On October 4th 1998 the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC opened an extraordinary exhibit of 70 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to view these masterpieces. No form of media can convey his bold use of colour. The incredible textures which seemed to be sculpted on his canvas. I was overpowered by the emotion in his creations. Inspired by this rare opportunity I wanted to create my own Van Gogh… only with a twist… in Papier Mache’.
Please join me as I demonstrate my Papier Mache’ Van Gogh.

Papier Mache’s beginnings date back some 2,000 years ago to ancient China. Recycled scraps of precious handmade paper were made into lacquered helmets used for armor. In the 19th century it was used for making furniture. With enough layers it can be extremely durable. It is a wonderful medium. Inexpensive, simple, safe and forgiving. 

Here are some of the supplies I used:

  • Wooden frame 
  • Foamboard to fit into frame 
  • Two colours of 25lb to 40lb weight   paper
  • White glue 
  • Wheat Paste 
  • Caulking 
  • Plastic container to mix paste in 
  • Water 
  • Plaster cloth or masking tape 
  • Styrofoam packaging peanuts
  • Celluclay/Instant Papier Mache’ 
  • Gesso 
  • Acrylic Paints

I started with an old wooden frame.

Next I inserted a piece of foamboard into frame, fitting it as snuggly as possible.
Do not use Mattboard as it will warp.

I used a diamond point driver to secure the foamboard but small wire brads or finishing nails will work also.

I used caulking compound to fill in gaps between the foamboard and frame, as well as gaps and cracks in the frame.

Paste Recipe

2 rounded Tablespoons of dry wheat paste. 
1 Cup water. 
Aprox. 1 1/2 Tablespoons white glue.

In a plastic container sprinkle paste over water, mix, let thicken (1 min.) add white glue and additional water if necessary.
The consistency should be like heavy cream. The paste mixture will keep a week or so in the refrigerator. 

(I would not recommend substituting a paste recipe with a “flour” recipe. It is not as strong, does not adhear as well and attracts bugs)

I tore my paper into strips along the grain.

2 inch wide strips are good for large flat surfaces.

For areas such as corners and curves the strips may need to be as narrow as 1/4 inch or less.

I dipped the  paper strips into the paste, squeezing off excess paste.

Beginning with the joints I began applying my first layer, making sure to press the strips down to smooth out any air bubbles. 

I covered the entire piece both back and front. 
I alternated layers of white and brown paper allowing for each layer to dry before applying the next. 

Each layer takes approximately 3 to 4 hours to dry depending on the temperature and the humidity.

The foamboard will melt, releasing toxic fumes.
4 layers should suffice on the foamboard and wood but more may be necessary in the joints.

Here is the finished base ready for the next step.
Notice how the strips overlapped and  are going in varied directions.

The two paintings I chose to base my piece on are,  ‘Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear’ painted in 1889 and

‘The Starry Night’  also painted in 1889.

I did a brief sketch then transferred my sketch to the dry Papier Mache’ base using a felt tip marker.

I glued styrofoam packaging peanuts over my drawing, adding height where desired.

Next I covered my raised image with plaster cloth. 
I tried using the Papier Mache’ strips but they would not adhere to the “peanuts”.
Masking tape would work also.

I covered the plaster cloth with 6 to 7 layers of Papier Mache’ strips. When the last layer had dried I was ready to add the features with the Celluclay.

I mixed my Celluclay in a ziplock plastic bag using 4 cups of water to 1 pound of dry celluclay.
Kneading it until it became a firm clay with no dry spots.

Using inexpensive plastic or wooden modeling tools and found objects such as toothpicks, craft knife, metal nail file, paint brush handle etc. I modeled in the features.

I keep a small bowl of water handy to help smooth out the ‘clay’ .

In this photo his collar is raised and his eyes, lips and nose are taking shape. His eyes were rather tricky. After making the socket for each eye I formed a small ‘eye’ ball with the celluclay and inserted it into the socket.

Then I flattened out another piece of celluclay for the lid and placed it over the top part of the eye ball forming an eyelid, smoothing the lid up toward the brow.

Celluclay starts to “set up” in about 30 minutes at which time fine modeling and smoothing of the surface with a dampened finger or dampened tool is possible. Once dry, it can be sanded. Total drying time will take anywhere from a couple days to a week depending on the temperature, humudity and thickness of the celluclay.

After the features were to my liking I waited until it was totally dry then sanded off any roughness.
Next I applied two coats of gesso and he was ready to be painted. I used tube acrylic paint as well as the inexpensive bottled acrylic paint found in craft stores.

For the “frame” part I used a Metallic Gold acrylic paint then embellished it with Gold Glitter dimensional fabric paint in the squeeze bottles.

For his hat I glued on fake fur which I trimmed.
I painted the back of the piece with black latex house paint to seal it and give it a more finished look.

Here is my Van Gogh as he appeared on the front cover of Swedens Revansch! Magazine to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth.

I hope you have enjoyed this demonstration and that it has inspired you to create a Papier Mache’ piece of your own.