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Jan 8, 2019

Papier Mache: Not Just a Foreign-Sounding Paper Art

At some point in one of your elementary art class, your teacher probably had asked you to bring recycled paper. Then during class, your teacher provided instructions on how to make papier mache from the materials you were asked to bring. Sounds familiar?

Papier mache is one of the oldest and simple paper arts that has ever been created. The papercraft term is a French word which literally means “chewed paper,” “pulped paper,” or “mashed paper.” Nope, these paper terms do not pertain to food but they are pieces of paper or pulp, reinforced with other materials such as fabrics or wire mesh, and stuck together with glue or starch to form a composite material.

A bit of history of the unique paper art

In spite of its French-sounding name, papier mache originated from China dating back from the Han Dynasty. It was not introduced in France until the mid-17th century. From China, it spread to countries like Japan and Persia. Most papier mache arts in Japan are smoothened and lacquered pieces which earned the term “japanning.” The art’s introduction into the US was by Englishman, William Allgood.

Prepping the papier mache

Just like cooking, papier mache can be prepared two ways.

First, paper materials are cut into strips, then soaked and glued together with an adhesive using a base or support material for the form. The next thing to do is put this adhesive-saturated paper strips into the armature or skeleton to create the cast. Every layer of the strip and adhesive mixture is dried before adding another layer. The object is set out to dry completely and once ready, can be cut, smoothened, waterproofed or painted.

The second method is like this – paper pulp is soaked and boiled with the added adhesive to form a paste. This method will still need the skeleton but the pulp can be directly shaped into the desired form. If there is no skeleton or armature used, the pulp is sculpted to form a shape.

When making the papier mache adhesive, a mixture of water and flour or any starch material can be used and mixed until it reaches the consistency of a heavy cream.

Interesting ingredients

As with any other masterpiece, it is best to preserve the art form so all your efforts will not be wasted. Here are some unusual ingredients added to the papier mache mixture in the past to make them last or prevent any kind of deterioration.

Resin: this material gives the smooth and shiny finish to any papier mache object.

Garlic: since edible materials such as flour was added to the adhesive mixture, garlic acts as an insect repellant (or for those superstitious in us, drives away evil spirits).

Cinnamon or cloves: Well, this material counteracts the smell of garlic while the latter performs its anti-insect duties.

Potash: sometimes used as an acid neutralizer of the paper pulp or also to repel insects or rodents.

Mashed potato, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, honey: Some of these ingredients are added to papier mache but just keep in mind not to eat your finished product.

For the actual construction of the papier mache art, here is a sample video which you could follow including instructions and the materials needed.

As with any other papercraft or paper art, creativity and imagination play important roles when making papier mache. It is a very simple and economical way of art expression: all you need are paper and adhesive. After all, in this age of digital transformation, nothing beats a good old art form to remind us about the thousand ways to use paper.