The Penguin Chronicles

by | Feb 8, 2021 | in-progress | 0 comments

In Good Form

It’s a mystery where some project ideas come from. I don’t think I will ever really have a clear or definable answer. I’m sure that most artists experience a similar phenomenon throughout their time creating: a sudden flash of lightning and a new vision. 

My latest mixed media project, that I’m working on simultaneous to the surveillance camera series, is a giant papier mâché penguin. Yes, you read correctly. A giant penguin.

The idea came to me as I was just relaxing into sleep one night. I felt myself drifting off when a crystal clear vision popped into my head of a large, white-walled atelier space filled with tall, multi-coloured penguin sculptures. When I woke in the morning, I remembered the hypnogogic hallucination of some far-off future and asked myself “but why not now?”. Yes, it’s a little bit tight in the apartment for an entire colony of penguins, but you can at least make one, right ? Right ?* 

So that evening, I quickly constructed a form from two paper bags (leftover from our weekly veggie panier) stuffed full of mixed recycling, with a whole lot of painters tape to hold it all together. It didn’t take too long for Pierre the penguin to begin taking shape. 

In all of his glory, Pierre the penguin stands about 80 cm tall (that’s about 2’6” for those of you who don’t speak European), 30 cm across the middle (about 1’) and 40 cm across the base (1’3”).

Quite a sight to behold.

Preppin’ Le Papier

Once the form was fashioned, I set to work preparing everything for the papier mâché.

A few months back, Frenchie brought home a stack of old sports pages from work, along with a bag of shredded documents. We spent an evening experimenting with mixing wheat paste and paper clay and lucky for me, we still had leftover newspaper hidden away in the closet.. at least enough for a solid layer of newsprint to go down.

We pulled the newspaper down from the storage cubby, which very quickly turned into clearing and organizing the entire storage space. This lead to the discovery of a large bag of leftover painting supplies, stuffed all the way at the back of the deep cubby. Inside was not one but two 20 m² sheets of plastic and three rolls of painters tape

Perfection.

I didn’t waste any time and quickly laid down some plastic, mixed my glue, cut some newspaper into strips and got to work. I was able to cover the entire form in one good layer and a half of P.M. before I ran out of PVA glue. The penguin dried overnight and I hopped over to Truffaut the next morning to pickup another litre of PVA, to give him a second paper application.

I was really happy with the result of the two layers of papier mâché, but had plans for finishing the sculptural part of the project. I wanted to experiment with a clay recipe that I found online last year, to give Pierre more integrity and a smoother finish, one that would be more conducive to painting.

Après Papier

Back when Frenchie and I were researching wheat paste recipes, we happened to stumble upon the work of Jonni Good, a sculptor who works with papier mâché. She outlined her own recipe for a paper mache clay that I have been wanting to try for the better part of this last year. Now with this giant penguin sitting in front of me, it seemed like the perfect time to give it a try. I just had to find all of the ingredients… in French.

After a quick search on Google translate and Leroy Merlin’s website, I figured out that what I was after was called enduit rebouchage (better know as: dry-wall compound, specifically for holes larger than 2 cm, no more, no less, because welcome to France).

You can find the detailed recipe here, but basically what it calls for is toilet paper soaked in water and blended, dry-wall compound, PVA glue, and flour (added in varying amounts to get the right consistency). I made my first batch, which looked a bit like greyish cake batter (pâte) and applied it to the penguin with a butter knife, smoothing it out with the flat edge.

 

The first coat of pâte went on a little bit sticky and I wasn’t really sure how it was going to turn out. I don’t think there are too many ways to screw up dry-wall compound and glue, so I just assumed the result would look like freshly mudded gyprock and continued.

I mixed about three batches of the pâte to cover the entire penguin. This process probably took about 8-9 hours total and was a bit labour intensive (mainly kneeling, sitting, bending, holding various positions to smooth out the coating). The penguin dried within 24-hours and the results were pretty amazing.

What did happen was the weight of the wet pâte caused the papier mâché underneath to slouch slightly, but it didn’t distort the form too much. At least, not to a degree that would be noticeable by anyone other than me.

I decided however, that it might be a good idea to reinforce the bottom with plaster bandages 1. To give the base more strength and 2. To help give the cardboard bottom and the attachments to the underlying recyclage a clean, finished edge. I used a roll to finish the edges, let it dry overnight, then one quick layer of pâte around the base to smooth out the texture of the gauze. 

Final Thoughts

I am over the moon happy with the outcome of the papier mâche clay (pâte) !

By the third batch, I found my perfect consistency and had a pâte that was not sticking to the knife, that applied and smoothed out quite easily. I had a handle on the application and a pretty good idea of how far one batch would go. I’m will definitely be using this recipe again in a near future.

As for results, the finished form of the penguin is solid and yet still considerably lightweight. I gave it a light sand once everything was dry and it left me with a fairly smooth surface that’s just about ready to paint. I decided to give it one coat of gesso, to prep the surface and it looks and feels great. 

Today I took some concept sketches from earlier in the week and projected them, tracing them onto the finished form. I’m in the process of arranging the design and deciding on the colour palette, then I’ll be ready to paint ! 

Really looking forward to finishing this project and will be writing a second part to this blog piece as the paint goes down, talking a little bit more about the concept art and ideas for finishing. I happen to have some tabletop resin and I’m really thinking about it..

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