Introduction: Paper-mache Frankenstein Mask

So I had this idea for a Halloween costume, but I didn't have any experience building stuff like this. I knew if this ended up being too time-consuming, too expensive, or just too difficult I'd get sick of it and bail, so I tried to keep it simple for my first attempt.

Frankenstein's monster was a great choice because it could be all rough and asymmetrical and wonky and that would still make sense for the character.

I had a lot of fun making this and will definitely try something a bit more ambitious in the future.

Step 1: The Core

I drew up a bunch of really rough sketches for what I thought this thing should look like, but I wasn't too concerned about transferring proportions or anything. I'm an illustrator by trade, and I can draw Frankensteins with my eyes closed. The character is so recognizable that I knew it would look good no matter what. If I were trying to duplicate a sketch exactly or anything, I would have been more careful.

I started with a simple cylinder of rolled-up posterboard. Fortunately one piece was just the right size, though I realize now that I could have taped several sheets of posterboard together if I wanted to make a larger mask. I tried to taper the cylinder a little so it's wider at the base and narrower at the top. The more stuff that got added, the subtler that effect became, so I kind of wish I'd exaggerated it a bit more.

Trying it on over my head, I sketched in a mouth where my eyes were located, then took it off and drew in a rough nose, brow ridge, etc.

I cut out the mouth and double-checked that I could see out of it. Then I got to work building up the features.

Step 2: Building It Up

Everything is just torn- and wadded-up newspaper, roughly sculpted into shape and held down with a ton of masking tape. I started with the nose and eyebrow ridge.

Other features: the ears are just half-circles of posterboard with tabs that I attached through slits cut in the sides of the head.

The chin is another flat piece of posterboard taped on the bottom to cover up my neck. I added a small cushion of newspaper to it and the ears to make them a little three-dimensional.

Next I added the neck bolts: small cylinders of posterboard rolled up and affixed to the head. For these I cut tabs too, but instead of going through slits I just taped them to the outside surface. I closed off the other end with masking tape, knowing this would get covered in paper-mache eventually.

I thought I was done at this point, but my girlfriend convinced me to add even more dimension by sculpting some cheekbones and bags under the eyes, and then I decided to also flesh out some lips around the mouth. In retrospect, I think this was a great decision. Just a little extra work made it look a lot better and really disguised the fact that the posterboard base underneath was so simple.

Also the cap was a trimmed-down paper plate with a little newspaper on top to raise it up a bit, as well.

Step 3: Paper-mache

The next step was to cover the whole mess in paper-mache. I tore newspaper into long strips. I probably could have made things smoother had I used smaller bits of newspaper but I dunno.

I also read conflicting reports on what makes the best mixture. In the end I decided on equal parts water and Elmer's Glue because, even though this was for Halloween, I wanted it to last beyond the holiday and I was afraid that a flour-water mix might get moldy down the line.

The smooth parts on the sides and back of the head went fast, but getting all the detailed parts was slower. I tried my best to make sure everything adhered and laid flat, but some parts wrinkled up exposing gaps below. This is where smaller bits of newspaper would have come in handy. Anyway, I tried my best and kept reminding myself that imperfections would only add to the Frankenstein-ness of the thing. Fortunately I had gotten the newspaper and tape looking pretty much the way I wanted so I didn't have to try and construct anything out of paper-mache; it was really just to reinforce and add strength to the mask.

(I noticed at this point that the more I added to the mask, the tighter it fit. The paper mache seemed to shrink a little as it dried, compressing the cylinder and making it hard to get on. It was still pretty malleable, so I was able to wear it, but it was a lot more snug than when I started out.)

This was probably the longest single step of the whole process. I heard that adding another layer before the first one is dry can also lead to mold so I had to wait a day until the whole thing was dry enough to add a second layer. I probably could have done another layer for additional strength or more touch-ups at this point, but I was eager to move on.

So once the paper-mache dried, I laid down two coats of opaque white gesso to make sure the printing on the newspaper wouldn't show through.

