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Weekend Frivolities: Making a Mask for Halloween, Part One

Recently, I noticed a sizable bump in hits on the perennial favorite Walking Off the Big Apple post, Weekend Frivolities DIY Edition: Venetian Masks. Of course, now with Halloween approaching, some people are looking for time-honored ways to make a fabulous mask to wear to a party or parade. In the aforementioned post from December, I decided it was too hard to explain how to make a complicated well-crafted mask, so I directed those interested to an excellent Italian video from a famous Venetian mask-making shop.

Now that I'm making a mask for Halloween, I decided that it was time to put up or shut up. I'll explain in this post how to make a mask, going step-by-step in the process of making a mask in the Venetian method. As you follow along with the instructions, you will see that my process differs from the classic commedia dell'arte and carnival Italian traditions primarily in four areas - content, shape, decoration and quality control. You will find no plague doctors wearing tricorner hats or harlequins with pointy feet here. My method is to draw heavily from popular culture and whatever else pleases my imagination.

For reasons still unclear to me, the mask I want to make is of a character that I recently invented. I call this character The Ghost of Warhol's imaginary and totally fictional Superstar dog, Sparko Violet. I don't even know at this point if it's going to turn out or what the final product will look like, but I do know that the dog will wear a white wig and don a pair of glasses shaped out of black pipe cleaners.

Steps for Making a Halloween Mask in the Venetian Method:

1. Decide the basic shape or idea of the mask - person, animal, mythical or alien. This shape will then become the inspiration for a sculpture. The sculpture will then be used to create a mold, and the mold in turn will become the basic template for the mask. Once the mold is made, it can be used over and over until you accidentally drop it from a high place and it breaks into a million pieces. (not shown)

2. Go find some sculpting clay at the crafts store and bring it home. A couple of large blocks of DAS molding clay should be fine. In New York, we have plenty of places for mask-making supplies, but basic craft stores can be found everywhere. See Back-to-School Art Supplies Walk for NYC.
Put down some newspaper, grab a large bowl, flip it over it over, and start shaping the clay into a basic oval shape. If you are making a mask of your own dog, summon your pet and ask him or her to sit near while you look and make the likeness. Because many dogs have snouts, you should find a smaller bowl or round object to put underneath so as to prop up the snout part. Making a good sculpture can take a few hours. Don't get attached to it. I'll explain why in the next step. (not shown)

3. OK. Now that you have the clay sculpture, get ready for the messy Plaster of Paris pouring operation. Take the sculpture outside and place it on a table or something where you can work quickly. Grab some Vaseline and grease the surface. Follow health warnings on the plaster label. Mix plaster according to directions and then pour over the sculpture. Let it harden. Remove clay sculpture from plaster mold by any means necessary. This often means breaking it. Boo hoo. (the basic mold is shown on left)

4. Now you have a basic plaster mold that can be used many times. Lightly coat the inside of the mold with vaseline. Into the mold place strips of paper that have been soaked in water and glue. I like to use yesterday's New York Times. You can also use a favorite papier mache mixture. Lay down several strips of overlapping pieces of paper so that the inside of the mold is completely covered. Repeat four or five times. We want a strong yet flexible mask. (see insert above)

5. Dry the mold near a dry heat. I put my molds on a window sill above a radiator vent. Time varies for drying. Carefully remove the dried paper mask from mold. Cut out the eyes with an Exacto knife. Voila! You should now have a mask that looks like something, only of newspaper! (shown on right above)

6. Now the truly fun part begins. Gather paints, glitter, feathers, brushes, and photos. (see photo at top) Bring out the glue gun. In my opinion, a crafts project is only a convenient excuse to make fun with a glue gun.

End of Part One.


Images: Dining table turned into weekend mask-making studio; plaster mold and paper mask. To see an example of a different dog mask I made, scroll through the sidebar to see the Weimar fox terrier portrait mask.

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