There's a bit of a story behind this mask. It begins in early July, when the heat was starting to become oppressive and I was beginning to wish that I had some water for my dog to play in. Because I have a dog, you see. His name is The Doctor and he rather likes to splash about in the water.
Unfortunately, he's also a chewer and he's kind of large and has big dog claws on the ends of his feet, so a kiddie pool was out of the question. I mentioned on social media that I was considering selling one of my masks in order to finance the acquisition of a sturdy pool of some kind, and suddenly I got a better offer. My friend Heather, whom I have known since the fourth grade, contacted me. She suggested that she would like to commission a piece of artwork, gave me a budget, and said that I could make whatever I wanted to make.
That, my friends, is a pretty good offer.
With Heather's budget I was able to purchase a galvanized metal stock tank, six feet long and two feet wide, as well as a recycled rubber stall mat that I cut to fit the bottom and cemented into place. And while I have no yard to put it in, I do have a friend down the road who was happy to be hostess to The Doctor's pool.
Then, of course, all I had to do was produce a thing for Heather. And the thing I decided to produce was this mask, which I call the Mermaid Masquerade Mask. The idea is that, if you were a Mermaid and you had to attend a masquerade ball, this is the sort of mask that you might choose to wear.
Step 1: Something Fishy
First I started with the usual base of plaster gauze, but I wanted to do it a little differently. Heather and her family don't look exactly like me, so I figured they would be less likely to enjoy a mask that was built directly onto my own face. It might not fit them (although chances are that my nose is bigger so at least that part would fit.)
So I wrapped a sheet of plastic around a mannequin head and I build the base on that, to open up the contours give me something a little more generalized to work with.
I had a basic idea of what I wanted the mask to be. Really basic. It would be two fish, one on each side of the head, kind of kissing in the middle. I wasn't sure what either fish would look like, or how the eye openings would be incorporated, but I knew I needed fish. So I made some basic fish shapes out of wire and experimented with how to fit them together. Once I was kind of satisfied, I affixed them to the mask with paper mache clay.
Step 2: Fin Again, Begin Again
Once the wire frames were in place, I filled in with clay and paper strips to finish the shapes. I left openings for the ribbon ties, as yet unsure whether I would bury them within the mask or make them removable. Ultimately I would decide to make them removable, because this mask would be presented to someone else and I wanted to make it as easy for her as possible. This way, if a ribbon tore or otherwise needed changing, it would not be utterly utterly hopeless.
I used lengths of wire to give a dorsal fin to the fish on the left, which seemed to work pretty well, so I used the same principle to construct pectoral fins. The dorsal fin was made of paper over embedded wire, but the pectoral fin was built separately. The wires were trimmed and then bonded into a simple masking tape base before having the paper strips applied. I left the paper far too big and unwieldy for the shape, concentrating my effort on making sure the area that passed across the wires was tight and smooth. Once the paper was mostly dry I used the wires as a guide for trimming the fin shape out of the paper. The completed fin was affixed to the fish with paper mache clay.
With the fins, I was careful to get the paper layer as thin as possible, and I strived to keep the wires prominent. I was never going to achieve the diaphanous translucence of actual fish fins and tails, but I was determined to get as close as opaque paper and paint would allow. If nothing else, the wires would help to sell the illusion of the texture.
I did less fin work on the right fish than the left. I gave it a more florid pectoral fin, but instead of a dorsal fin, I built out its shape with clay to make the body more distinctive. Although it has a long body, as long as the left fish, I reshaped its front portion to resemble the more triangular structure of an angel fish.
In these pictures, you will probably notice that the fish on the right sticks out more than the fish on the left. They were constructed to be more or less even, but the clay has a mind of its own. If I had built a more assertive skeleton things might have turned out differently, but basically the clay tightens as it dries so if you want to keep an exact shape (particularly if you are working with broad, thin builds) you need to bind the sculpture into place as the clay is curing. I did not.
In this case, the left fish remained about the same, while the right fish flipped its tail out playfully to the side. Them's the breaks, kid.
Step 3: Roly Poly Fish Heads
Using more paper mache clay, I made faces for the fish. Kissy little mouths, eyes at roughly equal height, and prominent gills to define the head areas. A bit of fine sanding work with my needle files helped a lot on the mouths.
Step 4: Rainbow Trout
The rest is all just paint job.
I wasn't going to try to make these look exactly like specific fish, because they weren't built like specific fish. But I was more than willing to borrow some visual cues.
The basic scheme of the left fish is based on the super red arowana. I used a mixture of pinks and reds and white, cut through with orange, to find the tones I was looking for. The dark color was achieved by adding a straight dioxazine purple to the pink mixture, and then deepening that with black where necessary. The scales were drawn in by hand using an HB pencil, then painted over once I was happy with their placement.
I also used a pearl finish gel medium added to my highlight colors to pick out the edges of some of the scales. This effect is not as good as an iridescent medium, but I worked with what I had!
