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.
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.
Here's a video that explains an important step, right after the first application has dried.
Check back here for updates on the method. I will keep re-writing it to fit my level of knowledge at the time.