Friday, June 20, 2014

Celluclay the Misunderstood

Celluclay is a wonderful product, but it is quite unknown to the world of fine artists, likely because its marketing is aimed at hobbyists and crafters.  Activa, the maker of it, don't seem to know what treasure of versatility and definition they have created, so that would make it difficult for them to promote it that way.  As a career artist who is still very interested and influenced by the craft forms, I was fortunate to have been shown, by fellow passionate creators, the potential of such a unique product that disappointed me at first, and for a long time, since I didn't understand its personality.  Now, I realize how much it has increased the quality of my work.
This article is my way of sharing forward about it.

I also made a video about it. Link is below the article.

I've been told by colleagues that white Celluclay is not as strong as the original grey version.
I've only tried the latter, so I cannot testify for the white.

Celluclay is sold in powder form, in various quantities. I now buy the 5 pound packages.
Maybe someday I'll special order a 24 pound package, since they don't have it in the local stores anymore.  This powder keeps indefinitely on the shelves, as long as it is not contaminated by moisture. Just add water, mix well, and you can have a variety of effects and uses.
Some like to use glue to the mix (and use less water because of that), but I find it is not at all necessary, and it can remove some of the sanding possibilities.

I've been working a lot more with Celluclay in the past two months, both for direct modeling and for casting copies of my works, from silicone molds.  I've learned a lot about how it reacts, and I am sharing here some of my observations.

I would like to recognize here that Ronnie Burkett has been my biggest inspiration to come back to Celluclay, and that without his generous sharing of photographs on his Facebook page, and a few detailed answers to my questions, I would not have even guessed how great a product Celluclay could be.   Look at the work in progress photographs of the puppet heads in his photo album for The Daisy Theater.  Granted, he mixes his Celluclay with Creative Paperclay (about half and half), but that's for texture, and I can tell you it will work without the paperclay.

This stuff seems to have a mind of its own. It can shrink & warp at its own whim.
It can be used for several different applications, but each will require a different approach, and the artist will have to understand  and work WITH IT, instead of frustratingly fighting it.
one who does that will discover a friend and a powerful collaborator, for greater results.
Celluclay is very strong when fully cured, which is why it may be a good idea to trim, cut or carve some thicker parts of it when it it dry, but not yet bone dry.
A fully cured Celluclay cast of one quarter of an inch of thickness will be hard to cut by hand with a craft knife, no matter how razor sharp. Yet it can still be cut with ease on a band saw, behaving much like pine wood.  Still, it will be lighter, so be careful to keep a firm grip on it, and avoid losing control!

While semi-dry celluclay can be re-incorporated into the rest of the batch, I haven't yet tried enough with fully dried Celluclay to be able to tell if it will have the same exact properties as a freshly made batch.  Please share if you have more input!

The mixing method of Celluclay influences its properties a lot more than I ever thought possible.
The written instructions provided with the product are not precise, and don't offer a glimpse of the wonderful possibilities of it for the Fine Artists.

I mix a large ball of Celluclay "powder" in a larger bowl with just enough hot water to moisten everything into a malleable substance, that is still a bit tacky.  Then I sprinkle more powder over the ball, and knead it in, and I repeat until I get the consistency I need for the purpose at hand:

For Casting:
Firm but still slick and tacky enough to be pressed into the mold's details.
I haven't been able yet to get as much detail from a silicone mold with Celluclay as I can with plaster.
I'm working on it, but it may very well be a limitation one has to embrace, instead of being frustrated by. Cracks will likely appear, as they have in my last 3 casts, though eh had been mixed differently. Some are caused by a bad overlap of individual pieces when pressing into the mold, others are from shrinkage. They are easy to patch later, with more Celluclay.

Once the cast has been scooped out and placed back into the oven to dry the inside, there is a strong tendency for the cast to shrink upon itself, especially sideways in the case of a head or mask shape.
Adding a spacer that will keep the sides apart would be advisable, but I have yet to find an ideal choice of material.  So far, a ball of custom-shaped aluminum foil inserted carefully at the opening seems to do the trick, as long as it does not block the heat from entering and leaving.
It needs to stay put, and exert no force outward, or it would warp it that way.

I am working on a method that still uses the freezer to protect the cast as it gets pulled out of the mold,  and yet does not require the use of the oven.  Again, heat increases shrinkage and warping, so if I can be free of that, all the better.  It already works for my approach of paper pulp (made from toilet paper and boiled wheat paste) backed by paper strips, as proven by several masks I've made in the past three years, but I will have to adapt some steps to make it work better with Celluclay and within the small mold opening for my glove puppet heads. 
I will edit this method in here when it is confirmed as viable. Remind me in 6 months, if I have not yet done it, as my work requires me to change main materials depending on the project.
I can only experiment now because it fits within the needs of my current contracts.

For Shaping over an armature or as a surface correcting "clay"
Very firm, clay-like. For this, I keep adding powder until the clay won't accept any more.

This makes a clay that will not shrink as much as it dries, therefore shape and detail is not lost, though it may require refining as an extra step.

Once mixed, Celluclay keeps changing over time, as it evaporates, and as it changes temperature.

Celluclay will get firmer after being in the refrigerator for a few hours. This is great for shaping/modeling over an armature, but not so good for casting into a flexible mold, as the firmer clay resists being pressed into the mold, it tends to lift away from it. It also resists being pushed into details and it does not blend with itself as well.

