Creating Papier Mache Masks
Created | Updated Jul 12, 2013
Masks, like wigs, spectacles and make-up, can disguise the face by changing the appearance. Sometimes this is simply by obscuring recognisable features, but often the mask becomes the focus of attention, the only memorable feature, such as seen with the eponymous character in The Man in the Iron Mask, who was better known for his mask than anything else. Superheroes (and villains) frequently use a mask as a key element to distinguish themselves from their 'alter ego'; Superman is a rare counterexample, removing his spectacles to reveal his superhero countenance. The simplest hero mask is the domino obscuring the eyes, used by the Lone Ranger, Zorro and the Incredibles.
This entry will not make you into a superhero. Another group known for mask-wearing are actors, where the mask's exaggerated features help focus the audience's attention. Masks have been used for this from Greek choruses, to Commedia dell'Arte performances, where the stock character being portrayed was obvious, irrespective of the actor beneath the mask. There is an element of truth to the idea that when you put on a mask you become someone else. Jim Carrey took this to extremes in The Mask.
Masks are also worn for fun, at fancy dress parties or in the Carnivals in Germany and Venice. If you have been tempted while in Venice to buy a souvenir mask to wear1, or looked into purchasing authentic Commedia dell'Arte masks for a play, you may have been shocked what is charged even for a simple bauta2.
While masks can be made of many materials, papier mâché is particularly suitable due to its light weight, ease of sculpting and decorating, low material cost and potential durability. The minimum needed to make your own is time, plenty of paper, paste and something to use as a model onto which you can build the mask.
What Kind of Mask?
Before you start it is helpful to have an idea of what you want to achieve. The adage 'if you don't know where you're going, you'll end up somewhere else' is apposite (for instance you might end up with a Piñata, another item that can be practically constructed from papier mâché).
The simplest classic mask is the domino mentioned above. This is not obviously connected to the matching game dominoes, but is a mask covering the upper part of the face with holes for the eyes, also called a 'half-mask' or 'eye-mask'. Many variations can be made from this basic mask, adding points at sides, decoration like a tiara along the top, and so on.
Some roles in Commedia dell'Arte had characteristic masks associated with them. Often the defining feature of the mask is a memorably grotesque long, hooked or even snub nose: Pantaloon, a mask with a hooked nose; Harlequin, a black mask with a red blemish on the forehead; Punch, a black mask with a large hooked nose resembling a beak; Brighella, a green half mask with greedy expression; Pierrot, a white mask with red lips and often a tear below one eye. Much inspiration can be gained by looking at other masks, for instance the mask gallery at MaskMakersWeb, which may also provide further advice and sources.
A detailed model for the mask is not essential using the following method, since the making of the mask involves a number of stages, with the papier mâché used to make it being relatively plastic in early stages, allowing the shape to be adapted freely. Unlike manufactured masks, which are poured into a mould that defines their outer surface, this method builds the mask from the inside outward, with layers built onto a template. This means the finished mask is likely to be unique, and difficult to exactly recreate.
The Materials Used
The Model or Template for the Shape of the Mask
One obvious model for the mask is an actual head. There are drawbacks to using your own head, but you can at least be assured it will be a good fit. Caution should be used to prevent gluing hair or skin to the mask, covering or getting paste in eyes, nose or mouth. If you are not using a quick-setting base (such as the plaster-soaked bandages used to make casts for broken arms) that can soon be removed and hold its shape, you may be waiting a long time before the proto-mask is sturdy enough to be removed and worked on further. Note also the important tip about petroleum jelly further down.
The simplest model is a balloon inflated to the size of the head the mask is intended for. Obviously the basic mask this will create will lack essential features such as a brow line, eyes and nose. Given the difficulty of adding features to the balloon, which easily deforms when pressed, leave adding features until after the balloon is removed.
Another simple method of starting the mask is to use an existing mask protected with a layer of clingfilm. In a similar manner a stiff hat, such as a builder's hard hat, or even a baseball cap (suitably protected) could be used to provide the basis for part of a mask.
These methods (apart from using an existing mask) don't provide any of the exaggerated features common to Commedia dell'Arte masks. Many can be added to a plain mask, as thickened ridges of papier mâché, but a practical alternative is to create a template for the feature wanted from something easily moulded and removed. Modelling clay3, or wax4 are suitable to sculpt noses, horns, lips or whole faces from (if you have sufficient material).
One important element to consider is ensuring the model or template can be safely removed from the mask when it is no longer necessary. To aid easy removal the model should be liberally smeared with petroleum jelly5 before any paste or paper is applied. Care should be taken to remove the template without damaging the mask. Even with the protection of the jelly, you may find some strips remaining on the template when you remove it. It depends on the strength of your paste. Loose strips can be reattached after removal of the template with a little more paste.
