There are few people that don`t remember paper-mâché, also known more simply as paper-mache or in the original French of papier-mâché, as a favorite pastime and art project in school. While paper-mâché certainly is terrific for younger children, it is a also a great medium for creating sculptures, reliefs, masks and virtually any other type of dimensional art.
Paper-mâché is definitely very environmentally friendly and can be created completely from recycled materials and basic household kitchen ingredients. It is durable, long lasting, lightweight and can be finished with a variety of types of covering. Painting, staining, texturizing and glazing are all possible to give paper-mâché a very different look. Historically this form of design and art has been used for everything from symbols of royalty through to actual furniture, artwork and even for making ammunition.
Getting started with paper-mâché is a great way for everyone in the family to explore their artistic side. Since the supplies required are very low to no cost and you don`t need specialized equipment it is fun and easy. The versatility of this medium really does make it a excellent starting point for virtually any type of decoration, design or three dimensional piece.
Treating the completed and dried paper-mâché project with paint and a lacquer type of finish will make the entire project water resistant and very durable. Wire frames and plastic bases can also add stability and strength to any paper-mâché project.
So, if you were thinking paper-mâché artwork was those models of the planets you did in 6th grade, think again. The sky is the limit with what you can do with this very traditional type of art that has come back into vogue again.
Supplies And Equipment
The basic supplies and equipment for paper-mâché are all things you probably already have in your home and kitchen or laundry. The most important elements are the paper, the frame and the glue or paste that you use.
The paper can be any type of porous paper. Typically that is paper that is matte and not shiny. Regular newspaper or brown paper bags are great examples of porous types of paper that absorbs moisture. Other papers that work include the matte type of gift wrap and paper towels. Plain use computer printer paper or the old style of computer paper that folds and tears for dot matrix printers is excellent.
If you are using newspaper it is always a good idea to ensure that the last coat of the paper-mâché is a white colored paper without newsprint. This is important if you are painting or decorating the outside with lighter colors. The newsprint will continue to bleed through or be visible through light colored paints. However you can also apply a layer of acrylic paint or a good paint primer over the newspaper and before the decorative paint to ensure that your colors stay true.
The paper needs to be torn or cut into strips that are appropriately sized for the type of decoration or design you are creating. Wider strips are good for large surfaces while narrower strips are a must for smaller designs. Using strips that are too wide will make corners and detailed areas of the design rough and bumpy looking while narrow strips make corners smoother since the paper cannot buckle out at the turn.
The glue or paste that you use can be a variety of products. Liquid starch, which can be purchased with laundry supplies at most grocery stores, is a very simple option for creating the paste. The starch is used full strength, just dip paper into the liquid, remove the excess and apply the paper to the mold. Wallpaper paste can also be used as a simple glue, dilute only as much as necessary to form a thick, creamy solution that is quick and easy to use.
You can also make your own starch mixture with a simple recipe. To a heat proof bowl add half a box of cornstarch and enough cold water to make a thick paste. The water has to be cold, you don`t want to actually start the thickening process at this time. The cornstarch will not dissolve completely but the consistency at this point should be like heavy cream. To this add at least one and a half liters of boiling water, approximately 7 cups, and stir vigorously to prevent lumps from forming. If you have an electric mixer this can really help.
The paste should be thick and will become translucent once the cornstarch is cooked in the mixture. If it is too thick add small amounts of boiling water. It should be similar to the consistency of Jello just before it sets up, not watery but also not solid, more like a very thick glue or a paint. Adding a teaspoon or two of salt will help prevent spoilage if you need to keep the paste for more than a day or two. The paste can be warmed slightly in the microwave and whipped again before each use. In most cases the paste will only last two to four days before it will need to be disposed of and a new batch made. Any paste that smells sour or moldy should be tossed out.
You can also use any type of white glue or arts and crafts glue diluted with plain cold water to reach the desired consistency, or you may be able to find paper-mâché paste at your local arts and crafts store. These two options tend to last much longer and do not have the spoilage concern of the homemade variety.
Besides paper and paste you will also need something to act as a frame for your paper-mâché project. Any type of solid or structurally sound type of frame will work well. A balloon inflated to the desired size is perfect for round shapes but make sure to use good quality balloons that won`t pop or deflate before the paper-mâché exterior is dry and solid. Empty soda bottles, either the liter, two liter or the smaller bottles are a good shape and frame for bodies and center parts of designs. The plastic can be cut to make arms, legs and other shapes that are glued on or attached to the bottle prior to applying the paper-mâché.
For those that want to try larger art there are a variety of options for either making your own shapes using stiff, thin wire or buying wire frames at the craft store. These frames can be in the shape of boxes, baskets or the traditional types of frames for animals, humans, houses and other shapes often used for seasonal decorations. If you are just getting started a simple shape to allow you to get the knack of spreading the paper strips evenly and consistently is highly recommended. The more corners and shapes you have to cover the more difficult getting a completely smooth surface will be, so starting simple really is important.
