Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Look, I can fit my whole arm inside the mouth here

"Quick! Extra boiling oil!"  +1 Nerd Point if you can correctly identify the quote.

For something made of paper, it's got quite a bite on it.  The teeth aren't able to pierce skin of course, but they did leave marks.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Ooh! I have a great idea!

Pharyngeal teeth!  Check it:

I first discovered the magic of pharyngeal jaws via the Alien franchise, as I suspect most people do.  But in fact pharyngeal jaws are a thing, because biology is just that awesome.  In 2007 Dr. Rita Mehta discovered that the moray eel comes equipped with a second set of jaws just like Giger's xenomorphs have.

Pharyngeal jaws of varying complexity are common in fish - even the goldfish has 'em - but they're not usually as mobile as those of the moray eel.  

So anyways, I decided my trophy head would be improved by the addition of pharyngeal teeth.  I made some teeth based on cypriniform pharyngeal teeth and modified the gill arches to accommodate them.  This, actually, is one of the reasons I like to work with paper mache.  Major design changes halfway through the build require only a box cutter.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The ultimate mask tutorial

Today's post comes courtesy of Dan Reeder from, who has created what must surely be the definitive tutorial on making a paper mache mask and has very kindly given me permission to talk about it here.  I've made the odd mask out of paper mache and so has Dan, but unlike me has the skills to make a set of videos showing how it's done, and these are available on his YouTube channel.

In part 1, Dan explains how to custom fit the mask.

In part 2, he explains the process of constructing horns to go on the mask.  

     Part 2:

Part 3 discusses how to make the horns lightweight by hollowing them out.  These are very large horns, so making them hollow helps to ensure the mask isn't too heavy.  Part 3 also talks about putting eyes and teeth on the mask.  

Dan does something very, very clever with the eyes on his mask - he uses an old pair of glasses so that he doesn't have to worry about trying to fit his glasses under the mask.  Just take a minute to think about the possibilities here: even if you don't need/want to use prescription lenses you could have an awful lot of fun with, say, sunglass lenses or coloured perspex.

     Part 3:

Part 4 focuses on sculpting the mask's facial features.  Remember kids, don't use the blue masking tape on your paper mache.  It doesn't work.  I can vouch for that myself.

     Part 4:

In part 5, Dan demonstrates his signature technique, where he uses cloth to add skin texture to his project.  Cloth is very good for making skin textures, and it's also quite strong and durable.

     Part 5:

In part 6, Dan talks about finishing the mask, painting it, and making sure it's comfortable to wear.  I always get a kick out of Dan's painting technique.  He doesn't use a lot of colours - mostly just black and white and primaries.  Instead, he blends the paint to get a richly shaded surface with a lot of colour variation.  He also does amazing things with a blackwash.

     Part 6:

As always, I'm rather in awe of Dan's ability to make excellent, informative videos about his sculpture process.   He's also got a series of cool mask tutorial posts on his blog.  Thank you for sharing, Dan!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Trophy head armature

This week seems to be armature week.  As well as the mummified head I've got a trophy head armature on the go.  Remember the papillae I made?  I'll be using them in the trophy head as you can see in the photo.  I've started to build up gill arches and other mouth interior details inside the armature.

Basically, the head armature is a wire and cardboard frame.  This frame is mostly hollow, made up as a series of triangles to ensure it's both strong and lightweight.  

It will have a lower jaw some time in the future, but it's much easier for me to get my hands inside to work on the interior before I make up the mandible.  From the back, you can see that it's constructed out of triangular cells, kind of like a roof truss and for much the same reason.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Getting a pewter effect with Sculpt Nouveau

Last time I posted I was using silver Sculpt Nouveau and not particularly liking the results.  I had another go with the stuff, and this time I'm a lot happier with it.  I've photographed it without a flash, because I think the surface details show up better that way, and with a flash, because that shows the dull, pewter-type luster that it has.