I tried re-moistening the cold, firmer clay with water to make it malleable again, but it is still not as good as a freshly made batch, still warm from the hot water.
I intend to try to add hot water to the firmed up cold clay, to see if the properties get back to the fresh state.

It tends to droop and stretch, so trying to model a whole ball or block of solid Celluclay can cause a lot of frustration, patience-testing drying times, and a flattened, likely cracked dried sculpture. NEAT! (if that's what you want).  I prefer control, so I follow the example of Ronnie Burkett, and provide a "skull" to the puppet heads I will model in Celluclay.  My choice is compacted aluminum foil, and it usually remains inside the smaller heads permanently.  Often, for rougher, improvised designs, I even shape most of the features with the foil. See an article I wrote about this direct sculpting method.

When my features will be shaped mostly of Celluclay, I mix it firm (as mentioned above), and still try to do it in several steps, drying each before correcting with knives and files, and then adding more.
Again, adding a tiny bit of moisture before adding more wet Celluclay will ensure a proper bond.

Celluclay's natural texture helped match the head with the fabric body.

Celluclay is surprisingly sticky when it is moist enough, so it can grab onto and blend well over various surfaces. For a permanent bond, porous surfaces are better. Paper mache strips and pulp, as a well as unfinished wood,  work very well as substrates for Celluclay.   Most of my paper mache items receive some surface corrections with Celluclay. a slight brushing or rubbing of water mist on the area to be added to, and the Celluclay will stick well. If you forget about the moistening of the surface, you risk a bad bond, lifting edges, or even a separation later, upon impact.


Celluclay needs air to dry. This means that it can take WEEKS to dry when applied thickly in one step.  Who has that long?  Using Celluclay over a temporary form, creating a permanent armature inside, or using it as a casting compound are the best ways I found to prevent interminable drying times.   Add a fan to the drying process, some tiny holes poked into the thicker areas (to be patched later) and smartly applied sessions of heat, and you have a system that is much more reasonable for drying times.

Heat makes paper mache products shrink and warp a lot more, which also increases texture. The price to pay however, is a loss of definition, if one seeks sharp details and sculpted textures.
That's an interesting set of effects to know, if one wants to use them.
To avoid them when they would be unfortunate, here is some advice:
Use fans to dry the paper mache until the whole object feels dry and stable.As mentioned above, poke some holes into the thicker areas. This is also a good way to feel how much moisture remains inside.
Finish with the oven, at low temperatures like 200 - 300F, for short sessions of baking, and longer sessions of leaving the objects in the remaining heat in the closed oven. This will help evacuate trapped moisture

It is a bit difficult and tedious to explain all of it in text, some of it can be quite technical (mold making) and I am still refining my understanding of it, so I'll just link you to the article that he wrote around 1998, which contains the method: Paper Mache Rediscovered

My Celluclay observations shared above can help adjust one's approach to get the best results from this method.  Dare we dream of a Ronnie Burkett video on the subject?  I'll add this for now:

Use a very sharp knife to open a window into the dry-ish clay shell that has been in the oven for an hour (may take longer to reach the stability required).  The dry-ish clay can be remixed with the rest that you will scoop out.  Instead of a spoon which may be too large, use a spatula (clay modeling tool inspired from dental tools) to scoop out the still malleable Celluclay from inside.
As you are scooping, feel the consistency, to avoid scooping out too much. If it happens, put the Celluclay back and smooth with the tool to blend the edges.  Eventually, the semi-dry shell will be felt, and this is where you should stop scooping, unless you want a stronger shell, at which point you'd leave more thickness. Thicker means longer drying times, even in the oven.
At the thinnest safe application, the cast stays in the oven for at least two hours at 200F, and it may require extra drying times above that.  I suspect that after an initial firming up in the oven following the scooping, the cast could be placed in front of a fan to finish drying by air. This would help save energy, and might help prevent some shrinkage. 

Hold the cast with a delicate touch, always aware of how much pressure your fingers apply, to avoid crushing or warping it.

When dry or semi dry, check the cast against a strong light source, to detect weaker spots.
Apply more Celluclay on the outside or inside to strengthen.  This can wait for when the cast is fully dry.


Note the shrinkage compared to the original

The cracks are an interesting effect, if chosen. Easy to fill if not chosen.

The thickness is on average is more or less a quarter inch.
This cast shows no shrinkage, and better detail capture.

Update: CURRENT casting method: I now carefully apply the Celluclay as thick as I need it in the mold, I immediately add 4 layers of paper mache strips in one step, and force it to dry in front of a fan for 12 hours. This provides a stable base, it prevents shrinkage and warping. Then I freeze the whole mold for a few hours, to harden everything temporarily and easily remove the cast from the mold. Some fine parts, like pointy ear tips, can break off, but it is easy to repair right away (even when frozen), with a bit more wheat paste, and smoothing the edges with a modeling tool.  Once out of the mold, the cast is placed in front of the fan again, resting on a grid or over two chopsticks to allow for air circulation below. It should take at least 8 to 12 more hours to dry. 
this approach reduces the shrinkage to such a minimum, it is hard to detect. The previous approach resulted in very visible shrinking, and it was uneven.  In the case of the skull, it made it shrink more horizontally than vertically, making it look skinnier. some of the detail was lost as well.

Celluclay can be left rough, reflecting the tool marks and even featuring the shrinkage on purpose, if one decides to use a very wet mix.

