The Lion Thing (paper Mache Mask)

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About: I Build Monsters.

Intro: The Lion Thing (paper Mache Mask)

The inspiration for this mask came from one of my own paintings. Is that vain?

For a few years, beginning around 2003, I worked on a series of acrylic paintings that I called Children Dressed as Monsters. They were full of bright colors and had a kind of circus sideshow vibe, with kids posing in wild and unwieldy costumes.

Last week I was moving some files around on my flash drives and ran across this painting, which is about ten or twelve years old. The kid depicted here is dressed as a Daedalion, a portmanteau of the words Daedalus and Lion. The Daedalion is a species of lion that is made partially of fire, and swims around in the corona of the sun.

In the painting, the face portion of the mask is intended to be a flat painted surface, while the mane bursts out from behind. But the mane itself also has a curiously flat look to it, and I started to consider the interesting design challenge of adapting the mask in the painting for real life.

I've never done that before, which seems sort of strange when you consider how many masks I drew and painted over the years. Game on!

Step 1: Face Sandwich

This idea was to have the mane and the face each be separate flat surfaces. The first thing I did was cut a three inch wide strip of corrugated cardboard, which I shaped around the face of one of my mannequin heads. The journey has begun! The mane would attach to the bottom/back of this ring, while the face would attach to the top/front. I worked on the face first.

I chose a piece of cardboard for the face, and traced the ring on it. Then I drew out the Daedalion face slightly larger than the ring. Then I made my first major departure from the original painting, which was to add dimension to the nose. On one hand, I thought it would make the final piece more visually interesting without dramatically changing the design, but there was a more practical reason as well. Once I covered the piece with paper mache, I would lose the original drawing on the face, and I would have to redo it. I wasn't particularly worried about it, but adding a half inch of lift to the nose would give me a solid starting point and a center line!

The other pieces for the face were also cut from corrugated cardboard, but I inserted a length of strong wire down the middle of each one to support them. That will be important later when they're being draped in moist newspaper!

Like the painting, I used a grouping of three sun rays at each major compass point on the face. Unlike the painting, I decided to go with more traditionally lion-shaped ears instead of the wacky bat ears.

I didn't have any large boxes around, so for the mane, I had to arrange several pieces of cardboard and tape them together. I freehanded a shape for the mane (ridiculously large!) and cut it out.

Step 2: Skinning the Cat

I used traditional methods for the paper mache: paper strips and flour paste, nothing more!

The important thing to remember for a project like this is that the structure (though simple in appearance) will present some specific challenges. Normally I recommend starting be fully covering a piece with paper mache, but in this case, not a chance!

First, cover the mane, use a blowdryer to make it touchable, and then weigh it down to keep it flat while it cures.

To do the back of the mane is a bit more difficult. First I covered the full surface and dried it, then placed it face up and weighed it down (just like when I papered the front).

But then it got a little more involved. Let it rest for an hour or so, then gently pick the mask up again. While it sits, more moisture comes to the surface and it's all sticky again, so now you break the blowdryer back out! Heat it until it is dry to the touch, then weigh it back down again.

I had to repeat that process three or four times before the back felt sufficiently stiff to let it dry overnight without weighing it down.

For the front, I started by wrapping the tips of all the sun rays in narrow paper strips and let them dry. Then I started working on the rest of the rays, moving my way toward the middle of the face.

Once things start to feel saturated, I stop, blow them dry, and prop them up from below so that the rays and ears stay level(ish) as they cure.

The appearance of simplicity is almost always an illusion!

Papering this mask required a lot of attention, but it was worth it in the end.

Step 3: The Mane Event

First, let me apologize for that pathetic pun.

My initial step would be to paint the back of the mask black, but I considered that a person actually wearing the mask out in the world would be showing the back of the mask to a lot of people. So I quickly drew a sunburst pattern and then blacked in everything around it. Later I would paint the sunburst yellow, but for now I just gave it a white base coat.

I also blacked out the three inch riser between the mane and the face.

Using my photo reference, I drew the face pattern back on and gave a white base coat to the features.

I wanted the primary colors of this mask to be blue and yellow, and had always intended to have a big blue mane. So first I gave it two dark coats of phthalocyanine blue, then started drawing in the thick "hairs" using cobalt blue. I wanted to keep it simple, but I wasn't sure how much "pop" I ought to give the mane. After some subtle highlights, I decided to leave it until after the face was completed, and then consider it all together.

Step 4: Sun Cat

I did the whole face in one sitting. The palette was deep yellow, primary yellow, light cadmium yellow, white, and red oxide. The X across the face is primary blue with white. I just chose my shades, painted the face, and then began to slightly adjust the balance until I was happy with the effect, after which I went around the border with black to make the edges crisper.

Step 5: Gold Rims

The final stage of the paint job was to trim all the facial lines with gold. That was kind of a challenge because it's an oil-based metal paint made of gold dust in suspension, which is not a texture I'm used to. I ended up doing quite a bit of touch-up and I still think it could have been better.

This mask was always meant to have a kind of "homespun" look to it, which is why I only used newspaper strips and didn't employ any paper mache clay to sharpen the edges. I didn't even try to hide the seams in the cardboard. So the imperfect paint job is part of the intent, but I still wish I'd been just a little more careful.

After it was done, I did go back into the mane and add just one more layer of highlight to sort of bring it forward, but it was pretty subtle. Then I gave the whole thing a light coating of satin varnish, applied with a microfiber cloth.

Step 6: The Lion Thing

He's a strange fellow, the Daedalion, but I think he turned out pretty well. What do you think?

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