Mask construction

Here are a few tips that can help when constructing masks, without for the moment getting into specific materials and techniques:

The most desirable qualities for a mask are (1) that it blends organically with the actor's head and/or body; (2) that it is alive and appears to change expression; and (3) that it has a directional quality or focus.

To present a meaningful level of transformation, a mask should be either larger than the human face, or smaller, as in the Japanese Noh.

You should think of a mask as a bowl, and not as a plate. There has to be depth to contain the human face. The distance front-to-back from the tip of the nose to the ear is about as great as the width of the face. Building a mask over a casting of one's own face helps to make this clear. As you are modelling (or carving), look as much from the side as from the front. If possible, don't work with the mask lying horizontal on a table, but place it in the vertical position as it is intended to be used.

Working on a table top often leads to another problem, especially if the sides of the mask extend down to the table. The flat plane of the table passes under, and seems to slice through, the back of the mask. When the mask is worn, seen from the side, there is a straight vertical line at the back of the mask. The mask then does not blend organically with the actor's head, as it would if the back edges, as seen from the side, were curved. If you place a well-made mask face-up on a table top, you can rock it up and down on these curved sides.

It is the three dimensional sculptural qualities of a mask that make it come alive and appear to change expression when being played. It has less to do with the way in which it is painted. In fact, I have seen many a good mask destroyed by over-painting.

That said, it is possible to paint masks in such a way as to enhance the sculptural qualities. One can apply highlights, or allow the sculpture to assert itself by spray painting from a single direction, or by flicking paint at it from the bristles of a toothbrush. One can take advantage of certain sculptural planes that are only visible from certain directions, for instance around the eyes, by painting them in distinctive colours that will appear and disappear as the mask is played. "War-paint," and the purely decorative painting so typical of carnival and Mardi Gras, should be avoided if the mask is to be playable.

Lighting is extremely important. Good contrast of light and shadow, or crossed cool and warm, does the most to emphasise the sculptural and expressive qualities. As the mask moves, so do the shadows, and so the expression seems to change.

Interestingly, masks made by amateurs are often very alive and playable because the maker's absence of technical skill results in masks that lack uniformity. In other words, because the character and expression vary according to the viewing angle, they become alive when moved.

If a mask is to be able to tell anything that resembles a story, it has to be visually clear where its interest lies. It has to have a clear, directional line of focus in order to be able to articulate its relationship to the universe. Typically this would be the eyes or nose, but any kind of prominent sense organ, real or invented, will serve. It could equally be the oval disk of a flat face that gives it a clear directional quality. Without this quality the mask will lack intelligence and the ability to communicate.

Serious mask-makers working in papier-maché, Celastic, latex, or fibreglass don't skip the extra step of casting and working inside a negative mould. Working over a positive mould obscures detail and precision. The peaks are rounded over and the valleys are filled in.

A very nice way to begin working with mask-making is to model ones own face while blindfolded; touching ones face and transferring the knowledge in the fingers to the clay.

And then of course the actor needs to know how to exploit the opportunities presented by a well-made mask!

Materials and Techniques

I will start to jot down some notes on mask construction in various materials, starting with latex, and eventually including Celastic, papier-maché, fibre glass, wood and leather.


Most of what I know about latex I learned from Maggie Jones, who worked for a while with us at Footsbarn Theatre. She had previously built props for Monty Python, including the famous exploding (inflatable) man.

One of the big advantages of using latex is that it is pliable, and therefore easier to release from a mould than hard materials which can become "keyed" to the mould. And the flexibility of the material can be used to suggest changes in facial expression. 

Among their disadvantages, latex masks don't breathe, and can be clammy to wear. Condensation from exhaled air can accumulate on the inside.

Oil and grease kill latex. This includes oil-based modelling clay, makeup, greasy skin or hair, and mould releasing agents like Vaseline. Vulcanizing does give some protection. It is a good idea to dust down a latex mask with corn flour (Maizena) before storage.

Latex comes in many different grades, from surgical quality (transparent yellow/brown) to the thick, heavy, white latex used for making the soles of running shoes. A middle grade is good for masks. We used to buy it in 2.5 litre cans from a shoe maker's supplier. Latex can be thickened by stirring in potter's (ceramicist's) glaze powder. In fact it is possible to add so much glaze powder that the liquid latex becomes thick enough to model like clay. This is good for modelling small objects in a single step. Wear a protective mask when working with glaze powder.

Makeup and theatrical supply houses often sell an over-priced light grade of latex for prosthetic noses etc. It is usually painted in layers over a positive form. This takes a long time to build up, and has all the limitations of working over a positive mould: it is not a faithful reproduction of the original, especially if you want it to be thick enough to hold its shape, and if one wants to reinforce it with gauze (cheesecloth or bandage), one has to add it on the inside after the mask has been released.

Using a negative mould makes particular sense when working with latex because one can use the same slip-mould technique used by potters to make vitreous china bisque - those hollow china ornaments one sees on mantelpieces. Just use a medium grade of latex instead of the slip.

When mixing the plaster for the negative mould don't use too much water. The more dry and absorbent the cured plaster is, the better for absorbing the liquid component of the slip or latex. Too little water though, and the mould will be weak and crumbly. The inside surface of the mould must be completely clean. Fill the mould right up to the top. Let it sit until a thickened film has formed on the inside surface. This is a result of the dry plaster absorbing the water from the latex, leaving the solid matter behind as it builds up on the surface. Pour the excess latex - most of what you have used - back into the can for your next mask. At this point you can optionally set strips of gauze into the latex for reinforcement, especially where the elastic strap will be attached. Let the latex dry and harden completely before trying to remove it. Be patient!

If you want latex to last you will have to vulcanize it. You can do this by boiling it, or putting it in an oven. In the oven you have to be careful not to burn it, so just over 100 C., and keep your eye on it! I like to boil it for at least half an hour. You have to support it during the process so it doesn't lose its shape. There are some kinds of pre-vulcanized latex on the market now. They might be worth investigating.

Although vulcanization provides some protection, oil and grease, even from the wearer's face will eventually rot latex. It is a good idea occasionally to dust down the inside of a latex mask with corn starch.

Always use water based paint when painting latex . Never use oil or petroleum product based paints. Acrylic and latex house paints are fine. Don't put it on too thick or it will crack as the latex flexes. You can also mix a little powdered pigment or paint into the latex itself to give it a ground tone. 

Latex is difficult to cut accurately, so be sure to shape and inset eyeholes and nostrils exactly like you want them in the original clay model so that you can cut them out with a knife on the inside of the mask, crossing parallel to the surface of the mask, not vertically into the eyeholes. 

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Jonathan Paul Cook © 2010