A Bit of History
Papier mache has a very long history. Its origins comes from China; the inventors of paper itself. They used papier mache to make helmets of all things, which they toughened by many layers of lacquer. Examples have been found dating back to the Han Dynasty (BC 202 – AD 220).
Despite the French sounding name (French for “chewed paper”), papier mache was not made in France until the mid 17th century. However, they were the first country in Europe to do so.
From China, the interest in papier mache spread to Japan and Persia, where it was used in mask making and festival activities. Eventually it spread across the world. Large imports of papier mache objects swamped European markets. This in turn led France to start making its own wares, and England followed suit in the 1670s. There was only a half-hearted interest until the late 1700s and into the 1800s, when it
became widely used.
This little black lacquer pot is typical of the many oriental imported papier mache items. It has three turned up feet and a lid. The decoration is painted on in gold. The pot is from my own collection.
In 1740 the manufacturer John Baskerville, well known for his fine quality books and typefounding, began to imitate the lacquered pieces from Japan. This is how the term “japanning” came about. His business was very successful and later his assistant Henry Clay, invented a way to produce papier mache so strong that it was equally as durable as wood. He did this by gluing specially prepared paper under heat to form tough, heat resistant panels.
Henry Clay had taken out a patent on his invention, but when this ran out; small companies mushroomed, producing just about everything from papier mache. They were mostly concentrated in the Birmginham and Wolverhampton areas. It is from these companies that we get the beautifully decorated black enameled pieces that are so treasured today.
Papier mache lived on in America more as a craft form rather than a manufacturing material. Women started to make useful and decorative household objects. In the 1960’s a bit more papier mache interest was injected by a New York artist called Gemma, who while working with her husband in Mexico managed to stir up a lot of interest amongst Mexican artists who were inspired by her work and later even taught by her. This is despite Mexico’s long history of using papier mache for festivals and traditions, which are still going on today.
Let's Do it!
Papier mache is really easy to do, and there are very few requirements.
All you need is....
- Paper (newsprint is ideal)
- Plastic table covering
It is advisable to prepare everything before starting. Firstly, tear the newspaper into strips about an inch wide by 4 inches long. This is only approximate. Tear the paper with the grain.
Make your adhesive. There are many different recipes but below you will find the most common.
Papier mache recipes for adhesive
Note: all adhesives can be used with both layering and pulp methods of papier mache. I personally recommend wallpaper paste.
1 - Flour and water glue:
To make a flour and water glue follow these instructions:
Boil 5 cups of water in a saucepan.
In a bowl, mix 1/4 cup of sieved flour with a cup of cold water. Mix to a smooth consistency (a bit like making custard). When completely free of lumps, add the mixture to the water in the saucepan. Gently boil, stirring constantly for two or three minutes until the mixture thickens.
Allow to cool before using.
This will make a runny glue. If you prefer a very thick glue (or if you are in a hurry for it to dry) use this recipe instead:
Thick flour and water glue:
Use 1 whole cup of flour to three cups of water. Make using the same method as above.
2 - Wallpaper paste glue:
Make up a bowl according to the manufacturerï¿½s instructions. Use a little less water than recommended if preferred. Keep in an airtight container. It will keep for several days in a fridge or a cool place. Wallpaper paste has the advantage of containing a fungicide to prevent mould.
Note: It is not a good idea to let children use wallpaper paste in case they put their fingers in their mouths.
3 - White (pva) glue
Slightly water down the glue in a bowl and use straight away.
When you have decided which glue to use, the next thing to do is to decide what to make. To start is it advisable to use something to mould on.
What can be Used as Moulds?
Cheap and indispensable. No release agent needed. The balloon will tear itself away from your dried papier mache easily when burst.
Bowls and plates
These will need to have a release agent applied first to stop the papier mache sticking to them.
1. Layered papier machePaste the strips of paper both sides with a paintbrush.
Place your strips one at a time over the object to be covered and smooth down to remove air bubbles. Cover with two to three layers at a time. Donï¿½t put too many on at once or it will take too long to dry.
When it is completely dry, you can gradually build up as many layers as you require until you have the required thickness.
To add features such as rims, handles or decoration, stick pieces of cardboard onto the model with masking tape. Cover the whole object in more papier mache.
When completely dry, paint with two coats of emulsion paint to seal it and kill the newsprint. You could also use gesso for a slightly tougher base.
2. Pulped papier mache
This method will make a mixture of clay-like papier mache to sculpt with.
To make a pulp, soak some torn up newspaper in water overnight. Drain, and then boil in some clean water for about 30 minutes, until the fibres start to break up. Sieve the pulp and throw away the water. Beat or whisk the pulp to break up the fibres. Mix the adhesive into the pulp until it forms a clay-like consistency.
3. Paper mache sculptureAll kinds of throw away materials can be used to sculpt with papier mache:
Cardboard boxes - Sides can be cut out to make flat panels.
Packaging - Polystyrene chunks can be cut, glued together or taped with masking tape.
Wire netting - this can be cut and bent into all sorts of shapes and then covered with papier mache. Watch the sharp edges!
Bamboo canes - these can be cut to length and used to hold a sculpture rigid.
Have a look around and you will be surprised just how many things you can find to use.
Painting papier macheVirtually any paint can be used to paint your papier mache artwork. The most popular paint is water based acrylic. It is easy and clean to use, not too expensive and comes in a large variety of colours. It is also quick drying.
Poster paints can be used but you have to be careful not to use a water based varnish on them or the colours will smudge.
You can use up old gloss or enamel paints that you have lying around. The important thing to remember is that whatever paint you use, you must seal your work first. A household emulsion paint is ideal. A couple of coats should do it.