Without flash

With flash

This is the effect I was aiming for in the first place.  I've achieved it by applying a thick coating of silver Sculpt Nouveau, then rubbing black wax into the surface.  Metal waxes protect the metal surface, and different coloured ones can do a great job of enhancing surface details.   There are specially formulated waxes designed for sculptural work, but that's not what I used in this case.  Because you know what else is black and waxy?  Shoe polish, that's what.  

Friday, 17 January 2014

Unholy anthropological mash-up time!

I'm currently obsessed with a) neolithic plaster heads, and b) the Cladh Hallan mummies.  What can I make that incorporates both traditions?  Well, I guess that's a silly question, since we all know the answer is obviously a mummified head.


Sadly, it's still early days with this project and I don't have any exciting pictures of finished work, just pictures of armature.  This is how a mummified head starts.  The underlying shape of the skull is largely finished at this stage, but it still needs a jaw and proper facial features.  The eyes use Sculpt Nouveau's silver coating.  I have to say, I'm not thrilled by the silver coating.  It will probably be okay here because it will mostly be covered by eyelids, but I don't really like it all that much.  It's indistinguishable from silver paint, except that it's cold to the touch.

I should add that this probably isn't the Sculpt Nouveau's fault.  It is possible to get this stuff looking very good - see here for an example - but I'm new to the product and I haven't yet figured out how to work with it.

One of the nice things about paper mache is that you can make hollow, lightweight forms quickly and easily.  This skull was made from newspaper, layered over a plastic bag stuffed with rag.  After it dried the bag and rags were easy to remove, and by leaving the plastic bag handles poking out the neck hole I was able to peg it up on the clothesline to dry.  It is windy at my house, and I find this reduces my drying times substantially as long as I peg things securely enough.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Make do & mend the Bronze Age way

Regular readers know how it is with the Historical Sew Fortnightly.   In my case it sometimes ends up being the Historical Sculpt Fortnightly,  and when that happens I blog about the results.  This fortnight's theme is "make do and mend", for which I've made European Bronze Age jewelry using common items from around the house.

Photographed with a ruler for scale.

Clockwise from left: an Italic spectacle fibula from 800-600 BCE, a central European pendant from 1000-700 BCE, and a central European ring also from 1000-700 BCE.

These items embody the spirit of "make do and mend" in two ways.  Firstly, they're not made from hammered bronze, but from copper electrical wire and galvanized tie wire coated with bronze Sculpt Nouveau.  Secondly, the patina was achieved using household cleaning products.

It's possible to buy ready-mixed patinas that you simply spray on the metal surface, but you would not believe the trouble I had trying to get hold of that stuff.  There's nothing exotic about patina, most artists who work with metal use it.  In fact, stores in other countries stock dozens of different kinds of the stuff, but it's made from pretty nasty chemicals and international shipping is therefore a problem.  But here in New Zealand, no one seems to have even heard of it.  Even the specialist art supplies stores here don't carry it.  In the end I did some research and found that the main ingredients for a blue-green patina are salt, vinegar and ammonia.  I'd been looking all over town when I should have been looking under the kitchen sink all along.  The process I used is very simple:

Mix 1 part white vinegar to 3 parts ammonia and saturate some cotton wool with this mixture.  Sprinkle the piece of metal with salt and wrap it in the damp cotton wool, then put it in a sealed container for around 48 hours or however long it takes to get the effect you want.  It's important to use a sealed container because it's mainly the ammonia fumes that do the work, and those fumes are vile.  I suppose I ought to mention that for safety reasons you should wear gloves and work in a well ventillated area, but in fact I did neither of those things and I don't want to be a hypocrite. 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Papillae revisited

These are an improvement over my last lot of papillae.  

They definitely look better when painted.  This is a base coat of Payne's grey, with burnt umber, cadmium red and white over top of it.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

In which I review Aztecs: Conquest and Glory

Aztecs: Conquest and Glory is Te Papa's current big exhibition, and this is my review.  I realise I'm quite late to this party as the exhibition finishes on the 9th of February, but I didn't get a chance to see it before now.

