Posts Tagged ‘paper’

My paper mind

You know how much I like paper, right? Check out this amazing paper animation by Javan Ivey. Each frame is cut from a notecard and layered on top of the ones behind it. Breathtaking.

Making a dancing bear’s head

20090510194436.jpg I needed to make two puppets, a “dancing bear” and a blind man, for a show that Jodi Eichelberger and I are doing at the Puppet Playlist.  To begin with, I did a drawing to get relative scale of the things I was building. I’ll usually be a lot tighter with drawings than this, but since we’re only performing this show twice, I’m working fairly loose through the whole process.

20090510200836.jpg I’m using the same paperfolding technique that I used when I made the Coraline dolls. The process involves folding the paper and taping it as I figure out the shape. You can see here that it’s too large and I don’t have the angles quite right.

20090510201245.jpg I marked the areas that I wanted to change, then cut the face apart to make a flat pattern. Each V cut out of the pattern represents a dart in the paper.  I cut the pattern in half so that when I trace it I can flip it to get a more symmetrical shape on the next round.  I saved the side that was closest to what I want the final to look like.

20090510222709.jpg My next draft is closer, but still off. Again I mark the areas I want to change.

20090510223235.jpg Cut it apart into a pattern and try again.

20090511011802.jpg The third draft is close enough that I decide to glue it together as my “final.” If I were doing this for a client, I’d probably continue tweaking it to match the drawing more closely since the drawing is what the client would be expecting. Since it’s just me, I’m calling it good enough.

20090511244628.jpg On the interior of the head, I paste paper bandages across each of the seams so that it takes on a fairly smooth exterior.

20090511011820.jpg And here’s what my bear looks like from the front. I’ll post photos of the finished critter later.


Papier-mache is one of the oldest forms for creating puppets and so a lot of people think that there must be something better out there. Actually, there are very few contenders. Done well, papier-mache is light, strong, fast, and non-toxic. I know, we’ve all had the experience of the lumpy paste, and corners that stick up and a thing that requires years of sanding to even resemble smooth. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ll show you a technique that will only need three layers and can be danced on.


The first thing to do is make sure you’re working with that right stuff.

  • Wheat-based wallpaper paste. Why wheat? It has glucose in it, which binds with the cellulose in paper making a much stiffer and stronger wall, so you need fewer layers.
  • Brown paper bags & other paper. The important thing here is that you don’t use newspaper. The fibers are short and it has no structural integrity of its on. Mostly it’s used as a counting layer. You do need paper that’s two different colors so you can tell what areas you’ve papier-mache and what you haven’t. I use either leftover printer paper (recycling) or scrap pages out of my sketchpad. As long as it’s not the same color as the bags, a similar weight, and it is uncoated it will work.
  • Tissue paper. Yes I do mean Kleenex or toilet paper. We will use this to separate the paper from the form. Regardless of whether you are doing direct papier-mache or working into a mold you don’t want it to stick when it’s dry.
  • Plaster mold (optional) If you know how to make a plaster mold it is easier and faster to work into a negative than to papier-mache directly on the form.


