Monday, March 8, 2010

SPECIAL - Paper Mache Tutorial

Today's tutorial du jour is all about Paper Mache and its use in cosplay. The biggest advantage that paper mache has over other materials is, of course, it's price. Unfortunately, unless you put a lot of work into finishing the surface of something made from paper mache, it's going to look like a 3rd grader's failed art project. I prefer to use other, more durable materials for most of my prop and armor work but there are things which paper mache can be useful for. (For instance, making molds on which to shape or sculpt other, stronger materials, like wonderflex, latex or bondo. ) Paper mache also comes in handy for making small, highly decorated items like masks or headdresses.

While there are many recipes used to create paper mache, I personally prefer the simple formula of torn newspaper strips + wallpaper paste. You can find wallpaper paste selling at most big box hardware stores. (You should make sure you buy a tub large enough to cover the surface area that you want to cover several times over.) One of the simplest and most useful forms that you can create with paper mache is the simple rounded object made from a balloon.

I'm not going to go into a whole lot of detail on how to make a paper mache balloon object, since it's so damn simple. Just rip up a bunch of 1" wide newspaper strips, dip them into your tub of wallpaper paste and apply them to your balloon, criss-srossing them as you overlap them.

As more of the balloon area gets covered, you may find it easier to work with if you put the balloon in a deep, small-mouthed bowl. (A CD-spindle cover works quite nicely for this purpose.) If your balloon gets too saturated with paste, you can lay down dry newspaper strips to soak up the excess. Rub the entire surface of the balloon to ensure that all the strips are covered with paste and are as wrinkle-free as possible.

Let the paste dry thoroughly. (The drying time will vary, depending on air conditions and the type of paste that you buy. Expect a wait of about 6-10 hours until full dryness is achieved.) Once the paste has dried, cover the balloon with a second layer of newspaper strips. And when that’s dry, apply a third layer. (Don’t wait too long to apply the first few layers of newspaper, as the balloon might start shrinking.) You’ll need at least 5 or 6 layers of newspaper to make a shape that’s sturdy enough to be cut into shape as armor or used as a mold.

Okay. You’ve applied enough layers and your newspaper strips have thoroughly dried. Now, take a small sponge (or a sponge brush) and lightly rub clear acrylic varnish over the surface of the balloon, covering as much of it as you can. When that dries, cover the balloon with two or more coatings until you’re satisfied that the surface of the balloon is as hard and as smooth as you need it to be. The last thing you do before declaring the project finished, is to take a small pin and insert it through the layers of newspaper and varnish until you’ve popped the balloon.

You've already seen the wonderflex tutorial I wrote up using the balloon object I made as a mold. After that project was finished, I found I had a large cut-out section of the object left.

So I decided to use it to make a mask and illustrate the different ways of finishing a paper mache surface...

This is the character whose mask I chose to recreate:

And if you should ever want to recreate it, here's what you should do:

First step: mark off the shape and design of the mask onto your paper mache piece. (I recommend that you use water-soluble markers –not alcohol based markers like Prismacolor. If you use alcohol-based markers, the lines will bleed through any layers of gesso and/or acrylic paint that you might lay on top of them.--- Which isn't such a problem if you're going to put some type of cellulose clay on top of the mask to build up its surface or smooth it out, but if you're just going to use the gesso and the paint, you're screwed in you use alcohol-based markers. Just though I'd tell you.)

Take a scissors/utility knife to cut out the eyeholes and other features of the mask. Take care not to accidentally rip or break the paper mache while doing this step.

Voila. Here's what you should have at this point... A shaped mask ready to finish and paint...

We'll get to that next update.... Before I go, though, I want to show you a site I bumped into while doing my paper mache research:

Some fantastic stuff there, folks...

Now comes the fun part of the paper mache mask project: when you get to this part you should take your hot glue gun and apply hotglue to the edges of the mask to seal them. (You’ll notice, of course, that the mask is comprised of many layers of paper, some of which may not be sticking to each other very well. Spread hotglue over all of the layers and press them together until cool, taking care not to glue your fingers to the mask in the process.) Try not to leave lumps of hotglue sitting on the edges of the mask either. Pinch the mask's edges with your fingers while the glue is still warm and wipe off any excess hotglue so the edges look clean.

Now, take a sponge (or sponge brush) and apply clear acrylic varnish to the inside of the mask to strengthen it a bit. (You don’t want pieces of it ripping off while you’re trying to finish the outside of the mask…)

Apply a layer of gesso to the front (outside) of the mask and let it dry.

For the next step, you’ll need to get something called Paperclay. Paperclay is a type of cellulose fiber material which acts like regular clay and air-hardens to make a durable surface. It will stick to many surfaces, and makes an ideal finishing material for paper mache. (You can also use paperclay to sculpt features and designs into the surface of whatever you’re working on, but for my mask project, I simply used it to smooth out the surface of the mask without having to resort to a lot of sanding.)

I first covered about a 4” x 4” section of the mask’s surface with a thin layer of paperclay.

Then I turned the mask over and gently ground the mask, paperclay-side down into the formica counter-top where I was working. (This will hopefully smooth the wrinkles and lumps out of the surface of the paperclay. This is basically the same thing I did to the warm friendly plastic when I applied it to the surface of my wonderflex shoulder pauldron.) It helps if the paperclay is not too wet (as wet clay will be more liable to stick to the countertop and pull away from the mask as you grind it.)

