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Bruce Marrs’ Tips for Papier-Mâché Mask Making

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[part 3 of'

Bruce Marrs’ Masks'article By

Deborah Bell

First, tips on plaster negatives:Make sure your negative mold is deep, all the way to the beginning of the ear, down to the neck.Shore up the dip in the negative from the neck so you have a deep “bowl” in which to pour the plaster.Vaseline well, but thinly so that the Vaseline coating isn’t a texture in the positive.If pouring from moulage or alginate, again make sure the mold is deep.It is good to put a wire hoop into the back of the positive as the plaster begins to set-up.As plaster starts to get thick, scoop away from the hoop so that you can grab the hoop to remove the positive from a difficult mask.Make sure the hoop is level with the back of the positive so that the positive can sit flat.

To begin:Place the positive on a wooden board.Anchor down the positive with clay so that it doesn’t move about.Use clay to raise the positive if necessary, and extrapolate the clay line from the positive to the board so that the mask can have more depth.Shallow masks just don’t work as well.

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Danny Tamez spackling his mask.He will then use #100 grade sandpaper to sand the spackle down to a smooth surface.Marrs' mask workshop at Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, June, 2001.

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Frankie Hardin, Takayo Saito, and Sabina Vajraca working on their masks. Marrs' mask workshop at Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, June, 2001.

Use water-based clay or plastalina clay:Sculpt directly on the positive plaster mold.Don’t cover the eyes as you will need to keep track of where they are so the mask fits you.Bring all perimeter edges to the perimeter of the positive mold.Most of the fit comes from the perimeter, and a mask that sticks out past your own face looks anomalous.Other places that must fit are between the upper lip and the nose.If the mask is to speak, try to keep mask surface off resonators next to nose.

Remember to avoid anomalous features.A face is eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, and eyebrows.Avoid the attempt to make modern art!Make your mask easy to believe.

To Papier-mâché:First Vaseline all plaster exposed, but not so much that the underside of the mask comes off all greasy.Use heavy-duty brown paper bags.Some white bread bags are also nice for alternate layer distinction.(With contrasting colors, you can discern when you need to start a new layer of flower and paste.)Tear away all factory edges from the bag as cut edges don’t blend well.Tear the bag into pieces about 10 to 18 inches square.Soak in warm water for a few minutes.Take it out.You don’t want to work with sopping and dripping paper.Cover the whole piece in pre-mixed wall paper paste(You will never go back to any other paste.)Cover the mold with five layers of bag tears.If you have trouble remembering how many layers you’ve done, use a felt-tip pen to cross hatch a layer or two, then rip and paste, or use a white bag or newspaper.Use a piece as large as will fit the curvature without wrinkling.You do not want any wrinkles!Cover the eyes so you can later cut away a smooth edge.Do good work.Rub well.Make sure all layers are well bonded, and possible glue pockets are squeezed out.It is okay to do all five layers at once, or a layer at a time.Sun dries papier-mâché best.A heater is second best if you have a fan.Wind dries better than heat.(At least wind in Northern California works well.)

Get the dried mask off before the clay underneath dries out.Don’t leave it for four or five days or you will be in trouble.

Clean out residual clay.Wipe off Vaseline if there is any inside.Cut edges and eyeholes and nostrils.Papier-mâché edges by folding a layer of wet, glued paper over the whole edge of the outside mask. Start at one end and go around until you have finished.This will give you an edge of seven layers.Dry out the mask.

Spackle:with regular pre-mix spackle.You can use water to smooth it a bit.Use your finger.Don’t use too much as you must later sand most of it off.Cover the whole mask outside layer.Dry.Sand with 100 grit sandpaper until mask has a marble look.Sand well.Often craftsmanship goes out the window at this stage.If you rough up the paper a bit, smooth after sanding with water and paste; rub until very smooth again.Let dry.

To paint:If using house paints for inside and base coat, use eggshell lusterlatex paint.Semi-gloss is too shiny.Flat paint gets too dirty.Think three tone values.Your base is your medium value, highlight is your high value and shadow is your shade.Use fine art acrylics for fine painting.Add reds as you would in make-up, unless red kills the color scheme of the mask.Darken the mask towards the edges.Don’t know why; it just works well (gives depth?).Remember painting techniques:dry brush, blending brush, translucent wash, finger paints, and sponge techniques.Paint the inside of the mask with acrylic to seal the sweat away from paper that will otherwise melt the paper and glue.

The strap:is glued on with “Goop” or “Shoe Goo” found at most hardware and lumber stores.Remember that the corner of the ear is ¼ inch above the corner of the eye, so make sure that the strap’s bottom edge is ¼ inch above the corner of the eye.

Done:Get a trained outside eye to help you discover more personality aspects of the mask.Remember that a mask is made of luck as well as craft. If you are unlucky and the mask is not very lively, or requires more work than the gift it gives, admit it.See if it works on somebody else.If it is a dull mask, make another; get lucky the second time.

Crowning the mask:Does the performer’s hair go with the mask for the appropriate personality and style?If not, get a hat, a wig, a cloak with a hood?Find the layer that connects the mask to the actor and the costume.

Bruce’s Plea for Commission:Please make many masks.For each mask that works out, please send $5, with a photo and a prayer to Bruce Marrs, 2670 Hilltop Ct., Arcata, CA95521.

You can also write to Bruce Marrs at

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