Inside the Project: Paper Mache (Part 1)

Part of joining the Creativity Lab team meant making a project of my own. Can’t teach making or talk making unless you’ve got some experience making—right? So, I brainstormed what I might like to do, and why it might make a good project. I wanted to incorporate some circuitry, as it’s a big part of our students’ making here at Lighthouse, but I’ve got more of a passion for traditional arts and crafts than computers, so I wanted a project that really embodied that spirit. I thought back on different crafts I’ve done over the years—woodworking, painting, origami, beadwork—and settled on good ole paper mache.IMG_2279

When I was about seven or eight, my mother bought me “The Simple Screamer: A Guide to the Art of Papier and Cloth Mache,” by Dan Reeder. It’s hard to find these days (I still have my copy!), but lucky for all of us, Dan’s gone digital, and his website is full of time-lapse and instructional videos, showcasing his amazing work. I didn’t refer to any of them for this project.

As a kid, I always wanted my projects to look exactly like the one’s in Dan’s book. It had to have the same face, and the same paint job, and any deviation was “wrong.” That’s definitely not the maker mindset, and I’m glad to be over it. For this project, I wanted to explore paper mache without seeing how Dan “The Monster Man” does it. My goal here was to tinker with the art form, make mistakes, and improve upon them as I went—not just follow the expert. Sure, there are certain tidbits I remember from his book (don’t dip the newspaper directly into the flour/water mixture), but mostly I was experimenting.

My first idea was to make a human skeleton, then hook it up to MaKey MaKey, so that every time you touched a different bone, it would tell you that bone’s name. (I still need a name for this project. Maybe “Paper Mache-Key MaKey”? I welcome suggestions.) I thought this would be a great project for a health, or science class, but the problem is that there are a heckuva lotta  bones in the human body, and taking on a project of that size would be a huge time commitment—at least, if you wanted to do it well. So my idea changed to just the skull, and to keep the electronic element, I would have it recite Hamlet’s soliloquy.

This project is still underway, and I’m mostly figuring it out as I go, so you will have opportunity to see me work my way into many corners, and (hopefully) back out again.

IMG_2276I started by balling up old newspaper until it looked about skull-size, then taped it up with masking tape. I didn’t worry too much about about the exact size or shape, because I’m guessing I can refine it later. Then I tore up a pile of newspaper into strips, and mixed up a flour/water concoction. I just went for a thick goop. No measuring here!IMG_2282

One thing I definitely remember from Dan is that you don’t want to dip the strips into the mixture, but rather “paint” the mixture on with your hands, which gives you better coverage, with less clumping and air pockets. This method worked great for me. I gave my newspaper ball several layers of paper mache, and set it aside to dry.

Even after all these years, I have a patience problem when it comes to giving my projects the full drying period they deserve. After a day and a half, my newspaper ball was taunting me to work on it, so I went ahead and sliced it open where I thought I might want to put the eyes. I probably ought to have given it another day to dry, but it wasn’t a huge problem. I pulled out the newspaper wad inside, and was left with an empty, mostly-hard shell.

IMG_2289So, that all comes directly from Dan. But, for all his videos on how to make different monsters or dragons, I’ve never seen him make a skull (not to say he hasn’t). So, at this point, I was on my own, happy and ready to journey solo into the world of paper mache.

My first goal was to add the eye sockets to my shell. Why start with the eyes? Because they seemed like a good place to start. I cut out two egg-wells from a cardboard carton, and taped them in (loosely) with masking tape. It would have been easier with a hot glue gun, but I didn’t have one with me, so I improvised. I cut a strip of cardboard, bent it into a triangle, and that became my “nose.”

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To really secure them, I plastered them to the main shell with more paper mache. Going into the project, I had thought of the flour mixture simply as a way to create the hard exterior, but found myself using it more and more as an actual bonding agent—and it worked really, really well. For this part, I made sure to give my work the full drying time it needed, as everything was held delicately in place, and these are going to be the prominent features of the project, so I wanted to get them right. By the next day, they were solid.

IMG_2304To fill out the brow, I rolled/folded newspaper into what I guess I will call “pipes.” I taped them above the eye sockets, then gooped them up to really force them into the right shape. The bridge of the nose didn’t have quite the form I wanted, so I inserted another piece of cardboard to help make it a little more pointed. I was really focused on the details, trying to make my skull as realistic as possible, so I did a lot of tinkering around with these quick fixes to get everything just right.

One more round of paper mache, then I set it all to dry.

Alas, poor Yorick…

Check back soon for Part Two!



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David is the documentarian and professional development coordinator for the Creativity Lab. In 2014, he received a BA in creative writing from Louisiana State University, with focuses on short fiction and screenwriting. In partnering with New Orleans-based independent film company, Asymptote Pictures, his work has been featured in film festivals across the country. He likes his espresso maker, and vegetarian tacos.