  1. Mix your wallpaper paste in a shallow container like a pie-plate (anything will work this is easiest). Make a small batch. (Trust me, you will appreciate having to stop and wash your hands to make more.) Cover the bottom of the pan with cool water. Shake a SMALL amount of the paste onto the water. Add more if you need to for the right consistency. I use the Zen method of mixing till it feels right, which for me is like cream of wheat or a melted milkshake.
  2. Tear the paper into 6″ pieces (approximately). Don’t cut it. You want a soft edge on the paper so it will adhere better and more smoothly to the other pieces.  If you’re using heavy paper, like paper bags, put the pieces in a bucket of water to soak. (Printer paper with disintegrate if you do that, so, um, don’t.) This is much like the stage where you soak fabric before dying it. It helps the pores open up and absorb the paste better. It also makes the paper more pliable for going around corner. And finally, it makes the paper swell slightly. As it dries you get a tighter bond with fewer air bubbles.
  3. Layer of tissue in moldPlace the dry tissue paper in the mold (or on your form). After it is covered with a single layer, sprinkle it with water. I’ve splurged on art tissue before and it doesn’t work as well as facial tissue because, well, facial tissue is designed to withstand snot. It holds up better.
  4. Pick up a piece of brown paper bag and touch the bottom of it to the wallpaper paste so that when you pick it up it’s got maybe two inches covered with paste. (The biggest mistake folks make is to use too much paste). Smear it on both sides of the paper and crumple the piece. We’re trying to break up the fibers in the paper and work the paste into it. All techniques do this it’s just faster to do it with a large piece than lots of small pieces. What you want is for the paste to work inside rather than sitting on the surface.
  5. First layer of paperTear off a piece and place it in the mold or on the form. In a mold this is the layer that will be seen so it’s the only one that has to be neat. (On a form the last layer is the visible one so all layers have to be neat. You’ll just repeat all steps except six). Make sure that the piece is small enough that it doesn’t form wrinkles. Start in the center and work out. Overlap the pieces, pressing to remove airbubbles. When you get to the edge of the mold or form, go outside by at least an inch. You’ll need this to grab hold of when it’s time to take the papier-mache out.
  6. Second layer of paperMOLDS ONLY. After the whole layer is covered in brown. Get another piece of the bag, wet it in paste, and crumple it as before. Wad it up and shove it tightly into the detail areas. For instance, if you’ve got a nose, push it as far into the nose and nostrils as you can. What will happen is that the detailed areas will suddenly have ten layers of mache and the surface is smoother so your next layer will go faster.For this photo, I switched to white paper for my second layer and did the wads of paper with the brown so that it was easy for you to see.
  7. Final layer of paperRepeat steps 4-6 with the other paper, when it’s covered go back to the brown bag. Do this until you have between three to five layers. IMPORTANT do it while the layers are wet. They adhere better and you will have fewer airbubbles.
    Your final layer will be with whatever your first layer was. I only do three layers. You can see how much smoother the details are on this one than on the first layer.
  8. Let it dry. Put it the sun. Be patient, you can put it in front of a space heater or bake it (250 degrees) but you risk the layers drying at different rates. I have to admit that in the winter I usually force it dry, because I’m not patient.
    What works really well, if you can find it, is an old standing hair dryer. It circulates the air and helps the thing dry evenly and pretty darn fast. The biggest challenge. If the top layer dries before the bottom layer — the one touching the plaster — then it will seal the moisture in and slow the bottom layer’s dry time. Make sense?
  9. Pulled from moldIt will reach a stage we call leathery. It’s still flexible, but it’s dry, like leather. This is the best time to pull it out. Be careful, if it’s too early and you see wrinkles happening, don’t do it. It’s better to wait until its completely dry.
  10. Peel off what tissue paper you can and the rest smooth down with the paste.
  11. TrimmedTrim the edges and then wrap them in papier-mache to keep them from peeling up.

You have to take some care with that first layer, but after that the subsequent layers go really, really fast. I can usually crank a single part mold out in forty-five minutes to an hour. It’s a pretty good ratio and the materials are dirt cheap.

I’ve dropped puppets from the second floor, hurled them against walls, and even stood on papier-mached pieces. Done right, the durability is surprising. The detail, going into a mold is pretty crisp, too. As a testament to that, here is the finished face of the wood witch.

Woodwitch face

Modding my wireless keyboard

Sometimes, a girl needs a break from things she has to do and takes it by doing something she wants to do, which uses exactly the same skill sets as the things she’s taking a break from. For instance, I’ve been doing a lot of book binding and work with marbled papers for the show Prisoner of the Crown.

As noted elsewhere, I have a weakness for paper and it wasn’t really possible for me to handle all of these papers without coveting. Especially since I had them scanned and was printing them onto giant sticker sheets for work anyway.

Giant sticker sheets… hm. And I’ve just gotten this new $10 folding keyboard.

Bottom of closed Palm keyboard mod
So, while I was waiting for something else to dry, I made this.

Palm keyboard modFrom the outside it doesn’t look that much different from a makeup case or small book. In fact, I thought about putting lettering on it, but decided I liked the cleanness of the lines.

Palm Keyboard mod openingWell, that and everything on this moves as it opens.

Open Palm Keyboard modThe keys are a slightly modified version of the Kowal Portable keyboard. I used a different paper for the interior. I thought about doing brass cogs instead, but decided that I liked the idea of playing with book motifs instead, so went with a contrasting endpaper. I may swap this endpaper out though for something more interesting.

At the moment the infrared wand is painted bronze, though I might change it to a red gloss, like a silk ribbon bookmark. Alas, there’s not enough space for another layer of thickness in here, so it can’t be actual silk.

That’s also why the space bar is not wood. I cut the pieces but even paper thin wood was too thick for this to handle.

Closeup Palm Keyboard modBecause the keyboard has much snugger margins for fit the whole thing is done with laser printed regular sticker paper (instead of the schtickers I used on the Kowal Portable) and coated with ModgePodge. Yep. This is a decoupage keyboard.

It’s a little stiff, opening it, but I think that’ll loosen up.

Back of palm keyboard modAnd this is what people sitting across from me will see.

I wonder how long it will take before I feel compelled to bronze my Palm Pilot?

Film puppets are different than stage puppets

Thursday, Jodi and I shot a pilot episode. We were the only two puppeteers on the shoot, and as often happens, the only people in the room with prior puppetry experience. The puppets were charming but, to my eye, built by a stage puppeteer rather than a film and television puppeteer. How could I tell? Small details, like visible specks of glue. Now, for stage, this doesn’t matter ((We have a saying, “forty feet on a galloping horse” which means that if you won’t notice it while galloping on horseback forty feet away you won’t notice it on the stage either)) but for film work you have to be prepared for extreme closeups.

These were rod puppets and the necks were extremely thin, long and sproingy. ((Yes, that’s a technical term.)) Our slightest tremor translated into a giant head wiggle. On top of that, the mouth trigger would actually pull the whole head down with it. None of this violated the forty feet and a galloping horse rule, but boy howdy did it look funny in a closeup. We weren’t doing lipsync so much as headsync.

AND one of the puppets broke moments after we got there. I had a total MacGyver moment and repaired the puppet with a paperclip, gaffers tape and superglue. (( No, I can’t describe the repair in more detail because to do so would require explaining what the characters were which would blow the secrecy around the pilot.))

The guys we were working for were supernice and thankfully understood the challenges pretty darn quickly. On the whole, they seemed pleased. Hopefully I’ll be able to show you some of it down the line.

Generating a poetry manuscript for a prop

One of the joys, when I’m doing props, comes from creating paper goods. Letters, diaries and in this case, a 40-page poetry manuscript…. I took the text of the scene, fed it into the Bonsai Story Generator and got titles from the Book Title Generator. That gave me about ten pages, which I fed back into the story generator. The thing I love about it is that it makes things that flirt with sense without actually making sense.

Consider this gem.

Thoughts of a Sliver

The Vine Yearns for a tea table.
I take it.
Were done properly on a rule.
What was your name when he was your letters from there?
Why him?
Forgotten Person, I said you ask
The last two there.
And that, yes.
My Pilot in the Light
Perhaps just a great deal.
The last two there.
You are a tea table.

Go on. Read it aloud in a “meaningful” voice and tell me that it wouldn’t fit in at a poetry slam.

Time to make the donuts

For Steve and Idi I need a fake jelly donut.

Cutting the shape from blue foamI started with blue foam, the stuff used to insulate your house, and laminated two sheets of 1″ foam together to get the right thickness for the donut. Then I cut it out on the bandsaw.

Rounded with sandpaper
My beltsander and I rounded the thing. I used an exacto to carve the indentation that runs around the middle of a donut as well as adding the hole for the jelly.

Painted donutI used acrylic paint to cover it, with a healty dose of gell medium for gloss and elasticity. I would normally cover the donut with a protective layer first, but am going to try this one without it because we need it to be insanely light for a special effect.

Donut with jellyAnd here’s the donut with the jelly installed. The jelly is red paint and a ton of gell medium. When it’s dry, it should have a translucence. At the theater, I’ll add talcum powder to look like it’s got powdered sugar on it.

