My Adventures with Paper Mache

Paper-Mache-Giraffes

If there were a prize for the best art genre for kids, I’m pretty sure Paper Mache would get the votes. It’s a quintessential art project and most everybody remembers getting sticky with newspaper and paste at some point in their elementary art career. There is a good reason why it’s been a popular medium for decades: it’s cheap, teaches creative thinking and fosters imagination. But, there can be drawbacks…

Art Class: 2004

When I first began teaching, I couldn’t wait to start a paper mache project. I had seen an amazing lesson from a school art site of paper mache dinosaurs that went way beyond my experience, which was limited to globes and hot air balloons. There were no instructions with the images but I figured they couldn’t be too hard if fourth graders created them. I brought in balloons, boxes, tape, flour, water, a whisk and heaps of newspapers and started the project with my 4th graders.  Within the first 30 minutes, I learned the following:

  • Children love to bury their hands in flour goop
  • Some children are allergic to flour goop
  • Tape alone does not hold up long dinosaur heads. For extra long anything, you need aluminum foil
  • Kids love to scrunch aluminum foil and throw across the room
  • Flour goop does not come out of carpet

By day three, I learned this….

  • Building the armature can take 2-3 classes and most every kid will need help
  • An extra heavy application of flour goop can take over a week to dry
  • You need lots of storage for paper mache projects especially if you don’t limit size
  • Tempera paint will crack and chip off when dry
  • Kids are generally bored of their paper mache projects unless you have a plan and finish the project within 5 class sessions.

Sounds a bit negative, right? Well, let’s just say that it took 7 years….SEVEN YEARS….to try paper mache again.

Art Class: 2012

When I began planning my lessons last year, I knew that I wanted to try projects that were out of my comfort zone as an art teacher. Projects that either didn’t interest me or used a technique I wasn’t familiar with. Many of my readers have asked me for years to develop more form based art projects, but I had resisted. And given my last paper mache dinosaur experience, I felt I just wasn’t qualified.

But the mission statement for my e-course, Beyond the Basics, was learning how to teach more advanced techniques, and if I wasn’t willing to do it, how could I motivate others? I also thought about my students and knew how much they would get out of a really good form-based lesson, so I tried again. This time. I really, really thought about what projects I would do. I  read Julie Voigt’s posts (Art for Small Hands) on paper mache and liked her approach. I read how Phyl from There’s a Dragon in My Artroom approached paper mache and quite honestly, I almost gave up. She is truly the Queen of Paste!

I experimented on my own and eliminated some steps and added others. By the time the kids came to art class, I had a plan. My main goal was to offer the child the opportunity to build a form based project on his perception of the object. I came up with a pretty good strategy (the Beyond the Basic e-course has two days devoted to this process, so I can’t spill my secrets here) but here are a few general nuggets to share with all of you:

  • Use photographs and/or 3D models to use as inspiration rather than illustrations
  • Use Elmers Paper Paste. So darn easy and CHEAP
  • Plan on two full days for armature building and keep it small. Make your sample small. Pick small objects. Do anything to keep things small. Trust me on this one
  • Forget brushes; use hands/fingers for applying paste to small bits of paper
  • Use either white paper towel or white copy paper for the final layer of paper mach so newspaper print won’t show through
  • Use acrylic paint over tempera paint as acrylic paint won’t chip. It also dries to a shiny finish
  • If you must use tempera, apply a layer of Mod Podge for a shiny finish.

Adventures-with-paper-Mache

The time factor…

The other point, worthy of noting is that it may not be worthwhile to do a paper mache project if you don’t see your students on a regular basis. Paper mache projects require time. If you have a limited amount of this (like me) there are other projects more worthy of the time investments. I see each of my classes 15 times per year, so 5 sessions is 1/3 of the year. Ceramics, for instance, generally takes me 2 art sessions to complete. That’s a whole lot better than the 5 sessions it took for my camels and giraffes.

The learning factor…

Building a paper mache form based on a familiar object is truly worth the effort. My students had to really think how to balance the legs, body and in the case of the giraffes, the necks. It required thought and in some cases, working through frustration. I sat with many kids brainstorming how to get the giraffe to stand upright. In many cases, the kids figured it out and were pleased with their solutions.

Art Show

The art show at my school has been a bit of a cramped effort in the last two years. Form-based projects don’t get the display space. So if the kids spent 1/3 of the year working on a project and don’t get to show it off, well, I think that’s a bit of a shame. I’m trying to sort through that problem this year, but that’s another post!

Your turn…

Now, it’s your turn. Do you love paper mache and do a project every year? What do you think is the perfect grade level for introducing paper mache? What has been your biggest roadblock?

I’d really love to hear how you’ve worked through a problem. I know there are other teachers out there sitting on the fence decided whether to tackle paper mache. Let’s help them out…

23 comments

  1. KM says:

    We showed off our paper mache to the teacher at our charter school. She was impressed! Even though this project takes time, the results are something the kids can really be proud of.

