Creaturiste's Laboratory

Techniques, works in progress, and everything that doesn't fit in the portfolio. Comments and questions are encouraged, custom orders are welcome!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Paper Mache Bark

(post formerly entitled "Faster Paper Mache Shell")

Update: I now call this method Paper mache bark, or "Barking". I've worked one extra day with this method, on another head. On this one, instead of making small bunches of pasted paper, I applied each large piece as a crumpled strip of about half an inch wide, following the curves of the form. It's much easier to control, and I suspect it will give a much stronger shell when dry! It looks like bark, hence the name. The texture is quite coarse, which is interesting as-is. If subtlety is needed, it can be easily smoothed gradually, by adding an extra layer of very thin paper (this one regular paper mache strips, uncrumpled). I did it in some areas where two directions of paper strips meet. It's instantly better, without killing the life of the "skin".
I've used this smoothing-with-paper method on all paper mache methods, and it saves me hours of sanding.

Today I've had a breakthrough, which I'd like to share.

I wanted to keep a copy of my demon skull puppet, but didn't feel like applying eight layers of paper yesterday, as it usually takes a full 8-hour day just for that. Time was short, so I took a chance.
I mixed some suggestions from Cary from the PMA group (squishing pasted paper to build volumes and small objects), and Jonty from the UK, (his tissue clay method, but I used brown paper towels instead).
The following could be done with various papers. I chose brown paper towels because that is what I had left in the color I wanted (earthy browns are my favorite basecoats). I find it harder these days to find unbleached coffee filters for some reason (which would be my first choice for smoothness and awesome strenght).
Toilet paper will work, but will most probably give a pebbly surface, a look typical to most "paper mache pulps".
My form was a Plastalina (oil-based modeling clay) model of what I wanted. It was protected with a layer of plastic wrap, well applied and conforming to all the details. Some sharper points had to be made separately with crumpled aluminum foil. When the paper shell was removed later, those aluminum foil pieces were left inside.
I applied one layer of brown paper towels everywhere. This first layer will be the smoother inside surface of the shell, and also a support for an otherwise uneven application (of the future layers, as you'll see).
The next layer will be equivalent to between 6 and 8 layers, all at once.
All I did was paste diluted white glue on both sides of palm-sized pieces of brown paper towels, and laid them over the object while crumpling until the paper occupies less than half it's original surface. Thus creating many many multi-directional folds.
It is important to avoid using too much glue, it would bring brittleness and take longer to dry. Every new piece has to overlap previous ones at least partially. Speed-drying with a heat gun dries the surface to the touch, allowing for reworking with the hands and other smooth hard tools until smoother. Squishing helps expell excesss glue and make a stronger, more compact result.
If care is taken to apply ever piece in about the same size and crumpling fashion, the texture is very interesting and can be controlled.
If smoothness is required, an extra layer of paper will smoothen everyhting quite nicely, while leaving a bit of surface variation, which in most cases looks "right" and natural, especially good for stage-lit work.
Repeat speed-drying, squishing and rubbing as needed. I speed-dried the whole thing in the oven: placed item in oven, turned on at 250F until temperature was reached, then left it in until cool. I left it for about 5 hours in the remaining heat. It was very dry when I took it out.
Once cut away from the form, it has to be re-assembled immediately. The pieces are temporaily held together by masking tape, which shall be gradually removed and replaced by more paper. I used the same crumpled paper as before, to close the gaps between the pieces, careful not to overlap over the masking tape. Speed-dry, squish flat and smooth, then speed-dry in oven. Or in front of a fan, at lowest setting, for a few hours. All you really need is a little bit of air circulation. Heat is only necessary when you are in a hurry.
The result is a hard enough shell with a bit of flex. It is nowhere as strong as 8 layers of coffee filters (my usual), but it is more than enough for most applications, including puppetry, if proper care and respect is given to the puppets.
I don't yet know if my usual strength test (throwing against a wall or on the floor, violently) will damage this new puppet, as it is drying now (added some pieces).

I could probably add one final layer of paper strips to the dried puppet head, using brown coffee filters. This added skin would be smoother, because that's what I usually want my puppets to look like, and would also add strength to the already very strong surface.
Smoother is not always better, but I find more and more that it's good (for the project as well as the technical ego) to be able to make it extra smooth, when needed.

The puppet's skull is dry now. It's very strong, more so than I expected.
I still feel a few soft spots, but I could leave them as-is without any problem.
But you know me, I won't!
It's decided, I love the texture so much that I'm keeping it as my finish.
I might even decide to not include eyes or teeth! He looks nice enough with empty eye sockets and toothless baby look. The texture is so cool that I decided to keep my puppet simpler than the customer's, to showcase the texture rather than any decoration.

As with any type of paper strip paper mache project, I recommend the following:
-every cut edge, including the tiniest holes, must be re-sealed with at least two layers of well-overlapped narrow pieces of the same paper and glue. Do not neglect this. I have plenty of proofs that major warping does occur when moisture (even a little) gets inside the raw edges and seeps inside. My over-the-head pumpkin helmet mask is so warped it cannot be worn anymore, and the wide open mouth has now closed. I had not sealed any edge, because I made the whole thing in 4 days, wanting to wear it at an event. I regret not having fixed it as soon as the even was done (2 years ago), as it is now just getting worse with the seasons. Paper mache being what it is, I can still save it when I have time. I'll wet the warped areas until soft, re-shape, speed-dry, add a wire rim, seal all edges, and dry in front of a fan.
I've done it for my older puppets before, it works well, but it can take a bit of time and meticulousness.
- Larger openings, because of structural necessities, need to be made stronger by adding a rim of stiff wire around its perimeter (on the edge or inside it)
-seal your project properly in order to help keep it protected from moisture and contaminants, which can cause warping and mold.
To seal a paper mache project, you need top use a glue or a medioum which is compatible with the glue you used to build the object.
If you used carpenter's glue, paint a layer or two of slightly watered-down Weldbond over everything. It will seal and give a perfect ground for acrylic paint applications (acrylics don,t like yellow carpenter's glue, and crack over white glue). If you can't get Weldbond, paint a basecoat of pure undiluted and unmixed artistic quality acrylic paint. It works well with Liquitex. Wait for it to be prefectly dry before doing anything else to it, otherwise you'll get surface peeling.
If you used white glue, Weldbond is a good sealer. If you can't get Weldbond, an acrylic medium(gel or liquid) is ok.
DO NOT USE ACRYLIC GESSO to seal a paper mache project. It makes it softer at first, then quickly makes the object brittle.
I've tried with the brands Liquitex and Stevenson, and a few cheaper store's-own brands. All create this problem.
Gesso is also problematic wit Weldbond. Mix the two together and you get a weird hard-cheese-like substance that doesn't stick anymore.
As an alternative (and a great texture), try the Monster Bone finish I shared in this blog.
This finish dries absolutely perfectly matte and totally porous, accepting therefore very diluted applications of paint. This means even the glossy paints will show to be matte. The more paint you add, the more pores get closed, and the more closed, the more glossy it gets.
When totally dry, you can seal (only if you want) with a bit of clear shoe polish, that you can pre-heat and apply with a brush, then rub well with a clean lint-free rag.
I hope this comes in handy for some.

Questions and comments welcomed!

1 comment:

The Papier Boy said...

Hmm. I'm going to have to read this a few times to understand. But, maybe it's the brew and hot weather clouding my head