Art Lesson Plan: Paper Mache Heads - Animal Spirits

Paper Maché Masks/Heads

Submitted by: Mark Alexander, Sharon Center School, Sharon Connecticut
Unit: Mexican Folk Art - Pre-Columbian Culture
Grade Level: 6 through 8 (Mexican Masks for the elementary level)


Objectives: Students will

  • Investigate processes and beliefs used by various cultures (Mexican - Pre-Columbian) and institutions, past and present, to create works of art.

  • Study a variety of cultures (Pre-Columbian and Mexican) to discover how arts forms have been transmitted from one generation to another.

  • Discover how a group's beliefs and values are reflected in its art forms and stylistic choices

  • Produce/explore works of art based on their environment and personal experiences - Use symbolism to portray "self."

  • Design and execute a Paper Mache. head/mask using recycled materials - build an armature

  • Recognize how technical elements affect works of art - demonstrated skill and craftsmanship in applying layers of paper maché and painting.mask


Newspapers, Masking Tape., plastic dishes (various sizes), balloons, aluminum foil, corrugated cardboard, brown paper toweling (end rolls --- or kraft paper), paper pulp (See papermaking kit below in Resources), Ross White Glue (or Wheat Paste. - Check label first for safety with kids), pie plates (or large plastic dishes), Model Magic., Tissue paper., Mod Podge., Acrylic Paint., Brushes., Yarn Assortment., Feather Assortment., Glue Gun. - Hot Glue Sticks.



mask 2Complete Papermaking Kit with DVD. - Easy to use set up and clean up Arnold Grummer's Papermill turns household wastepaper into stationery cards paper ornaments and more in just minutes! This kit makes 5.5 x 8.5 inch paper and comes complete with supplies needed to form press and dry paper.


Book: Masks of Mexico: Tigers, Devils, and the Dance of Life. - Masks of Mexico is a state-by-state guide for collectors and general folk art enthusiasts to learn about the types of masked dances still carried out in Mexico's Indian and mestizo communities today. Close to one-hundred color photos of authenticated masks from the collection of the Museum of International Folk\ Art are presented.


Book: Masks of the Spirit: Image and Metaphor in Mesoamerica. - This illustrated study guides the reader through the long history of Mesoamerican mask-making. It explores many themes associated with one of the least understood yet fascinating religious and mythological traditions.



mask 3The students learned about the pre-Colombian legend of Tona, which has it that all people shared a destiny with an animal, called a Tona, which matched their personality traits in some way. The Tona would have a family, fight a battle, get sick or die when the person experienced the same. Sometimes the Tona led and sometimes the person led, but always the person and the animal shared similar fates.


The students selected an animal which they thought appropriate for the role as their Tona. Then they honored that animal by creating a mask depicting it using the mask making technique outlined in the lesson plan.

  • Discuss/show examples of Mexican masks.

  • Discuss - show examples made by Mark Alexander - show various options that are used to create an armature

  • Demonstrate making an armature -- demonstrate proper paper maché technique used to insure a smooth surface for painting

  • Present various ways to finish: tissue paper layer and/or acrylic paint. Present various materials to decorate (have feathers for birds, yarns for hair, manes)

mask 4Book: Papier-Mache Today. - All forms of papier-mâché construction are discussed and there is an extensive section on finishing techniques. The beautiful results of this satisfying craft are conveyed by color photographs on each page. Papier-mâché is accessible and rewarding for people of all ages.




Make an armature with wadded newspaper and masking tape. Start with a tight newspaper ball that's larger than a person's head (balloons may be used to get the size started - Cool whip dishes are helpful to support the balloon during paper maché process). Make the ball into the desired head shape by attaching wads of newspaper for jaw, nose, and other forms. It helps in some cases to mold the paper in a small bowl then taping it onto the armature. I use a variety of small bowls of differing shapes to create different shaped wads. Aluminum foil can be used to help shape details. The armature is then covered almost entirely with masking tape, which helps fine tune the form, and acts as a release so all the newspaper armature can be cut out after the paper maché is dry. Some masks can use a whole roll of 1" (2.5 cm) tape.


Some armatures  have corrugated cardboard necks and ears which stay in the finished head. some masks require a cardboard mouth hole that can been removed in the finished head (or left in - depending on the design). Half a tennis ball (and other balls) taped on each side of the armature can be used to create round cheeks.



I use Ross White Glue. I find it's affordable, mixes well every time, never sours, and when applied in three or four layers it dries pretty hard. I keep it in those one gallon size Rubbermaid pitchers. I've also used 'paper maglue' with great success, which is just white glue and water, but this became too expensive and very difficult to clean off the art room floors and tables.  (Note: Mark never uses wall paper paste because of the pesticides in it. Check the label of wheat paste before you use it to insure it is safe for kids)


Before using the paper maché I spend a bit of time with dry fingers just filling boxes with strips and patches of paper ranging in size between ½" x 6" to 2" x 2".  Always tear the paper, so the frayed edges will bond well. In fact, I won't even use the factory edges that come on the paper, because it doesn't bond well and the straightness of it is unsightly, sometimes even visible through paint.


