Saturday, August 13, 2011

How I Did It - Learning Paper Mache

ha HAm it's that time of year again. I've been working on movie/Halloween props since July. I don't really have any work space (or storage space for that matter) so I bought a cheapo tarp from the wheeler dealer and use the living room floor. It's alright, the carpet is vintage from, like, the 50's man. We spilled ink on it shortly after moving in, and drew a squid on the floor. We'll tear it out at some point, but for now I don't mind ruining it further in the name of Halloween. I am a 20-something I can live this way.

So, I've been doing a ton of paper mache, and I thought I'd share some of the insights I seem to be picking up as I go. Maybe they will help somebody out, I dunno.

1. Your Mix

I've been using three ingredients to whip up mache mix.


Mache Goop
Wood Glue
Tap Water


hot glue sticks
Rebar tie


rotary egg beater
crafts only bowl
hot glue gun
Wire snips

I bought a gallon jug of wood glue at the bi-mart over a year ago, and I've still got a good third of a bottle to work with. I buy the flour wherever it is cheapest, usually wheeler dealer. I used to add salt, but I found that it makes the mix gritty, and the glue acts as a better preservative than the salt does anyway.

I got my rotary egg beater at the goodwill (where I also got my portable hair drier, I recommend goodwill for your first pass on tools, nothing beats that 30 year old 1970's era workmanship when it comes to electronics (seriously)) and I got my plastic craft bowl at the dollar store (it's a highly suitable orange candy bowl). Don't use the craft bowl for cooking.

The proportions of ingredients tends to vary. Adding a higher preportion of glue will make a stickier mix, which is great for getting wet strips of paper to adhere. Adding more glue will also improve the tensile strength of the mache, but also leaves it more fragile once it dries.

Adding a higher proportion of flour will thicken the mix, which creates a pasty consistency that also helps with adherence. I like my mix to be like thin pancake batter.

water is mainly for volume, it's a filler that stretches your glue. The flour also acts as a filler, thickening the mix to make up for the addition of water.

I like 1 part glue 2 parts water, 2 parts flour, but my formula changes a lot, especially depending on what I'm working on. I don't like too much glue, I like it fairly thick. Don't make too much, if you do, you can always cover is with wax paper or plastic wrap and re-use it the next day.

Newpaper. I use newspaper for my mache, I just nab a few of the free counter culture weekly papers from every stand I come across, and build up a stock. I like to tear them into thin, medium, and this strips, and then tear those down to smaller squares. I like to use a variety of shapes and sizes, always like at least one nice rough edge to each square, and I'm not afeard to goop an entire page of the newspaper and slap it on the sculpture.

2. Building

I've been making everything from scratch. At first I planned to build a skeleton with newspaper and duct tape, and then corpse it. I advise anyone approaching creative endeavors to get comfortable abandoning plans. That technique was really stiff, and I didn't end up using it too much. Maybe for larger figures, full standing ones, I'd roll up whole newspapers for the spine or something, but the rest of the work is very delicate.

I've been starting with the head, I build up a skull shape out of bunched up newspaper to bulk out the form, and then mache over it. Once the head has dried for a day, I start cutting it up and building the facial features.

Also, I really find that it's important to tear up your work. After I have a first pass on the shape of the head, unless I am really in love with how it's comeing along, I always tear off what I've done and rebuilding with the mache I've torn off. This does something to the paper, it's hard to describe. When you start out making something, you have a certain intent in mind, and it appears to be immensely helpful to tinker with that intent, to interrupt it, and let more, intuitive(?) forms come out. Seriously, try it. Do your best work, then tear it off and just mash something new on, you'll often come up with a much better result.

So, once I have a skull built and dried, I'll use hot glue to add a length of rebar tie to indicate the spine. Around this I'll bunch some paper mached. I always try to keep the paper "flowing" along the direction of the limb. I let it dry, and then extend the form, gluing on more lengths of formed rebar tie to indicate the shoulders and clavicle. Rinse and repeat to build out the sternum and humerous.

3. Get messy

I find that it's very important to avoid being too prissy with the mache. Those nice clean newspapers, torn up into clean little squares. There's a tendency to gingerly drag them through the mache mix and try to preserve their condition. But I find that the sculpt looks better the messier you are. I like to roll the strips up in my hands, after dipping them. This is also why I tear off the work I've done, reusing all that torn off mache really makes it irregular, and gives you very naturalistic shapes.

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