Paper Mache “Party Animals”

The operations manager of a restaurant close to my home contacted me at the beginning of September and asked if I would make them an elephant and a donkey for this coming political season.  They wanted a paper mache elephant and donkey to hang in the middle of the restaurant.    Other than asking for those animals, the only other requirements were that the projects had to be somewhat articulated and that they needed to be more than 4 feet tall.   So I’ll let you watch me make this commission.   I must try very hard not to show my political leanings in this project.
I was under the pressure of time from the beginning.  As you might guess, the larger the project, the more “engineered” they have to be.  With big projects like this I like to make large, paper mache shells first, then add reinforcements later.    And paper mache takes a long time to dry.    Thick paper mache can take a week to dry.

Armature first.   I don’t do anything exotic here.   I don’t use chicken wire or cardboard for my armatures.   I crumple many balls separately and then tape them all together.  Later, after they have had paper mache added and they are completely dry I will cut a hole and pull out all of these wads of paper.   It works very well.  It’s a little hard to see in this photo, but I have at least 30 crumpled balls all taped into one big mass.   The first photo is a side shot.  Yes, I do go through lots of masking tape!  I’m adding a photo of me and Eddy next this crumpled mass (from the front) to give you a sense of scale.    Say hi to Eddy!   He really enjoyed this project!
This is going to be the elephant of course.  Here I am, with Eddie, to give you a sense of how big this first body is.   I put the “head” paper mache ball on top.

The body of the donkey was much more manageable.   I needed probably 10 crumpled balls taped together into an elongated  body for this piece.   This next shot was taken the day after after I added the paper mache to the bodies.   I inserted a long threaded bar through the elephant.  That way I could hang the giant ball and let it dry from all sides at once.   I don’t like sitting such a heavy piece on a flat surface when it is first wet.   There is a tendency for a big wad of wet paper like this to compress and change shape.

I let these dry for five full days before I cut them open.   Still,  they were a bit damp in the middle (I told you paper mache takes a long time to dry thoroughly.).  I pulled out the wads of paper inside leaving two very large shells to work with.     (By the way, I threw those crumpled wads of paper into a pile to paper mache again for  use in later projects.)


Paper Mache “Party Animals”: Moving Right Along

Since these are big projects I bought some quarter inch aluminum bars for the insides of the legs.  Paper mache alone, even if it’s thick, isn’t strong enough for legs like this.   I got these bars at Home Depot.   They are really great for this purpose.   I put some bends in the bars using my anvil.
Then I did my usual sculpting with various paper mache balls and pieces of balls, and of course, lots of masking tape.   Note the bar sticking out at the thigh level.    The leg will pivot on that bar.Below is the donkey hanging from the ceiling for the first time.  It hangs from a three-eighths inch threaded bar that extends through the body to the chest.    I’ve sculpted the front legs.      And I’ve finished the cloth  mache on the donkey jaws.  Note the horse teeth.  Thank you Mona!
As you probably noticed, the jaws are made from the shells of a paper mache ball.

The elephant took a lot more reinforcement as you might imagine.  Again, paper mache alone is not strong enough for hanging such a large piece.   The aluminum was critical.   Note the aluminum strap on the side.  It will end up between the paper mache layers and the cloth mache.    This strap extends all around and under the elephant and is connected at the top to another threaded bar extending through the body.  All of this is necessary because of the weight of the project.

Paper Mache “Party Animals”: A Head and some Cloth Mache

I left off with the donkey hanging from the ceiling waiting for a head.   As you can see in the photo I started by loosely taping some pieces of paper mache balls together to form a neck.  I keep this all loose because 9 times out of 10 I will tear off whatever I put on after I decide it doesn’t “look right.”   I then added a “head sized” paper mache ball on top of the neck.  When the proportions looked right I  fashioned a few muscles in the neck using newspaper and masking tape.


I inserted the jaws.  Note that I’d already painted them.  I used the shell of another ball to make donkey ears and I added eyes.  After that I cloth mached the face.  Okay, I know what you are thinking….. this looks like the donkey in Shrek, right?  You almost expect to hear Eddie Murphy’s voice.   I really hated it.   In my next entry I’ll show you how I tweaked the features to make it less Shrekkish.


Back to the elephant.    I don’t often use the stuff, but I used some commercial paper mache pulp for the elephant’s horns and toenails.   I just added water to the mixture and fashioned some crude horns.  In this photo the horns were dry but not sanded.  The toenails were fairly easy to make.   I just flattened a few little balls and let them dry.   They got really hard.   So hard in fact that I  ended up using a belt sander to shape them.   Here is a photo of the toenails after sanding.   I didn’t want them to be perfect.   After all, they are elephant  toenails.