However, it can be made super smooth, with a combination of carving, filing, sanding, and buffing.
To buff, one just needs a bit of water to re-moisten only the surface, and a soft lint-free piece of fabric to rub it until smoother.  For a more shiny, polished stone effect, use a smooth metal tool to buff it.

If it has been re-moistened enough, the surface can be scored to add texture with a dull yet precise hard instrument, like metal modeling tools.

For the dry version of this, a wood burning tool is a powerful detailing and texturing friend. There will be burrs, but they can be carefully sanded off, and a stiff brush will make an easy task of removing the dust crated by that step.  Be careful when applying the sealer over the textured celluclay, so that they won't be filled and hidden by it.

Sealing paper mache of any kind is important for durability, but imperative for performance objects that will be submitted to more abuse by manipulation, transport, and the elements, than the decorative pieces that one leaves on a shelf or protected into a display.  I do the sealing beore the painting step. That way, if my piece gets wet, the paint can be damaged (and repaired later), but the structure will still have been protected.

It is advised to apply sealers in thin applications, each fully dried before the next is applied.
If one used instead a thick application at once, cracking may occur.
It does, in a severe way, with the Bull's Eye, so I use a very soft yet form brush to ensure very thin coverage with nicely blended edges, careful not to leave any quantity that would fill deeper details and later create cracks.  I can speed up the drying of each coat with a hair dryer, and it does not cause cracks as long as the application was thin.

I use the same sealer for Celluclay as I use on the rest of my paper mache.
Currently and for a few years now, I've been using Bull's Eye 1.2.3, by Zinsser, in liquid paint form.
It exists as an aerosol but I have not tried it yet.
It is a stain killer/odor sealer for walls. It resists water and alcohol, despite being waterbased.
It is a perfect ground for acrylic paint, in my experience using many different brands.
It is supposed to be compatible with oil paint as well, but I do not use those over paper mache yet.
I used to use shellac because it is fully natural, but found it difficult to paint over it with acrylics. It is also a brittle finish, and it gets damaged by alcohol, which is unfortunate, since I use rubbing alcohol to clean the inside of my masks.

In my experience, Celluclay is a lot stronger than the usual recycled wood-based paper pulp, yet paper strips are stronger than Celluclay, even at much thinner applications. Strips resist impact and pressure better, so in areas of joining two structures or different materials, and places of high stress, a few strips can be added to land their support. Tips of noses, back of ears benefit a lot from this precaution.

I use boiled wheat paste for almost all my paper mache strip projects, and it is compatible with Celluclay.  I have never had any separation of strips and Celluclay since I've been using this paste.  

The combination of the strength of paper strips, and the stiffness of Celluclay is a stronger and more defined result, which is faster to achieve than a project made entirely of strips.
Still, paper strips deliver a much more lightweight shell, so when comfort and ergonomics are necessary, such as for masks, puppets and other performance props, Strips can be the structure, while Celluclay can be the texture. And this texture need not be everywhere. I really appreciate a contrast of textures on the same project, as it brings more realism to a piece.

I also make my glove puppet necks out of toilet paper rolls made fully rigid by enough layers of paper strips, which also merge that neck perfectly with whatever form of paper mache the head is made of. Celluclay is often used over the paper strip neck, to correct the surface.

I will update this article when I have more insight in Celluclay's properties and usage.
Planned updates:

•Video demonstrating how I mix it.
•More photos:  wet and dry, smooth and textured.

For now, here's a video I made a little while ago, extolling the virtues of Celluclay, and demonstrating how I use  this fantastic product.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

My Current Paper Mache Strip Method

This article will be updated to always reflect my preferred  method.

A simpler article, with pictures, is available on this very blog:

Let's not forget the classics!
Paper Mache strips, if applied properly, can be extremely detailed, extremely rugged and durable, and surprisingly lightweight.  I dare say that my paper mache is stronger than wood, and can rival a lot of plastics when it comes to resisting impact. 

Plus, it takes primers and paints into itself, preventing the common chipping or flaking problems that occur with the usual cast plastics.

My current method for detailed paper mache hollow heads, cast directly onto plastalina or ceramic clay:

Once my clay model is approved, I take good reference pictures of it in the major angles.
Then I carve it out some more to make the whole thing skinnier, to compensate for the thickness of the paper mache.  I also increase the depth and width of every crease. I also remove eyelids, as they would just get bulky with the paper over it. 

I pre-tear tiny strips of thin Kraft paper, and tiny strips of coffee filters. Each strip is the size of my pinky finger, and I tear them smaller as needed, for the more detailed areas. It feels like a waste of time at first, but overall, you save time, because you won't have to fight with the paper to prevent wrinkles.
Doing this in advance saves a lot of time, as it's easier to do with clean, dry hands.

My glue is either tapioca paste, or corn starch paste, depending on what I have on hand. I think Tapioca is stronger, but I cannot confirm this scientifically. I do prefer the tapioca paste for the consistency and the ease of preparing it.

I cover the clay head with strips of brown paper towels, using only water as a "glue", keeping it moist with a spray bottle until the whole head is well covered. Then I gently brush a coat of my paste over the whole thing, to hold it down and prevent lifting. This is the separation layer, but later, it will be integrated into the actual paper mache.  

