The wonderful papier mache tūī that accompanied me to the Imagine This! Festival at Porirua Library, was a huge hit with kids and parents. They were fascinated about how little it weighed and how life-like it looked. This lovely tūī was made by Meredith Thorpe, a Nelson-based artist. Parents and children asked me how to make a papier mache animal.

Papier mache tui
The papier mache tūī
The tūī looking out of my window
The author holding the papier mache tui

You can make all sorts of animals out of papier mache. Last year a friend set me a photo of her grandson Luca making a green gecko. Luca made this during lockdown. He used one of Ned’s illustrations from Animals of Aotearoa to help him.

Luca putting the finishing touches on his green gecko

What is papier mache?

The words are French and mean “mashed paper”. Papier mache is the layering of paper and glue over some kind of frame or structure to create a sculpture. 

How to make a sculpture out of papier mache

  1. Make a frame or structure in the general shape of the animal you want to create. If it has a round body you could use a ball of crushed up newspaper. If it’s long and thin perhaps you could use cardboard rolls from the inside of toilet paper rolls. An odd shape could be made from chicken wire scrunched up. The inner structure is be a good way to make art from junk, perhaps using something that is non-recyclable and would otherwise have been thrown away.
  2. Once you have created a structure, start layering on strips of newspaper or other soft paper with glue. Keep building this up in a way that creates the shape of the animal – thicker in some parts, thinner in others.
  3. Let your sculpture dry between layers. This is a project for several days or even weeks depending on your patience and the level of detail you want to include. It’s an ideal project for school holidays or lockdown, or simply doing a bit each day after school.
  4. Once you’ve finished the shape and it’s dry, paint it in the colours of the animal.

Tips 

It’s a long time since I’ve made anything out of papier mache myself so I asked my artist friends for tips on creating animals.

  • Make your sculpture strong by overlapping the pieces of newspaper, criss-crossing them to ensure the inner structure is completely covered. 
  • Meredith suggests using wallpaper glue, but you could also make paste out of flour and water.

There are lots of You Tube videos and instructions online with lots of different techniques. Here are two fun projects:

Many thanks to Porirua Library for the photo from Imagine This! and to Luca and Jane for the green gecko photos.

Meredith Thorpe is an inspiration. In 2017, she created a whole window display for Illuminate Nelson City in Whitcoulls based around my book “In the Bush: explore and discover New Zealand’s native forests”. It even had a glow-worm cave! Ever since then, her tūī has been keeping me company in my writing studio. Thank you Meredith.

Making Papier Mache Animals