  2. Peter@malibuartbarn.com says:

    Try PlasterCraft – an excellent paper mache substitute… not nearly as messy, dries within a few hours, easy to paint (not too cheap) but worth it.

  3. Dawn S says:

    I do papermache on mask forms with second grade and a colalberative castle project(made out of recyclables with third…..(4 -5 kids in a group) swear by art paste it is wellll worth the expense…..dries quicker…..less mess and no allergy issues.

  4. Charmaine says:

    I love paper mâché and have used it for birds and fish with my third graders and for masks with sixth graders. I like School Smart or Elmer’s art paste, which my students call “art slime”. A few students don’t like the texture at first, but they get over it once they see everyone else having fun. Brown paper towels are also a great final layer if you have the students paint a layer of white acrylic on before the color. That’s what I have free access to because it’s what we use in all the classroom and restroom paper towel dispensers. Over the years I have learned to keep the projects small, since I have 90-100 students in each grade level. I’ve used plaster craft and love the quickness of using it compared to paper mâché paste,, but the expense keeps me from using it on a regular basis.

  5. Charlene Cloutier says:

    Love the post!!! I am also a BIG fan of paper mache, but just for my 4th and 5th graders. Elmer’s Art Paste is the best, it stores indefinitely in Arizona Green Tea gallon jugs….I just save it and pour it into covered plastic containers. We do a project with plastic Easter eggs where we build faces on them with paper clips attached as ornaments and another one with plastic Easter eggs where they are a base for bird bodies (birds of our region), beautiful Cardinals, Chickadees, Robins, etc. Paper mache is great if you are organized and prepared in advance (I just cover each table with thin white butcher paper and clean up is way easier….also with the Elmer’s Art Paste you can pour it into covered containers, place one in the center of each table and store it away for another time.

    • Patty Palmer says:

      I love the fact that you can store the Elmer’s paste. I covered mine with saran warp and it lasted months. Thanks for the tips!

  6. Phyl says:

    You know how much I love papier-mâché, but I definitely had more time with the kids than you. However there are some great quick projects. Fastest papier-mâché projects we ever did, with just two weeks till the art show – ice cream cones! We built the armatures in one class period – some kids just had one or two scoops and some had as many as 6 or 7! All the papier-mâché was also done in one class – brown Kraft paper on the cones, white on the scoops. And the painting was fun – we did a coat of Mod Podge on the cones, and the ice cream was painted with thick globs of drippy acrylic, starting at the bottom scoop, putting on way too much paint, so they looked like they were melting (I premixed ice cream colors.). And then we put a final coat of ModPodge on the ice cream, which made it look wet and super-real. The kids loved the project! I posted about it on my blog a while back! but it could definitely be found by searching my labels.

  7. Phyl says:

    Oops I didn’t answer your questions – I usually introduced papier-mâché in grade 3. We sometimes made masks, used a stuffed paper lunch bag as armature. A real easy armature to make, easily built in a short time period, is a pig, made with a newspaper stuffed bread bag and 3 toilet paper rolls (1/2 roll per leg, 1/2 roll for the snout, and leftovers for ears). We put wings on them afterward, too. Biggest challenge I suppose is storage. Mess is not a problem; I think painting projects or plaster bandage are both messier than papier-mâché using art paste. It’s all in the organization and training!

    • Patty Palmer says:

      I love your paper mache pig. So darn cute. I took your advice and used the bread bags when making some fish last year. It worked very well.

  8. Mrs. Art Lady says:

    I love papier mache. I work in an alternative setting, dealing with physical, emotional, and behavioral issues – I do face a lot of “tactile” and sensory issues with this medium. I agree that Elmer’s art paste is absolutely fabulous. I love it’s shelf life! To help my students along, we spend one class period on armatures, and two on applying papier mache. This requires a lot of after-hours :”elf” work from me (I usually reinforce the armatures for them after session 1, and apply a 2nd layer of papier mache between sessions 2-3), but with students that have incredibly limited attention spans and lack the fine motor to apply the materials in a timely manner it becomes a must. The fourth class is painting/decorating. While I normally don’t like to be so hands-on with student work, I find this is a successful way to expose my students to the experience of form building & sculpting.
    They are generally thrilled with their outcome!!

  9. Janice says:

    One shortcut I use is doing paper-mache with colored bulletin board paper instead of newspaper.
    Then the kids don’t have to paint as much because the animal already has a base color, they just need details.Saves so much time and it looks neater!

  10. Susan says:

    Another great way to add color to paper mache is tissue paper – not the poofs like on pinatas, but like in a tissue paper collage. I mix glue and water and use those brushes that come with the trays of watercolor paint (they are my permanent glue brushes). The kids tear or cut the tissue paper, place it on their paper mache project, then paint it with the glue solution. They result is vibrant color with a beautiful sheen from the glue. It also strengthens their paper mache projects a bit as it is effectively another layer of paper mache. I have had students as young as 1st grade do this with wonderful results – and it dries quickly.

