On Monday morning I realised I hadn’t started work on my dragon for the St George’s Day celebrations (the next Saturday) at the bookshop day job. Luckily I had three days off in a row…
Having not really done this before I had no idea whether I’d be able to finish him in time, so I opted to make baby Drogon from Game of Thrones, as then if I missed the deadline at least he’d be useful for a Game of Thrones display when the next book comes out. Admittedly he’s still very rough around the edges (I’d wanted to cover him in scales, but that would have been a massive extra job), but still- he dried out in time which has to be some kind of miracle!
I even managed to take photos while making him, so here’s a little ‘How to make a paper mache dragon in three days’ tutorial.
After Christmas I carried on with the cold porcelain, and I really think it has potential. You can add fresh porcelain directly on to a piece that’s already dried for a start. Here’s the Krampus face from the last post with a few more details. Now I just have to figure out how to paint him:
I also used it to make part of this wand for a Harry Potter event. I found a straight (ish) twig in the garden, dried and trimmed it. I added details with cold porcelain, a glue gun and a marble, then painted it all black. I then re-painted it to look like wood again and added some gold paint details. Quite fun, give it a go!
… and some other little bits and bobs still in progress. I’ll be combining it with mask making next. Watch this space.
I finally found time (and a clear work surface) to make another mask sculpt this spring- my second since returning from Florence.
I had a few different ideas about what I wanted it to look like. I’d like to make a mask with rabbit ears soon, but for this face I felt the horns were better suited.
And here it is so far: cast, papier mache’d, popped out of the mold and trimmed. Next stage is painting and finishing, along with another two devil masks and a lil Cthulhu who are all at the same stage.
I was buzzing to get started on mask making when I returned from Florence but it was going to take a while to gather the materials and equipment. Luckily I still had a few old half-finished masks lying around from last year. I’d left them in various states after booking my course in Florence, as I figured I’d probably learn more there than I would by completing them straight away. I wasn’t too worried about ruining them as I’d learned a bit about how to design a mask to fit a face properly since making them!
I started on the old Cthulhu mask. I managed to find a british equivalent of the paint from Florence that resulted in a much more controlled cracked effect than my attempts last year. The paints used for the colour were a bit of a puzzle and I managed to make a bit of a mess with a cat mask before giving up with them. It might just have been an error in translation, but I did some more experimenting and managed to layer up a selection of others for a fairly pleasing result eventually.
I also had a go at adding gold details to the last cat mask, and leaving the background white to see the result of the aging effect more clearly. Although it looks better in real life than this photo makes out I still think I need to work on that a bit. I also managed to cover this second Cthulhu in red fluff after trying to polish him too early. Again, hooray for learning processes.
Then, finally, I had everything I needed to start a new mask, including a rare full day off work! I made a new clay sculpture using my mask from Florence as a reference, cast it in plaster, and have left it to cure. The real test will be in a week or so when I attempt to make a first mask from the mold. Til then I’ll just have to amuse myself with other projects.
After my experiments last summer making masks I decided I wanted to learn a little more about how the papier mache mask is made in Italy. I scoured the internet and bookshop for related articles and texts, and quickly came across The Masks of Prof Agostino Dessi.
The book itself is beautifully produced, filled with full-page photographs and for anyone interested in masks it’s well worth obtaining. By that point I’d seen a lot of masks and Agostino’s stood out to me as some of the best around: unique and far more like pieces of art than mass produced partywear… So, buoyed up by the mad artistic enthusiasm that grabs me from time to time, I got in touch and asked him if it would be possible for me to visit him and learn how he does it.
And he said yes.
So, I booked my hotel and flights and set off on my own for Florence at the end of March. I’d only been to Italy once before, had a tourist-level grasp of Italian from listening to the Pimsleur Italian course for a few months (which I heartily recommend: no other language course has stuck in my mind so well. Check it out of your library for free), and was travelling alone. It was a bit daunting. Especially when I made the mistake of looking up reviews for Expedia just after booking. It’s a bit like looking up your symptoms to self-diagnose: you’ll always find links to the worst possible scenario and people don’t generally go online to post “actually it was all fine”. So, to break the trend: it was all fine. Expedia was great, communicative and easy to use. London City Airport was fast, easy to drive to and navigate internally as it’s so compact. Air France were friendly and the flight was pain-free which was nice: my hearing was impaired and my ears hurt for several weeks after the flight home from Venice last year. So, credit where it’s due, even if it’s not as exciting as “and then the engine blew up on the runway and we all had to be evacuated”… an incident involving the same airline and airport about a week earlier that I’m glad my parents told me about after the trip.
And Florence was beautiful. The people endlessly helpful, and I got chatting to so many more people than I would have if I hadn’t travelled alone. I stayed for a week, touring the city in the mornings and studying with Agostino in his beautiful mask shop every afternoon. I had the best time. THE BEST time. I learned so much, saw so much, and can’t wait to go back. It’s a gorgeous city filled with incredibly talented people, so many of whom are based in the streets around Agostino’s shop that they seem to be forming an artistic quarter, which can only be a good thing.