I do recomend going if you haven't already.  It's an opportunity to see artifacts that you couldn't otherwise see in New Zealand and man, there are some cool artifacts in this exhibition.  Aztec artifacts are particularly good to see in the flesh, because they are so solid and monumental.

I also strongly recommend buying the exhibition catalogue.  It contains more extensive information than the exhibition labels, and has excellent pictures.  It's 104 pages, full colour throughout, and they were marked down to $2 apiece when I visited.  

Here's my favourite piece from the exhibition.  It shows a whole lifetime condensed into one image - first a young face, then an old face, and finally a corpse with closed eyes.

Photo from the Guggenheim website.

Another thing I liked about the exhibition was how it made no attempt to gloss over the less palatable aspects of Aztec life; because there's no delicate way to put it - the Aztecs were a right bunch of bastards.  Here is a bassalt statue of the god Xipe Totec wearing the skin of a sacrificial victim.  It is not an example of artistic license.  Aztec sacrificial rituals involved killing the victim by cutting out his heart, after which the priest would skin him and wear the skin.  Notice how you can see the figure's real eyes and mouth underneath the skin, and the wide slit in the chest of the skin - this is the incision used to remove the victim's heart.

Photo taken from the exhibition catalogue.

Equally fascinating are a pair of exhibits showing a Spanish conquistador's armour compared with the armour and weapons of an Aztec warrior.  I was aware the Spanish had enjoyed a massive technological advantage, but seeing the items side by side really brought home the inevitability of the Spanish conquest.

Spanish Conquest, 1519
No contest, really.  Picture from this article, which I found quite interesting.

There are some problems with the exhibition, and these largely relate to the exhibit labels.  They're just not very informative.  They tell you the age of the object and that's about it.  In many cases there's no information on how the object was made or what its significance was, and this is a missed opportunity.  It would have been wonderful if there had been some discussion of how the Aztecs made large stone statues using technology that was basically stone age, for example.  

Additionally, the items don't seem to be grouped together in any chronological order, which makes it hard to get a sense of how the Aztecs' culture developed.

And then there's this little gem.

No, Te Papa.  No, no, no.  You cannot call something an "Atlantean figure" and expect to retain credibility.  In this case "Atlantean" is a bit of technical jargon used to describe a statue that supports something on its head.  It comes from the Greek myth of Atlas, who held the world on his shoulders.  If the label explained this, I wouldn't have a problem with it, but it doesn't.  Normally when people say "Atlantean" they mean something from Atlantis and my first thought on seeing this was that Te Papa was trying to tell me the Toltecs were Atlanteans.  There's already more than enough Atlantis-related bullshit out there without Te Papa encouraging it.

My inner cynic wonders if Te Papa has deliberately used the term "Atlantean" in a sensationalist and misleading way.  Have they also played up the human sacrifice angle to sell tickets?

So, conclusion time:  Aztecs works well as an art exhibition, but it works less well as a museum exhibit and the label copy is terrible.  I enjoyed it and I'm glad I went, but I'd suggest you should go in with the right set of expectations.  You can expect to see some awesome stuff, but don't expect to learn a whole lot about the Aztecs just by walking around the exhibition.  Fortunately, the catalogue fills in a lot of this information and is excellent value for money.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014


When I made my dragon I used paper spikes to add texture to its skin, and when I'd finished I had a bunch of them left over.  I think they look a lot like the papillae inside a leatherback turtle's mouth, and that gives me an idea.

Picture from the always excellent Science-Based Life blog.

I had a bit of a play with the spikes, making some papillae.  I think I need a few more spikes, but the basic idea is very interesting and I think I can develop it into something cool.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Paper mache in the ancient world

You may have noticed that I like to work with paper mache.  I think it’s an under-appreciated medium, and in my experience many people don’t realise the versatility and potential it can offer.  I blame primary schools.  The process of gluing newspaper strips on a balloon is not versatile or engaging, and tends to produce results that look exactly like newspaper strips glued on a balloon unless you’re Scott Stoll, who makes fantastic Jack-o-Lanterns using balloons.  The history of paper mache is fascinating, and today I thought it would be fun to take a look at paper mache in the ancient world.