A paper puppet meets a certain end

This is a beautifully manipulated short with a paper puppet.

Now, I have to say that though I think this is really well done, it disappointed me. Let’s sum up. Puppet comes to life. Discovers world. Discovers that it is a puppet. Dies.

I was really excited when the video started, because it is beautifully shot and manipulated. I liked the way they let the light shine through the puppet and make no attempt to disguise that it’s a puppet made from brown paper. It is lovely. But then they had to go to the cliche ending. Granted, there are variations on this trope. Sometimes the ending is that the puppet kills the puppeteer.

This is not new material. I know, I know. There are no new ideas. I’ll grant that. But if you are going to recycle an old storyline, then you have to bring something new to it besides just making it pretty.

Coraline mask

Bill Schafer, at Subterranean Press, realized that he wanted to send out one other Coraline thank you. We couldn’t do another doll, because we had said that there would only be three of them. So I suggested a Coraline mask.

Scaling up Coraline I started by scaling up the pattern from the doll. Basically, I scanned the small pattern into the computer. Then I measured the distance from mouth to eye on my head (3 inches) and enlarged the pattern until that it matched that.

The exterior It goes together just like the little Coraline heads did. In some ways working at this scale is easier, because I don’t have to convince the paper to make tiny turns. In other ways it is harder, because I have more material flapping around as I’m working.

Destroying the book Because this is going to be a mask, the interior will be visible. I asked Bill to send me a pdf of the book so that I could print out some pages and use them to mache the interior. He sent me the book itself.

This caused the single biggest slow down on the project. I had to prep for a while before I was ready to destroy a book.

Owie! You can’t hear me whimpering, but I am.

It makes sense to use actual pages and I know that there are other copies, but oh. Oh. It goes against everything I was taught about respecting books.

Wheat based wallpaper paste Besides the paper, the other ingredient in paper-mache is wheat-based wallpaper paste. Everyone has their own recipe, but this is what works best for me.

Starting to macheThe lovely book is now so much raw material. I get a little paste on the paper, and then work it in so that it permeates all the fibers.

Smooth the paper Because her forehead has such nice big planes I’m able to lay in large pieces of paper.

The interiorI normally alternate colors of paper so I can tell how many layers I’ve done. Here, I alternated text and illustration. When I had my three structural layers in, I went back to add some purely decorative pieces, like making sure that I had a piece that said, “Neil Gaiman” in there prominently.

Warped As the mask dried, it warped. This happens sometimes if something dries unevenly or is unsupported. In this case, the damage happened because I painted it when it was still “leathery.” I didn’t think about the extra moisture I was pushing into the paper.

Back in trueFortunately, with paper-mache, one can re-dampen it and coax it back into true. Because I had painted it with watercolors, I could not dampen the outside so I brushed the interior with water. As I held it in the correct shape, Rob hit it with the hair dryer. Voila. A reformed mask.

Coraline mask and small head I used watercolors to paint the head. Here it is with the test head from the Coraline dolls.

Coraline mask, completed I had a moment of panic because the store no longer carried the paper that I’d used for the dolls’ hair. Fortunately, we found a substitute that had the right weight and color. Otherwise, I’d have been forced into taking a white sheet and tinting it. I was not excited by that.

Coraline mask, worn The mask worn. As a mask, it is very difficult to see out. For stage, I could preserve this look and give it more visibility by poking a billion pinholes around the eyes. But I suspect that the primary use of this will be to hang on the wall, so I left it alone.


Moneygami Penguin

Paper Forest, which is fast becoming one of my favorite blogs, linked to this series of photos of Moneygami. You remember doing this, right? Making a frog out of a dollar bill. There’s a whole new level of skill happening with these. In particular, check out the way the graphics on the money gets reinvented in the new creation.

Makes you want to go fold a dollar bill, huh?

Cut paper, anyone?

Kako Ueda does startling works of cut paper. That’s right, the image below is not drawn; all the red stuff is cut out of a piece of paper. Astounding, eh, what a sharp knife can do.
Life Tree Detail