Prop Project: Venetian Masks
It’s been a long old while since I have written on this blog, and as Spring slowly pops its head out here in the UK, its time to get creative again…
A few months back I went to Venice. It is an amazing city, and truly unique. Apart from the endless prosecco, coffee and cake, I was mostly impressed with the artisan crafts: the local glass, the lace and of course, the festival masks.
The masks come in all shapes and sizes, and as well as seeing the usual mass produced plastic ones everywhere, we had the chance to see some local artists make their stock using the traditional methods. I don’t have the time, nor skill to make the molds they use for their templating, so instead I picked up a few plastic templates from the touristy shops, with the idea that when I got home I could use them as guides for making my own. At a massive 1 Euro a pop, it was worth grabbing a few different designs.
Whilst is IS Spring, it is still a bit too cold to work with my usual materials (resin and fibreglass), so for this build, I decided to work on a different composite material – one you can work with without chemical safety gear, and one you can work with in your home: papier mâché. Much like fibreglass (Glass Reinforced Plastic, GRP), papier mâché is a composite of paper and (usually) PVA glue – this is a Paper Reinforced Plastic composite. This material is not very strong and so many layers are required but it is easily workable, and as PVA is pretty safe (just don’t drink it, okay?), you’ll be able to work with this material wherever and whenever.
OK so to start you’re going to need a template such as one of those above. you can buy them from your favourite tax avoiding internet retailer, or online auction site, or better yet, your local crafts store (or even better still, fly out to Venice!). I picked a few templates, but there are two designs I really liked: the columbina (female half mask, two types shown top left and bottom), and the bauta (male full face mask, somes called the Casanova mask, top right).
The plague doctor masks are an awesome shape too, but I didn’t see any cheaper templates for these when I was there (also, they wouldn’t fit in my bag!).
What you will need
OK, so now we have templates its time to see what else we’re going to need:
From left to right:
- warm glue gun (optional)
- PVA glue (lots of it)*
- Instant filler (as fine as you can get it)*
- Gesso (optional)
- acrylic paints*
- relief marker (optional – see below)
- rough brushes*
- fine brushes
- scalpel (left over from your recent pepakura build?
- PAPER (lots of it, not shown)
- sandpaper (not shown)*
*These items were poundshop specials!
So most of the items here don’t need explanation, but if you are not that crafty:
- Gesso is an acrylic paint that has gypsum or chalk in it, rendering it thicker, and capable of creating texture (or filling in tiny gaps). It is also sandable. Imagine it like a cross between acrylic paint and extra fine polyfilla.
- relief marker: this is for creating raised beading on a surface – this particular material is for glass painting, and dries in the shape it is applied.
- Warm glue gun: if you don’t want to use a relief marker (they can be expensive ~£2-3 each) you can use a glue gun to make 3D relief. A warm glue gun glue melts at a lower temperature than a hot glue gun, making it more compatible with certain materials such as polystyrene, and also safer for little hands to use.
Paper is an obvious requirement with papier mâché, and the type you use will effect the strength and workability of your mask. Newspaper is often too weak, so I used old magazines for the method detailed below. You don’t want something too glossy – I have found through various prototypes that Waitrose Food magazine is just about right, and its free – though any moderately thick semi-glossy paper is great – time to get recycling those junkmail catalogues…
I use a bit of a rough and ready mâché method, as I use a filler afterwards and sand it all smooth. Cut the paper into strips – 2-3cm by 5-7cm is about right. Make sure you have a whole stack of these ready, and cut some smaller pieces as gap fillers, especially if you have odd shapes / edges to cover.
OK, so lets begin
Whilst papier mâché is safer than working with resins, it is very messy, so put down a covering in the work area. I used some painter’s trays (another poundshop special) for drip protection.
To begin, we need to make sure your template and mask will be easily separated at the end (“de-molded”). You COULD use a liquid de-mold, but I find it better to simply neatly cover your template in kitchen aluminium foil or cling film. I prefer foil as its easier to work with. Make sure all the eye holes and sharp edges are wrapped around properly, and use tape to ensure foil gets held tight. you only need to cover the outward face of the template, but wrap over the edges, which will make getting the edges right. This foil layer will stick to the inside of your mask, when you pull it away from the template, leaving the template clean and ready for re-use.