Techniques that fall under the modern umbrella term “paper mache” were probably first used in ancient Egypt.*  The stuff is called cartonnage, and was made by gluing together layers of papyrus, linen, or both.  The papyrus fragments were recycled from books and other documents, which means cartonnage objects can be a goldmine for people who study ancient literature.

The first picture here is the coffin of an unknown woman, made from cartonnage.  Whoever she was, she was someone fairly ordinary; we can see from the quality of her coffin that she wasn't wealthy.  Compare her coffin with the second picture, which shows an expensive cartonnage.  It's well made with a great deal of attention to detail, and it has been gilded.  Cartonnage was more economical and easier to work with than wood, but it wasn't necessarily a cheap option.

A Third Intermediary period coffin made from cartonnage.  Image from The Walters Art Museum.

A Roman Period cartonnage in the Brooklyn Museum.

The ancient Egyptians and Aegean peoples were also making armour out of what paper mache artist Dan Reeder terms “cloth mache” - layers of cloth laminated together with glue.  A cuirass made from linen cloth mache was called a linothorax in Greek, and was still in use by Alexander the Great’s army.  It was basically the Kevlar of its time.  It was able to absorb and deflect the force of an impact, and it was much lighter than metal.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay testing a linothorax.  The results speak for themselves.

Yes, that's what Classics scholars get up to in the name of research.  Now you know why I have a Classics degree.

This image from an ancient Greek vase shows a soldier wearing a linothorax.

I’ve heard that paper mache was used in Han dynasty China to make helmets, but frustratingly I can’t find any sources for this let alone any pictures.  The fact that I can only read a few characters in Mandarin doesn’t help, and if any readers can point me in the direction of some good sources I’d be very grateful.  However, I did manage to find this fantastic Japanese Edo period (17th century CE) helmet which incorporates a paper mache sculpture.  So far as I can determine, this was a functional helmet. 

Edo Period Samurai helmet.  Image from

The Edo Period isn't ancient at all, but I thought it would be an interesting way to finish up today's post anyway, since I was discussing paper mache armour.  Samurai helmets from this period featured elaborate sculptures like the one above in order to identify the owner.  They were a type of feudal crest, much like a European knight's coat of arms.  Each Samurai had his own unique insignia, and they were often constructed out of leather and paper mache.   Using these materials instead of metal would have reduced the weight of the helmet and made it less awkward to wear, and you can see from the picture why this was desirable - those crests could be enormous.

*I'm calling it "ancient Egypt" because I can't spell the word Pharonic Phaoronic... you know what I mean.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Cast paper leaves tutorial

Here's what the leaves look like before they're painted.  They actually look quite good just as white paper.

Last month I said I'd post a tutorial on making cast paper leaves.  This is it, although there's really not a lot to it because cast leaves are quite easy to make.  You simply need leaves (any leaf is good; I used oak leaves), tissue paper, a brush, and watered down PVA glue.  About a 1:1 mix works well.

Everything you need to make a leaf cast.

All you need to do is to place about three layers of tissue paper on the underside of the leaf and brush them with the PVA, making sure there are no air bubbles.  Once the glue is dry you  the paper layers will have all stuck together and will conform to the shape of the leaf.  You then simply peel off the leaf, cut away the excess paper around the edges, and add a wire stem.

When it's wet, the leaf cast should look like this.  Notice how the paper moulds around the veins on the underside of the leaf - this is what you want to see as it will give you a nicely detailed casting.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The dragon is finished

What better way to kick off the new year than with a dragon?

I'm especially fond of the eyes - a little trick I learned from Dan Reeder.

It's finished now and I have to say, I think it's pretty cool.  The skin has been undercoated with burnt sienna, then coloured with a mixture of burnt sienna, cadmium red, and bronze paints.  After that I've given it some green and blue markings like little spots.

Here's the whole dragon from the front:

And here's a close up of the chest: