Paper & Card

The Art of Papier Mache

How an artist and silversmith fell in love with sculpting people

My great aunt, Gwen Whicker, was an artist and silversmith. I never knew her (she died when I was very young), but some of my earliest memories are of seeing original paintings on the walls at home and more especially of seeing my grandmother and my mother wearing really beautiful and unique silver jewellery. I was fascinated. I have inherited all of these objects and found more of my aunt’s work at auctions and online, and I still love the jewellery and wear it every day. It feels like a link to my past and to the woman who always inspired me to make art.

Maybe it was this early exposure to three-dimensional art, but I’ve always enjoyed making things that I can hold and feel while I’m working on them. My aunt’s skill remained at the back of my mind and a number of years ago, I took a night school class in silversmithing and for a few years, I made some interesting bits and pieces just as a hobby.  But after all the anticipation of working with silver, it never really felt right for me and was a bit of a disappointment…. for a start, I’m rather scared of fire and there’s a lot of naked flames in jewellery making! I also found the process – the tools and equipment – too much of a barrier between me and the ideas I had in my head.

Ten years ago, I ‘found’ paper mache and it absolutely took over my life. It was like the last piece of a puzzle going into place and I knew I’d found my medium. I gave up the jewellery making, but nothing is ever wasted and the skills I’d learned enabled me to think and work three-dimensionally and reinforced and inspired my interest in making tactile objects. But with papier mache, I can sculpt the pieces that are in my imagination with no barrier between me and the material. I can be completely free and spontaneous.

I grew up in a musical household and at school, music and art were my favourite subjects. Unfortunately, when it came to deciding on exam options, I was forced to choose between them. My mother was a musician, and guided by her, I chose music which set the path for my adult career. Art became an enjoyable hobby, and I explored a variety of different art forms in my free time.

Versatility and Strength
Ten years ago, I was browsing YouTube channels, and I came across an American woman called Jonni Good who was making papier mache animals using a sort of ‘clay’ that she made from ingredients including paper, glue, flour, and filler. I was really intrigued and bought her book. I made a batch of her ‘clay’ and started making some of her animals. It was instantaneous pleasure!  I absolutely loved the papier mache: the feel of the substance, the way I could manipulate it, it’s versatility and strength and so many more things!  I just couldn’t stop sculpting!  I soon discovered that I love sculpting people and that is what I now do…. full time!

A lot of my work is commissioned portraiture which is obviously quite prescriptive in that the subject matter is given to me.  Very often an idea for the piece can come to mind spontaneously, but I obviously talk at length to the client to get a feel for the person I’m sculpting and to discuss the pose, the context and getting something individual and personal into the finished piece.

When I’m sculpting my own ideas, I am much more spontaneous. Ideas for pieces come from the strangest sources: sometimes it can be from a facial expression or a particular stance I’ve seen on a person; it can be the way a piece of fabric drapes or even the shape of a thigh muscle in a particular leg position that sparks off an idea for a full-length piece. Sometimes I might make a simple sketch before I start, but mostly, I just dive straight in and go with the picture I have in my head. 

My style of sculpting is figurative, small scale and very detailed so to do the sort of work I do, you need to have patience and a good eye for scale and shape. When I run my workshops, I find myself frequently saying ‘keep turning it around’ because you have to think three dimensionally and keep looking at the sculpture from all sides.  Other than that, I don’t think you need specific skillsets…. just enthusiasm to try things and experiment. I am self-taught and I’ve learned everything I know about papier mache sculpting from trial and error. Commission work makes you brave!  You take on a portrait and you have to try new ideas and techniques to accomplish the various challenges that you’re faced with: maybe you’re not good at sculpting hands and the portrait you’re working on has very visible hands. Well, you just have to practice and find ways to sculpt those hands! If you’ve never made papier mache glasses before, you have to work out a way of doing them. You’ve never made a papier mache piano? Now’s your chance to try! I have learned many new skills just through necessity.

Most of my work is exhibited online…. I have to thank social media for any success I have had with my art. Most of my commissioned pieces are as a result of being seen on social media and I now have work in places all around the world, chiefly in America and Australia.  I’ve been featured in a few art magazines; one of my pieces is part of a permanent exhibition in Venice and I’ve exhibited in the OXO tower gallery in London. Apart from those ‘stand-out’ moments, my work has mainly been shown in exhibitions and galleries local to me in South Wales. I have recently been invited to show my work in a new gallery in North Wales and I will be sending a few pieces there later this year. I will be entering an open art exhibition in Cowbridge, South Wales this summer and hope to have some pieces accepted.

