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The Art of Paper Mache (Papier Mâché)

Paper was invented in China so it stands to reason that the art of papier mâché (or paper mache as English speakers like to spell it) came to life there too. Originally, paper mache was employed in the creation of helmets, which may seem strange at first. However if you’ve ever tried to bust through a homemade piñata with too many layers then it’s not such a silly idea after all. The versatility of paper mache made it perfect for artists and craftsmen to use paper mache to create so much more.

Picture of piñatas in a store
Store in Tabasco selling both traditional star-shape and contemporary design piñatas.Store in Tabasco selling both traditional star-shape and contemporary design piñatas.

There are historic examples of the use of paper mache as early as the Han dynasty in China around 200 BC. The Ancient Egyptians used papyrus and plaster to create death masks. In Europe paper mache was an inexpensive alternative to carved adornments in architecture. In Mexico masks, dolls and pinatas are created using paper mache. The common thread in each culture was the use of paper mache to create decorations for cultural celebrations.

In the late 18th early 19th century paper mache made its mark in competitive boat racing in America. Canoes and “paper boats” were created from long continuous sheets of paper laminated together with adhesives over a hull mold creating a seamless boat hull. These paper boats, reinforced with wooden keels and waterproofed, were lightweight and fast.


During World War I paper mache dummies were used to discover the location of enemy snipers. The bullet holes in the dummies allowed the users to make a quick calculation based on where the bullet hit and then the snipers could be easily located and taken out.


In World War II paper heavily mixed with plastics was used to create lightweight, inexpensive and expendable fuel tanks for airplanes. Their light weight allowed air crafts to carry more fuel and then the tanks could be jettisoned to reduce weight and increase the flight range once the fuel was expended.


History of the Piñata

The piñatas origins are also credited to the clever chinese. Piñatas were not originally made from paper mache. Traditionally the first piñatas were made from clay pots filled with seeds and bashed open; the remnants were burned to celebrate the new year. Marco Polo brought these traditions home with him to Spain and the use of piñatas was then borrowed and adapted to the celebration of lent. The Italian word for this creation was pignatta which translates to clay pot and is where the term piñata comes from.


After conquering the Americas, Spaniards realized the Aztec had a similar tradition of breaking clay pots decorated with feathers and filled with seeds. The Mayan culture had the added excitement of covering their eyes to break the pot. Spanish missionaries saw the similarities in their traditions and used it as an opportunity to instill their own religion on the local crowd. The piñatas were transformed into the more current popular shape of a sphere covered with seven cones, representing the seven deadly sins; the candy, fruit and other prizes represented the reward for triumph over sin. The blindfold then came to represent the participants faith which should be followed blindly. The crowd can also help or hinder the participants efforts by offering guidance or trying to lead the blind one astray.

Statue of monk hitting a piñata
Statue of monk hitting a piñata in Acolman, Mexico State, Mexico

The tradition of breaking a piñata has changed and grown over the years and is now more of a fun party game and takes on less of a religious role. Piñatas now come in many shapes and sizes. The paper mache versions of piñatas make it possible for them to resemble anything from the traditional orb covered in cones to effigies of your favorite superhero or even the president of the United States.

Picture of a piñata with the face of a US president on it

Make Your Own Paper Mache Piñata

Recipe

Create a mixture of glue, flour and water. There are a lot of different recipes out there for paper mache. The best recipe for the job depends on what kind of finished project you are going for. This project is for a piñata. The object being that a firm finished product is desirable but it must be easy enough to be broken open by a group of excited children wanting to destroy an elephant and eat its sugary guts.


For a piñata: one part water to one part all purpose flour should be the right consistency to give you the finish you need. Some recipes also suggest adding a pinch of salt to help reduce any bacteria or mold growth in your project.


For a firmer more permanent finish: 1 part water, 1 part white all purpose glue or wood glue. This gives you a much longer-lasting, finished product that is less likely to get moldy or rot away.


The process

This is the kind of messy project that many people have participated in for a variety of reasons. From school projects like the ever popular baking soda volcano to making your own sculptures of the planets. The whole process is a bit time consuming but relatively easy and inexpensive. For this article an elephant shaped piñata was created and the instructions below are for an elephant shaped piñata.


This is a messy project and it is recommended that you wear play clothes or something that you don’t mind ruining. This is also the kind of project that you don’t do around rugs, carpets and upholstered furniture pieces.


There are so many different kinds of paper; the easiest to get a hold of are those flyers and circulars that come in the mail. The ads for your local grocery store are a great source of free absorbent newsprint style paper. The light absorbent paper is ideal for paper mache because it soaks up the paste and adheres better than heavier duty papers.


Skip the scissors. Tearing the paper into the desired sizes and shapes is necessary because the feathered uneven edges of torn paper will adhere better with the paste mixture.


Be sure to plan ahead as it typically takes a minimum of 24 hours for the project to dry before it can be decorated.


Materials you will need for this elephant project:

  1. A large balloon. For the head of the elephant.

  2. A beach ball or larger balloon of equal size for the body.

  3. An empty cereal box to create the cylinders for the legs. Pringle cans were cut in half and used to make the legs. (this is optional you can use stiff paper or any other cylindrical object you want to get a similar result).

  4. A roll of sturdy tape such as painter tape or box tape

  5. Either one long or several shorter paper tubes (like the kind from toilet paper, paper towels, or gift wrap.) This will become the trunk of the elephant.

  6. Scissors (not for making the paper strips but to help assemble the main structure that you will be covering in the paper mache.

  7. 2 Large paper plates, make sure that you buy a slightly flimsy paper plate that is malleable.These will become the elephant's ears.

  8. Paints, brushes and other materials you choose to use in decorating your elephant.

Fill your balloons and tape the structure of your elephant together. This needs to be the shape and size of your desired product because paper mache isn’t very forgiving and will take on the shape of its base structure.


Cover your sculpture with the paper strips that have been soaked in the paste, dragging the paper over the side of the bowl or between your fingers to remove excess paste will give you a shorter drying time and smoother finish.


Once you’ve applied at least two layers of paper allow your sculpture to dry overnight. Anywhere from 24-48 hours may be necessary to properly dry. Then you can paint and decorate your piñata. Cut a hole in the top of the piñata to fill it with goodies and prizes and be sure to tape it securely closed.

Picture of children grabbing candy from a broken piñata
By Ivan2010 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48018605

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