FolkEast

I spent last weekend at FolkEast, one of the biggest Folk festivals in the area.  It was my first visit to a festival (apart from an afternoon many years ago at Jimmy’s Sausage Festival…) and my first attempt at running a public mask-decorating workshop, so all in all I was a little nervous!

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I shouldn’t have worried: everyone I met there was lovely.  I met so many interesting people who stopped by the stall for a chat about everything from folklore and masks to woodcarving and leatherwork.  The workshops were great fun, and it was wonderful to see people’s own designs emerging as they worked on them.  Everyone who took part, children and adults, were all so creative.  It actually brought a tear to my eye at one point!

I’ve added photos from the workshops to my Facebook page but here are just a few of them.  In all the busy-ness I didn’t manage to snap photos of them all, so if you have any I’d love to see them!

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Three Day Drogon

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!

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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.

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Cold Porcelain

On the run up to Christmas I had a vague notion of making some Krampus ornaments for the tree. I started looking into resin casting and lost wax techniques, got excited, and then realised they’d take quite a bit of research and investment in materials before I could try them. Option 2 was to create a mould from a sculpt and then use some kind of air-drying clay to produce cheaper copies. However, all the air-drying clays and paper clays I’d tried in the past were a bit rubbish. Then I stumbled across ‘cold porcelain’ which looked for all the world like some kind of air-drying sculpey, but made from cheap common household materials. Must be worth a go, right?

I tried this recipe: http://www.puffylittlethings.com/homemade-cold-porcelain-clay/ which uses corn-starch, PVA, oil, and lemon juice or vinegar. It’s worth watching the video beforehand so you know what to expect: my old 800W microwave took considerably more fifteen-second zaps than the recipe says to get the gloop to the right consistency. After seven or eight I took it out of the bowl and started trying to knead it, but despite liberally dusting everything with corn-starch it immediately stuck to my fingers in a gloopy mess and refused to behave. I gave up, washed my hands, and came back to watch the video again because I was so worried that it just wasn’t working. It’s worth persevering though: I zapped it a few more times and then tried to ignore the bits that stuck to my fingertips while I kneaded the lump for 10 minutes or so, and at the end I had something like a very soft sculpey. I didn’t manage to get any photos of the process (hands covered in the stuff) but I’ll have a go next time.

Cold Porcelain Experiment 1I started small and made a lump-with-rabbit-ears to see how the stuff behaved. I followed it with a tiny rose: adding a bit of acrylic paint in to give the colour. It didn’t work brilliantly. The main problem was that the cold porcelain was too soft so the petals started to droop as I worked on them and I ended up with a slightly bloopy rose. Still- it dried fairy quickly and the result was quite strong- something like super sculpey but without that brittle feel.

CP Heads

A little experimentation later I tried sculpting a couple of heads. Turns out cold porcelain’s great for ears and horns. The chap on the right turned out quite well, but in the background you can see my second attempt which looks a bit like a grumpy axolotl with horns… For these larger pieces I found the air-drying nature of the clay a bit of a drawback. As I worked, the outer layer dried to a leathery consistency but underneath the CP was still very malleable, resulting in a face that slowly squished and distorted the longer I held it in any direction. The leathery outer layer would bunch and wrinkle, and it was nigh impossible to fix once it’d happened.  Hence axolotl-face there.

Cthulhu Cold Porcelain

I also tried using one of my old Cthulhu silicone moulds to see if I could use CP that way. Air-drying inconsistencies struck again as the base (the only part exposed to the air) dried and warped while the rest stayed wet. After a day nothing had changed so I carefully extracted him and let him dry outside the mould before giving him a coat of paint. He’s cute in an artefact weathered-by-time kind of way.  I think CP + moulds could work, but the moulds will have to be shallow to allow the air to get to as much as possible.

The warping seems to be a pretty major problem unless I want to start producing wrinkly monster dolls (not impossible, but also not quite what I was planning). I started making another face for a krampus-esque visage, but after a few minutes he started to warp and go bug-eyed. I stopped, leaving eyes and nose on a head-shaped blob. A couple of days later I came back and tried adding to the cured CP. I expected it to detach as it dried and shrunk, but surprisingly it seems to work. Here’s the result so far- he still looks pretty weird as the first half warped, but as an experiment it’s definitely been useful:

Krampus Cold PorcelainI’ll be playing with this stuff a bit more in the new year… I think it has potential.