I love the challenge of working with papier mache and working out ways to make things work. So, challenges are also rewarding when I find the solution to the problem!  I suppose the most challenging things to me are the additional items I add to my sculptures…. the inanimate objects. I love sculpting the skin and bones of a person…. I have a keen interest in anatomy and how the body is put together….but sculpting things like furniture, spectacles, pianos, violins etc., they can be very challenging.

I have an image in my mind of the sort of work I’d ultimately like to produce and when I get a little closer to this ideal, that always gives me a thrill. It’s what drives me to sculpt every day – a desire to improve and develop. Some of the most rewarding times have been sculpting people with interesting (and often terribly sad) back stories. I’m often asked to sculpt portraits of relatives and friends who have died, and my aim is to make a sculpture that shows them in happier times and captures the essence of their characters, their interests and sometimes objects that meant something to them or that defined them. I always have detailed discussions with my clients so that I get as close as possible to the person they know or remember, and I include as many personal details as I can. It is really rewarding to hear their comments when the piece is finished, and they are pleased with it.

Top Tips for Beginners

1. Go for it!  If you want to try papier mache, don’t worry about rules…there are no rules.  Just make yourself a batch of papier mache and start experimenting!

2. Don’t expect perfection immediately! It takes time to find out what the material can do and to get used to using it.

3. Practice!  Sculpt as much as you can, and you will improve.

4. Find what you love to sculpt. In my case it is people doing ordinary things. But you may prefer sculpting animals or trees, or buildings. Whatever it is, the more you enjoy sculpting it, the more you’ll want to practice and the better you’ll become. 

5. Look at your work. I can’t emphasise this enough. Keep turning it and stepping back from it and don’t get fixated on one particular area.

6. Look at the world around you…. look at details. I’m always looking at faces and expressions and how people stand. I look at clothing and how it drapes and folds. You’ll be amazed at how it helps you to see how to tweak your work to improve it.

7. Watch other sculptors. The Internet is full of videos of sculptors sculpting. Watch them and you’ll pick up lots of tips.


I run workshops about five times each year.  They are an introduction to sculpting in papier mache and are held over two consecutive days to explore all the different processes and to allow time for drying between stages. I run them in partnership with two glass designing artists living in Penarth, near Cardiff and the workshops are held in a lovely garden studio.  I take a maximum of four students per workshop so that I can give them my full attention and the aim is for each student to make a small sculpture from start to finish in the two days. So, we look at making an armature and how to make the papier mache ‘clay’; we look at basic sculpting techniques; we explore ways to colour the pieces without using paint (I never use paint) and we learn about finishing techniques (sanding, sealing and varnishing). Most of the people who come to me have never used papier mache before or sculpted. They are usually a little nervous and worried that they won’t produce anything of worth…. but they always do! It is lovely to see them enjoying the process and producing something that they are really proud of.  Everything is provided at the workshop…. all tools, materials, refreshments and a delicious lunch both days. We all have a lovely, sociable time whilst learning new skills and many of my students keep in touch and send me photos of the pieces they make.

2024 and Beyond

I have my series of workshops planned for the rest of the year and I will respond to an open call/exhibition in the summer. I will be working on some new pieces to send to the gallery in North Wales and I have a full schedule of commissions planned for the rest of the year. I occasionally give talks to local art societies, and I have two planned for the coming year at the moment. 

Quite out of the blue, and completely independently of each other, two art teachers from schools in America contacted me recently to ask for help introducing sculpture to their students.  Papier mache is the perfect medium for youngsters to explore the art form: it’s inexpensive to produce, doesn’t require firing and is safe and environmentally friendly. One teacher has applied for a grant to study online with me over five 2-hour live sessions to enable her to teach her pupils. The other teacher has introduced me to her students who sent me lots of questions and their design sketches. I have replied to them all and sent constructive advice about their designs and eventually, I will talk to them live online when their sculptures are completed. It is great to be part of influencing the next generation of sculptors and to raise the profile of papier mache.

Beyond all of this, I will keep sculpting every day and striving for a better technique and mastery of the medium. I never tire of starting a new piece and wondering where it will lead me. 

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