I apply the paper strips with my hands mostly, dipping my fingers in the bowl of paste (never dip the paper).
I do use a stiff brush to get into the detailed areas. More overlap means more strength, and crisscrossing, to vary grain direction of the paper, adds even more strength.
Once I have three or four layers, I can use a metal modeling tool to define the paper in the crease, and I can burnish the whole thing to remove wrinkles and air pockets. I don't overdo it, because I know this type of paper mache, thanks to the type of glue used, is very easy to sand smooth once dry.

To see clearly where I need to add paper, and not confuse with the previous layer, I finish each layer by adding a counting layer. Some artists just change to a different color or texture of paper, but I prefer to keep using the same paper, to have consistency of strength. So my counting layer is just the same paste, mixed separately with a small amount of dry pigment. This means the counting layer becomes part of the paper mache, and does not create a barrier like a coat of paint would.

I apply about 4 layers of Kraft paper in one work session, then I make it dry in front of a fan at lowest setting (to save energy), overnight (8 hours).  I use a pencil to draw the cut line where I want it, Add some alignment lines to help with the reassembly later, then I use a pen knife to cut it.
Usually, I cut behind the ears, to separate the front from the back.
Make sure you have plenty of time to cut AND re-assemble the two parts in the same work session, because if you cut and leave the two halves separate for a few hours, they will warp and become more difficult to assemble again.

Once I have some dry paper mache to add onto, I must make my glue a bit more tacky, to prevent the new paper from sliding and shrinking, creating major wrinkles. The current solution is to add just a tiny bit of pva glue to the paste. I'd like to understand the chemical reasons for the crawling effect, so I could avoid using the pva altogether.
 To assemble, I align the lines, use masking tape to hold the head together, but most of the seam is still exposed.
Where there is no tape, I add longer strips of the same Kraft paper as before, crisscrossing and overlapping a lot.
When the strips have had time to grab onto the dry paper mache, I remove the tape and add strips there as well.
When the whole seam job has dried, the whole head can be sanded, and any modification, such as the sealing of the neck opening, or the addition of some wooden parts, is done with coffee filters and the sane tackier paste. 
When all the shaping is complete and dry, it can be sanded smooth and then covered with finer papers, to add a smoothness that is not too "dead". I start with coffee filters, and finish with brown paper towels.

When I'm sure everything has the texture I want, I dry the head one last time in my drying oven which I only use for this final stage. It,s a large cardboard box, with a hole on the side for the nozzle of my hairdryer. The item goes in there, a weight is put over the flaps of the box to keep them shut, and I activae the hairdryer at medium heat for   
 about 30 minutes, then I place the piece back in front of the fan for the possible remaining moisture to evaporate with the heat.

When this feels bone dry everywhere, I apply a coat of orange shellac, and let dry. I add another coat, and let dry.
Additional sanding can be done at this point, but shellac will have to be added again.

I cannot apply the primer directly on the paper mache, because it penetrates too much, and makes it soft.
this is why I use shellac first, and it also provides an additional layer of protection.

Then I add a primer, which will protect the shellac from alcohol, which is what I use for cleaning the insides of my  puppets.  The primer I use nowadays is Zinsser bull's eye 1-2-3 (waterbased version). It is a Primer-sealer, stain killer, meaning it's designed to capture and mask odors and stains in the walls, if replacing the offensive area is out of the question.   I find this sealer too thick, next time I use it, I'll try diluting it a bit.
I apply three coats of it, at least, with a soft, flat brush. I want this to be opaque.
The primer has made the paper mache a slight bit more flexible, and it is also weak against scratches for the first few hours.  Just like with acrylic paints, I only judge the final strength 24 hours after it feels dry to the touch.
But it can be painted immediately after it feels truly dry to the touch.  If you paint too early, the acrylic will crack, as it has a different shrinking rate than the primer.

This has worked well for quite a few Theater masks and puppet heads I have made in the past three years.

This primer allows me to paint with acrylics, or oils.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Taking Requests


I intend for this blog to be about the best paper mache methods that I use, explained in the clearest way that I can.

My Laboratory blog is a jumble of evolving information. you can get a lot out of it, but please bare in mind that I leave the old info there as well as the new, and some methods are no longer part of my favored methods.

Being very busy and planning to get busier, I cannot contribute to to this blog very often, but

tell me what are the methods you'd like to see explained in detail, and I'll try to focus on the most requested ones.

The next thing I'll write about, sometime soon in the new year::
I plan on trying the Chinese stacked paper method (name??) soon, and I hope to make a video to accompany it. It consists of making a sort of pancake of newspaper and glue, then tearing that into small pieces and placing over a form, or into a mold.  Sounds familiar, but I tried it before and I failed. I have the missing pieces of the puzzle after talking to a colleague who explained it better, and now I feel like it will be a success.
It might save me a lot of time when making copies of my masks, from molds.

Write you soon,


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ronnie Burkett Interview

On Inspiration, Skills, and Materials

An interview by Mathieu René
Originally published in British Unima's Puppet Notebook, issue 19, Summer 2011

Photography by Trudie Lee, as seen on
Ronnie Burkett's website.

As a puppet creator, Ronnie Burkett has been an inspiration for me since my very beginnings, when I saw incredibly high quality photographs of his beautiful puppets on a Canadian theatre's website. It was years before I was able to see one of his shows and meet him, but even as I was reading about his work, I was learning from his contributions. It is a great pleasure to have the chance to ask these questions, and share Mr. Burkett's answers with you.

As puppeteers, we all have our own original beginnings,
and inspirations. What were yours?

