merimask (merimask) wrote,

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Mask-building, part one

So many people have been asking me how I make my masks lately, I thought I'd outline my process.  I took pictures as I built a very complicated mask, so that I could explain, step by step, exactly how I do what I do.


It starts with a concept; a commission from a client who wants a character that looks as if it is made of tree roots.  I do a very rough sketch...

All my mask sketches (unless it's to be an asymmetrical design or a "scene" mask) are of half a design.  After all, I only ever need half a design because I can just flip it to get the other half.  I have a full "dummy" pattern for eye placement, so all I need to do is line up the eye holes in the half-pattern.

Here's the pattern...

I sketched it out pretty quickly & loosely on a piece of brown craft paper (my hides come wrapped in craft paper & I save the stuff for pattern-making).  It's all cut out & ready to trace onto the leather.

For this project, which has narrowly twisted roots that are long & thin, I want extra-sturdy leather so the roots will be strong, so I use 8oz leather...about 1/4 inch thick.  That's pretty thick to cut out by hand.

I use heavy duty leather shears.  Even so, it takes almost an hour just to cut out this mask & my hands are aching by the time I finish.

The mask is cut out...

I use a utility knife to cut the eyeholes.

The cut mask has sharp edges.  This mask has so many long "roots", it'd be madness to round every edge but around the eyes & along the base, I need to smooth out the edges to give the mask a finished look & to make it comfortable to wear.  I use a tool called a "skiver" to cut the sharp edges on both sides of the mask down...

wetting the edges makes this easier to do.  I can't tell you how many times the damn skiver skips or slips & I gouge myself instead (I hate skiving!!).  I replace that damn tool once a month so it's always as sharp as I can get it (you can't really sharpen these tools).

Then, after the edges are cut off, I wet the leather again (warm water works best) and smooth the edges to a nice rounded finish with the "spoon" end of a stylus.

When it dries the edge stays nice & hard & smooth.  Most leathercrafters don't bother to do this, but I think it makes the mask look "finished" & professional.

So now I need to decide what kind of a design I'm going to carve.   Since this mask is a one-of-a-kind, I don't bother with a pattern or a sketch; I just wet the leather with a damp sponge so it'll take an impression, & lightly scratch my design idea into the leather with the pointy end of the stylus.

It's to have ivy climbing on it, and bugs & critters living among the roots. 

The design is cut into the leather using something called a swivel-blade.  Of course I failed to get a pic of it.  :-/  I like to use a 1/4 angle ceramic blade.

All the carving & tooling has to be finished before I begin shaping it.  Tooling is what I did to get the 3-d effect of the ivy & butterfly looking like they are sitting atop the bark.  Tooling leather is like carving a wooden bas-relief sculpture, only instead of cutting away the parts you don't want, you press them flat.  I use a smooth beveler to do this.  Of course, the leather has to be slightly damp (that's called "casing" the leather).

The next stage is the SCARIEST part, for me, of mask making.  If I screw this part up, all the work I've done until now (hours & hours...3 by now) is all for nothing & the mask will be ruined.  This is the part where I shape the mask.  Of course, it's also the most exciting part too!  I usually put on my i-pod & listen to some loud techno or electronica while I do the sculpting & motivates me to concentrate & stay on my toes.

So...I soak the mask in warm water.  Not casing with a damp spong but I actually hold the mask under the faucet until it's soaked through & floppy-wet.  The oven gets heated...somewhere between 220 and 270, depending on how "tight" or "loose" the leather is.  I shape the mask pretty basically & pop it in there...

Mostly I concentrate on the parts that dry out first...long thin parts.  I croggle up the roots according to a rough idea in my head for what I want the mask to do...this is the hardest part to explain because sculpting is a 3-d process & not something I can really use words to articulate well.  I just see in my head how I want it to be.  At this stage, the leather is too floppy to take much more than a kink or a slight curve.  I do a rudimentary "nose", mostly just for placement.  The whole thing is just mostly flat...propped on the wire rack (not a special rack...just your average normal oven wire rack).

After some time (again it depends on how "tight" the leather is...less for tight leather, more for loose leather...a few minutes or so) I pull the hot wet mask out of the oven & do the REAL shaping.  I have to work really fast.  The water is evaporating quickly.  A dry mask is hard as a rock & impossible to shape...even re-wetting it doesn't really work.  You have to do it right the first time. 
This is when I get the face shape just right.  I use my own face for the rudimentary nose to eye placement but the rest is just done by hand.  I test it against my face to make sure it's comfortable.  I use my thumbs & hands to push out the eyebrow ridges from inside. 

I set the curve of the roots more perfectly just before I put it back in the oven...

This time it has more strength so it doesn't flop flat on the rack.  I use the rack to prop up the mask so it holds it's shape, & it goes back in for another 5 to 10 minutes.

I check it frequently to be sure the oven isn't drying it too fast or singeing it.  The whole process should take 20 to 30 minutes and the mask should be just slightly damp still (but HOT) when it is done.  I re-shape & fine-tune it one final time before putting it back into a slack oven to finish drying.

This last shaping is to repair any place where the mask "slumped" in the heat, check the fit & the symmetry, & really make the sculpting dramatic & dynamic.  I wanted the roots to tangle & come forward over the face the way they do for my Medusa mask, & I really think I got that effect.

So the hardest part is done!  Next comes coloring. 

To be continued...


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