For the right fish, I borrowed the patterning from a type of angel fish and then extrapolated it to the odd body shape. I used a little orange to darken the yellow here and there, blackening where I needed it, and white with ultramarine blue for the stripes.
For the ribbon ties, I painted a bead for each fish using the same colors as their paint jobs.
Although the detail is diminished on the back, I continued to paint all the way round on all sides of the mask. The tails are long and at least one of them flips out playfully to the side, so if you're wearing this mask in public somebody might catch an occasional glimpse of them. I didn't want the illusion to be broken by the back of the mask.
I gave the whole thing a couple of coats of glossy varnish, except for the inside right next to the face, which I varnished with a matte finish.
Step 5: Under the Sea
Now it's up to Heather to find the perfect outfit to go with this!
Step 6: Horror and Triumph
I've entreated my readers, over and over, to allow a paper mache mask to cure for several days before finishing it. I have also admitted to never once following that advice, because I am way too excited to start painting. Maybe I've been sending mixed signals.
Well, folks, this is exactly why I keep telling you to wait. Wait days. Wait weeks. Or don't, whatever, I'm not a cop, I'm just a guy who makes stuff. But seriously, you should wait, because if you don't then this could happen.
You could go out to walk your dog one night, and then when you come home, you will spot this crack. It's weird because it's like eleven o'clock at night and it's quite dark. There's not even a light on in the living room, but the second you walk in the door you can see this crack from way over here. It's so huge and white. It practically glows. It's like the crack in Amelia Pond's bedroom wall: it's terrifying and is probably going to destroy the whole universe.
It's what you have always feared. You poured your heart into a paint job because you have the patience of a four year old, and then it cracked because the paper mache clay wasn't cured yet. In this instance, you can see that the crack occurred right at the tip of the fish's body, where it fans out into the tail. An area of thin clay over junction of two metal rods. Just begging for trouble.
So, now I have finally learned the lesson that I have been trying to teach you all along. Will this stop me from jumping the gun in the future? Almost certainly not. However, I did learn that in the end, I can do a pretty decent job of fixing it. I will explain.
The first thing I did was send frantic messages to Heather, about all the heart attacks I was having. She was pretty chill about it, which made it hard to sustain my panic, and I consider that to be fairly impolite. I explained that the mask had sustained damage more severe than the wounds inflicted on Cassetti by the passengers of the Orient Express. That the mask had taken up Skid Row lodging in Humpty Dumptyville. But Heather was all, "That's cool, take your time, it still looks great but if you can fix it that would be neat too. I love it either way."
The worst, right?
For once I actually did force myself to exercise some patience. I just let the mask alone for more than a week. If it was still not finished drying, then the crack was just going to get worse, at it wouldn't do anybody any good to try fixing it now.
The first three photos above are the reference photos I took on that fateful night
After suitable days had passed, a comparison to the reference photos showed me that the crack had widened slightly. It was noticeable, but not particularly significant. I thought that it was probably finished. So, using one of my little metal clay-sculpting tools, I packed the crack with paper mache clay and I left it alone for another ten days.
At this point, I considered two options. Option one was to sand down the crack and try to match a fairly complex paint job to make the break disappear. Option two was to incorporate the fissure into the design, calling attention to the artifice of the mask by highlighting the crack and adding a couple of fake hairline fractures on the other side for balance. It would stabilize the real crack, but would hang a lantern on it. Option two would still take work, but probably be easier.
Heather, being unbearably supportive, was no help at all, leaving the decision entirely up to me. Having no faith in my own ability to match the original paint, I finally chose option two. I arranged my supplies, got to work, and immediately refused to pursue option two. I didn't actually want that! It would look fine. It would probably even look cool! I would make it look cool. But the real reason I was choosing option two is because I didn't honestly think I could fix it. Option two would be acceptable. I could live with it. But it wasn't what I had envisioned.
I got out a needle file and started to sand down the brittle edge of the crack. It required care, and it took some time, but I smoothed it out. I knew the colors I needed to work with and I just started to build the color base of the area again. It wasn't as scary as I thought it would be. The instinct was there once I got into it, and pretty soon it didn't look that different from before!
The moral of this story is, do as I say, not as I do. But, if you don't, and something bad happens, try not to panic. You can fix it. You're maybe even more capable than you think you are.
Also, big thanks to Heather! She was totally cool throughout the whole process. I hadn't done one of these for someone else so the stakes felt totally different, and Heather never added to my anxiety. She wasn't worried about the damage, completely understood that it affected my planned timeline, and just let me work it out. Now the mask is very carefully packaged and ready to be sent to its new home! I, for one, look forward to seeing pictures. Partly because that will prove it arrived safely!
Step 7: Success!
Let it be known that on this date, the 28th of September in the year of 2017, the mask was safely received into the loving arms of Heather's face! Here is the proof. That is definitely not me in this picture.