As a teenager, I had a brief obsession with African masks. I’ve always loved faces in art, and I suppose the graphic beauty of African masks appealed to me as a stylization of regular faces. I couldn’t even believe my luck when my family visited the National Museum of African Art in D.C. I was in heaven as I saw all of these masks in real life that I had only previously pored over in books.
In fact, African masks have heavily influenced modern western and European artists. Take a look at cubism, fauvism and expressionism and you will see countless examples of African-influenced work.
left to right, clockwise: Amedeo Modigliani - Woman’s Head, 1912, Pablo Picasso - Bust of a Man, 1908, Paul Klee - Comedians’ Handbill, 1938. Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art
As a freshman in college, I carved an African-type mask out of plaster in my 3-D class, and it sort of sucked, but it was so much fun. I came up with an easier way for kids to make African-style masks. It all starts with a plastic craft store mask…..
You can tell your kids that masks have been used in African tribal ceremonies and they represent the spirits of their ancestors. They have many symbolic meanings, and are made of many different types of materials, such as leather, wood, fabric, and metal. If you want to check out an excellent page on examples of masks from specific tribes, check out Arty Factory.
1. Cut your plaster into strips and pieces. We found that if we cut them into strips about 2″ wide, then cut those in half width-wise, this was the size we used most. The long strips seem to just get unwieldy and frustrating for kids to manage. 2″x2″ squares are a good size, too. **Cut more pieces than you think you’ll need!**
2. One at a time, dip the plaster strips into the water and ring them through your fingers to get rid of the excess water.
3. Lay them over the mask, overlapping them and covering the whole mask with about two layers. We covered the eyes and mouth and nose holes. As you lay down a new strip, gently rub the edges onto the strip you are overlapping it onto. The more you smooth out the plaster strips with your fingers, the fewer of the little air hole-bumps will remain after it is dry.
4. If you’d like, manipulate the plaster strips to form ridges over the eyes for stylized, 3-dimensional eyebrows, or square off the tip of the nose- see African mask examples.
Okay. I made a super low-tech video tutorial on how to use plaster cloth. (Please pardon my heavy breathing from my cold, and the side of the basket in the corner…..)
5. Set it aside to dry- (Hint: pop it off of the plastic mask after it’s set up for a little while. In damp weather this will take longer- up to a day or so. We cheated and popped ours into the microwave for a minute at a time until it was dry. If the mask feels cold to the touch, this means it still has moisture in it. It must be fully dry to move on to the next step! If you wish, you can trim the edges of the mask with scissors to even it up.
Edited to add: Don’t pour your plastery water down the drain! Let it settle, pour excess water off the top, and then dump the plaster bits in the trash. Thanks to Rina for her comment below. I love you, art teachers with years of experience!
6. Paint two coats of gesso over the mask, letting it dry completely in between coats.
7. Paint a base brown color over the mask, (we used Burnt Umber mixed with the teeniest dab of Parchment color (off-white)), then when it’s completely dry, dry-paint a cream color (We used the Parchment color again, but you can mix white with a tiny dab of the brown) in the middle area of the mask. Dry-painting is my completely made-up term for when you don’t mix the paint with water, and you use a smaller brush to brush on the paint, so it doesn’t sink into the holes of the mask.
Option 2: Paint the whole mask brown; let it dry, then paint geometric designs over it with the white/cream paint.
Don’t want to get all plastery? Try these pre-made masks from Dick Blick. You simply fold and staple them, then decorate them however you’d like.
Click on either book to view on Amazon.
Check out my post on African children’s books here.