It is one of the simplest sculptural art materials available: just paper, flour, and water. It is also one of the first we encounter in school art classes, partially because it is cheap and partially because it is non-toxic (yes, kids eat it just like paste). Even though most of us could figure out how to make paper mache by experimenting with those three ingredients, there are a surprising number of recipe variations and special uses for this most basic of art materials. (Seriously, there are even recipes for how to make paper mache gluten-free.)
How Have Artists and Architects Pushed Paper Mache’s Limits?
Most of us learned how to make paper mache at some point in our childhood, often shaping it over an inflated balloon to get a (mostly) spherical shape, on our face to create a mask, or over chicken wire to give a three-dimensional effect to a science class volcano.
Most of us would be surprised to see the extremes artists have pushed from this simple material. The most well-known are elaborate piñatas that range from sculptures of favorite movie superheroes to caricature likenesses of politicians and other mock-worthy famous figures, all destined to be filled with candy and beaten to shreds by lucky partygoers. But if you search online for fine art paper mache, you will discover artists who have learned how to make paper mache into gallery-worthy (and wildly lifelike) masks, dragons, and even functional furniture.
Historically, paper mache (originally “papier-mâché,” which means “chewed paper” in French) can be traced back to 1700s Europe, when it was first used as a cheap replacement material for ornate plaster and carved wood in architecture and even portions of horse-drawn carriages. There are early patents for how to make paper mache waterproof for outdoor use as well as for methods of steam-pressing sheets of the material into elaborate structural shapes.
Few of us have the time (or motivation) to transform paper mache into that level of impressive. However, there are many everyday craft items we can construct from this material that will impress friends and loved ones as gifts and festive home décor.
What Materials Do You Need to Learn How to Make Paper Mache?
Reduced to its essentials, paper mache is composed of the following:
There are so many recipe variations that we could literally write a book on how to make paper mache. However, we thought it best to present here two recipes, one absolutely basic (and kid-friendly) and one more advanced for the crafty type who want to do experiments with a bit more workable material.
How to Make Paper Mache: the Absolute Basics
You will need six things:
- 1Torn newspaper strips, which do not have to be perfectly shaped; we recommend one inch wide by three or four inches long
- 2A form to apply the paper mache over, such as an inflated balloon
- 3All-purpose white flour and water (avoid wheat flour, as it is not sticky enough)
- 4Mixing bowl
- 5Measuring cup
- 6Electric mixer
Put two cups of flour in a bowl and gradually add water until you reach a consistency thicker than water, but lighter than pancake batter. This may take some experimentation as you use it. However, it is easy to add more flour or more water until you have it just the way you like it. We prefer a glue-like consistency, but others go more toward paste. Use the electric mixer to blend the mixture and get it to a consistent, lump-free texture.
As you add either ingredient, do so gradually. We recommend tossing any excess as it does not keep that well. The same yeast that makes bread rise consumes the sticky part of the paste and can also get stinky. Additionally, clean mixers, bowls, and anything else used to make the paste right away. You have made a glue that will be difficult to clean after it hardens.
Once you have your paste ready, dip a newspaper strip into it just long enough that it is lightly coated. Avoid over-saturating the strip to the point that it drips. Next, apply that strip to your balloon form. Smooth it to the balloon’s surface. Repeat with a second strip, overlapping the strips until you have covered the whole balloon. For strength, you can add a second and even a third layer. Smooth excess paste from the balloon with your fingers.
Once you have layered the balloon with strips, let it dry for at least 24 hours until the paper mache has formed a hard shell. The dried spherical shape can now be painted and/or used as a construction component in a large sculpture. You can also (carefully) cut pieces from or out of the spherical shape. Kids love to paint faces onto these shapes, gluing other objects onto them to form noses and ears (think: Mr. Potato Head).
A More Advance Paper Mache for Artists
Instead of paper, this fast-setting, durable paper mache uses thin cloth, ranging from gauze to common flat-cloth (not terry cloth) shop towels found at hardware stores. Maybe we should call it “cloth mache,” as there is no paper involved. You will need:
- 12 liquid ounces Elmer’s white glue
- 21 tablespoon water
- 31 teaspoon vinegar
- 42 liquid ounces plaster of Paris
- 5Mixing bowl (one you are okay destroying, as this fast-setting paste will be difficult to clean out)
- 6Electric mixer (with beaters you are willing to part with, for the same reason as above)
- 7Medium bristled paint brush (again, disposable because the paste dries quickly)
- 8Latex gloves
Because this paste hardens quickly, you will want to lay out all your supplies before beginning to mix the ingredients. Cut your cloth into similarly-sized strips (we like 1-inch by 4-inch, but vary this in proportion to the project you are working on) and set aside. Also, prep the form you are using for this project, whether that means blowing up a balloon, using Vaseline to create a non-adhesive surface on a plastic mask, or using chicken wire to sculpt a three-dimensional shape. When your supplies are ready, mix the Elmer’s white glue, water, and vinegar in the bowl until a consistent texture forms, then mix in the plaster of Paris.
Using your gloves, dip a cloth strip into the paste, then “squeegee” the strip to remove excess paste by running it between a thumb and fingers. Apply this strip to your form. Repeat with a second cloth strip, overlapping the first strip with the second. Repeat this process with additional strips until your form is covered. You can use the paintbrush to smooth the application of paste over the shape as you go. Even though this is a fast-drying paste, it is still best to let your work dry overnight, as that ensures that thicker areas are able to dry before you begin painting or manipulating your piece.
What Forms Can Be Used with Paper Mache?
We mentioned using “forms” to build your paper mache shapes and objects. A form is any object used to give your work a shape. Balloons are a common starting point as they provide a semi-solid structure that is inexpensive and easy to work with. They allow you to create a spherical shape that can be used in its original form or to be cut into pieces for other uses. Many beginners will cut a hole into the side of this sphere and use it as the housing for a diorama type of art. Others will cut the sphere in half to form an egg-like shell box or two mask shapes.
Another style of form is to create a shape using chicken wire or other type of metal mesh that can be bent and manipulated into the basic shape you are seeking. The paper mache can then be draped on this basic form to fill out the shape. Model railroad hobbyists will use this technique to form miniature mountains and tunnels for their train layouts.
Existing objects, particularly those made of metal, plastic, or other non-porous, smooth surfaces can serve as forms. (Be careful not to use something valuable, as the paper mache paste can ruin some surfaces.) To assist in the final removal of the dried paper mache from the form, it is common to coat it with petroleum jelly (Vaseline). Some examples of forms used this way include plastic masks from a hobby store and plastic or metal bowls, which allow you to make highly decorative shapes in the final decorating process.
Though learning how to make paper mache introduces you to one of the least expensive artist materials available, it can also introduce you to a nearly unlimited material of artistic expression. It takes some practice, but with a material this cost-effective, practice is your real commodity. Learning how to manipulate the base material, including experimenting with a wide variety of ingredients, construction, and finishing techniques can result in gallery-worthy artwork.
At the same time, it is simple enough that an entire children’s introductory arts program could be built around it. A little online searching can help you find both advanced paper mache recipes and build entire idea books for projects to try.