I spent months and months internet hunting for a perfect elephant sculpture I saw in a Facebook post.
When I finally found a purchasable option, I realized that it was WAY out of my price range.
I began searching for a cheaper variant. I hunted. And I kept getting this close to finding what I wanted, only to have the trunk shape be “off” or the price be too high.
Finally, I gave up my search and resolved to make my own!
I wanted a BIG elephant.
I wanted him to be smooth and nearly featureless.
I wanted his trunk to hang toward the ground.
I definitely did NOT want an elephant with jewelry/blankets covering its back.
No circus elephant. I wanted a free, naked elephant.
So, I got to work. Hours and hours of research coupled with a few minor mistakes and a GIGANTIC NASTY TERRIBLE NIGHTMARE-INDUCING ONE led to the month-long birth of my elephant.
I finished him and fell in love. So does everyone that sees him. How could you not? Look at him!
*sheds maternal tear*
I’m going to tell you how I did it.
My instructions are elephant-specific, but you can certainly make any animal shape using these guidelines.
Or any shape at all, for that matter. I am 100% confident that anyone can create a sculpture at home.
Read my how-to (and how-NOT-to) steps below, and see for yourself how EASY it is to create your own sculpted masterpiece!
Step 1: Create a wire armature for your animal.
Wire armature = fancy word for metal that is bent/shaped into a “skeleton” for your final piece. It doesn’t have to be thick or sturdy. You just need a base around which you can smush crumpled up newspaper to form a “body.”
I used a metal coat hanger for my wire armature. I don’t recall how I untwisted the coiled part of the hanger, but I probably used a knife or something equally dangerous. It uncoiled easily.
Once I had a bendy piece of hanger, I used my hands to shape it into “legs” and a “trunk.” The armature was ugly and pathetic.
That’s what an armature for a big, fat elephant should be.
I didn’t take a picture of the armature, so I drew it in Microsoft Paint for you.
Step 2: Create the “body” of your animal with crumpled up newspaper and masking tape.
This, too, is extremely unscientific.
Crumple newspaper, scrap paper, ads, etc. into balls and start taping them, gently, around your armature. It’s difficult to get those first few pieces attached, but just keep taping.
The tighter your crumpled paper balls are, the sturdier the beast’s body will be (AND tighter clumps are easier to stick tape to without swishing and misshaping your animal).
Just crumple and tape, crumple and tape.
For areas where you desire more “oomph,” pack on extra crumpled paper. You can see below where I added extra paper to the front of my elephant’s wire armature to form the forehead and trunk. My lumpy elephant, my rules.
Continue scrunching and stuffing paper into the holes (like the void in his belly, above) and securing them with tape.
To make my elephant stand up, I cut out circles out of cardboard to tape to the bottom of his feet. Because I wasn’t sure if he’d still topple, I wanted to weigh his feet down. I did this by taping four quarters to each cardboard circle in a square shape. I then taped the weighted circles (quarter-side-up) to the bottom of his crumply feet.
Step 3: Cover the body entirely in masking tape.
Once I filled his body out with paper, I started to mummify him with long strips of masking tape.
Here he is, standing on his own with circle cardboard money feet.
As you can see, he isn’t completely covered in tape. This is fine! I did some research and realized that some gaps in masking tape are OK for papier mâché (which will be the next step).
Gaps are OK as long as you let each layer of papier mâché (next step) dry COMPLETELY before starting on the next papier mâché layer. This ensures that any moisture seeping through your tape gaps has a chance to DRY, too. If you get all hasty and start applying a second layer of papier mâché before your first layer is dry, you might trap moisture INSIDE your sculpture, which would turn your fat masterpiece into a beautiful, rotting disaster down the road.
So, cover 95% and leave gaps with every intention of exercising patience during step 4.
Speaking of step 4.
Step 4: Apply a few layers of papier mâché to your animal’s masking tape body.
For those who aren’t familiar with papier mâché, it’s essentially a method of applying strips of paper (that have been dipped in a gooey mix of white glue/water) to a surface, in layers. You then let those layers harden into a sturdy shell. Once that surface is dry, you add another layer of goo-dipped strips and let THAT dry. It’s a standard technique in the crafting industry, because it’s one of the easiest and most reliable ways to create a solid surface on something.
Some papier mâché glue/dip recipes call for all-purpose flour (because flour hardens into an even STURDIER end product). This will certainly give you a harder surface, but sometimes flour gets moldy and rots.
I didn’t want to risk rotting my elephant from the inside out, so I decided to use the standard Elmer’s School Glue and water mixture for my papier mâché.
I can’t remember my exact ratio of water to white glue, so I think I eye-balled it.
Some recipes call for 3 parts glue to 1 part water.
Others call for 2 parts glue to 1 part water.