First layer over the armature's Masking Tape. is newspaper. Apply wet patches as fast as possible, always overlapping. After a large area is covered with very sloppy and wet overlapped patches, immediately apply another layer of dry newspaper, paper that is not dipped in the paper mache, very carefully massaging and smoothing each piece before applying the next.  The dry layer soaks up the excess paste of the previous layer and the rubbing blends or melds the fibers of the paper to one another, preventing most of those loose edges I call 'flags'. This technique, in effect, becomes two layers of paper mache.


Do one side of the mask one day, then turn it to do the other side another day. I set them on aluminum pie plates to dry, to control the mess and prevent sticking to the table (mask may also be placed on wax paper). If in a hurry, set the mask in front of a fan. When working on more than one mask at a time I often put one in the oven at 100 degrees while attending to the other. Paper pulp may be used to build up parts -- apply small pieces of torn paper over pulp to even out the surface.


Next layer is Kraft Paper. (end rolls of brown paper toweling may be used here). I've used brown bags, but I prefer to use rolled kraft paper, because most of my masks utilize the kraft paper color as a base for glazes, and the advertising ink on bags shows. This is not a problem if Tempera Paint. or opaque Acrylic Paint. are used to finish the mask. Apply one quick wet layer then a final dry layer, being sure to massage each piece well before applying next. On masks where the kraft remains visible, I often apply the last layer in strips that have directional form following lines.



Let the mask dry very well. Use an X-acto Knife. to assist in removal of the armature. Pull it all out, including all the masking tape. Trim the neck edges if necessary, and then use kraft paper and paste for a smooth finish on the edges. Put the mask on, and determine where the top of the wearer's head belongs, and whether the mask's eyes or mouth will be in a good position for the wearer's vision. Cut eye holes and mouth holes,  and finish them with kraft paper and paste. Make corrugated cardboard head gear to insure proper placement on the head -- and hot melt it into the mask with cardboard shims and straps.



I have had great success with acrylic washes, laying layers of transparent colors on the kraft paper color. I have also used opaque acrylics, colored Tissue paper. applied with Paper Mache., Watercolor Paint. and Tempera Paint.. Seal with Acrylic Gloss Medium. to make the head extra durable. Add finishing touches - died dust mop makes great hair. I have also used raffia, horse hair, raw wool, and feathers. I've used Model Magic. and a variety of other air dry clays for teeth.



  • Did students discuss - and show awareness of Mexican/Pre-Columbian culture?

  • Did student design and execute an armature with little assistance (show problem solving skills) - select an animal as his/her personal "tona?"

  • Did student apply Paper Mache. in a careful manor to insure a smooth surface for painting/finishing?

  • Did student demonstrate skill in painting and finish of mask?

Alternate Lesson: Paper maché Heads/Caricatures


Materials: Balloon. for each child, tin cans, cardboard, newspapers, Wheat Paste. (Ross White Glue, Wheat Paste. or White Glue.), Masking Tape., Paper Pulp., Acrylic Paint..



  • Blow up balloon to desired size - tape at an angle to tin can (wrap cardboard around tin can if you want to be able to remove the tin can). Tied end of balloon will form chin. You can use cardboard to make shoulders (cover with aluminum foil so cardboard doesn't get soft when paper maché is applied).

  • Build up features with paper pulp and/or aluminum foil - cover with layer of paper mache. Make expressive features - show emotion.

  • Paint when dry

Suggestions from Wayong:

I've done that lesson plan (caricature heads above) years ago & I am a puppeteer, so I have some tips.

Wheat Paste. attracts bugs and rodents... my recommendation is to use a combination of white glue and Wood Glue. watered down in a shallow tray/bowl. Warm water works best. Putting on a final coat of clear shellac. (when students aren't around) or gloss can help as well. Some student have severe allergies to wheat & cannot come into physical contact with it.


Some students with special needs find using a balloon intimidating or frustrating (or can act out inappropriately). Provide alternatives. Students can make an egg shape out of crushed newspaper and paper tape with a lip at the bottom as a neck. There are also wood heads/wood bowels/turnings that make a good armature. Making the base out of Model Magic. (3rd grade plus) or Magic Sculpt. (2 part nontoxic epoxy) & then covering it with paper maché helps (be aware of latex allergies for some these methods).


Don't cut the newspaper into small shapes. The paper needs to be ripped, otherwise the pieces will peel away. There should be 3-5 complete layers.  Any less, the heads will collapse. You'll need to monitor them to make sure the layer is complete & semi-dry before going onto the next layer.