The exception to using petroleum jelly would be if you plan to incorporate the template into the final mask. This might happen if you were using wire or card to create features, and then covering them with papier mâché. One researcher used a conical card party hat as the basis for a large pointed nose. A whole face mask would be relatively simple to model with chicken wire and then cover with papier mâché. Incorporating stiff wire into the mask (particularly at the edges) may be useful to increase rigidity, which will help prevent surface cracking if smooth finishes are applied.
The Papier Mâché
Papier mâché, literally 'chewed paper', refers to a method of modelling using moistened (and sometimes chewed-up) paper, either as a series of layers, or as a thick layer of pulp, which is allowed to dry to form a stiff shape. This recycling of paper to create something new can also be seen in the production of homemade paper, though the 'chewing up' is more extreme.
While manufactured masks use a thick mix of paper and paste poured into a mould, a fairly strong and thin mask can be created using multiple layers of paper. The paper used should be able to absorb liquid, becoming malleable without disintegrating. Newspaper is often suggested, though it does tend to disintegrate quite easily, and requires robust painting or covering with plain paper layers to obscure the heavily inked paper. Cheap lining paper6 or sheets from a flip-chart pad are good plain sources. The sheets don't have to be large, as they will be torn into quite small pieces before being used. The small advantage of larger sheets is the amount of torn edges to the pieces used, which blend without leaving a visible edge. A good start is to tear (not cut) the paper into strips roughly as long and wide as your index finger.
Opinions differ over the best paste to use. There are two typically used: Flour and water paste, and wallpaper paste. Flour and water paste is non-toxic, though it takes a trifle more effort to prepare and may not last as long unused. Wallpaper paste is simple to make and usually contains a fungicide, but even it will become mildewed if left unused for a couple of weeks. With either paste, the consistency being aimed for is that of a very thick smooth soup.
To make flour and water paste mix one part flour (a plain white flour) with one part cold water, then dilute with four parts boiling water. This will thicken as the starch absorbs the water. For one mask try making the paste with one quarter of a cup of flour, topping up with one cup of boiling water.
To make wallpaper paste follow the instructions on the packet. Again, unless you are planning to make a large number of masks, only use a small quantity of powder. One researcher found 10 grams of powder with 300ml of water produced a more than adequate quantity for making a mask.
This can be messy, so ensure that the table you work at can be easily cleaned of paste, or is well-protected by a large sheet of paper. Similarly it is a good idea to wear clothes that won't be ruined by splashes of paste. You can wear rubber gloves, but washing your hands after finishing a session should be sufficient. As with wallpapering, the paper needs a little time to absorb the paste before it is ready to apply. A good tip is to have your paste in a bowl and coat each piece of paper with paste, wiping off the excess, before leaving it on the edge of the bowl and preparing another piece to lie beside the first. By the time you have prepared enough pieces to go all around the bowl the first piece will probably be ready to apply to the template.
It doesn't matter where you start. Pieces should be applied so that they lie flat - without wrinkles or bits not touching the surface. Subsequent pieces should be made to slightly overlap previous ones. If a strip won't lie flat because the surface is too curved, tear the paper into narrower strips or smaller pieces. Aim to cover the area of the mask in a complete layer before starting another layer. If you find it difficult to tell when a layer is complete you may find it helpful to use two shades of paper in alternating layers7. As layers are added, attempt to change the direction of the strips of paper. For example if the first layer is predominantly horizontal strips across the face, make the next layer vertical strips, then radiating from a feature such as the nose. This will improve the strength of the finished mask. Don't be concerned about getting neat edges to the mask at this point. If anything, leave a ragged edge well beyond where you want the edge of the mask to be. This will be adjusted later. Similarly you can freely paper over eye sockets if using an existing mask as a template.
Several layers can be added before putting the mask somewhere warm to dry out (such as an airing cupboard). Further layers can be added when the mask has dried. If adding layers to a dry mask, apply some paste to it first to prepare the surface, otherwise you may find layers coming apart in the finished mask. When the mask is dry and there are six or more layers of paper, you should find it is rigid enough to remove the template.
Evolving the Features
From this basic mask you can now evolve the features you want it to have, also making sure that it will fit comfortably. This is probably the most creative and difficult part to get right. Using a modelling knife or scissors, parts can be cut out, folded over and prepared for joining or separating.
Hold the mask over your face to see if it fits easily, extends far enough, or too far. For instance, it is practical, for masks using ribbons tied behind the head, for the mask to extend to the temples either side of the eyes.