Essentially, the more water you have, the faster your paper will dry. The more glue you have, the stronger your end product will be. Mine was on the watery end of the goo spectrum.
For the strips of paper, I slowly tore apart newspaper and computer paper (RECYCLED COMPUTER PAPER I kept from my undergrad days for precisely this purpose).
You want to tear your paper into 1-2″ strips, with varying lengths.
Make sure you tear all four sides of your strips. Jaded, uneven edges, when dipped in goo, kind of “melt” when you smush them on a surface. This helps blend your strips together so you have a smoother shell. I hope this makes sense, because I can’t for the life of me figure out how else to describe it.
Slow tearing = extra frayed edges = ideal.
Here is my elephant, post-papier mâché. He’s filled with words, just like me.
Look how smooth he is! Compare his skin in this picture to his skin in the masking-tape-only picture. Papier mâché is such a wonderful tool for sculpting.
You can see that his feet still show newspaper strips. I did two coats of newspaper papier mâché and one final coat of strictly recycled computer paper.
TIP: Thicker paper = sturdier sculpture skin.
Also, I covered my elephant one half at a time. I covered his back first, and once it was dry, I flipped him upside down and propped him up with books/mugs so I could papier mâché his feet.
Step 5: Smooth out the surface of the papier mâché skin with cold porcelain clay.
Once he was nice and sturdy (and dry), I contemplated how I wanted to “smooth” out his surface.
I loved his lumps and lines, but I wanted him to be smooth like a baby. But what to use?
I did a LOT of research during this stage. I wanted something cheap AND reliable.
Reliable would trump cheap.
And if I could make it at home, that would trump everything.
BRILLIANT! – I thought this.
Her recipe calls for:
- 1-1/4 c. of wet toilet paper pulp (she says that 1 roll of “regular size” Angel Soft toilet paper does the trick)
- 1 c. joint compound (she specifies getting the premixed kind, NOT the powder, and she advises against buying the DAP brand, whatever that is)
- 3/4 c. Elmer’s white glue
- 1/2 c. white flour
- 2 T. linseed oil or mineral oil
I bought all of these things.
Except mineral oil and linseed oil, because everything I read about them said they were TOXIC and very, very bad for you. I made an executive decision that vegetable oil would suffice.
I went to Menards for the joint compound.
THIS IS WHERE I MADE THE BIGGEST MISTAKE OF MY CRAFTING LIFE.
THIS IS WHERE YOU LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES.
THIS IS THE MISTAKE THAT INSPIRED MY ENTIRE BLOG.
THIS IS THE MISTAKE I WANTED TO SHARE WITH YOU SO YOU NEVER REPEAT IT.
So there I was, trouncing through the aisles of Menards, happy as a clam and entirely oblivious to my terrible fate.
After 30 minutes of searching, I FINALLY found joint compound. That place is a labyrinth.
I stood in the middle of the aisle, staring at my shelved options. I pulled out my instruction list from the papier mâché clay lady.
- NOT DAP BRAND – there wasn’t anything in sight that looked like this, so – check!
- PREMIXED – they all looked premixed, so – check!
Weary of choosing, I just grabbed this small container that looked to have about a cup of joint compound in it and practically ran to the checkout line.
I’m not a blockhead.
However, I am completely unfamiliar with joint compound.
So, when I finally spotted a bottle of premixed joint compound in the plumbing section, I was like, YES!
How was I supposed to know there are other kinds of joint compound?
HOW was I supposed to KNOW?!
I got home and pulled out all my materials. I dropped three different things, I was so excited. I LOVE crafting. And clay. I love making clay. Very tactile.
Following clay papier mâché lady’s instructions, I grabbed a roll of cheap toilet paper. I submerged the whole thing in a large bowl filled with lukewarm water.
It felt so wrong, you know? In a very cool and wasteful way.
I removed the brown tubing from inside the roll.
Then, I squeezed the water out of the roll and began shredding it into little chunks with my fingers. I then stuffed those chunks into a cup measure. I kept stuffing until I had 1-1/4 cups of wet toilet paper clumps.
I threw those clumps into my (now empty and dry) big bowl.
This story is getting more difficult to tell as I near the moment of horror.
Once my toilet paper was shredded and ready, I shoved my beaters into my hand-held mixer and plugged it in. I was grinning in my kitchen like a crazy person.
Because I will NEVER forget.
I measured out 1 c. of white glue and poured it onto the paper clumps. I turned on my mixer and starting whipping together toilet paper and glue.
It was so weird.
THEN, I WENT FOR THE JOINT COMPOUND.
If you’ve read my Military Diet post or my Gooey Peanut Butter Chocolate Cheerios post, you know that I like to use one of those push-up liquid measure things. It’s ideal for peanut butter and cottage cheese and anything really goopy that you want to be able to push-pop into a bowl easily.
Naturally, I assumed joint compound was an ideal contender for the push-up measure cup.
