My copy of Monique Robert’s new book, Papier-Mâché Design, arrived several days ago. I read it through in one sitting, getting up only for a few refills of coffee. I can’t wait to use some of the methods she describes.
This is definitely not for the grade-school art class–this is a serious book for people who are dedicated to creating 3-dimensional art.
I mention that right at the top of this review because most books on paper mache are written for a younger audience, and include step-by-step how-to instructions so you can make specific projects that will end up looking exactly like the ones the author made. However, Monique’s book will not show you the specifics of how she built that fantastic creature on the front of her book. She assumes the reader is a sculptor, with a mind already filled with creative ideas about projects the reader wants to build. She trusts you to absorb her methods into your own work.
Perhaps a better title for the book would have used the word “engineering,” rather than “design.” She includes unique techniques for making large, lightweight sculptures that are strong enough to hang from the ceiling or to ship to a distant gallery. Trust me–you won’t find these techniques described anywhere else. However, you’ll need to design your own sculptures.
Her techniques show you how to make your designs light and strong, but she doesn’t include actual design tips, as I understand the term.
Some of the ideas in the book that I intend to use immediately in my own future sculptures are:
- Her method of balancing a sculpture so she can get realistic dynamic poses. So far, my own work has been limited to critters who have all four feet firmly planted on the ground. Her methods will free me to create figures that “move” more naturally.
- Her method of creating life-like human hands. If you’ve ever attempted to draw or sculpt hands, you know this is one of an artist’s major challenges. Her instructions make this difficult operation seem easy. Many of the ideas I’ve had locked up in my mind for years include human figures that I’ve been afraid to try because I didn’t know this technique.
- Her method of preparing sculptures to hang, including the way she reinforces her work and how she installs the wire hangers.
I was particularly struck by the fact that Monique sees things in her mind in a way that is very different from the way I do. That difference is probably why her method of building her sculptures is so different from the way I do it. Let me try to explain what I mean:
You’ve heard that people who carve sculptures out of stone often say they’re “liberating” a figure that they see in the stone. They feel they’re letting the figure out when they chip away the excess material. Inuit sculptors are rather well known for making this statement about their sculpting technique.
When I see a stone, I see a stone. There’s no figure inside it for me. That’s why I don’t carve stone–I build up figures out of clay or crumpled paper and masking tape, so the sculpture gradually appears. I don’t need to worry about removing or adding too much, because I work with more forgiving materials.
Monique seems to see things in a third way that I didn’t know about before. She creates hollow inner forms that will fit inside a finished sculpture, and then “draws” the actual skin of her sculptures in thin air. I can’t explain how she does this, although she shows the method very clearly in her book. The reason I can’t explain it is that I don’t personally have the ability to see the way she does. Instead of “liberating” a figure out of a solid piece of stone, she forms the shape of a figure that she sees in empty space. It’s a remarkable ability, and one I wish I had.
The result of her method is a very strong, highly detailed sculpture that is almost completely hollow, yet amazingly strong because of the geometric shapes inside the sculpture, the type of glue she uses instead of flour and water paste, and her method of building up shapes with the paper mache.
Because I can’t see a finished sculpture so clearly in my mind as she does, I would not be as successful using her complete method. However, there are many things in her book that I’ll be including in my own work, especially the larger pieces that I’ve been thinking about lately. One thing I’ve noticed is that every book on paper mache has something in it that can be incorporated in my own work to make the process easier or stronger. (For instance, I used some of Dan Reeder’s methods to build my bobcat and lion cubs, but they don’t look anything like his monsters.)
Monique’s book is important to me not because I can reproduce her methods exactly, but because reading it caused my mind to flood with new possibilities and ideas. If a how-to book doesn’t do that, what would be the point of reading it?
One last note: There are two groups who will find this book most illuminating:
- I highly recommend this book to a subset of folks who regularly use paper mache in their work to create airplanes and rockets and other structures that need to be both light and strong. If you’re one of these people, you’ll be especially excited about Monique’s illustrations of building a perfectly flat piece of paper mache. The resulting shape can be dried so that it has undulating waves, or it can be completely flat. She uses this method for bird and dragon wings, but it would apply equally well to airplanes. Anyone who recognizes the strength of plywood will understand how strong laminated paper can be, especially if you use the glue she recommends.
- If you want to sculpt large pieces, and especially if you want them to be light enough to hang from the ceiling, her methods will be invaluable. You can utilize her method of creating a strong, hollow inner form, even if you don’t think you can create the skin the way she does, (and I’m pretty sure I can’t). One possibility that I’ll be experimenting with is to create the inner form as she recommends and then cover the hollow inner form with crumpled paper and masking tape to fill out the muscles and features. This feels more intuitive to me. The crumpled paper can then be covered with either paper strips and her glue formula, or my paper mache clay. This method should create pieces even lighter than Dan Reeder’s hanging monsters, (and way lighter than my baby elephant, who weighs in at over 40 pounds), and there’s nothing to prevent someone from mixing the two methods to create an entirely new technique.
If you’ve read Moniques book, we’d all love to hear what you think. If you have your own favorite book and I haven’t found it yet, please tell us about it.