Snowy Owl Sculpture, Part 3 – The First Layer of Paper Mache Clay

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In previous posts, I showed you how to make a pattern for a snowy owl sculpture, and how to add crumpled paper and masking tape to fill out the armature. The next step is to add the paper mache. I’m using the paper mache clay recipe with glycerin instead of linseed oil, just because the cap is easier to get off the bottle.

When a sculpture has a lot of texture or detail I like to make the first layer of clay thin and fairly smooth. I’ll add lots of feathers to the owl, in addition to her eyes and beak, when I add the second layer of paper mache clay.

Starting to Add the Paper Mache Clay
Starting to Add the Paper Mache Clay

You can start just about anywhere, but you will need to stop adding clay when you no longer have a dry spot for the owl to sit on. That means you’ll need to apply the clay in at least three sessions. This is not “instant” paper mache, so it will take several days for each area to dry solid enough. You don’t want to lay it down on a slightly damp area, because that would flatten the shape.

More Paper Mache Clay is Applied
More Paper Mache Clay is Applied

I think this project will take about 2 quarts of the paper mache clay to complete. In the photo above, the clay has been applied to the bottom of the sculpture, and it is now dry enough for the snowy owl to stand up. Then more clay was added to the upper area, until the sculpture is completely covered with a thin layer of clay, about 1/8 inch thick. I’m working on an unheated porch, so she’s taking quite a long time to dry.

First Layer of Paper Mache Clay
First Layer of Paper Mache Clay

In the photo above, you can see that the base layer of paper mache clay has been added to the armature, and she’s now ready for her facial features and her feathers. I hope to work on those areas this week. You can see I’ve also been working on my poor Arabian Oryx that I started back in June. One horn is now done, still no ears. Sometimes my projects just sits there, until the urge strikes to get them finished.

The rest of the posts in this series:

16 thoughts on “Snowy Owl Sculpture, Part 3 – The First Layer of Paper Mache Clay”

  1. Hello! I love the idea of working with your paper clay recipe with my art students. Will it work if I use a plastic milk jug as the armature? Will the clay stick to it if we build up on that surface? Thanks for sharing so much!

    • You might want to try it before the class. Most things will slide off plastic. If that happens with your paper mache clay, you can wrap the jug with masking tape first. Have fun with your projects!

  2. Good morning Jonni,
    Found your website, make the clay, used it, moved, lost the site/found it again and now have time and a project and a question. I wish to make a series of hanging lampshades. Different shapes but all incorporating light fixtures & hanging chains. Thinking about pretty good sized objects, possibly with coloured glass pieces embedded. Do you have or know of any similar projects I could learn from?
    Will heat from the lite bulbs be an issue?
    Will embedding the ends of the hanging chains in the clay be strong enough?
    Your site tells of a lot of things but I couldn’t find how you seal the finished item, prior to painting. What do you use?
    Thank you ahead of time for any help…….

    • Hi Bill. I’ve never made anything like the lampshades you describe, and I can’t remember seeing a comment from anyone else who has, either. I don’t the answer to any of your questions, I’m afraid. The clay is very strong, but I’ve never tested it to find out exactly how many pounds it can hold, suspended on a chain. I’m afraid you would need to do some experimenting to see if it will work for you. You may need to embed some wire mesh in the clay, if your experiments show that the clay alone isn’t strong enough for your needs. I have also not tested the dried clay to see how it responds to heat – that would be something you’d definitely want to experiment with.

      I use gesso under the paint, sometimes home-made gesso made with Elmer’s glue and joint compound, and sometimes acrylic gesso from the art store. Or I paint directly on the dried clay, which sometimes makes things a bit more interesting.

      I would love to see how your lampshades turn out. I wish I could give you more help.

  3. Also I have been working with Polymer clay but it is so hard on my hands when I am trying to condition the clay or working the clay with my hands and when it comes time to bake the polymer clay,,,it doesnt exactly bake to a hard surface and I have lots of polymer clay tools that I was thinking that I could use with this paper mache clay and this paper mache from what I have been reading air dries to a hard surface and there is no baking involved,,,any suggestions would also be welcome on this comment as well..take care God bless you and your loved ones,,,Cassie

    • Cassie, the paper mache clay only works as a fairly thin layer – I think it will crack if you try to make a solid piece. It will dry extremely hard, but you get a slight chemical smell if you bake it – a smell that’s similar to Sculpey. However, baking is not required, just patience to let it dry.

  4. Hi All..would you put in the same amount of glycerine as you would linseed oil…just curious and also how would you keep it from being so sticky if you wanted to roll it out like a dough and use cookie cutters to cut out shapes ,,,,I have been thinking about trying the recipe and putting down corn starch powder on the work surface,,but dont know how that would work,,,any suggestions would be appreciated…thank you for your time and kindness,,take care God bless you and your loved ones,,,Cassie

    • Cassie, I haven’t tried the cookie-dough idea, but it’s interesting. You might try using corn starch instead of flour, and keep adding more until you get the consistency you want. You may, however, find that the “cookies” will warp a bit when they dry. It would be worth trying, though, just to see how it works.

      I sometimes replace the oil with the same amount of glycerin, and it works well.

  5. dear Jonni,

    I’m making a sculpture of a dog using paper mache clay. Some areas of the sculpture, mainly the back of the dog are really nice and smooth, however most of the rest of it is tremenously bumpy and even with almost superhuman sanding efforts I just can’t get it smooth enough to want to apply paint. Do you have any advice on getting it smoother and elimitating seams between layers of clay? Do you think I should modify the recipe with less toilet paper/more flour?


    • Hi Sara. When I want a nice smooth clay I add more glue than the recipe calls for, and add enough extra flour to get the consistency I want. It’s possible that your rolls have more paper than the ones I used for the recipe, and that might be making the clay bumpy. If the clay can be spread on smooth, you can make it even smoother with the side of a table knife, slightly dampened.

      I hope this helps.

  6. Jonni,

    I keep checking to see if you have started your feathers yet for your owl. Are you planning on making them out of the clay or paint them on? I am curious because I am having trouble trying to make realistic-ish feathers without having to spend a year make each one. I’ll keep checking back to see how your doing. Good luck!

    • Hi Karen – the feathers are going on with the clay. I’ll post a few photos today. I keep getting sidetracked, so it’s going slowly. I’m making the feathers more stylized than realistic, but they’re working OK. Check back in an hour or so. 🙂

  7. Jonni,
    I went to use my clay and found that it had molded all over the top! Is it now useless, or can I remove the bad portions and use the leftover? I hate to waste all that clay. Sigh, if that is the way it must be, then I will just have to make some more, but you are the expert here!

    • Dang – it’s no fun to open up your container and find a layer of fuzz…

      I can’t guarantee that this would work, but it may be worth a try — scrape off the mold and some of the clay under the mold, where the “roots” would be penetrating the clay. Then mix the clay again, adding a tablespoon of chlorine bleach. This may kill any mold that has already grown down into the clay. You might need to mix by hand, since the clay may have thickened too much for a mixer. But remember, I’m not sure it will work, so you might not want to use this batch on an important project.


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