I hot glued the toenails to the feet and added some cloth.    To add strength to the elephant body, I applied a couple layers of cloth mache.  Once those layers were dry, I took large pieces of cloth dipped in glue and draped them over the torso.    As you can see, I pinched the cloth to give the elephant body a wrinkled texture.

I left a large hole in the side of the body since I still needed to attach the arms from the inside.   As you can imagine, the body of the elephant became a refuge for the cats.  I caught Eddie climbing out after a nap.  Isn’t nice that I didn’t paper mache the hole?


Paper Mache “Party Animals”: Almost Finished

So this is the entry where I admit defeat.   It is hard for me to share this.   Okay, well not as hard as, say, saving for retirement, but hard nonetheless.    I’m still bothered that I couldn’t make this work.  I’ve been doing paper mache for a very long time.  I don’t fail.   As I mentioned earlier, when a patron entered the restaurant through the red door (the door on the right, of course) the front legs would swing up.   I also planned on making the trunk swing up revealing an open mouth.   As you can see in the photos I put an aluminum bar through the top of the trunk.   Then I used aluminum flat bars to build a bracket to support the trunk.   It was looking good at this point.  The trunk swung nicely up into the air. 

I took the trunk off and  constructed a head around the bracket.   Using some of the paper mache balls I had around,  I sculpted and painted a mouth and tongue. 

Here is where the trouble started.   I knew that I would need a hole at the top of the trunk.  The base of the trunk needed to swing back into the head as the trunk was raised.   I thought that I could sculpt the rest of the face around that hole.     Well I couldn’t.   After placing the eyes all over the head I realized that they needed to be directly above the trunk to get the face I wanted.   When I did that, the hole looked like a little mouth.    No matter what variation I tried it just looked terrible.    I had to decide between artistic integrity and having the trunk move.     In the end, there wasn’t really a choice.  I needed the elephant to look the way I envisioned from the beginning no matter what.   So I abandoned the idea of the trunk swinging with the arms.     It ended up being just fine.    Having only the legs of the elephant move was consistent with having just the hind legs of the donkey swing.      And as you can see the elephant’s face looks much better without the hole.    
I must say at this point that this is what I mean when I say that paper mache is “forgiving.”  I was able to fix the face fairly easily.  I don’t know of any other medium where you can just cut things up and take a new direction.

Speaking of the donkey…
I finally attached the hind legs.   As you can see I had to take out more of the wadded paper in the hind quarters (that I’ll re-paper mache later for another project).   I used pipe clamps to connect the two legs to each other inside the body.  Then I patched the hole in the belly.

I also made an executive decision to change the eyes from brown human eyes to wild boar eyes.   Much better don’t you think?  Less Shrekkish.  

Paper Mache “Party Animals”: Finished (in time for the elections!)

My paper mache party animals are finally finished.   The first photo is in my studio.   They really took up a great deal of space.  My studio felt empty after I took them out.   As you can see, the donkey and the elephant were painted with the same light gray color.   I then added  “washes” of red and blue (with white stars) to add the final, political logo-like touch.  Well, and I put a mane on the donkey.  You just have to trust me that they look much better in person.

Below is a photo of Doug, the engineer and fix-it person for the 5 Spot restaurant, tightening the bolts on the brackets holding the elephant.   Doug is the one who rigged all of the wires between the front doors of the restaurant and the arms of the elephant and hind legs of the donkey.    That was not an easy task, believe me.   There are two doors into the restaurant.  They painted one red and one blue.   When someone opens the red door the elephant raises his trunk (naturally).  When they open the blue door the donkey kicks his hind legs.   (I know the donkey looks to be kicking the elephant.  Don’t read too much into that.)

Taking photos of my paper mache is always hard.   They never do the pieces justice.   It was very  difficult getting good shots from inside the restaurant.  But I think you can see the pieces pretty well.   As I mentioned before, when someone opens the blue front door, the donkey kicks his hind legs.   When the red front door is opened, the elephant throws up his front legs.   In the end they worked perfectly.   And I am very happy with how they look.  I am very proud of the fact that I made these in three short weeks.   I don’t recommend it.   I actually had the hair dryer out at times trying to dry some pieces.

“Party Animals”

Thanks for watching this unfold.    If you are in Seattle, you can find these at the 5 Spot Cafe on the top of  Queen Anne Hill.   I’ve been told that these pieces will be displayed during all election cycles.

8 Responses to Paper Mache “Party Animals”

  1. Chassity says:

    I was wondering when you talk about using “cloth” what type of cloth do you use?

  2. samir says:

    what type of colors you use to paint the cloth ?? is it still permanent in the cloth ??

  3. Unknown says:

    I want to make it but how do you make the ears of donkey and elephant

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