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Papier-Mache Artist

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Papier mache uses old paper and simple paste to create many kinds of sculptures or objects. It can be used to make jewelry, dolls, puppets, masks, or whatever the imagination can dream up.

There are many recipes and methods for making papier mache. But most involve just a few ingredients and supplies that are easily available in your home. If you've got some old newspaper and creativity to spare, papier mache is a great way to bring your ideas to life.

"While the plastics generation loves the access to materials used in industry for the creation of craft pieces, I'm beginning to think that it is ultimately more satisfying to work with a material you can create from scratch," says papier-mache artist Ronnie Burkett.

Artists around the world agree with Burkett. Papier-mache jewelry, boxes, sculptures and many other items can be found everywhere from Mexico to Russia.

The basic papier mache method is called layering. It requires strips of newspaper or other paper, flour, water, and a form (or armature) that the papier mache will cover. Depending on what you're making, a form can be created from chicken wire, plastic bottles, paper cups, balloons, or any number of objects.

A little creativity can turn old newspaper into pretty well anything you can think of.
Courtesy of: Edgar Beals

To begin, paste is created by mixing one part flour to one part water. The newspaper strips are then dipped into the paste and applied to the form in a layering fashion until all parts are covered. The piece is finally left to dry completely. Depending on how many layers were applied, this can take a few days or over a week. Once the piece is dry, the craftsperson can paint and decorate the item however he or she likes.

Those who want to make dolls, puppets or sculptures usually find the pulped paper method works best. This process is very simple and inexpensive. First, the craftsperson makes a composition pulp by soaking and shredding newspaper, straining it and adding flour as an adhesive. Tissue paper, corrugated paper, egg cartons and both plain and glossy junk mail can also be used.

"You can experiment with a variety of glues, such as wallpaper paste, bookbinders' glue, white glue or the acrylic-based plastic adhesives and media on the market," says Burkett. "Linseed oil makes the pulp easier to work with and provides added toughness. Oil of cloves or wintergreen prevent the pulp from going sour."

Once the pulp is created, it can be formed in any number of ways. What is shaped from the pulp is entirely up to your imagination. This medium is very versatile. When pulped paper is wet, it is like clay. It can be pressed into moulds, shaped, or modelled over an armature. Once it dries, the resulting object becomes like wood, and can be sanded and carved.

The hardest part is waiting for a finished piece to dry. Pulped paper pieces can take one to three weeks to completely dry and cure. Large pieces need to have warm air circulating around them so they will dry without warping or becoming distorted. For small objects, a kitchen oven set on a low temperature is often a good place to dry. A warm radiator, window ledge or sunny outdoor spot can also work. Patience is the key.

Once a piece is dry, is can be painted directly or covered with coats of gesso. Gesso is a coating that is combined with sanding to make the rough papier mache smooth. Gesso can be made at home from instructions in craft books or can be purchased in liquid form from any art supply store.

Gesso strengthens papier mache and also changes its appearance. When it dries, it is hard as stone and can be sanded to have a porcelain-like finish. This process works well when the piece needs to be painted in a very detailed way.

All sorts of paints and pigments can be used on papier mache once it is dry. Watercolors, oils, acrylics, felt pens, pencils and dyes are just some of the ways papier-mache objects can be decorated. If gesso is used, color can also be added to it prior to application. This is good for creating skin tones on puppets and dolls.

After the painting is complete, a finishing and waterproofing treatment should be added to protect the work. There are many products on the market for this purpose. They can be purchased in a variety of finishes, from high gloss to matte. Once a piece is sealed, it can be wiped down and cleaned if necessary.

While papier mache was much more popular as a decorating and art medium in past centuries, craftspeople today can still make a decent income from selling their work. Many galleries and shops sell papier mache pieces both for practical use and as ornaments.

Nova Scotia freelance designer and illustrator Edgar Beals does papier mache for fun. He sells more than half of his work. "It is possible to make some money at it if you are good," he says. "It is a time-consuming process, so I don't think anyone would get rich from it. I have sold about 60 per cent of the pieces I have made, and about 35 per cent have been gifts for friends and family. The rest are still hanging around my house."

Getting Started

Few crafts are as simple and offer such fun results. Anyone with some extra newspaper and a little flour can get started at the kitchen table. If you want to use the pulped paper method, you don't even need an armature to use as a form. People of all ages and backgrounds make papier mache. Most enjoy learning and experimenting as they go along.

"I chose this medium because the possibilities of what one can create are endless," says artist Denise Duncan. "You can make simple things like napkin rings and bowls or elaborate sculptures, which is what I like to do. Papier mache is a very forgiving medium. Even people just starting out report how hard it is to put down once they get going."

Because papier mache uses so few supplies, all it really takes to get started is a willingness to learn. "I pretty much learned by trial and error," says Beals. "There are lots of good books out there full of advice and inspiration to get you started. And it never hurts to ask someone else how they do it.

"I would also recommend keeping your first couple of projects simple. Taking on something too big or complicated on the first go might turn you off the process. Work up to it. If you see a photograph in a book of a six-foot giraffe and you just have to build it, make it your goal, but start with a small bowl or a fish. You will learn a lot along the way and have a better idea if you really want to take on the bigger projects."

Self-taught papier-mache artist Steve Wirtz also suggests that beginners check out books to learn the basics of the craft. "Your public library may have some reference material to get you started," he says.

It's possible, however, to find people to help you learn papier mache. "You should also be on the lookout for classes at your local arts center," says Wirtz. "If you're a student, ask your art instructor if he or she has had any experience in the medium. Then there's the World Wide Web. There are a select number of artists displaying papier mache works on the Web. They are usually more than willing to explain how they go about their craft."

"I also like the way I am making something fun, decorative, or useful out of material that would normally be thrown away," says Beals. "Except for the masking tape, the carpenter's glue I add to the mixture, and my paints, I don't buy any construction materials at all. I only use scraps of cardboard and other material that I collect. Everything from old wire coat hangers to Styrofoam packaging to old light bulbs have ended up in my sculptures."

Duncan also is proud of the fact that papier mache is a recycling art. "I feel great about reusing paper that will hopefully save some trees. I also incorporate found objects into my work, so I am recycling other materials that end up in our landfill sites and are fairly accessible at garage sales and second-hand outlets," she says.

Start collecting the family newspapers, junk mail, cereal boxes and egg cartons, and you, too, can be on your way to making something beautiful out of garbage.


The Papier Mache Resource
Everything you need to know about papier mache

Papier Mache on
Browse paste recipes, themes and patterns

Papier Mache on Wikipedia
Learn more on the history of paper sculpting

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