greatly appreciate you taking the time to help me out on this! Thanks so much!

            BTW, I am going to try to send the pictures again. Since I can’t seem to send all three at once, I will send the other two in separate posts.

            • Your cat mask is adorable, Dawnn! I can see why everyone was so excited about it. If you do run into any more problems on the next masks, be sure to let us know.

  3. Hi Jonni,

    I’ve been watching your tutorials on Youtube in preparation for a project and have also just purchased your book from Amazon. I was wondering if you might have any tips for me. I have to make 4 replicas of this mask for me and my siblings for Comic Con. Do you have any tips as to how to make 4 replicas without having to remold the shape each time I make the mask? My initial idea was to make a negative mold with plaster gauze then paper mache-ing the inside? And any tips on how to work around the horn and top structure whilst keeping the integrity of the form? I was thinking of making the masks in 2 separate forms and fusing them together, but if possible, would like to keep one whole shape. Any help would be much appreciated.



    • Hi Mica. You could make a two-part mold, so the masks could be made all in one piece. Adam Shaw wrote a nice article for us, showing us how he reproduces his masks with plaster molds. I’m currently experimenting with silicone molds myself, but they’re way too expensive if you only need four. I recommend that you read through Adam’s article here, (scroll down to the section where he tells you how he makes his molds) and perhaps also watch a few videos about making two-part plaster molds. It’s possible that you could make molds that are strong enough with plaster gauze, although I’ve never tried it.

      There are two really important things to remember when working with plaster molds. First, your original design must not have undercuts, and as Adam mentions, you need to be careful how you make the mold so that the original design (and the finished masks) will easily pull out. And you must seal the plaster really well, and use a release, to make sure the mask won’t stick to the mold.

      I hope this helps. Be sure to keep us updated on your progress.

  4. Hey Jonni! I just wanted to thank you for posting your paper mache clay recipe as I have been able to use it to create Halloween masks for the last several years (linked above). I have finally perfected the method after several years and am very happy with the results. Thanks again!!!

    • What an interesting collection of masks, Jaimie. This method you’ve perfected – would you have any interest in sharing it with us? Maybe as a guest post? If you’d rather keep it to yourself, we totally understand, of course. One thing I would definitely like to know is how you make the inside of your masks nice and smooth? That’s the one problem I’ve had when making masks with the paper mache clay.

      • Sure! I actually recently posted about the masks on reddit.com and received quite a few requests as to how it was done so I have been thinking about creating a tutorial!
        I actually use chicken wire to create a base and then cover that with newspaper and masking tape. Once I complete the masking tape skeleton I cover it with at least one layer of regular paper mache (if I want the inside of the mask to look clean I will use white paper instead of newspaper) then cover that with clay. Once it is all dry I basically gut the entire thing leaving a hollow shell in which I mount a baseball helmet.

  5. Hi Jonni,

    You are a very talented lady and have the best ideas for projects…….just saying.

    I wondered if, in your vast experience, you have ever seen or
    completed a painting with parts of it being raised, so that it
    looks like the item (animal, tree, whatever) is just popping right
    out of the picture?

    If you have, what medium would you use on the painting to pop those items right out? Would it be paper mache, some sort of plastic or clay or what? I sure would like to try this, but have
    no idea of what to you. Any advice you could give would be
    deeply appreciate.

    Please keep up your great work, we all love you!

    Thank you,
    Cheryl Pearson

    • Hi Cheryl. I think this is a great idea, but I’ve never done it. Hmmmm – maybe one of our readers has some ideas for you. I tried doing a fast Google search to see what other people are doing, but I used the wrong keywords – 3d painting just got me to some ultra-realistic street paintings. Anyone?

  6. Thanks to some of your information, I was able to create this sheep using several different mediums….paper mache, paint, Styrofoam, wire, and spray foam insulation.

    • Lovely! And I’d really be interested in seeing the rest of your nativity scene, too, if you’d be willing to share. I’m amazed that you’ve been able to keep it “alive” for so long.

  7. Hi Jonni,
    Just rec’d my first email from you. I just started working with paper clay after carving and painting gourds for a while. I now adhere the paper clay to the gourds and will be trying that out. My daughter and family live in Everett, Washington, near Whidbey Island. Nice out there. I have finished 4 gourds with the paper clay attached and they came out pretty good.

  8. Hi Jonni,
    I found you on the internet recently while researching how to make a cement lamb. Your info was very helpful. Thank you!
    I just finished my life size sheep to go with a life size Nativity Scene I made over 25 years ago. In response to some of your other posts, outdoor or oil based polyurethane is an excellent sealant. I sculpted the heads from Celluclay over wig stands, then slathered them in oil based polyurethane. They have lasted beautifully. We have only had to re-touch and re-seal them once in 25 years! Like you suggested, we store them in a dry area but for the month of December, they brave the elements! It will be interesting to see how the new addition will last.

  9. Hello Jonni,
    Do you have a tutorial for making the base mask? I’m having a hard time forming one that properly fits my face. Nice video! Thanks.

    • Hi Matt. I have a chapter on this subject in my mask book, but the technique won’t give a perfect fit. Close enough for most purposes, but not perfect. I think you can see that chapter if you sign in to your amazon account. However, for a really nice fit, which really matters if you intend to wear the mask in a play or for a long time for any reason, you might want to make a plaster cast of your face using alginate for the mold. There’s a wonderful video on YouTube that shows the process, which I think is safer than using plaster bandages directly on the skin.

    • Nice work, Al. That fellow with the lopsided smile really keeps your attention, doesn’t he? There’s something magnetic about those eyes…

  10. Please move to Sequim, Washington! It is so beautiful here that you’ll wish you had the eyes of a chameleon to take it all in. And no, there is not a lot of rain here. And yes, we just moved here and are still unpacking. BTW, tiny houses are great for singles I think, but once you add crafting to a person’s life, tiny houses are not so great (unless there’s a huge shop available!).

    • Hi Barb. Yes, I agree – Sequim is beautiful. I’ve actually been looking on Zillow for that area, and on Whidbey Island, where my brother lives. And yes, the tiny house idea only works for artists and crafty sorts if there’s a separate shed for the creative endeavors. But it can be made to work – if one can figure out how to do it legally, that is.

      Can you still hunt for crabs near there?


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