The Secrets of Mask Making (Aug, 1931)

Gee, good thing they pointed it out or I would never have guessed that left mask is supposed to be a jew…

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The Secrets of Mask Making

How to prepare gorgeous false faces for use as decorations or in theatricals and entertainments


BEFORE men made idols, they made masks. It gave them a great sense 1 of primitive power—the power to create new faces that could transform a man in a twinkling to god, beast, or devil. As if by magic, they could emphasize a hundredfold any human mood and bring to real existence the strange and colored caprices of their imagination.

At first the mask was of religious significance; but the early Greek dramatists recognized its unique ability to express and sustain intense emotion, and it was drafted into the theater. From this rich background of religious and theatrical tradition, we inherit the masks of the dance, stage, festival, and party that still charm us today.

Although most of us have enjoyed wearing masks at one time or another, few have attempted to make them. Yet mask making is a fascinating project for any society, school class, or dramatic club which needs them for its entertainments; and, indeed, for individual workers who realize what gorgeous ornaments they make when worn at a costume ball or hung in an appropriate setting in the home.

The fact that much better masks can be made than the usual insipid, characterless productions which are sold has not been generally realized. No doubt this has been due to the scarcity of detailed information on this subject. Anyone who wants to, however, can make as good, or better, masks than can ordinarily be bought. With special skill, care, and imagination, the making of masks may lead further to surprisingly artistic results.

The method to be described is not the only one, but is perhaps the easiest and most satisfactory for the serious beginner. The form of the mask is first modeled in a so-called “plasteline” type of nonhardening clay, obtainable wherever artists’ supplies are sold. A mold is made of this model in plaster of Paris; strips of paper are soaked in a thin solution of glue and paste, pressed carefully into this mold, and allowed to dry; finally the paper is removed (now stiff and holding the exact imprint of the mold), and painted as desired. The modeling clay may be used over and over again for new masks, and many masks may be made in the same plaster mold, each being given a different character by the painting.

Materials needed include: several sheets of newspaper, several more of medium weight wrapping paper, 4 oz. of ground or flake glue, 3 lb. of modeling clay, a little flour, a few pounds of plaster of Paris, and paint for coloring the masks. The paint required depends upon the effect wanted; almost any variety—artists’ oil colors, brushing lacquer, show card colors, or dry colors mixed with shellac—may be used.

Before attempting to make a mask, however, the character of the face must be clear in your mind. Study human faces and the pictured faces of gods and demons. Observe foreheads, eyes, noses, mouths, chins, and lines of mirth, sorrow, anger, scorn. Notice how women’s faces differ from men’s, and how the faces of youth differ from the faces of old age. Recognize the vast range of expression from which you may draw.

Then decide just what you wish to express in your mask. Is it fierceness? Nobility? Tragedy? Amusement? Determine an arrangement of features which most strongly suggests the mood of the mask. Make a thumb-nail sketch, if you wish. Whatever you do, do not merely copy life. Masks should show imagination, a real spirit of creation. Arch the brow a little higher, extend the nose, bulge the cheeks, leave out meaningless details. Picture a suggestive face—symbolic, fantastic, if you will.

With the design settled, begin the modeling. A small drawing board, protected with a sheet of stout paper, makes a good base to work on. The amount of modeling material needed depends upon the size of the face to be made and the ingenuity of the maker in padding it out with blocks of wood or other material. A pile of oval or rectangular slabs cut from a corrugated pasteboard box, diminishing in size from the bottom up, forms a satisfactory padding.

Squeeze the modeling clay into an oval pancake about 1/2-in. thick and press it firmly over the mound of padding. Then begin to mold the substance gradually into shape. Work first for general form, leaving the details until the last.

Most of the modeling may be done with the unaided fingers, but an orangewood stick such as is used for manicuring will help, as will a homemade modeling tool like that shown in the illustration below.

Cut off material here, apply it there. If you are in doubt about the general shape of an eye or a nose, look in a mirror. Even the eyes and nose of a hobgoblin are remotely related to the real thing. Avoid tiny lines, for they will be completely lost when seen from a distance. Do not make the mask too shallow.

If a particular person is to wear the mask, it is well at the start to make sure that the mask will be large enough and that the eye holes—and, if the person must speak, the mouth hole—are in the proper place. It is disconcerting to an actor to have to look against a blank forehead and talk into a chin or a nose. For speaking masks, separate the lips slightly. Small eye holes may sometimes be cut in other parts of a mask above or below the mask’s regular eyes.

Avoid undercutting as much as possible; if undercutting extends beyond a certain degree, it will be difficult or impossible to remove the mask from its mold.

After completing the model, grease the surface of the modeling clay carefully with vaseline, going into all the corners and crevices but taking pains not to clog them. Then quickly mix some plaster of Paris with water to a consistency just thin enough to run easily. About 3 lb. of plaster is sufficient. Apply a coating over the whole surface of the greased model to a thickness of nearly an inch. Blow the mixture vigorously into any deep lines or crevices.

When the plaster has set (which should be in about from twenty to twenty-five minutes), the mound may be turned over and the modeling clay withdrawn. This should come out very freely, but it does not matter if it gets deformed in the process since the model is no longer needed. If there are any little holes in the mold, plug them with clay.

Now give the mold a thin coat of vaseline, and it is ready for shaping the mask.

Into 1 qt. of water stir 4 oz. of ground or flake glue and 2 tablespoonfuls of flour. Boil for two minutes. Tear a quarter of an ordinary sheet of newspaper into strips and patches—say 1/2 in. wide and 3 in. long—and immerse these scraps in the glue-paste water. When the water has sufficiently cooled, begin to press the strips of paper into the mold. Let one slightly overlap the next, and continue until the pieces cover the inside surface.

Press each piece of paper in carefully, so that it clings to every elevation and depression. Permit no wrinkles. You will find that torn edges cling and blend better than cut ones. If there are any pools of water after you have made a layer of paper, sop them up with a cloth.

If you can find a pink or a green sheet of newspaper, tear that up for the next layer. Immerse the bits and proceed as before. The color will help distinguish the second layer from the first, and prevent skipping or overlapping.

Three layers of paper ordinarily are sufficient, although a fourth might well be added. Although newspaper molds well, it is too weak and brittle when it is dry to form a durable mask, therefore the third and subsequent layers should be made of medium weight wrapping paper.

The mold and mask should now be set aside to dry. Warm and freely circulating air will hasten the drying; but baking the mask or setting it on a radiator is apt to be dangerous because of the uneven shrinkage of the paper.

When thoroughly dry (if it sticks or is soft, it is not ready), the mask may be lifted from the mold and painted. Fringes may be trimmed with a knife or a safety razor blade. Eye, nose, and mouth holes should be cut. Rough spots may be sandpapered.

Most mask makers use artists’ oil colors. When, however, a glossy finish and not too subtle blending are suitable, the writer has found brushing lacquer satisfactory. Flat house paints and tempera or show card colors give a pleasing dull finish. The inside of the mask may be painted with shellac or clear varnish.

A convenient way to hold the mask on the face is by a band of elastic tape.

1 comment
  1. metatron says: June 21, 200811:28 pm

    Made by Nat LICHTMAN living in BROOKLYN
    I think jews are allowed to depict other Jews as they like.

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