Tuesday, 8 July 2014

How to Make Odds and Ends Walk

Following yesterday's puppet post, I wanted to write a little background post. These puppets had quite a long gestation period before work began on them. I realised today that the Puppet Challenge was first proposed as long ago as last November! This year has been incredibly full so far, so I didn't actually get started working on my puppets until sometime in June.

That said, in spare moments I found myself reasoning their construction out in my imagination, so when I finally got to work it went fairly smoothly.

Initially, I was especially keen to join this project because I'd always wanted to make puppets out of wood. I have no woodworking skills and thought this would be a good opportunity to get some. As time went on, the difficulty of finding the wood I needed and the impending deadline made me reconsider.

I had a dread of papier mâché. I was haunted by the lumpy, awkward creations of grade school art classes, but I decided to give it ago anyway.

I started out by making the general shapes I wanted from random materials. I used crumpled up aluminium foil and wire to block everything in, and then wrapped masking tape around it all to keep everything together. The parts of the 'bogel man' were built with drinking straws at their centres so that they would be able to slide easily down the marionette strings allowing him to appear in the story piece by piece. The old woman was built on strings to allow fluidity of movement. If this were a puppet that was going to get a lot of use I would probably have made her differently to allow for easy repairs.

I happened to have some plasticine around, so I decided to use this in the construction of the puppets as well. It allowed for easy modelling and was very useful in allowing me to add weight where needed. I know it is more usual to build papier mâché on a mould and then cut it in half, remove the mould, and then use more papier mâché to join everything back together, but I thought it was more useful to leave it inside in this instance. The puppets have a pleasant weight, and most importantly, the weight necessary for all the parts to slip into place easily.

The next step was applying the papier mâché over everything. We found a bunch of old student newspapers in the empty-for-summer university. Then, I made a simple paste from uncooked flour and water, and I set to work, reading opinion pieces on the Scottish independence referendum, an obituary of Gabriel García Márquez, and style tips as I tore everything to pieces. Rather than using great strips of paper, I kept my pieces very small, which I think may be the key to reducing lumpiness (though it does take a lot longer this way). I thought that the parts that had plasticine under them would be much smoother than the parts that did not, but this wasn't really the case in the end.

After allowing the papier mâché to dry for a few days, I cut the straws on the bogey man and I started sanding everything smooth. As I was doing this I noticed that I was getting a marbled effect as the layers of coloured papers wore into each other. Though I had originally planned to apply gesso and paint over everything, I was so taken with the mix of print and marbling that I really couldn't bear to cover it. Instead I added a very simple face on the old woman, trying to keep a unity with the patterned paper.

The only possible downside of the decision to leave the paper unpainted is that the bogle man was left rather less masculine than he would have been if he were painted. I had planned to paint him in all his hairy glory, going for more of a trompe-l'oeil effect rather than attaching any sort of projections. But alas...

Next, I strung up the puppets so that I could apply varnish to them without anything sticking on them. (The old woman is actually hanging back to front here, which is why there is a wire hoop sticking out of her. The wire hoop allows for a string to control her back, making it possible for her to hunch over.)

After a couple of coats of varnish, the colours of the papers became brighter and there was a pleasing sheen to all of the parts. Also, this transformed the soft, fuzzy, sanded paper into something much more robust for handing.

I didn't take any photos as I sewed the clothes, but you can probably imagine how that went. I am no seamstress, so it was slow going. Both the kerchief and the dress are designed so that they can be removed if necessary. There's really no reason for this, except that it seemed very unsavoury to me to glue clothing onto her or stitch her in so that she would have be cut out.

Finally I went out and found some sticks in a secret place by the river, and joined them together to make the controls. I had help to hold the controls so I could string everything up just right.

And there they are in a spontaneous photo I took of them together. It was lovely to create in the third dimension for a change, and also to rediscover papier mâché, which I think is definitely a technique that I may revisit in the future. I hope you enjoyed these process photos. If I've missed anything that you are curious about, feel free to ask away!


  1. I'm not sure if this is a repeat-google always gives me trouble in posting for some reason.
    That said, these are quite marvelous and beautiful.
    I love how you integrated Marquez's obit into the body of the marionette- he would have loved it!

  2. oh, bless you! this is a fantastic explanation. i was tinkering with papier mache, but it seems as though i was putting maybe a lot more emphasis on the wire part than was actually necessary? and i really dislike wire, in a sort of visceral way--i found myself willing to be interrupted or distracted by almost anything.
    this is an excellent post, thanks a million!!

  3. I think the puppet skin is brilliant and I love their eyes! Your puppets have a lot of the "Don't Look Now" character about them!