Thursday, 17 December 2015

Making a pantomime head from carved polystyrene and papier mache

A great big panto head... always amusing. Here is one. It's Beast from Beauty and the Beast. 

Here is the head in action

For impact the head had to be big but it also needed to be light for the person wearing it. Papier mache is perfect for this. It is very strong for its weight and is resilient enough to take knocks.

Further down the post I have added step-by-step details of how this was actually built, but before making one of these, you have to design it.

Creating the look

Panto is very formulaic. Audience familiarity with the base stories and characters is one of its strengthes. For this the head of Beast had to be recognisably beastly yet a bit pathetic.  It is after all a tortured man inside a beast's physical body.

I kind of knew what I wanted roughly it to look and feel like. It had to be original, but of course this was based on a number of other people's beastly creations I had lurking at the back of my mind (as well as some cat head anatomy).


Disney's animated beast had been suggested as a starting point, but I also like Jean Cocteau's version of Beast in La Belle a la Bete, Jacques Torneur's classic monster in Night of the Demon and Japanese Noh-mask demons. The latter in particular are very useful for seeing how bold features and strong shading add drama.

I also indulged myself by re-reading Angela Carter's two great feminist riffs on the Beauty and the Beast story - "The Tiger's Bride" and "The Courtship of Mr Lyon", both from her book of short stories, The Bloody Chamber.


Beast is sometimes portrayed as a lion, so I started off drawing the cast for good measure.

This reminded me of feline face proportions, and how they naturally look grumpy...

This then allowed me to free-sketch a few random ideas on how the eyes should look to reflect the half beast, half human nature of the character...

I played about with that by rough-sketching variations. For this, it is best not to try to create polished drawings, it is more about deliberately drawing it a bit wonky to see if anything interesting emerges accidentally...

I also drew some cat skulls to get a deeper feel for the shape of the bone under the skin and how I could alter the shape a bit...

and so on...

and so on...

Finally, I did one full drawing of the general look I was after...

After all this, I had enough of a picture in my mind to sculpt the head.


Modelling is great for developing the concepts and prototyping the shape before committing to building. It allows ideas to be fleshed out into 3d and is the best way to understand the geometry of what you are building in advance. 

Plasticine is awesome for this (and very therapeutic)...

I generally start with a ball...

Then get cutting...

And the shape usually emerges quite quickly, because the preparatory drawing has got the basic idea burnt in.

After a while and some fiddling, the model looked like this...

Here is the cat inspecting it...


There are two parts to building a costume head. As well as obviously the head itself, you need a mount by which it will be supported when the performer wears it. It needs to be balanced too as it is used with free hands.

Before starting though, I gathered up as much stuff as I could find round the shed/garden. PVA, polystyrene, various tapes, string, etc. I had to buy some parcel paper and collect withies. These are the green willow sticks on the left.

Withies are made from Osiers - small willows that grow near water. They are what baskets and some woven (occasionally living) fencing are made from. Willow is super tough and hard to snap. It is why cricket bats are also made from it. It has an interlocking grain. Where I live they grow wild by the Thames, but these ones are in Reading University.

I just cut off what I need and they just keep growing more...

By bending several into loops and taping together they form strong, but resiliently springy shapes. 

This starts with some natural parabolic curves. These can be held in place with string initially...

Using a series of triangulated curves, I made a lightweight shoulder support harness...

By squinting at the model at a distance I could see roughly the shape it needed to be. This allowed me to adjust it slightly to give the right angle for mounting the head on it later.

...and by drawing a full size sketch of the head on a big bit of paper I could scale the supports that would be needed for the size head I wanted...


Once the harness was built, I could make the head. For this I needed to recreate the beastly head design scaled up to full size, by making a positive former mould over which to papier mache.

I had a hoard of scavenged blocks of polystyrene I could use. These were not big enough by themselves, but could be sawn into lengths, which were then jointed together to make a block big enough to carve. this. The skewers are there to hold the individual blocks together. It is quite hard to glue polystyrene

The carving starts by roughing out the main shape. I prefer to start by making a skull-like shape, rather than a finished head. It allows details like eyes and horns to be added later, once the basic shape is perfected.

At first it still looks very blocky...

...but soon builds up. You need to be quite bold when roughing out to get the broad shapes in proportion and lose the original block shape. It is important not to do the detail at this stage.

Eventually it looked like this. On the right you can see the steak knife I used to do the carving. This is a pointy, sharply-serrated but stout knife, which you can stab, saw and lever out chunks with.

The eyeballs are some old laundry liquid dispensers I had knocking about.

Here, you can see the tools I used.  On the left is a 16 inch wood rasp that is used to smooth off convex edges. Next to it is te steak knife. On the right is a bread knife which can be used for sawing and shaving off.

This makes a lot of mess. You need to get the vacuum cleaner out from time to time. It is the only way to tidy up polystyrene balls. They will stick to dustpans and brushes due to static charges.

Papier mache

A head like this need laminated papier mache (as opposed to pulped papier mache). I use brown parcel paper as the main skin as it is very strong and a few layers give all the structural strength you need. Having said that it tends to bend in one direction only as it has a grain.  This can cause folds and creases when covering curves in multiple planes.

The brown paper is then covered with newspaper, which is less tough and tends to go soggy when when. This though is useful as it moulds easily over any 3-d curved shape.

It is useful to use two types of paper for another reason . It helps you can see if you have completely covered the last layer. Each layer needs to dry before the next. This takes a few hours with a fan heater trained on it.

Here, you can see the newspaper covering the brown parcel paper (and the PVA covering everything).

Once covered, The polystyrene was hacked out to reduce weight. This was done until a layer of polystyrene about 1-2 inches thick was left under the papier mache skin. This gives it impact strength, like a crash helmet. completely hollow papier mache can dent. The polystyrene is very effective at stopping that.

This was hacked out with the knife and the surface treated with a hot air paint dryer to seal in any loose balls.

Once the basic skull was hollowed out it was taped onto the withie support frame

It was then fixed on with more papier mache. While doing this, it was tested for balance. Some adjustments were also made to the frame struts to prevent them catching the chin under the load of the head.

Once the head was on the frame, it could be fixed onto the worktop more easily and then the finer details could be added on (The eyes and their sockets, the fangs and the horns)

These were built up with rough shapes, support skewers and folded paper, then the final shape formed with the soft and mouldable newspaper papier mache.

The finished head looked like this...


After modelling, I painted it. First I gave it two coats of white emulsion. This seals the papier mache and also provides a uniform blank base to apply top paint onto ...

Until it all looked like this - NICE!!


Once a base coat was on, the main colouring could be built up. This was a combination of poster paint and felt tip pens.

The main face colour started with a light, semi-transparent brown coat, brushed roughly on. After that some darker browns and lighter yellows and oranges were scumbled over the base coat. The mouth has pink and red artists felt tip pen blended to give a graded tone.

You can see the scumbled paint blends more clearly close up on the nose and eyebrows.

A close up of one eye, shows the mix of paint (eye-whites), coloured felt tips (iris, eye socket reds and eyeball veins) and black marker pen (pupil, iris rim and eye-liner).

After the colouring was complete, I varnished the head to seal the paint layer.

Then extra details were added. Black nylon brush-bristles were glued into pierced holes for whiskers. The holes were stabbed in with a skewer and hot glue injected in before pushing the bristle in...

Transparent hot glue was dripped into the eyes and mouth to mimic tears and drool.

Light brown fake fur was glued on as eyebrows and coloured felt tip pens used to match the skin colours.

And put together, it looked like this. I added black nylon gauze to hide the performer's face.

I also made hands too in the same way, but they weren't used in the end.