My “addiction” and love affair with puppetry began at the age of seven. Several things converged at once as culprits in this obsession. The film version of The Sound of Music came out that year, and the puppet sequence by The Bil Baird Marionettes totally captured my imagination. The World Book Encyclopedia featured a two page entry on puppets, and there was a photo of the Bairds surrounded by marionettes; this, to me, was pure magic. And, that year, my parents gave me a little lion handpuppet for Christmas, and my second grade teacher let me put on a rambling improvised version of Red Riding Hood (the lion appearing as the wolf). The fascination was immediate, and continues to this day.

In a question period after a show, I remember you telling a story about how you went to your first puppet festival. Can you indulge us in a brief retelling?

I grew up in a small city in western Canada. There were no puppeteers, and no touring puppet shows. I didn’t actually see a live puppet show until I was in my teens and already touring my own work, at a Puppeteers of America Festival in Michigan. So, between the time I first discovered puppets and getting myself to that first Festival, I read. I read everything related to puppetry I could get my hands on; it’s the singular reason why I could sit down and doodle a dozen different ankle joints for you. Or elbow joints. Or neck joints. Or half a dozen different techniques for making plaster molds. Or tell you the shared history of Guignol, Kasper, Punch, Karagioz and the other bad boys. So, by the time I got to meet my idols in (American) puppetry, I was able to parrot their careers back to them, show them a portfolio, ask them specific questions and honestly, it allowed me to worship them fully, simply because I had memorized everything I could find about them. There was nothing particularly notable or unique about me when I was a teenager, but I had a huge vocabulary of my craft, and I think that allowed me entrée with the people I longed to know. And a few of them were lovely to me. Not all of them, oh no, but a few became heroic, flawed, generous mentors who still inform my work and my life to this day.

Puppetry Artists may be bringers of stories, dreams and inspiration, but sometimes we forget there are some more tangible aspects, actual dangers to our health and well being. Is this a concern for you?
Tandem to the rise of puppetry’s popularity in the early and mid Twentieth century, a lot of new products came on the market, which puppeteers were eager to experiment with. Plastic wood and (later on) celastic were especially popular, both of which utilized acetone in their manufacture or use. I love seeing the old plastic wood heads on marionettes; it was one of the first materials I was taught to use, although the formulation of it was already being changed when I was young. No one I encountered used masks and gloves to work with these materials, in fact, many would smoke with the ashtray sitting beside the open can of plastic wood or acetone. This is, of course, unbelievable to us today, but we must remember that even into the 1960’s television advertising for cigarettes told people that smoking was good for them! I think the twentieth century was about the open embracing of all that was new; very few sat and pondered the ill effects of “the modern age”.

Personally, I had to make my studio and my practices less toxic, primarily because I do employ others to assist me at times, so I am responsible for them. And I just hate working with a Darth Vadar-like filter mask on, that really kills creativity! I was taught by some of the old puppeteers, so naturally I was taught to use some of those materials, but since they are no longer available in their original form, I haven’t used them in years.

What would you say to makers who consider the health hazards
as the price to pay, to be able to do the work?

Many people, by isolation or lack of information or skill, just “make it up” as they go along. And there is a lot of old information floating around puppetry; some of my favorite books on the craft are now are 40, 50, 60 years old. But I find that people working in “traditional” or more sculptural forms of puppetry tend to have slightly better practices, inasmuch that carving has a historical practice to it, an ethos, if you will. Same with traditional mold making skills and so on. The puppet makers I worry about most are the ones working in foam and contact cement. I think there are a lot of hobbyists out there sniffing glue while they make their TV-style puppets. It’s an interesting discussion though, because there just isn’t a better way to glue foam than with shoemaker’s contact cement. So, should we use it or not?

I am a huge fan of knowledge, of training, of discipline. I don’t ultimately believe in “accidental art”; that’s actually anathema to my view of puppetry. The more one knows about their material, the better the relationship. And yes, some relationships are toxic. I don’t think we can avoid it in the world we’ve created for ourselves. We can control our choices somewhat – and I think we must in our work - but there are roughly 96,000 chemicals used in everyday products (perfume, plastics, deodorant, insulation, you name it) that have never been tested. Never. So, yes, let’s put a mask on when sanding, and yes, let’s smarten up about solvents, but this notion that we can live and work in a non-toxic world is, I think, simply impossible. I suspect the food containers most people put in their microwaves are as bad for us as a can of acetone.

And just to be a bit extreme here, and yes, possibly controversial, some of the craftspeople I know who are the most militant about health and safety practices eat meat, are obese, drink cola, never take public transportation. I think a discussion about a solvent or a glue being bad for you is a mute point if you’ve just ingested chemically altered animal flesh or driven a car to work. The major health choices I’ve made for myself are actually not based solely upon my studio work, they’re based upon a social conscience, as well as a need to keep my body in better form as a puppeteer.

Back in the 90s, you wrote Paper Mache Rediscovered, an article that became an often- referenced online resource.
How were you first introduced to the mysterious world of Paper Mache?
Paper Mache has always been around puppetry, and I’ve been around puppetry most of my life, so we were destined to meet. I used it as a child - the very crude version of newpaper and flour paste - and found it messy, lumpy and quite ugly. To be honest, I wish I’d stuck with it (no pun intended) longer when I was a kid; years later, seeing the masks of Benda and the marionettes of DoLores Hadley, I was absolutely amazed at the extraordinary possibilities of paper mache. But too, my mentors weren’t really using mache themselves, and people teach what they know.

