Papier maché

Papier maché is an underrated art. Some of us remember, perhaps with slight grief, how we made a pig constructed over a balloon in school . The surface was wrinkled and uneven, impossible to smooth with paint.
  But papier maché is in fact a fine material for work and with some exercise (and some diligence and planning) one can make quite good figures. Papier maché is cheap and does not demand special tools. You do not risk, as when working with ceramics,that your figurines crack during firing. On the negative side is that papier maché is far less plastic to work with.
  As a starting I begin with some drawings outlining some sort of skeleton. The skeleton can be constructed from wood, steel wire, bone, cardboard or wire mesh (which I have yet to try). Upon this skeleton the body is built by pasting layers of narrow strips of newspaper. If the strips get to wide they will not follow the curvatures and tend to wrinkle. Bigger body parts, e.g. abdomens, can be constructed from crumbled and pastecoated papers taped in place with paper tape (not the cellulose/plastictype), strips of paper or wire and covered with narrow strips. From time to time the figure must dry completely, it may well take some days. I prefer paste based on methylated cellulose as it does not rot easily.
  The final surface of the figure can most profitable be made from pulp, that is papier maché ground to a mush. The surface can gain a hardness nearly as good as wood and minor details can easily be modeled in the wet pulp. Use your fingers, plastic forks, wooden modeling sticks etc. It may be a good idea to cover the pulp with some more paste and "massage" it into shape. When the coat of pulp has dried it is possible to sand it and coat it with gesso (I make my gesso from glue from bones, water and powdered chalk). The gesso should be fixated either with formaldehyde (very unhealthy and unpleasant) or with alum.
  If you paint your figure with paint based on water (guache) you should coat the figure afterwards with a layer of laquer that is not water based. Working with papier maché is a slow work as you have to wait a lot for the figures to dry before you can continue. But it does not nescessarily have to take several years as some of my figures did. I have had other things to do as well.


Crocodile of the Nile

My first work using papier maché since primary school. It was made in 1982 in about a week.
   It is 60 cm long constructed on a longitudinal piece of wood with wires protruding into the legs. The skin was sculptured with a plastic fork. It was painted with guache (which most danes prefer to call "tempera") and lacquered.

Flying reptile - pterandon, Cretaceous , 90 mill. years ago

I made this one in 1983 on a skeleton of bamboo. I was lucky to find two curved sticks for the long finger of the wings. The other fingers are made from pipe cleaners (not a great success). Were I to build another one its breast musculature would be stronger. The wingspan is 163 cm. Painted with guache and lacquered.

Mummified hand

A rather macabre thing in natural size (inspired by a short story by William Fryer Harvey: The Hand ) It is built on a wire skeleton soldered together. The veins on the back are strings of light blue cotton placed side by side. The nails are made of smooth drawing papier pressed into shape when wet. The skin is toilet paper that produce a wrinkled surface. It was painted with guache, dirt "under" the nails was drawn with a pencil and the figure was coated with schellac (not to glossy). Around 1985.

Butterfly - Agrias sardanapalus

Wing span 85 cm. It is not a complete success (the body is not right and the wings are to weak) The head was made using another technique. It was modelled in plasticine and covered with very narrow strips of tissue paper. When dry the plasticine was removed from the neck.The head was coated with gesso (this time from PVA-glue and chalk) and dots representing the individual ommatidia were added. The antennae are partly burned pipe cleaners with a tip from gesso. Made around 1985-1986.
Duckbilled lizard

Duckbilled lizard

Duck-billed lizard - anatosaurus
Cretaceous, 70 mill. years ago

132 cm high. This dinosauer was built upon a skeleton looking a little like the real skeleton. The body was then built from crumbled papers and strips of newspaper until the shape was good. Then it was coated with a thick layer of pulp in wich I modelled various wrinkles and scales. Bony nodes were added to the skin of the back. Its claws, a sort of hoofs, were cut from wood (otherwise the might easily break). The head was not mounted until late in the process so as to make working on the head easy (I could sit on a chair). Then the neck was finished.   Working on the body implied sitting on my knees or lying on my back for hours.
  The eyes were made from plexiglass and painted from the back. The dinosauer was painted with artists oil colours to make it less glossy. Some of the paint was applied using my hand as a brush.
  This model was made in 1990 - 91. It took a lot of work as I didn't know the trick of making pulp using a paint stirrer so I ground all of it between two stones!
  Should I make this dinosauer today the face would look different and the posture would be less erect.

Upper Jurassic, 125 mill. years ago

This model was built in 1993 - 94. It is 112 cm long.
  It was built on a wooden skeleton with paddles cut from plywood. The "bones" of the skull were cut with much care for detail.The teeth are made from a plastic that hardens when heated (Cernit).The eyes were cut from plexiglass with a coloured layer sandwiched between the front lens and a hemispherical reflector. Thus the eyes glow in the dark like a cat when hit by a ray of light. The tongue was cast from pulp in a mould made from plaster of Paris. That mould was cast on a model of plasticine. Another technique for your use.
  The figure was sanded smooth (it produces a lot of dust, better use a mask) and coated withe several layers of gesso and sanded between the layers. The gesso was coated with schellac and then the figure was painted using artist oil colours (a fish does not look wet when under the surface).


Cacops - a small amphibian from Lower Permian, 220 mill. years ago

This model is only 35 cm long, its natural size (I am running out of space in my apartment). The skeleton was made from wire and cardboard. The feet were cut from bone (don't throw out the bones when making soup). Toilet paper makes a nice skin. Bony nodes (made from papier maché, not bone) were added. 

Archaeopteryx - Jurassic, 150 mill. years ago

This jurassic bird, Archaeopteryx Litografica, is my latest product (2000). It is in natural size, somewhat like a longlegged pigeon. It is remarkable by having teeth and clawy fingers. The bird lacks a sternum which might have reduced its power of flight.
  The model is built on a skeleton of wire with a plug of wood for the hip and another for the shoulder parts (you can easily glue the wire parts into small holes in the wood). Legs and fingers were modelled in Cernit, but on a skeleton of wire. Otherwise they would bend or break. The claws were cut out of horn using a difference in colouration to make them look real. Its teeth and jaws are cut from bone. Teeth of cernit would break even before hardening. The big feathers are cut from drawing papir.
  Since the time of photography it has been mounted on a proper wooden plate.


Shrunken head

Shrunken head from behind

Shrunken head

The tsantsa (shrunken head) was made on a mould of plasticine. It was covered with a few layers of paper. The paper layer was cut open when dry and the mould removed. The two halves where then reassembled, covered with toilet paper and painted. Some string and pieces of fur completed the work. The ears were cast in a plaster mould. Their shape had to be somewhat simplified.

I do not intend to write a book on papier maché, but I would like to recommend one: The art and craft of papier mâché by Juliet Bawden. It contains recipies and detailed descriptions on the most familiar techniques. Had I known this book before I could have spared myself from a lot of trouble and experiments.

More of my papier maché figures

Other sites displaying papier maché:

This site, I do not know its name, have quite a few links to papier maché sites

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(c) Ditlev V. Petersen/Potemkin 2000