Here’s the surface, post-grinding. It’s a bit smoother than it was before but will still need some more shaping before it’s finished. At this point you should apply and grind paperclay into more of the mask’s surface until it is completely covered.

When you’ve finished applying a thin coating of paperclay to the surface of your mask, take a large spoon and rub it gently over the surface, buffing away any lumps or areas of roughness. Let the mask dry overnight.

The next day when you look at the mask, you’ll probably notice a bunch of hairline cracks in its surface. (Paperclay likes to shrink a little as it dries.)

No problem. Dab a little more paperclay onto the cracks and rub it into the surface until they disappear.

(Note: You should store your unused paperclay in an airtight container. If any of it should dry out for any reason, you can just add a little water to it to make it malleable again.)

Wait a few hours after filling in the cracks until the paperclay is completely dry. Then take a small sheet of 150 fine grain sandpaper (regular wood sandpaper, not hobby sandpaper—ie: the kind you use to sand and finish styrene,) and gently sand the surface of the mask. Move your hand in a circular grinding motion across the surface of the mask until you’ve sanded and smoothed out all the rough spots.

Once the sanding is finished, apply another coat (or two) of gesso to the surface of the mask (taking care not to build up a thick lumpy surface, lest you have to sand the mask again.)

I wanted the outer edges/eyeholes of my mask to have nice clean lines, so I took ¼” strips of styrene and hotglued them to the outer edges and eyeholes of the mask. (Cutting away any excess styrene that was overlapping the edges on the front and back of the mask ) . The green lines in the photo to your left show where a shaped strip of styrene had been applied to the mask’s right eyehole…

Note: If you aren't able to get your hands on any styrene, you can use tagboard (or any really thick paper) as a substitute.

I inspected the mask and when I was satisfied that it was the way I wanted it to look, I applied a couple of coats of clear acrylic varnish. I then inspected the surface again (now that it was all shiny) for any possible dents or imperfections. (I found a few, so I reapplied paperclay, gesso, sanded , and then re-varnished the surface until I was finally happy with the results.)

Now it was finally time to decorate my mask. I started by painting the surface of the mask with its base color (a white acrylic) and then lightly etched the mask’s painted design into its surface with a light pencil.

I then very carefully painted the colored parts of the mask with a thin brush. (The time and effort spent on painting your mask will determine its overall quality. There really is no point in making the surface of the mask perfectly smooth if you’re going to put a half-assed paint job over it, so you should take extra care with this step.)

Once the design had been painted onto the mask and the paint was allowed to dry, I applied two or coats of clear glossy acrylic varnish to the mask. (Letting it dry between coats, of course.)
(NOTE: when applying varnish—be careful when going over the dark areas of your design. Grayish streaks can result if you apply too much varnish to an area or fail to spread it smoothly.)

When the varnish dried completely, I turned the mask over and applied a few layers of white acrylic paint to the mask’s interior (taking care not to let any drip through the eyeholes onto the front of the mask. ) When the paint dried , I laid down two coats of clear varnish to seal the surface.

One last detail to take care of before I can call the mask finished. The character this mask is based on has, (like many other superhero characters) eyes that turn completely white when they put their mask on. To simulate this, I needed to get some sheer white fabric. (which I found in a remnant bin at a local fabric store.)

I cut a circular piece of fabric that was just large enough to cover one of the eyeholes. I then squeezed out some hotglue around the eyehole on the back of the mask and placed the piece of white sheer fabric over it, allowing its edges to become thoroughly saturated with the warm glue. I repeated the process to cover the other eyehole.

There we have it. A superhero mask for a white-eyed character. To attach this mask to a hood, I plan on putting tiny holes in the sides and top of it , so that a needle and thread can be passed through them linking both the mask and the fabric of the hood together.

So now you have a basic understanding on how to create and finish a paper mache item. How does paper mache stack up as a prop and armormaking material as compared to other materials? Well, personally, I would prefer using more durable materials like styrene, wonderflex and friendly plastic for my projects, as they’ll take a lot more punishment than paper mache AND I find myself having to put a lot less time into making their surfaces look acceptable. (I also don’t have to worry about them accidentally crumbling on me if I bang them against something or someBODY while I’m walking through a crowded convention area.) When you want to make armor and props and have little skill and very little money, paper mache may be the first solution your brain hits upon, --and indeed, it might turn out to be the best solution for you-- but you must be willing to invest the time and patience into finishing it properly, otherwise itll end up looking like some 3rd grader’s art project. (And really, there’s enough crappy, half-assed paper mache cosplay going on in the world already—---you don’t need to add any more to it…)

If you want to know more about Paper Mache, these links may be of interest to you:

Proptology Paper Mache Articles

Paper Mache Resource

Professional Paper Mache Maskmaking

Thanks again, and if you have any questions for me, please let me know...


  1. thank you so much for the detailed demo. I'm a makeup artist and currently trying to figure out how to make an astro boy hair and attach onto a model. Not sure if paper mache would be the best way but it's a thought. the main thing is that it's not flexible, so I think it'll be problmetic to fit onto a head. maybe carving out foam blocks, and attach onto a bald cap, or even sew up from patent leather or some sort and stuff it. Not sure how that'll glue onto a head or bald cap if I still need it. anyways, thank you!!

  2. Haha I could have used this last year when I was making my Red X costume. lol
    The clear varnish would have been nice to know of at the time. lol
    if you'd like to see my Red X costume :3