Paints and texturizing sprays can be used to add color and interesting features to the completely paper-mâché project. Be sure to use acrylic paints and avoid any water based paints as they can rehydrate the paper-mâché and cause mold problems. As mentioned above a solid white primer coat that can be sprayed over the entire project is a good idea to ensure an even base coat regardless of what type of paper you used.
For some kinds of paper-mâché using gift wrap with a nice glossy, clear drying paste is all the decoration that is needed. If you are attempting this type of project it is highly recommended to use the liquid starch paste or use a watered down glue to give that high gloss finish without the slightly dull look of the homemade paste. Finishing with a spray or paint on lacquer product adds that really high gloss look that is so eye catching in a variety of Christmas and holiday decorations. This is also a great option for making boxes and baskets that are either painted or have decorative paper used right in the paper-mâché. Regardless if you use a high gloss or a matte type of spray finish it is important to seal the paper-mâché work. This includes all sides, including the inside if it is exposed to the air. If this doesn`t happen moisture from the air will be absorbed by the paper over time and will lead to mold issues and that distinctive odor of souring paste.
Important Pointers and Tips
While paper-mâché is a very fun, simple and easy art form it also requires close attention to detail to avoid problems. The most common issues or problems that may develop can be prevented by following these simple tips and techniques.
Use correctly sized paper strips
The heavier the paper the thinner the strips have to be to allow the paper to smoothly go around corners. If you are trying to make a multi-sided shapes you may have to use different widths and lengths of strips for specific details and areas. Working with shorter strips rather than strips that are long ensures that you can quickly get the strips from the paste to the project and not have to deal with long ribbons of pasty paper.
Use the correct size and type of frame
The frame is like the foundation for the paper-mâché project. A frame that falls apart or doesn`t hold up to being moved or handled is going to make your art work much more challenging. The frame should be carefully washed with soap and water to remove any oil or substances that may repel the paper-mâché paste or the paper itself. This is true for plastic, metal or rubberized types of frame materials. Styrofoam or other types of lightweight material typically don`t have this problem and allow you to have a solid base to work from. Remember that paper-mâché is only the covering and it cannot create shapes on its own, it needs a structurally solid frame at least until it dries.
While many people start with a balloon, this is actually a rather difficult frame to work with. The first reasons is because of the round shape and the second is that the first layer of paper-mâché doesn`t seem to want to adhere to the surface. If you are working with balloon, especially if you have kids, consider blowing up the balloon and coating with a layer of the paper-mâché paste and allowing to dry. This only takes an hour or two but it does help the paper strips adhere to the surface and prevents the frustration of everything sliding around on the surface.
One layer at a time
One of the biggest mistakes that people make is applying too many layers of paper-mâché at one time. Not only does this cause problems in drying but the weight of the layers may actually cause the shape to be distorted or pulled down as drying occurs. Most paper-mâché projects only need four layers of paper with very little overlap on the seams. Really heavy and thick layers may be important for large projects but they also require additional frame support and lots of time to dry between layers.
Each layer must be completely dry before the next layer is applied. If you live in an area that is humid you may have to dry the paper-mâché project in the oven, just turn it on warm and leave it for a few hours, checking frequently. Dry to the touch on the surface does not mean the entire layer is completely dry. It is best to wait at least 24 hours between layers in a dry climate or create a drying area in a humid one. If you do not provide enough drying time between layers it will mold and sour from the inside out.
Thin layers of paint and finish
Just like the paper-mâché itself, applying thin layers of paint and allowing time to dry between applications is essential. This also goes for the final sealing and finishing spray or paint. Avoid heavy coats of lacquer or sealant products but make sure that air is cut off from the paper-mâché itself to prevent absorption of water from the air.
Try different finishing layers before adding your paint or lacquer for a completely different look. Paper can be soaked in the paste to form a pulp, then spread over the surface to create a natural fibrous or wood type texture. Yarn or wool can also be soaked in the paste and applied over the last layer or the second to last layer to give a raised aspect to different parts of the design. Believe it or not that lint from your dryer can also be mixed with a slight amount of paste to give a woolly and rough texture to any paper-mâché design.
Although most people think of paper-mâché as a kid`s art project, it really is a very versatile medium for all types of decorations and household objects. Since it is a traditional type of art form there is a wealth of information on the web about project options, how to pages and even videos showing different paper-mâché techniques.
This very versatile art activity is great for the whole family to get involved in. Large or small decorations are also perfect for highly personalized gifts for family, friends and coworkers. The addition of different types of paints, lacquers and texturizing applications can make a paper-mâché design look like a wide variety of surfaces and art forms.
Since paper-mâché also uses all natural and recyclable items, this is a very green type of art and perfect for those that are environmentally conscious. The next time you recycle, just save those old newspapers and plan to create something lovely for your home.