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What is Paper Mâché? A deeper dive than your typical DIY Balloon Piñata

Updated: Jul 21

Paper Mache is derived from the French term “Papier-mâché”, the literal translation of which is “chewed paper”. Despite its French name, the technique originated in China During the Han Dynasty. Today we are going to explore paper mache, its history, materials, and how it is being used by contemporary artists.


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Origins

Paper mache began in China, with the first examples dating back to the Han Dynasty (BC 202 – AD 220). They used it to make helmets and coated the paper mache in many layers of lacquer to toughen it. It was also used for every day objects like pots lids.

Smithsonian collection, paper mâché mask, thailand art, siam
"Face Of Hanuman Giant Monkey (Nah Hanumahn)", 1876, Thailand, Smithsonian Institute

Next we see examples of Paper Mache appear in Japan and then-Persia as trade

brought the techniques to them from China. In Japan It was often used in celebratory paper decorations and mask making. Paper mâché became a widely used practice across Asia


Around the 10th century AD, paper mache techniques made their way to Western countries where the French officially named it “papier mâché”. Papier-mâché was used to create affordable ornamental decorations and wall motifs.


Materials

Over the years paper has been mixed with a variety of materials to create papier mâché. Some of these materials include:

Resin

Gelatin

Rice Flour

Mashed Potatoes

Acrylic Glue



Nowadays, most people just use a combination of water, wheat-flour, and white glue. You can learn more about materials and techniques here. While people think of childhood crafts when they hear “paper mache”, there are many contemporary artists who use papier-mâché in their gallery-quality artwork.



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Roberto Benavidez

Roberto Benavidez, a Texas native, creates paper art in the form of intricate piñatas. He uses papier-mâché to form and mold each highly detailed and colorful sculpture. He says “there’s something very forgiving about paper. You can wet it, slightly, to manually manipulate the form and once it’s dry, it’s rigid papier-mâché again. You can wet it to reform it.” (Colossal, 26 May 2020)


Artistic piñata, Roberto Benavidez
Illuminated Piñata, Roberto Benavidez


Xiaoqianfeng

Xiaoqianfeng is a Chinese handicraft artist who has gained her fame on social media. She frequently uses different papier-mâché techniques to create a variety of three-dimensional forms from wonderland-like dioramas and decorations, to wearable mecha armor, to large fantasy sculptures. Xiaoqianfeng primarily uses recycled cardboard and newspaper to create her papier-mâché.




James Morrison

James Morrison is an Australia-based artist who uses papier-mâché and ink to create taxidermy-like tableaus. His monochromatic sculptures evoke a sense of dark fantasy. Morrison spent his childhood in Papua New Guinea and often draws his inspiration from folk stories he heard there.


paper mâché, ink, sculpture, Australian artist, James Morrison
"Color Green", Jame Morrison, 2007, Paper Mache and ink