One of the many problems I’d had with the masks I’d tried to make before was getting them to fit a real face. I’d been making a clay replica of my own face and then building the mask on top, but then found that the finished item was too wide, narrow, too close to the eyes, or didn’t have enough space for a nose. Just being able to recreate a face doesn’t mean it’s the ideal shape for a mask.
My first day at the shop was almost entirely spent getting the proportions correct according to a set of rules that should eliminate that problem. Fingers crossed I can remember it all from my notes now I’m home!
Then I painted the undercoat for a cracked and antiqued surface, before adding the details and finish.
I’m really happy with the final result, and can’t wait to try recreating the whole process at home! Watch this space.
Having amassed a collection of blank masks, the time had come to start painting them. I’ll be the first to admit that colour is not my strongest point, so I’m glad I’ve got a few to play with!
A basic red devil mask with silly eyebrows. I’m thinking about adding some gold detailing to make it more interesting, or maybe some occult symbols across the forehead.
Here I tried a technique for an aged, cracked surface. If I ever want to do a bark texture mask, I’ll know how. The red one resulted in much larger cracks, perhaps because my red paint is much older and thicker.
I tried using gold glass paint to create the raised gold details on this chap. It worked, but I still prefer the thicker, less uniform lines with the gold leaf that I did a month or so ago.
And a cat mask. A more refined crackled surface, painted with watercolours. I’d like to age this a bit and add a layer of varnish, but I rather like it and don’t want to spoil it with a technique that fails so I’ll have to experiment a bit more before finishing him off.
Back to papier mache masks. I’d started to get a little fed up with plasticine as a sculpting material. It was difficult to work with and took forever to create the details that I wanted so I ordered some clay and a couple of airtight containers, and a couple of weekends ago finally found the time to try it out.
What a difference! I can’t imagine how I put up with the plasticine now. Using clay has reminded me how much I used to love working with it at school many many moons ago. It’s so much more agreeable and much easier to smooth. I began by making a cat and devil sculpt:
As you can see, the cat mask was sculpted over the same clay face I used previously. For the devil mask, I pushed the clay into a modroc cast I’d made of that same face:
This essentially replicated the underlying clay face, but in damp, workable clay. I added details and chopped off the lower part of the face, and all this resulted in a much closer fit than the cat mask.
The cat and devil mask popped out of the molds. They need trimming around the eyes and edges, but otherwise it seemed to work brilliantly! The cat mask is based on the traditional cat masks found in Venice. I liked the simple form of them, so didn’t change too much when I made my own.
And finally, I wanted to try something a little more complex, and Cthulhu seemed like the perfect subject (when is he not?). I pondered over how to do the tentacles for some time. The sketch on the far right would no doubt be easiest: a stylised straight tentacle look. But who wants to go for the easiest option? I studied some photos of classical statues with curly beards, then went for it:
The clay Cthulhu sculpt, and the resulting mask as it was this morning; a layer of glue drying so slowly that I had to hold it for the photo otherwise it’d stick itself to my favourite Generic Background paper, and we can’t have that.
In case you can’t tell, I also discovered Instagram. I’m using it to document my mask making trials and errors as I always have my phone nearby while I work and it’s easy enough to snap a work in progress. My camera lives upstairs in a drawer, and sometimes you have to be quick before something dries/runs/sets in the wrong place. See what I’m up to on Instagram.
After making a few masks by applying the papier mache directly onto the sculpt (see previous post) I decided I wanted a way to produce multiple copies of the same design. This’d make it less labour-intensive, quicker, and would save me worrying about ruining hours of work on a mask by getting the decoration wrong. So, back to the research. In Venice, they seemed to create a clay sculpt of their design, then cast it in plaster to create a mold for the papier mache.
Plaster of Paris seems to set in most circumstances (even underwater) so I skipped the clingfilm and poured it straight over a new plasticine sculpt. My suspicions proved correct, and it set with no problems. I can only assume it was the glue component of the papier mache that didn’t like the plasticine in my last post.
The plasticine then peeled out of the mold easily, leaving a smooth surface for the mache.
And there we go! A replicable design. The loose bits of mache need sticking down, the edge trimming, and a smooth layer added on top, but it still takes a fraction of the time the other method did. Still- I’ll use the method from the last post if I want to make a one-off mask, or a more complex design. The more complex the surfaces, the harder it’ll be to get it out of the mold.
Here I experimented with a method for raised gold detailing using replica gold leaf. Think I need some practice. I also tried adding a wash of dark paint and then removing most of it to give an aged appearance and visually deepen the recesses. Again, not satisfactory and will need a good bit of experimentation before I try it on a mask I like!
Here I used the same technique to create the raised lines, but instead of using gold leaf, I picked them out with gold acrylic paint above by just covering the whole area in gold paint, and below by trying to stick to the raised areas, and distressing the rest with another wash of dark paint. I think it makes it look like it’s just been dug up, rather than carefully stored and aged for half a century, but there we go.
All of this was to try and make a mask for a friend, and here’s what I produced by the end of that period of experimenting. My first finished mask: gold leaf raised detailing on blue and gold.