Draw lines with a pencil or pen where you want the finished edges to be. Make cuts from the rough edges to the pencil line, close enough together that each tab formed can be folded easily back into the inside of the mask.
Eye-sockets can also be formed by making tabs to fold inward. If the shape of the eye is not clear, draw the roughly almond-shape in, to provide a guide for cutting. What is needed is a line cut between the inner and outer corners of the eye crossed by vertical cuts to form two rows of tabs (resembling a toothy smile). Note that if the mask design has its eye holes some distance from your eyes (for instance as part of a huge conical rat's nose) then much larger sockets will be needed to avoid restricting the field of vision too much.
In the same way, if you have made the nose separately, you can cut tabs to allow for it on the main mask and use strips of papier mâché to attach the nose, inside and out. The nose tabs could be formed by a vertical slit crossed by short horizontal cuts about 1/2cm apart8.
When preparing the mask for adding paper - by applying paste to it - be careful, as without a solid model to rest on this is a stage when the mask can easily become distorted. All the folded back tabs should help add strength to the mask. The tabs will require at least two layers of paper pasted over them to hold them in place.
Hold the mask up to a bright light - the thinnest areas will let more light through, indicating where the mask may need more layers of paper.
If the mask doesn't fit, and it isn't a case of just of extending it or folding back tabs to reduce it:
Tucks can be made (cutting a slit, and overlapping material to increase curvature), or
Darts added (again cutting a slit, but widening it into a gap that needs filling with layers of papier mâché to decrease curvature).
In adding layers, apart from creating the desired finished shape, an important aim should also be to create a rigid mask with no easily damaged areas. It is particularly important to build up strength around the rim and any edges that have been joined. The final mask may end up being around twenty or more layers thick in places - about 3mm or 1/8".
As mentioned earlier, accentuated features can also be added to a smooth mask. Using either suitably pasted string or twisted paper strips, baroquely curved eyebrows can be added, or lascivious lips, forehead wrinkles, and so on. Shredding paper and mixing it with paste makes a goo that can be easily moulded to add features. This goo however tends to have much less flexible strength than paper strips. These added features should then be covered with a couple of layers of paper to firmly attach, protect and build them up. When you are happy with the mask's construction, it is almost ready to decorate.
Holding the Mask in Place
Before starting to decorate, it is worth considering how the mask is to be held in place if it only covers the face. Masks don't tend to simply adhere to the face as seen in The Incredibles. Believe it or not, one genuine type of mask, the moretta, was held in place by a button held between the teeth. That would be suitable for quieter Carnival goers. Of the two common methods, the usual one is for two lengths of ribbon to be attached through holes pierced on each side of the mask, which can be tied together behind the head. The other alternative is to fix a stick vertically to one side of the mask that can be held, but this does require a hand to hold the mask in place. Masks can also be kept in place by attaching them to hats, providing the mask with arms that hook over ears like spectacles, or building them to cover not just the face but the top of the head as well.
If you have used newspaper, one tip to provide a plain matte base for decoration is to use a couple of layers of plain toilet paper. This is very absorbent and does not need to be prepared with paste before applying to the mask. Instead apply paste to the mask, put on strips of toilet paper, taking care not to let them wrinkle, then smooth on enough paste to ensure the strip is dampened and will stick in place.
Sometimes a very smooth surface is desired, smoother than that achieved just by careful layering of paper. The effectiveness of sanding carefully with fine sandpaper will depend on the paper used. Coating with a DIY surface smoother9, as with using paint, will depend on the flexibility of both mask and coating. The more rigid the mask, the fewer stresses the coating will have to cope with.
Painting the mask can also hide small blemishes. Plain white is traditional for many masks, however Venetian Carnival masks are often highly decorated. Gaudy could be an understatement, with lustrous swirls of metallic paints competing with sequins, glass beads and sprays of feathers. If using less extravagant decoration, acrylic paints are a good choice. Be aware that acrylic paint can form cracks if the mask is too flexible, or the paint too diluted. For durability, a few coats of matt clear varnish to finish are also highly recommended (except on any feathers).
The Way Masks are Manufactured
If one wanted to make many identical masks (as is the case with Venetian mask factories) this ad hoc method would be inappropriate. One described method is to sculpt the master mask from clay, create a plaster reverse mould using the clay model, remove the clay, then layer in papier mâché glop (a paste consisting of paper, rags and glue), leave to dry, turn out, sand smooth and finally paint. Having a mould already can reduce the time needed to make a mask to less than a day, though making a mould is itself a laborious process.