Ron Graham
Puppets and other papier mache creations.
Fine art with paper as medium or support.

Hydrated cellulose fibres
the stuff of creativity

Before machines began making enormous quantities of paper out of trees, paper was an expensive commodity. It was made painstakingly by hand from cellulose fibre pulp. To obtain this pulp, various plant materials were beaten, boiled, and broken down with caustic. Recycled materials were also pulped, such as used paper and old cotton rags. There was a proverb in those days, "Beggars make rags, rags make paper, paper makes money, money makes banks, and banks make beggars."

Connecting to history

The history of papermaking developed alongside of printing. The ancient hand methods have never quite died out, because there is still a demand, mainly by watercolour artists, for paper made by hand in the old manner. The ancient methods also survive in the hands of many artists and crafters, who associate the old principles and practices with innovative works using paper pulp.

Two ways to use paper fibre

The creative use of hydrated cellulose fibre pulp occurs on two levels. Firstly there is the making of paper by hand for its own sake. This process distributes pulp in a vat, then draws it out as a sheet with a mould and deckle, first dipped, then shaken, then couched. I will describe this briefly in a separate article Hand Papermaking. Secondly there is the use of the pulp as a modelling and casting material for producing three dimensional art works. These include puppets, masks, sculptures, and all kinds of objet d'art. Pulp used in this manner is called papier mache.

Recycling waste papers

When you recycle waste paper to make pulp, the hard work is done for you by the paper mill. All you need to do is separate and hydrate the fibres again, to bring them back to the pulp produced by the mill, before it was made into the paper. You achieve this simply by tearing up the paper and beating it to a fine pulp in warm water. The pulp thus made is suitable for making paper by hand or for making papier mache.

Recycled waste paper provides a number of other advantages. You get...

Papier mache recipes

Recipies and methods for papier mache are legion, however there are seven key ingredients that will make excellent papier mache for modelling and casting. No cooking is required. The seven ingredients are waste paper, warm water, white PVA glue as a binder, oil of wintergreen as a mould inhibitor, linseed oil as a smoother and toughener, whiting or other filler as a hardener, and granular materials for surface texture. The last three are optional. To make papier mache, first beat the waste paper thoroughly in the warm water. Remove excess water, then mix the pulp with white glue as a binder, adding a few drops of oil of wintergreen to prevent mould. The optional ingredients are then worked in if required. For more detailed information on papier mache, see Insights into paper pulp.

Casting papier mache in silicone moulds

The papier mache can be pressed into moulds made from silicone. No releasing agent is necessary. The cast will shrink ten percent as it dries and come away from the mould. Because the mould is flexibile and the cast shrinks, a lot of undercut is tolerated. However it is important to ensure that pulp does not form a mass in any part of the mould and that all parts of the mould expose the pulp layer to evapouration. For more information see section 2 of Casting Puppet Parts in Paper Pulp.

Using paper pulp alone

Paper pulp may be used on its own without any binders, fillers, or additives except perhaps those that might remain from the original paper making process at the paper mill. Cellulose is a complex carbohydrate that imparts rigidity to the walls of plant cells. The cellulose fibres from plants are the main ingredient of paper. When swelled with water (hydrated and macerated) the fibres can be caused to intertwine and felt. When compressed, the fibres cling tenaciously to each other forming a solid mass --even in a thin sheet. Pressure also encourages hydrogen bonding providing additional strength. Even in papier mache, therefore, the addition of a binding glue can be minimal if conditions for natural bonding are encouraged. This preserves the characteristics of the paper which, in some works, is a desirable thing.

Casting pure pulp in plaster moulds

There is an outstanding example of exploiting the natural cohesion of cellulose fibres in three dimensional works. Good waste paper is pulped, then formed into sheets using the traditional mould and deckle in a vat. The sheets are couched and pressed. The beater, vat, mould, and press can be very small, sufficient to produce sheets of say 200 by 150mm about A5 size. Instead of then drying the sheets, pieces are gently torn from them, sprayed with warm water and pressed with the fingers wet side down into unsealed plaster moulds. The edge of each added piece is pushed well into the edge of the previous piece to form a slight bulge which is then pressed down hard. A small square of denim, felt, or some such fabric laid over the paper while you press it onto the plaster surface, will prevent lesions and encourage cohesion. Excess moisture can be lifted off with a piece of sponge. Provided you use a lot of finger pressure, you will achieve a fine, thin, strong paper cast with paper alone. You should then glue on a couple of extra interior layers, using any strong water-soaked paper. This will strengthen and thicken the cast.

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