We were invited to a Halloween party this past weekend and, as soon as I heard there would be fancy dress, I couldn’t resist trying to make my own mask. Given that my last laughable attempt at a mask was Felix Morton from The Dream Machine, I knew I would need some professional help.
Ultimate Paper Mache by Jonni Good has lots of tutorials and how-tos for everything papier mâché and sculpture related. I picked up her book How to Make Masks (2012) which gives several examples of projects using a very different style to the newspaper papier mâché I grew up with.
I wanted to make a mask of Jack Skellington, the ‘Pumpkin King’, from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Given the apparently simple shape I thought this would be a good first project and even encouraged Lizzie to dress up as his love interest, the humanoid rag doll, Sally.
The Mask Form
To build a mask I needed something to build on. In other words, a Mask Form. Since I didn’t have a convenient mannequin lying around, I decided to follow the DIY example in Jonni’s book.
I started by wrapping tinfoil around my head – as you do – with a lot of assistance from Lizzie. It turns out the mouth hole is kind of important as I very quickly realised I couldn’t breathe. It was also surprisingly hot under there.
Next, after carefully removing the tinfoil headpiece, I covered the inside with petroleum jelly (aka Vaseline) and then damp Plaster Cloth strips which, once dry, gave surprising strength to the form. Once solid enough – two layers was enough – I removed the tinfoil allowing the form to stand on it’s own.
The rough shape was made smoother by adding a couple of layers of papier mâché. Rather than newspaper, Jonni advocates using Scott Shop Towels and a Gesso mixture made from Plaster of Paris, PVA glue, water and vinegar. It works extremely well with the mixture being easy to spread and the towels easy to work with. I found them in Halfords, here in the UK but apparently they’re found in any hardware store in the U.S.
Only a few towels were needed to completely cover the face. To avoid creases, the cloth was easily torn to create overlaps and pushed deep into recesses like the nose. A final layer of Gesso paste was added to seal the patchwork cloth and it was then left to dry.
Since I wanted a helmet-style mask reaching to the back of the head, once dry I repeated the steps to create the crescent shape for the back. I added more papier mâché to fuse the two peices together, although I didn’t have any joint compound around to smooth out the form as suggested in the book.
I packed the inside of the form with newspaper and taped it to a Coke bottle filled with water to let it dry overnight. A flower pot would have been an alternative but all the work going on in the house and garden at the moment made this difficult to source!
The above took two nights including time for drying, leaving me just a night and a day to create and finish my mask. Talk about pressure!
I covered the Mask Form in petroleum jelly and a plastic bin liner since this makes the mask easier to remove later. I then used modelling clay to build up the features of the mask. I mistakenly bought air drying clay rather than an oil-based equivalent that would remain soft, but in the end it worked out fine.
The main consideration with this step is the more clay covering the surface of the mask form, the more the internal structure will change. For this reason, I decided to forget about trying to create Jack’s ball-shaped head, leaving much of my head shape intact. In hindsight, this project might have been easier with a balloon or ball as the Mask Form.
I tried to make the mask Jack-like by emphasising the eye sockets, nose and mouth. I gave him his angry toothy grin, however a closed mouth might have made him more recognisable and saved a lot of work.
I covered the clay and mask form in papier mâché in roughly the desired shape. It was around 4am by this point and as tiredness got the better of me I started getting frustrated that my paste was drying too quickly. I called it a night and completed the papier mâché in the morning. I let the mask dry while I picked up some pieces for our outfits. For the whole project I used our desk fan to make the drying go quicker, though later, once the clay was removed, I also used a hair dryer.
When the mask was dry enough to remove from the Mask Form, I pulled the plastic bin liner down and across to break the connection with the petroleum jelly. Slowly but surely it came away – moment of truth – and thankfully my mask, albeit a bit soft, held its shape. I removed the clay that was still stuck in the mask and – to add strength – added another layer of papier mâché on the inside of the mask.
Once dry I lightly sanded the Mask with a sandpaper backed sponge to remove any major bumps. I could have added a slightly different Gesso mixture for even more smoothness but time was against me. I painted the mask using white and black acrylic paint and highlighted Jack’s creases around his mouth using an eyeliner pencil (although I felt this was a bit too dark in the end)
It’s not the best rendition of Jack Skellington, and the rest of my costume left a lot to be desire, but the skull face is good enough for Halloween and I had a lot of fun with this different technique. As a bonus, I still have the Mask Form to build my next creation on too!
Did you make a costume for Halloween? Do you have any papier mâché tips?