Get a disposable pot (yogurt pot is perfect, or tupperware), and pour a generous amount of PVA into it. If you have a very thick PVA, add a small amount of water to it (say 10-20% by volume), and give it a good stir, then brush it over the foil on your template. Dip a piece of the paper in the glue mix and then apply… and repeat, building up a layer with slight overlap As the first layer, it will not curve around the edges nicely just yet, and it will be slippery as it wont want to adhere to the foil easily. Once you have one layer down, run a glue-loaded rough brush over it, and get your fingers in to push the paper into the shape you want (the eye sockets, and edges for instance). wet your fingers if they get sticky, but man up and accept that you’l get gluey. Get the layer smooth and the shape you want, then apply the second layer. If you want to speed this up, just smother the layer in glue mix, and the apply the second layer without dipping. and then another loaded glue brush over it and then reshaping with your fingers. Do this until you have three layers, and then let it dry thoroughly – though don’t force dry it – room temp is fine.
Edges and details really need some patience with, use your fingers to push and bend the medium over the edges of the template to give you the sharp edges you want.
Once dry, repeat the layering process, and repeat the drying time. Do this for one more cycle to give 9 layers of papier mâché (if you are using Waitrose Food, 9 layers is good and strong – the number of layers varies on the material you use, and the quality of the glue you use. The edges of the masks above took a lot of manhandling, but it gets easier as the curves from the previous layers make a nice guide for the additional layers. I had to do it with gluey fingers rather than a tool, but the more you massage the paper into the right shape, the more air you can get out of it, and the smoother the finish.
OK, so now that its drying, wash your hands, grab a cuppa, and get stuck into How to get Away with Murder (for real, that show is totes worth your time).
Once its properly dry (overnight), its time to do some filling. I want to do some basic filling before de-molding it, as it will have the template for strength as I apply it. If you have Guesso, give it a nice thick coat and let it dry before making a thin fill layer, but if not, then we’ll do a very thin fill without it before de-molding – Guesso makes the filler adhere more easily. If you are using a thin filler, get it a little wet and use it like a slurry, to give a rough thin coat.
Once dry, its time to de-mold it. Take your scalpel and CAREFULLY but with some force cut along the edge of the template from the back of the mask- paying extra attention to complex curves. When you are done, cutting through the foil, the mask can be pulled with a little tactical pressure from the template. edges and eye holes where you guided the media over the edges will take some extra care to cut out cleanly, but it is doable. Hopefully your mask will look like below:
Now you have it free, you’ll need to get the silver foil off of the inside, and then let it dry again, as the foil will have prevented the bottom layer from properly drying. Its time to give it a quick sand (400 grit is about as fine as you need)- I like leaving a bit of texture on my masks, so don’t sand too fine.
For the mask shown in the title of this article, I wanted to create some relief which I can paint over. I used a relief marker (until I learnt I can do the same thing with a warm glue gun). I sketched a design on the mask, and then used the marker to layer up the relief. Let that dry for at least a few hours if you used a relief marker, or at least 20 min if you used a warm glue gun. The advantage of the marker is that flow is easier to control, but the advantage of the glue gun is that its cheaper, you can take it off if you are unhappy with it, and you can trim and tidy it with a scalpel if you want to clean it up after application and drying.
Now that I had some relief, I wanted to add some surface texture highlights – I wanted that look of damaged marble / sculpture with a decayed underneath, and so I gave the whole thing a coat of sand coloured acrylic paint, which the filler drank readily- this also allowed the relief marker to take up some of the paint, which was useful as it is black and takes a fair few layers of pain to get the colour you apply. I gave it two coats of sand colour, an hour apart over the whole mask
Once that was dry (an hour), I dry-brushed thee whole mask with white acrylic. By dry-brushing I highlighted the un-smooth surface of the mask, which looked like grimey marble (see below). once that had dried, I painted the relieved regions with a copper-gold. and once that was dry, dry-brushed the gold areas with a light gold paint to give the idea of a tarnished gold in the shadows.
Once that had dried, it was time to protect the mask (and paint). As I wanted this mask for a prop, I wanted it to be fairly tough, and so I used some spray lacquer- in this case I wanted it glossy, like polished marble. Three coats of this done in the garage (this is the only step you cant do in your house), and left over night, and I had a tough, semi-shined mask. To wear this mask, you can just use your warm glue gun to stick some ribbon on the inside (but I have seen people staple or superglue them)
I tend to not decorate the inside of the masks – I like people to see it was made from a magazine. you might want to put some foam on the inside of the nose or around the eyes to make them stand off the skin, but mine tend to be pretty comfy fits without.
You can decorate these in a number of ways, but the manufacture method is the same. It is addictive though, once you get used to the tools you find yourself making more and more in ever-more complex colouring and relief patterns. I enjoyed making these as they were simple and less hazardous that working with my usual resins and glass fibre-sheet – I would imagine that these could be fun spring treats to make with the kids (except the spray lacquer and cutting), and if you have no masquerade ball to go to, they make interesting decorations for the coffee table / wall too.