When I was in my mid-20’s, I met the great American variety marionettist Frank Paris, and he was experimenting with homemade paper pulp, his recipe for which he passed along to me. My connection with Frank re-awakened an interest in the possibilities of paper in various forms. Interestingly, he had worked with Dolores Hadley around the same time; I wish I would have met her. Her marionettes thrill me; fully paper mache, made from brown paper towels directly overcast on plasticine. Mind you, regardless her medium, her design approach, her sculptural ability, painting and costuming were spot on. That her work was paper mache makes it even more appealing, I think.

Funny you mention that article I wrote. It was something I wrote for a specific small audience, probably in 1992 or 93. I had no idea it would get around as much as it has, never mind still be out there. I’ve learned so much more since then; the article still has a lot of sound info, I think, but it’s already dated in terms of my own play with paper mache.

Did you experience any problem getting the technical information,
or learning techniques that were proven to work?

I have a lot of books on puppetry, probably 1300 at present. I’ve also collected books on craft techniques, paper mache among them. I had some time on my hands one summer between tours, so I got a lot of the old books out and started comparing varying techniques. You know, most “how to” books on puppetry are crap or written by amateurs. And so the information was at times quite contradictory; some said to shellac a plaster mold, others said don’t. Some said to soak paper strips, others not. And so on. So, like all things in life, I just sort of trusted the better opinions and my own instincts and started playing. And it was very satisfying. I was keen to find a dependable method of casting in a mold, no fancy papers or glues or mold making materials; and I came across a method of casting the whole paper strip head (minus a cap piece) in a plaster mold at once, resulting in far less warpage of the puppet head. And best of all…that summer was a lot of fun. It really was like being a kid again. That’s something I try to tell people. Paper mache is very enjoyable. The stakes aren’t so high…no costly materials, no toxicity to worry about, plus you get your hands mucky and make something. What could be better than that, huh?

Do you use commercial products, or prefer making your own?
I use Paperclay quite a bit, as well as Celluclay. The late American doll artist Robert McKinley introduced me to Paperclay, with an offhanded remark, “It can’t be cast for duplicate heads, so it’s probably of no use to you”. That remark set me on a period of experimentation, and I eventually settled on a technique I still use to this day, involving rolling it out, freezing in rubber or silicone molds and baking. For larger pieces, I would absolutely use strip paper in a plaster mold or direct overcast, but for my finer, smaller heads, Paperclay captures the detail beautifully, while still retaining an essentially paper base. I personally love Celluclay; we use it a lot as a mold filler, packing hollow parts that need a solid core, or for rough textured props. I’ve also made puppet heads from it, personally quite happy with the rough texture. I used to make a lot of my own pulp, which as a process I find quite enjoyable. But if we’re up to our eyeballs in the studio (which we usually are), it’s just easier and faster to mix up some Celluclay.

We also mix Celluclay and Paperclay together and sculpt marionette hands over a wire armature. It’s very strong, yet still allows a great amount of detail and delicacy. Another commercial product that I’ve found handy to have around is simple powdered craft art paste.

Have you some paper mache insights for us,

some particularly interesting properties,
advantages, disadvantages?

I’m personally not a fan of using white PVA glue in paper mache. I find that it “plasticizes” the mache, and I loathe that. Such an awful surface to paint, not to mention that it’s contrary to the basic idea of how paper best marries itself into a sculptural form. I do tend to rant on about this, but I’m alone it seems. The whole world seemingly dumps PVA glue into their mache mix. Mind you, the whole world seems to love plastic.

I have puppeteer friends who love love love their expensive toxic plastics and rubber and resins. They come from the school of “slick”; the smoother the puppet, the better it is. Now, I like some of that work, I do, but overall I’m personally drawn to the texture and feel of paper, be it strip or pulp. My favorite part of puppet building is painting, and painting a paper mache head – strips of Kraft paper, homemade pulp or Paperclay, doesn’t matter which – is endlessly fascinating to me. Not so the resins and the plastics. I experiment a lot with painting techniques. Right now I’ve come up with a method of using multiple coats of shellac and oil colours, which result in a depth and glow I love. I suppose I could utilize this technique with other materials, but there’s something “honest” about paper strips and pulp, and the painting of it becomes a true part of the material, not just a layer of colour on top.

Do you still find difficulties /limitations about it?

Of course. The puppet builder’s curse is always “not enough time”, and paper likes to take the time it takes to dry, be it strips or pulp. And humidity, well, add that to the mix and it’s another bother. I was concerned the mache heads and torsos for the Billy Twinkle cast would warp with the climate changes our cargo goes through, specifically shipping everything to a place as humid as Australia. So we shellacked everything, inside and out, and made sure it was sealed properly and impervious to moisture. The added bonus was discovering that lightly sanded shellac is a fantastic base for oil painting.

I think if a person wants “perfection” repeatedly, strip mache may not be the way to go for duplicate castings. But if one is interested in the intrinsic properties of the material and finds them exciting to work with, then “perfection” isn’t such a big deal. More and more, I’m falling in love with the imperfection of mache, if that makes any sense…even though I’m capable of making mache look “perfect” if need be.

