Today we have a special guest post from Robert MacVeigh, who has a new gesso recipe that I’m going to try out the very first chance I get. And don’t forget to keep scrolling — he tells us how he makes his traditional masks, too.
©2015 Robert MacVeigh
Jonni asked me who I am and for the life of me I can’t be sure. Everything I do is an “act of passion without any common-sense”. I porpoise from project to project taking things just so far and then move on to the next until I have moved full circle back to the first project and/or genre – evolving it or myself to the next level and anon, anon, anon – somebody make it stop…. My interests include watercolors and acrylics, paintmaking, papermaking, printmaking bookbinding, woodcarving, woodwork, maskmaking, wirework, tin & silver smithing. My head is spinning and my shop is a mess
Very best regards, Robert MacVeigh
…soon after regaining consciousness…
SERMEL GESSO RECIPE
A few months ago, I began making decorated masks in the Venetian style of Festivale (in reverse plaster molds). I make my own paper from paper fibre and wool because I cannot find a suitable 180-lb paper that molds as seamlessly (almost plastic) and tears as accurately in both directions. I use a cooked-mucilage of flour and water because of the lovely gelatinous character that aide in “the laying of the strips”.
I concocted this recipe from a vague description in a “How it’s made” video on tv. I had an understanding of each material so I kept at it until I had something that worked and sanded “as advertised” in the video. A porcelain smooth surface can easily be achieved with this mixture.
The masks are extremely thin (2 layers) but very hard, strong, and flexible. The gesso doubles the strength and rigidity without making it the least bit brittle (absolutely no cracking from extreme flexing). The real key to sandability is the small proportion of PVA and the addition of Talc which delays the clogging of the sandpaper with the PVA glue. The clay aids the sandability but for practical purposes, it is used to control thickness or the mixture
The next photo shows the negative mold and the mask as it was just pulled from the mold. There are 2 layers of handmade (180lb) paper in the mask – a total of 3 sheets of 9 x 11 which sucks up a miraculous half cup of mucilage (flour glue). This paper, when soaked, is so tender, that it literally melts together like plastic in the mold – handling the wet paper is an artform in itself. When dry, this mask and its method is much harder and stiffer than any other type of mucilage and paper I have worked with.
In the following photo, the mask on the left is sanded porcelain smooth but still has a few touch-ups (dark spots) in progress. The mask on the right has the first wet coat applied. The finished gesso layer is at least 1/16-inch thick which gives lots of room for sanding.
Paper Mache Masks with Gesso AddedThe next photo shows off the mask painted (acrylic latex gloss) and on the right with latex primer.
- 14 grams or 2 Tbsp Talc (probably more than needed – 1-tbsp might be enough)
- 120 gram or 5/8 cup (1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp) Cedar Heights Redart powdered clay (any fine potters or sculptor’s clay would do) OR maybe try Jonni’s “joint-compound” and reduce or eliminate the water. You could also use about the same amount of wet clay and use more water or clay to adjust the consistency
- 55 grams or 55 ml water
- 30 grams or 30 ml PVA (white glue)
- 30 grams wet paper pulp (rung out so that it does not drip)
In fact, you could try Jonni’s gesso recipe; reduce the glue and add the talc – let me know how it goes if you try this???
TIP 1: I have reduced my talc to 1.5 Tbsp and still have the same remarkable sandability.
TIP 2: Add your paper pulp (20g wet) and your water (55g) to a tightly lidded jar and “shake the clumps out of it”!!! Then add your glue and mix well. This liquefies the pulp and makes mixing it into the clay and talc into a smoother mass much easier.
TIP 3: Mix the clay and the talc together (dry) before adding to the liquids – the talc is very water resistant and the clay just loves water thus cancelling out the problem.
TIP 4: Always add the clay to the liquid. This makes mixing a lot easier and gives better control over achieving the final stiffness – that of room temperature cream cheese – or just until it no longer self levels in the container. If you prefer to brush it on, make it a little thinner otherwise it is meant to be smeared on by hand.
TIP 5: Watch this video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULef3DJ_qmk – at the 2 to 5-minute mark it shows the mixture and its application
- Apply 2 coats full strength and finish with a final coat reduced to a watery consistency. Allow 3 to 4 hours between coats. This final coat you will have to learn by trial and error, but I can say that as watery as it seems, it still has “consistency”.
- …if you take a dampish brush to the first and second coats (right after you apply them), you can smooth out the otherwise fairly rough application. Be sure the brush is not too wet – I brush it out a bit on a piece of newspaper before I take it to the clay. You don’t want to move the clay around, just smooth it over lightly. It’s not the end of the world if you do not brush it out like this since sands out ever so nicely.
- Allow to dry completely (at least overnight) before sanding. The drier it is the easier and faster the sanding goes. It took me about 20-minutes to sand these masks porcelain smooth.
- The Talc is probably the only hard-to-find ingredient and I see no reason why you could not use talcum powder from the pharmacy since so little is required in proportion to the recipe.