I grabbed the joint compound container. My skin was buzzing with excitement. Elephant stood on a tote lid, staring at me.
I unscrewed the lid.
The stuff inside was BLUE.
Sky blue. Cotton candy blue. Innocent baby boy blue.
Odd, I thought.
Clay lady’s wasn’t blue, I thought.
Whatever, I thought.
I removed the lid and its attached rod/stir piece, setting it in a piece of paper towel. I then dumped the blue glue into my push-up measure cup (pulled out to 1 c.).
I watched that goo ribbon inside the cup and crawl up the sides like a big, goopy bubble.
When the goo domed at the top of the cup, I stopped pouring and set the container beside me.
I bumped my hand against the stick/lid thing and accidentally got a dot of blue goo on my finger.
Oh well, I thought. I’ll just RINSE IT OFF.
I skipped to the sink and turned on the warm water, shoving my goo dot hand under the stream.
The goo dot stayed there.
I lifted the faucet handle higher and pushed it to the left.
The goo dot stayed there.
Water pressure and heat poured over it. Right on over it.
I took my other hand and wiped at that stubborn goo dot.
IT SMEARED. ALL OVER MY FINGER.
I’m not talking a peanut butter smear, where repeated hot water rubbing would dissolve the goo.
This smear was STUCK. Like glued rubber to my finger. Like I had pushed a blob of wax along my skin and it immediately attached itself to my pores. Permanently.
I rubbed and rubbed, trying to get this shit off my hand.
The more I rubbed, the more the thin blue smear traveled. Soon, the entire back of my hand was encased in this blue nightmare. FROM ONE DOT OF BLASTED BLUE GOO.
Water beaded up and rolled off my hand. Those drops were laughing at me. Good luck with that! they giggled as they rolled off my palms and splattered into the sink.
I tried to scrape the goop off with my nails. It was still there. And now it was under my nails.
I stood at my sink. Just stood there for a second, the heat from the running water steaming up my glasses. I stared at my blue-gloved hands, panicking. I had no idea how I was going to get this crap off of me. I didn’t have any of that Gojo stuff with the little gritting scrubs. Never in my life had I pined for Gojo before that moment.
I was doomed.
Doomed to a life of blue goo!
It was literally stuck to me. Nothing was getting it off. That crap is otherworldly, I tell you. Not from planet Earth.
Sticky wax hands forever.
I’ll never get it off!
What if someone calls me?!
What if I get hungry?!
OMG it’s almost bedtime!
The back of my neck was getting all prickly and terrified.
Irrationality bloomed in the room.
I reached for the hand soap pump, smearing blue goo all over it as I squirted a golf ball sized opalescent mound in my palm.
I scrubbed and scrubbed.
I turned the water so hot my hands became inflamed.
Finally, the goo started to break down.
I saw skin again.
The smile returned to my face.
TEN MINUTES LATER, my nail beds were light blue but my skin was clear of the thin blue rubber/wax.
Then, I turned around.
My squeegee liquid cup measure.
Everything was glowing blue.
I stared at my screaming red hands.
I collected everything and put it in the sink, getting blue goo all over the faucet and my hands AGAIN.
FORTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER, THE GOO WAS ERADICATED FROM MY KITCHEN.
I jammed that stupid stick lid back in that stupid bottle and screwed it on tight.
I wrapped THREE plastic bags around that devil can and shoved it deep into the fiery pits of my laundry closet.
(I couldn’t just throw the blasted stuff away. I paid MONEY for it. Dutch tendencies are sometimes the worst tendencies.)
Obviously, I had purchased the wrong kind of joint compound. PLUMBING joint compound. The clay lady never said WHICH KIND to buy!!!!
SHE NEVER SAID!!!!!!!!
Husband laughed at me when I showed him (THROUGH the bags) what I had purchased.
THE ORIGINAL BLOG-INSPIRING LIFE LESSON: DO NOT BUY/TOUCH JOINT COMPOUND EVER. UNLESS YOU WANT TO IMPRISON YOURSELF AND YOUR KITCHEN IN BLUE GOO FOR AN ENTIRE PANIC-FILLED EVENING AND POSSIBLY LIFE.
There’s still blue goo on the underside of my soap pump!
Nightmares are made of joint compound. Seeping down a mountain side and gulping up innocent skins/kitchens for miles.
What was a disaster. And I still had a problem: lumpy elephant butt.
I decided I would try plaster to smooth him out. Good, old-fashioned plaster.
I read all about it and how you have to be careful about touching it after you mix it because the chemical reactions can make wet plaster VERY hot.
I bought a big tub of Plaster of Paris from Michaels.
I filled a recycled yogurt tub with warm water.
I poured plaster in it. I kept pouring. Slowly adding more. Once the plaster stopped dissolving/being sucked under by the water, I stopped pouring it in. I tapped the sides. I did NOT mix. These are all steps in plaster-mixing instructions.
