Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Mask Making
Masks are made for performance, whether in a religious ceremony, live theatre or for a masquerade. They allow the wearer to take on a different persona but, because of the static expression on a mask, one which is less human. This could be why masks were used to evoke the gods and spirits in tribal rituals, heroes in Ancient Greek theatre and caricatures in the Italian comic tradition of commedia dell'arte.
The performer had to develop a larger than life character because, wearing a mask, facial expressions could not be used, so body gestures became more important and pronounced. On the stage this led to masks being used mainly for mime, ballet and opera.
Away from the theatre, the fun of dressing up in disguise became a popular pastime for party goers in 16th and 17th century Europe. The masks worn to the masquerades were beautifully made - and they added a distinct aura of mystery to the proceedings.
Papier mache and leather masks are still made in the traditional way in Italy.
The mask must be light, comfortable to wear and must not hinder the performer in any way. The performer must be able to see , hear, breathe, and, in the case of opera sing with ease in the mask. For ballet it is important that the mask remains firmly in place throughout the dancers performance. The mask must also be durable; be able to withstand the wear and tear of continuous use.
As the performer loses the ability to express character through facial expressions, the mask must epitomize the character. It also has to work well under the stage lights. The finest leather masks, for example, have a sculptural, smooth finish, with strong features which catch the stage lights at just the right angle to give it life.
Modern materials such as latex rubber, plastic and fibre glass offer today's makers an exciting range of versatile materials to work with, and as a result, masks have become more sophisticated and comfortable. However, traditional masks such as papier mache, leather and metal are still used.
Each material has its own qualities and drawbacks. The maker needs to know how to use the different products and which is best suited to the type of performance, taking into consideration the quantity to be made. One option is plastic, which can be used to make lightweight, strong masks in large quantities. Plastic masks are quite rigid and not as comfortable as those custom made to fit an individual. Latex rubber, on the other hand, can also be used for making masks in quantities and is more flexible than plastic and also reproduces details well. Leather, a must for the masks of traditional commedia dell'arte characters, is hard wearing and comfortable.
Whatever the material, the basic techniques are the same. A model of the mask is worked in modelling clay and a plaster cast made out of this. If the fit does not have to be exact, the maker will work from head measurements, otherwise a life cast is taken of the performers head and used as a basis for the model.
The cast of the model may then be used as a negative mould - a material such as papier mache is built up on the inside of the mould to form a mask. Alternatively, a positive mould is produced by taking a plaster cast of the negative mould. The mask material is then applied to the outside of the new mould.
Once the cast has been made holes are cut out for the eyes, nose and mouth. An inner cap or chin strap is fitted depending on how the mask is to be secured to the wearer. It can then be decorated.
The finest leather masks were traditionally made by stretching leather over a wooden mould and tacking it in place. Today few masks makers have the time or sill to carve the wooden moulds, so a positive mould is made using a gypsum cement. A softer material is attached to the back of the cement to take the tacks which will hold the leather.
The piece of leather must be carefully chosen to avoid blemishes that may be in the skin. If this is not possible the maker must work around them. The leather is softened by soaking it in water, then gradually worked over the block. This sounds easy but is actually a very difficult procedure. Sometimes a shape, such as a long nose, will mean the leather has to be spliced. An expert will be able to do this and give an invisible join.
The diverse range of fabrics and materials available for decoration mean that almost any effect can be created. Animal masks can have synthetic hair or fur teased and tinted to imitate the real thing. Attaching the fabric to ensure a smooth, even, seamless business can be a tricky business. Paints are also used extensively.
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