  11. Susan says:

    One more thing – I do paper mache masks with 3rd graders over halved plastic milk jugs. I cut milk jugs in half – cutting off the neck and the thick plastic blob at the bottom. These are faced sized and have curves for the neck built in. Students can put the halved jug up to their faces and have a friend mark where the eyes are with a sharpie. Their name is also added to the back with the sharpie. Then they can build their masks. When dry, these stack very nicely for storage. When they are completely finished, the halved milk jugs pop right off and can be used again next year.

  12. Dalia says:

    I need to know how much the lessons???

  13. Carol Wiltse says:

    I am doing Paper Mache Rainsticks with 4th graders right now. We use paper towel tubes with toothpicks poked in from the side. Rice is added after the ends are sealed up with masking tape.Using art paste, we cover the outside with torn up brown paper grocery bags. Add a coat of Mod Podge and you’ve got something that looks like wood. Rather than paint on designs, I give them Raffia, beads, and feathers to tie on for decoration.This project is fairly painless (except for the kid who inevitably stabs himself with a toothpick) and only takes about 4 class sessions.

    PS – I find that 5th and 6th graders are much more proficient at Paper Mache than younger students and can handle the process without making the teacher want to shoot themself!

    • Patty Palmer says:

      This sounds like a great lesson. It almost seems like you could do this in two 45-min sessions. How long are your sessions? And yes, I agree, upper grades fare much better with paper mach!

      • Carol Wiltse says:

        You have to leave time for drying. My classes are 40 minutes each. The 1st class session is for poking holes with a pushpin and then sticking in the toothpicks after dipping in glue. (I then take them home and cut off the toothpicks sticking out with a Dremel tool). 2nd class is for adding rice and sealing the ends with masking tape. They can get a good start on tearing the brown paper and sticking it on with art paste, but won’t finish. The 3rd session usually finishes up the paper mache portion and then they sit aside to dry. If you were going to have the kids paint designs, you would do it on the 4th session. Otherwise, let them give it a coat of mod podge and you are done.
        If they use enough toothpicks and you put in enough rice (about 3/4 cup) they work really well…almost like the real thing!

  14. Ginny says:

    I have done paper mache with grades 4-8. We started with a cross curricular with library and science where students research an animal and then make it in paper mache. Think big plastic Utz pretzel containers and drink cups as a sheep, balloons with drink cups as legs and snout for a pig, 2 litre pop bottles become penguins. 5th grade has doing masks and 7th and 8th have done the first letter of their name. The most ambitious was 6th grade and ancient Egypt, think pyramids, weapons and even a 5 foot sarcophagus. I usually use flour and water and have a hand mixer to blend it. I have students who are allergic so they get a glue and water solution. I have had problems with black (mold like) dots, so I usually spray paint the finished product with Kilz. I am going to try the Elmer’s paper mache paste, I like that you can keep it as the flour mixture only lasts for that day.
    the mantra for students: “Many light layers” we do 1 layer per class and put on 3 layers. Before I started paper mache I read extensively from the following website: http://ultimatepapermache.com?
    Jonni, has great resources and over the top art examples.

  15. kristine.dibble@jefferson.kyschools.us says:

    When I taught middle school for two years…I used to display the paper mache projects in the library on top of bookshelves at school. I am sure public libraries would love to display as well. The Principal asked for art projects to be displayed at school banquets on cafeteria tables as center pieces, Professional Devt days, Earth Days, Earth Day at the Zoo the students carried their projects in a parade once. Now that I have been in Elementary School for the last 14 years, I still display in the libraries, and only do it with one class at a time. Or two, if space permits. We had a student booth for display only at St James Art Fair one year, and we had a Special Area Club Week where the students chose one special area of their choice (top 3) and they came to the same class everyday for a week during their Special Area time. This was good, bc the art students that really wanted to make one were able to. Don’t take on more than you can handle. Try one class at a time with a particular grade first. I limited the project to fourth and fifth grade only for a lot of years. You could also offer a after school art club everyday for a week or a schedule that works for you. If your Principal allows, you can charge a small fee for your time and materials.

  16. Paula morgan says:

    I’ve done paper mache people w/ grade 5 and animals with grade 4. I love how honest you “set backs” section of your post. Only a handful of the paper mache people were successful because of the level of difficulty. The animals were more successful because of smaller class sizes. Your post makes me want to try again.

  17. Lori says:

    I have done many paper mâché projects. The ones that are the most fun are the ones that kids have helped make.
    It really is a craft for all ages. There really is no perfect grade level.
    The biggest road block is drying time.
    As for display area, what about hanging projects from the ceiling from string or fishing line?

    Great site!

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About Patty

Welcome to DSS. I'm an art teacher to 400 elementary kids in Goleta, California. This is where you will find a library of art lessons, handy PDF lesson plans and resources to make teaching art to kids a whole lot easier.
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