Step 4: Paint

I worked up a quick color mock-up in Photoshop to test out the color combo I had in mind. (At this point, I was thinking about adding a row of teeth, but I eventually decided against it.)

When I was satisfied with that, I covered the whole mask with a few coats of blue-green acrylic paint. (We had a bunch of tubes of varying quality lying around the house. I tried to use the cheap stuff as much as possible, but had to dip into the "artist quality" tubes as well. Fortunately, even a project of this size didn't use all that much paint--thanks to the less-expensive gesso I put down first--so it worked out okay).

I then added a few darker shadows under the eyebrow ridge, the nose, and the mouth, and used the same color to put in some details/shadows on the ears as well. I then painted the nose orange for contrast, the bolts silver, and the scalp black. I used a lighter blue to make the lips stand out somewhat, but I tried to keep that subtle. Mainly I just wanted to break up the large areas of solid blue-green a little bit.

Step 5: Details

I added some ping-pong ball eyes. I tried some larger ones--paper-mache Christmas ornaments from Michaels--but they were too large for my taste. Painting the eyeballs was a little tough; I wound up spearing them on exacto knives so they wouldn't roll away. They're just attached to the head with hot glue. For a more lifelike, Muppet-type appearance, the eyes should be a tiny bit cross-eyed, but I wanted the doofy, bulging wall-eyed effect instead. Just looked funnier to me. It would probably have been easier to glue the eyes before painting in the pupils, but I didn't think of that at the time.

I also bought some silver metallic paint for the neck bolts, painted them up, and covered the entire thing with a few coats of Mod Podge for added protection. I used the glossy kind, because that's what we had at home. I found out later they also sell a matte version, but I doubt it would have made much of a difference. I'm happy with the gloss--it gave it a nice, "finished" look.

I really tried to cover every bit of the mask in Mod Podge, since the acrylic paint is water soluble and would run if the mask got wet. Not that I was planning to expose it to the elements, but it would be used outside and I wanted it to last as long as possible.

For the mouth, I got a small piece of nylon fabric that appears solid black from a distance, but is sheer enough that you can see through it when it's right up by your eyes. I stretched it tight over inside of the mouth and glued it in place so you couldn't see me looking out.

Step 6: Hair

Finally, I had to figure out how to do the hair. I bought some fake fur, but as soon as I cut the first piece, it started shedding worse than my cat, so I knew I needed another solution. I went to a few stores looking for that thick, rope-like yarn that little kids use in craft projects, but couldn't find it anywhere. Instead I settled for regular, sweater-knitting yarn.

I got the cheapest and thickest kind I could find. I knew it would take forever to attach each "hair" individually, so I needed a way to do it in bulk. Basically, I wound some yarn around my hand several times, creating a bunch of loose loops, then hot-glued one end of the loops to the skull piece. I worked in sections, going around the outside first, then moving up towards the top; three concentric circles in all. Then I took a pair of scissors and snipped the bottom ends of the loops, the ones that weren't glued down.

This part was pretty messy, and there's a lot of exposed glue on the top, but since it was going to be about eight feet off the ground, I didn't figure too many people would ever see it from that angle. What was important were the strands that dangled over the edge. I trimmed them to be a little uneven, but I liked having them dangle so they moved when I walked and added a little motion to the thing.

I used a hot-glue gun to attach the skull piece to the top of the cylinder, and the costume was ready to go!

Step 7: Clothing/finale

Why is Frankenstein's monster often depicted wearing a sport jacket? Anyway, once again, I just used stuff I had around the house: an old corduroy blazer, a black t-shirt, etc. I put on gloves to disguise the fact that my hands don't match the mask's skin tone. I think it could have been cool to get a larger jacket from the thrift store (maybe with shoulder pads) to make me look more physically imposing.

This Frankenstein's monster costume was a hit with trick-or-treaters! I had fun and learned a lot making it. If I were to try this again, knowing what I do now, I'd like to try it even more impressive. Now that I've got the basics down, it would be easier to add more touches, like moving eyeballs, smoke coming out of the bolts, a removable skull with exposed brain, etc. Who knows what the future holds?

See you next Halloween!