Monday, October 12, 2015

Beginner Papier Mache for Autumn

Back when I taught in a regular classroom (mostly primary grades, but sometimes 4th) I ALWAYS did at least one papier mache project with my students every year. That was when I had my own classroom and room to spread out for storage. My hat is off to art teachers who juggle many classes and still find a way to dry on-going papier mache projects!! And teachers who manage to do papier mache from a traveling art cart have my undying appreciation!! If you haven’t seen Phyl’s papier mache posts over at There’s a Dragon in My Art Room, check them out Here!!)

Anyway, when I retired from my regular classroom after 40 years and started teaching art 2 days a week as a volunteer, I asked one of my first 5th grade classes how many of them had done papier mache in their lifetime at school. I was shocked when only a few hands went up! So, of course, we launched into a Wayne Thiebaud cupcake project. (see it HERE and Here) That was when I had my own art room, albeit shared. When I lost the art room and transitioned to teaching off of a cart (with no storage space anywhere) papier mache went by the wayside for awhile.

For a while now I have been thinking how challenging the process of papier mache can be for “first time papeir mache-ers” – using the right amount of paste on the newsprint, getting the paper to lay smoothly, etc. So here is an easier project that can be adapted to various grade and/or skill levels.

Part 1 is creating simple papier mache leaves.

Ideally we start with an assortment of real leaves that students can use (either tracing or observational drawing) to create their base. Cereal boxes are great for drawing these on, but cardstock works as well. If you don’t have great fall leaves in your area, you can get artificial leaves from a craft store, or just pre-cut some leaf templates for students to use. I like to cut some really simple shapes for kids who might have difficulty applying the paper strips to leaves like maple or oak.

I pre-tear the newsprint strips. If you use plain newsprint (with no writing on it) you’ll end up with a nice whitish surface for painting later. Since I am into recycling, and my used L.A. Times is free, I usually use regular newspaper. If you don’t know it, there is a trick to tearing quick, straight strips if you tear with the grain of the paper. I tear a whole section in half on the pre-folded horizontal fold line of the paper. Then, from that torn line, measuring 2 finger spaces each time, tear vertically until you have a pile of strips. I fill a carton with these so kids can just take what they need. For this leaf project they can tear their strips in half to make shorter lengths.

There are many variations for papier mache paste. At school I usually buy liquid starch – the old blue kind (although it is getting harder to find)! At home, where I don’t keep liquid starch on hand, I just put some flour in a pie plate and add warm water, stirring with my fingers, until it is the consistency I want (sort of like thick heavy whipping cream). In a pinch, I have actually have done this at school, too, with kids mixing their own paste and it has worked fine.

Then the kids are ready to start wrapping their moistened strips around their leaves, smoothing as they go. Since the leaf shape is flat, it is easier for little hands to manipulate the paper strips around. You will have to model how much paste is the “right amount.” I show them that I like the newsprint to look “slick and shiny” but NOT dripping wet. Some like to plunge their strip into the paste, fingers side first, and then smooth the paste with their other hand. (I call this the "dive into the pool" method.) Others prefer wetting both hands with paste and just smearing the strip with the paste. Either way works. For these leaves we could do 2 layers all at once.

Here, the kids crumple a piece of foil for their leaves to drape over until dry (over night for sure, it depends how wet the leaves are), The idea is to drape the leaves in shapes so they look like they have fallen off a tree and started to bend. You can quicken drying time by placing the leaves near a fan.

Lesson Planning Tip:
One thing to think about before you start this project is whether you want kids to have a variety of leaves to work with or all one type. For example,  you might intend to connect this art with a Science lesson reinforcing different kinds of trees, perhaps hanging the leaves from a branch (mobile-like). In that case, you would probably want students to create one type of leaf for their mobile. If, however, you are discussing how there are many different types of trees and want your project to show that variety, you could select different leaf types with that in mind.

Next week we'll explore some different options for applying color to our leaf collections.  And in 2 weeks I'll share some special ways to display the painted leaves. See you then:))


  1. I'm catching up on posts I haven't read yet, and of course I noticed this one because it's paper-mâché! Thanks for the shout-out! I've never made paper-mâché leaves, and I think it's a cool idea, though I picture it might be challenging for little hands to wrap tightly around the corners and curves and zigzags on leaves like maples and oaks and elms and such. So I'm impressed!! Looking forward to seeing your results.