I think paper mache still gets a bad rap, or is looked down upon, simply because a lot of people don’t take it to the next level. It’s fine to wad some newspaper up, tape it together and slather it in white glue and paper, but seriously, that doesn’t always result in the best work. It’s immediate, to be sure, but often looks it. The other problem mache has is the notion that it’s not capable of being beautiful. There are lots of paper mache dragons and trolls to be seen, but I think craftspeople naturally assume the material can’t produce delicacy. It can, of course, and there are extraordinary examples of this, but it usually requires methods a bit more precise than the wadded up newspaper version. But, like any material or method, it’s limited only to the vision, talent and skill level of the artisan tackling it. And as I’ve mentioned before, in the hands artists like WT Benda or DoLores Hadley, paper mache is a stunningly refined material.

Is it still an important medium in your practice?

Yes. And I think, over time, it will gain even more importance. I’m interested to explore creating entire figures solely from strip paper mache. Mathieu, I’ve played a bit with your technique using paper coffee filters and I love it. It’s a perfect mache paper. I’ve actually been rinsing out and flat drying used coffee filters for months now; I have a huge stack of these funny looking paper tortilla shapes just waiting for me to make puppets from, all softened up from a good brew of coffee!

Also, if I were ever to write a “how to” book of my own, I’d want it to focus on design and balance and the best construction (jointing) methods, but downplaying all this mystery of toxic and costly materials. I’d love to be able to show how a jaw-droppingly beautiful and functional marionette can be made for well under twenty dollars. Hell, under ten dollars! Five dollars! We need to make puppetry about other things – text, design, brilliant performance skills – and stop this love affair with expensive materials once and for all. The cost and difficulty of a material does not a better designer make.

Can you give us a sneak peak at your upcoming show?
An interesting technical approach?
After the very “puppety” look of the Billy Twinkle cast, I wanted to get back to a more refined proportion and movement in my marionettes. I made a pilgrimage to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, where I was able to see a few of the remaining figures made by my chief mentor Martin Stevens, who, with his wife Olga, did adult drama in the 1930’s and 40’s with some of the most breathtakingly elegant marionettes I’ve ever seen. Seeing their Joan of Arc, Cleopatra and Christus figures again inspired me to try for an overall gracefulness and refinement in my next show, Penny Plain. And it’s a big show, at present count there are 40 marionettes, with several characters represented by five marionettes each. I chose to cast heads and torsos from Paperclay this time around.

My approach for the show is surprisingly not overly technical at all, although my marionette building is at a fairly high level of technique by this point. My primary focus on this new show is the overall visual design of character, marionette and setting married with a text that trusts the puppet. The puppet is king, god, and every good thing in this one. I’ve spent most of my (Theatre of Marionettes) career in full view of the audience. In Billy Twinkle, more visible than ever before. And I’ve become aware that seemingly all puppetry, sadly, is now a puppetry of exposed manipulation. It’s become virtually impossible to see a puppet show with just puppets; usually the puppeteer has to be in full view and close to the puppet,
mugging relentlessly and stealing focus from their own creation. I really hate this, and I began to wonder if we as a community stopped trusting the power of the puppet. For my part, I’m getting out of the way, so,

for Penny Plain, while I will be visible in the shadows above, I won’t be directly in the puppet playing space. I’ve decided to trust the puppet to hold the story and the focus of an audience. Granted, that
requires me to build a better story and better marionettes, but really, isn’t that the whole point? So, my most audacious act will be to do a puppet show. And the challenge will be to make those damn puppets appear to breathe and think on their own. But that’s always been the challenge, and it is all about technique.

Oh, and I’ve devised a fantastic new marionette neck joint. If it works, I’m gonna be the proudest Geppetto on the block. Cross your fingers.

Update: Penny Plain is still touring in some places.    And, Ronnie has a new show.  Please visit Ronnie's website for more information.   And, he DID succeed with the new marionette neck joint.

Simple Paper Mache

A Modern Mash Up
by Mathieu René.
Originally published in British Unima's Puppet Notebook, issue 19, Summer 2011
I hope you will enjoy this quick, efficient method I use for small puppets parts that do not require absolute precision nor mold making. Excellent when working on a tight schedule, and budget. It also encourages freedom, through expressive explorations of textures and bold features.
Mathieu René, Creaturiste.

Create a form out of Aluminium foil, shaped by hand, then compacted until stable and dense with a hammer and various tools. Similar to cartoon-design, compose with simple shapes. Each new form is held in place with a small amount of hot-melt glue. Paper Mache will later provide the real unity and protection. Foil is easy to remove by ripping or slicing, and to add by gluing or taping in place. Eyes are often added at this point, made from various materials. I really like glass or plastic beads. Temporary eyelids can be made of masking tape. When the subject is appealing and has character from all angles, the form is covered in narrow strips of masking tape. Pay special attention to the definition. Avoid wrinkles and folds. We can now see the character better, to be fine tuned. When you like it, take reference pictures and start adapting the form. Eyelids are removed (recreated later in paper), skin folds and openings are deepened and widened, to compensate for the smoothing effect from the thickness of the paper layers to come. It is better to go too deep than too shallow, as it will be easier to add paper, closing any gap that would be too wide or too deep.