Non-shiny, thin brown paper (bags) or Tissue paper. make a smoother final layer.


Provide Clay Modeling Tools. for older students (5th +)  so they have the option of pressing in details.


Have size appropriate gloves handy for have certain special needs (IE. on the Autistic Spectrum or Sensory Issues). It's not the best solution & the gloves are frequently abandoned, but it's good to have them around (be aware of latex allergies & have alternatives).


Provide a verbal and nonverbal warning that the session is ending. Some students, even students that may not have the focus for say, a drawing lesson, can become very engrossed. Some students with ADHD or history of abuse will become extremely absorbed & will not hear a verbal warning to clean up. You may need to give an earlier warning & nonverbal directive so they can start the process of transitioning to their next class.  I've had children become tearful when they are told to stop, but it's important to be gentle & firm with them.


You may have students who say they hate their puppets and want to throw them away -during or after the process. This is a normal reaction & is part of the development of making puppets. With older students, you can explain how eros (to create) and thanatos (to destroy) come into play in creating & making them come to like. Sometimes repainting the puppet (if you use tempera, they can't paint over, but they can go over it in color pencil/marker or put another thin layer of paper). If a student gets an urge to destroy a puppet, you can help them problem solve or have them take a break from the project and work on something else (props, costume, another puppet, looking at puppetry books or doing something unrelated). Once they had a break (another day, or when the urge stops), they can problem solve or continue.


Puppets don't have to be human: they can be animals, imaginary creatures or objects/abstract concepts! This is a great way to encourage some of their other learning in (Greek mythology, African history, tall tales, folk tales, sciences, etc) for older students. Although, sometimes puppets have a mind of their own & may not obey the frameworks. 


If you have have behaviorally challenged students- this can be great opportunity to show their strengths.  However, if they want to participate, they need to follow the rules of respecting materials & others. If their puppets need to look & act in a school appropriate manner, remind them before making them (I've had students problem solve on how to remove weapons/gang symbols on their figures).


If you choose to have the students present or perform/ collaborate with their Language Arts teacher to get some ideas- they might be able to use academic time to work on related writing & presentation skills.


Suggestions from Jerry Vilensky

I have done many types of paper maché over the years, and have arrived on my own recipe for
paper maché that is not only simple, but is relatively free from the technical problems inherent in the more traditional approaches.


First of all, I use art paste or methylcellulose wallpaper paste exclusively over the traditional
wallpaper paste. The reason is that type of paste does not spoil, is clear (no grossed-out kids) and can be tailored to various projects by adding water or mixing it thicker as desired. Adding Elmer's Glue. hardens it, if desired.

Second, I use office waste and paper cut-offs for the basis of most projects. Xerox paper or white Drawing Paper. cut (or torn) into strips creates a strong, overlapping weave of paper when several layers are laminated on an armature. An advantage over newsprint, for example, is that you can skip the step of gessoing the piece before painting, because the surface is smoother, harder and whiter than newsprint.

Third, I use paper napkins or toilet paper to add details, and instead of pulping it in a bucket, I simply have the kids nest the dry paper in the palm of their hands and add glue in small amounts until the paper pulps to a clay-like consistency. Using this type of pulp is an amazing way of adding details to a mask or sculpture, and takes only a day or so to dry. Once dry it is presents a hard surface for painting.

To finish paper mache, I use acrylic paints exclusively. Acrylics cost around the same as temperas and do not present the inherent technical problems that temperas have. As a matter of fact, I haven't used temperas in many years because of their inferior characteristics. Acrylics dry moisture-proof, have a built in sheen, do not crack, blister or peel, and simply look better.

Mexican Masks for Elementary Big Creek Elementary Middleburg Heights, United States


.These masks are sure to bring a smile to your face! and so easy to do. It looks like they use Chinet paper plates (or some kind of plate) as a base -then build up the muzzle (on many of them - some are flat). Cardboard ears/horn are added. Paper maché all. You could paint with tempera or acrylic. Yarn is added all around for a very festive look. I have wondered what kind of masks those paper plates would make that have the molded ears already. My grocery story carries those (Judy Decker). NOTE: Image used is copyrighted. Artsonia site allows its use for this purpose - as a teaching tool for non-commercial use - for education.


See their Mexican Masks on Artsonia


From Vicki Patterson, Wales Elementary, Wisconsin

I've done a similar lesson with my 1st grade or Kindergarten students. They take an annual field trip to the zoo, and it's a great way to introduce the little ones to paper maché. We turn the chinet plate "upside down" and tape one balled-up piece of newspaper on top... then maché. Most kids don't decide what animal they are making until the paper maché dries, then they decide what animal is "reaching out to them". Those who want a longer snout just tape an additional ball of paper on after the first dries and add more paper maché. You could add animal symbolism to this lesson - see meanings of animals in various cultures).



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