Mask Making After Florence

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.

Mask Making in Florence

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.

Agostino Dessi's mask shop in Florence
Agostino Dessi’s mask shop on Via Faenza, Florence

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.

I had my own little corner of the shop to work in
Agostino’s shop.  It took me a week of evenings to produce my mask from scratch, so I can only imagine the sheer quantity of man-hours contained in this one image.

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.

Sculpting the face in clay, then embellishing with details
Sculpting the face in clay, then embellishing with details

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!

After casting the sculpt in plaster I started to apply the papier mache over a couple of evenings.
After casting the sculpt in plaster I started to apply the papier mache over a couple of evenings.
Painting the mask
Painting the mask

Then I painted the undercoat for a cracked and antiqued surface, before adding the details and finish.

The finished mask
The finished mask

I’m really happy with the final result, and can’t wait to try recreating the whole process at home!  Watch this space.

Cats, Devils and Cthulhu

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:

Cat Mask Clay Sculpt Devil Mask Clay 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:

Pushing clay into the face cast

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.

Devil Mask 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.

Sketching Cthulhu

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:

Cthulhu Clay Sculpt Cthulhu Mask

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.

Masks and Moldmaking

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.

Plasticine mask moldmaking   Plasticine mask moldmaking

The plasticine then peeled out of the mold easily, leaving a smooth surface for the mache.

Plasticine moldmaking mask

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.

Plasticine mask moldmaking

Red and Gold Mask

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!

Gold Detailing Mask   Gold Detailing Mask

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.

V Mask

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.

Let the Maskmaking Begin…

I’ve always loved masks: from recurring obsessions with Phantom of the Opera and Labyrinth, to finding every project for my anthropology degree tended towards masquerade and transformation.  I’ve also had a good few attempts at making them throughout my life, but it’s been a while since I attempted it with any real focus on refining technique.  My early masks were thick, unweildy, lumpy papier-mache creations, better suited for hanging on the wall than wearing.

Earlier this year I went on a short holiday to Venice with friends.  As a mask obsessive, it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, and I was not disappointed!  I’m afraid I dragged my friends into every second mask shop that we saw (and there’s certainly no lack of them), turning the masks over and trying to work out how they were made, as well as admiring the amazingly skilled decoration.  Needless to say, I came back inspired and fired with determination to give mask making another shot.  I researched, bought a couple of books, and experimented for a few months.

For my first attempt I used a method suggested by Jonni Good in her book ‘How to Make Masks’, which is well worth buying if you’re interested in starting to make masks.  It uses easily obtainable materials, and results in a lightweight, smooth mask.  Jonni also runs an excellent website over at Ultimate Paper Mache filled with great tips, videos and examples of her work which helped no end.

For my very first attempt I used an old clay model of my face (I’m sure everyone has one of these lying around) and created a sculpt from plasticine on top.  I then built the papier mache directly onto the finished model:

Plasticine Mask Sculpt    Plasticine Mask Mache

Plasticine is horrible to work with, I’ll say that straight away.  Smelly, stubborn, and leaves a nasty residue on your hands.  I also discovered that it reacts badly with the plaster/glue papier mache mix and retards the drying process.  After half a week it was still gloopy, so I abandoned this mask and started afresh.

Plasticine Devil Sculpt Plasticine Devil Mache

I decided to go for a full face mask, again using plasticine on top of the clay model.  This time I covered the model in clingfilm (using vaseline to get it to adhere to the model and follow all the recesses and details), and then added the mache.  This worked an awful lot better, and the mask was almost dry in an hour.

Plasticine Devil Mask

Here’s the devil mask trimmed and after a bit of sanding.  It fits my face so well it hardly needs a cord to stay on!  There’s still a bit of smoothing to do before I paint him.  The disadvantage of this method is that once the mache is dry, you’re pretty much guaranteed to destroy the original sculpt as you pull it out of the back of the mask.  That makes this chap a one-off, so I’m a little nervous about painting him in case it goes wrong.  I decided to make a few more masks to experiment on before painting this one, and to do that I wanted a method that would let me create multiples of a particular design…