These days I favour cooked wheat paste as a binding agent. It penetrates and bonds with the paper, creating a very strong shell. It also creates a paper mache that resists temperature changes, as opposed to PVA glues, which become brittle while cold. Mix 4 cups of water, one cup of white flour, and a splash of salt. Mix it cold and slowly bring it hotter, while whisking constantly, until it thickens. Keep in a wide-mouthed plastic container, with a lid. Keep refrigerated when not in use. Use preferably within three days. Regardless of age, discard when it starts smelling sour. Some people are concerned when wheat paste is used as part of a paper mache project. They fear damage by mould, rodents and insects. Properly prepared, sealed, varnished, and respectfully stored pieces should be fine.
ADDED: best video I could find of the CURRENT paste recipe I use. It is MUCH faster and easier on the mixing arm!

Paper Mache Strips
I use mostly coffee filter paper (large basket types) because it is a very thin paper with surprising strength, and its edges blend well with each other, creating a smoother result. Tear a lot of paper strips in advance, and have a box of strips ready to use, to save time. My usual strip size is the same as my thumb. I can easily tear it in half or smaller for more detailed areas. I keep the strips in a cardboard box with a lid, to protect them from dust. Keep all ingredients, instruments and surfaces clean, to avoid problems with mildew.

Layers of strips
I find it faster to apply the paste with a brush to the surface, pick up a strip with the same brush, and flatten it with the remaining paste in its fibres. With practice, one gets paste underneath, within and over every strip, without any puddles or excess of glue. Each strip overlaps the previous ones by a good amount, to ensure strength. If it wrinkles or folds, use smaller pieces. At three layers, it is strong enough to burnish the paper with a hard tool, to increase accuracy and smoothness. Do this after every layer. Apply up to ten layers during the same work session. If time is limited, you can do less layers per session. Just be sure the whole project is dry before adding more next time.


When all ten or less layers are applied, place the form in front of a fan. It takes my creations 8 hours to dry, facing the fan at its lowest setting. Without a fan, the same project would take a week or more to fully dry. There would also be a risk of mould developing between the layers, if moisture is trapped within. Your results may vary, depending on your local climate.

Any area that needs correction can be altered by carving, filing and sanding. Every cut needs to be sealed again by a flat strip of paper, to conserve structure and smoothness. When adding wet paper over dry paper, first massage some of the paste everywhere, to reactivate the tackiness, thus ensuring a proper bond. Repeat the strips and drying steps until you have the thickness and strength your project requires. For a puppet, I think of it as being made of wood. If the dry paper shell still has some “give” under pressure, it is too thin. Even if there is a form within, the paper shell should be strong enough on its own. I use at least ten and up to twenty layers of coffee filters for this method, sometimes applying many more layers for larger sculptures.

At this point the paper is rigid and stable, the form reasonably smooth. Eyelids can be made with folded paper to create a precision edge. Wrinkle lines, warts, and other raised details can be added with crumpled or twisted pieces of paste-moistened paper. I call this method “Bark” because if applied linearly, it can look like the bark of a tree. A crumple can b e used much like clay, and can also be flattened to fill a shallow spot. Once shaped as wanted, every crumple is covered with a single layer of flat strips, as before. This immediately smooths and blends it with the rest. Surprisingly, this dries nearly as fast as the flat strips, when using a fan. Make sure there are no openings in the head that would allow moisture to penetrate over time. This is a good time to decide if you would like a rough textured surface. Wrinkled paper can be very expressive if applied with intention and harmony with the whole. Dry fully.

I start with 80 grit sandpaper (cut from a belt from a belt sander), then with a 150, then finish with a 300 grit. It produces a lot of dust, so I wear a mask, and make sure to clean-up surfaces and clothes right after I am done. A final smoothing is achieved with a coat of the same paste as before, made to penetrate the surface.

When absolutely dry, paper mache must be sealed to protect it against moisture, insects, and rodents. Some use shellac, some prefer a lacquer-based sealer. These two provide extra protection and strength to the paper. However, they are toxic during the application and curing. Use outside, or in a very well ventilated area, with proper protective equipment. I am still researching water based options that are non toxic and readily available for most people. In the meantime, I will use the toxic materials for this step only. When this is not an option, as when working with kids, I opt for a liquid water based sealer or varnish, such as a water based polyurethane.

I prefer acrylic paints for their versatility, fast drying properties, and non toxicity. They can be repainted years later without issues of cracking. To make them more matte, add more dry pigments to your paint, or a small amount of talcum powder. Too much powder weakens your paint film, so make some tests. Most of my work is painted in very simple, limited colour schemes, then enhanced with highlights and shadow version of the same colours. The extra touch of life comes from the antiquing step. I apply a wash of a dark, dirt-like colour over the whole project, and wipe immediately with a clean, lint-free rag. My usual accomplice for this is Raw Umber in a dry pigment form, mixed with a liquid acrylic medium as a binder, and water to improve flow. This must be done quickly, lest we have some apparent overlaps where the paint dries. I wipe off more antiquing paint where the highlights are, and leave more where I want the shadows or crevices to be deeper. Highlights and antiquing can be repeated until the proper effect is achieved.

Check back here for updates on the method. I will keep re-writing it to fit my level of knowledge and experience at the time.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Under Construction

this Blog will be exclusively dedicated to my Paper Mache methods, and my inspirations.

My goal is to provide efficient methods that give professional results every time.
I want to make this blog simple, effective and inspiring for all.
The articles posted here will therefore be more polished, and better organized, than on my other blog.

For this reason, the future articles will require more time to make.New posts will appear less frequently than I'd like, but they will all be of better quality, most with pictures.

Please send me your questions and suggestions for future articles, I'll try to answer them in the articles. Creaturiste at gmail dot com.