- HUMIDITY: We live in a dry climate, so dampness is new to me with this process. This morning I put a first-coat onto a new mask and because it is too humid to dry, the moisture migrated into the paper mask which means the paper started to swell which showed up as cracks in the damp coating. Not even a fan was helping. Into the convection oven it went (dehydration mode) and voila – a perfect but slightly cracked surface awaiting a second coat.Just thinking out loud; but it makes a lot of sense to dry this mixture as quickly as possible because it holds a lot of water in a fairly thick coating and clay does not like to give up its moisture. On the other hand, the paper is so dry, that the moisture is just as likely to migrate that way as it is to evaporate unless an artificial means is provided – recently proven – if the paper gets moist, it expands and cracks the coating. A 100watt lightbulb under a cardboard box is a functional, if not slightly dangerous heat source. I put a big coffee can punched full of holes over the lightbulb to dissipate the heat – the can gets hot, but not hot enough to start a fire.
- To thicken the recipe add clay (I find thicker is better and often add 15% more clay to this basic recipe)
- To thin the recipe add water not glue (never increase the glue)
- If you find your paper pulp clumps, then you are not done – keep beating the mixture
- Leave the mixture overnight – the pulp and especially the clay keep absorbing water for a long time
- You will find the sanding produces a very fine airborne dust which should be evacuated or wear a mask
- Use the full strength mixture for repairs and touch-ups
- The mixture will store in a tightly sealed container until it goes mouldy. I have not had this happen yet and some of my containers are 3 weeks old.
- I start sanding with 100 to 150 grit paper depending on surface condition.
- There is some minor shrinkage upon drying do leave your repairs and touch-ups a little proud of the surface.
How Robert Makes His Masks
This is not so much a tutorial as it is an introductory overview to a very unique process. You have to want to get down and dirty to learn this technique, because the trade is only ever learned in the little shops found in Venice and thereabouts. There are no books that I know of and the videos listed below leave out all the juicy details… I’d be happy to answer questions as long as you realize that it is still a huge learning curve for me. Besides, unlike the unique masks that are produced by traditional means, this method produces a lot of one mask for each mold. For some, it is how you decorate it, for others, it is a means to mastering a painted design.
THE SACRIFICIAL CLAY SCULPTURE
This is the “positive” clay sculpture for the neutral mask. The clay model is sadly sacrificed to the hydrostone plaster mold which will be pulled from sculpture. The rim around the edge becomes a ledge in the finished plaster. This ledge is used to fold back the reinforcing edge in the Mache process (vaguely explained below, but can be realized in the video links provided below).
The Hydrostone Plaster mold has the same density as Marble 10,000psi and is a wonderful product to work with. Same principle as plaster of paris which is useless for this process. I would use nothing softer than Hydrocal which is 5,000psi.
The traditional Venetian paper is call “carta lana” or wool paper. Shipping is too expensive for the quantities of paper I need. All other papers I have experimented with are too hard (not plastic enough) no matter how long I soak them for. As far as machine made papers go, kids’ construction paper is as good as it got. So, through much development, I concocted my own wool paper recipe in two colors – on color for each layer. Each layer take 1.5 sheets of paper and the 3 sheets suck up over ½ cup of mucilage glue. Did I mention that I like the word mucilage!!!
The sheets soaked with – yes – MUCILAGE… I drench both sides and let them set for five minutes… The paper is so tender and plastic to work with – that just tearing strips, picking them up and placing them is a whole other artform.
The banding layer acts to reinforce (double up) the edge of the mask. It is temporarily folded back out of the way and onto the plaster ledge while 2 more layers of paper are added to the mold. The second photo shows the band folded back out of the way.
The mask with the reinforcing edge folded into position over the final layer of the mask.
The mask dried in the oven on convection dehydrate mode at 120 degrees for 1.5 hours – freshly pulled from the mold.
The mask on the left has the first coat of sermel gesso applied (see recipe above). The mask on the right has been sanded porcelain smooth except for a couple touch-ups (dark spots).
This is Eleanor and she is a different story. The model for Eleanor was of course, Eleanor! After liberally coating her features with Vaseline, a mold was taken by building up layers of plaster soaked cheesecloth. I do not have the original negative mold because it was sacrificed to make this Hydrostone plaster mold.
This “form” is used differently from the above process as it is a perfect custom fit to the actress. From this mold (actually a form), I will apply clay to form features that match the character in the play she is performing. From here I may take one of two directions: 1) I could just build up a mache in the manner that jonni works by applying mache over the clay form. Or 2) if more than one mask is required, I would take a hydrostone “negative”mold from which I can produce many masks more quickly – most of my work in paper mache happens after the mask shell is made.
As a joke, I made a negative mold from the positive and made her a paper mask that looks just like her – rob a bank anyone???
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2j0rKaWo6g in italian but a must see – shows the best of the best masks
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vb5IEaCgF7M – all of the following discuss construction