I had plaster! And it was magnificent.
I grabbed an old 1″ paint brush and brushed it all over the top of my elephant.
It was lumpy and brush lines were visible, but I intended to sand it later, so I didn’t care.
I slopped that crap all over his back like a big gray blanket.
I poked the wet plaster a few times to see how scalding it was. It was never scalding. But you can never be too safe so don’t go dunking your paw in a bucket of wet plaster like a moron!
Plaster = SUCCESS!
For a night, at least.
I woke up the next day and made a beeline for my elephant. I couldn’t yet see the light gray dusting of powder around his feet.
I picked him up.
His back shattered. Like a mini collapsing statue, the dried plaster crushed around him. I swear it was slow motion.
Plaster EVERYWHERE. Poof. Clouds. In my nose. On my socks. Definitely not on elephant.
It was 5AM and I was devastated.
I tried to scrape the rest of the plaster off him, but now all of a sudden the plaster was sticking to his sides. WTF?
I gave up scraping and left it on him.
I was disappointed, but not set back.
On to the next idea!
Next idea = CLAY. Real, actual clay. Like the sticky, gray kind we used in art class to make mini pots for our moms.
I bought a big 10 lb. cube of it from Michaels.
I was SO excited.
No catastrophes could break my elephant-sculpting spirit!
I got the clay out and smeared it all over him, lightly wetting the tips of my fingers to smooth him out. It took forever, for some reason. I got a volleyball-sized amount of his back covered and gave up for the night.
Clay = SUCCESS!
For a night, at least.
I woke up the next morning, and the gray clay had dried to white. This time, I spotted the problem immediately.
There were hairline cracks all over him.
I poked at a dried edge.
Clay crumbled to his feet. The rest of him split into large cracks. Like in Land Before Time, when Little Foot and Ducky are walking over the cracked clay earth and Ducky hops cracks to avoid severing her own spine.
The clay was a bust.
That clay has since proved to be great (homemade clay ghost for Halloween!) and also f*&#ing terrible (homemade swinging clay horse for Mother-in-Law). I’ll share those stories/crafts another time.
On to the next elephant-smoothing idea!
In my “homemade clay” research, I had stumbled across something called “cold porcelain clay.”
All of the YouTube videos I watched dazzled me. This clay was perfect.
- It was smooth, pliable, and it dried to a rock-hard finish.
- It ALSO had minimal shrinkage when it dried, which was great, because that’s why the clay/plaster coverings failed. They dried, shrunk, and fell right off of my poor elephant’s lumpy back.
- And did I mention I could make it at home?
- I already had all the ingredients, too!
Here’s the basic recipe for cold porcelain clay (see an example here):
1 c. cornstarch
1 c. white glue (Elmer’s School Glue = ideal)
1 T. lemon juice
1 T. baby oil/vegetable oil
To make it, you mix all these ingredients together in a bowl you never plan to eat out of again, and you microwave the mixture in small increments, stirring after each increment. Some say thirty-second increments, some say 20-second increments. You’re “cooking” the clay, which thickens it.
I have overcooked batches of clay in the microwave, so go easy on the time. Start with thirty seconds, and decrease the time amount each time you pop it back in.
Once it’s 90% clumpy and 10% slick/wet, I’ve found that vigorous stirring brings it all together without overcooking it.
It’s VERY hot when you remove it from the microwave.
P.S. I’ve never used lemon juice and my clay always turns out fine.
Anyway, let it cool to handling-temperature, and then coat your counter top and your hands in lotion. I know, more weird instructions. Just smear lotion all over yourself and your counter. Everywhere! You must do this because, in order to work the clay and knead it to smooth perfection, you have to actually touch it, and this stuff is STICKY at first. Lotion prevents sticking to fingers and apartment counter linoleum.
Add more lotion as you knead. You can never have too much lotion, in my experience. You can definitely have not enough, though.
Once the clay loses its tackiness and looks like a smooth, cool dollop of cream, you’re good to smear it on your elephant’s/animal’s back.
I did just that.
I stretched it out and pressed it on him. I pushed it around and smoothed it into his divots and crevices. I used lotion to smooth my fingerprints out of the clay when the area was filled in to my liking.
The recipe doesn’t make a ton of clay, so I was only able to cover his bumpy back hump with the first batch.
I cleaned up my mess and went to bed.
Cold porcelain clay = ACTUAL SUCCESS!
I woke up, and the cold porcelain clay had dried to a rock hard, baby-bum smooth surface.
It was 5AM and I was BEAMING.
I headed off to work and came home and immediately began making more clay. I doubled the recipe this time, and I was able to cover both of his legs and the base of his trunk with clay. He was so smooth and beautiful and I just loved him.
I repeated this process until I couldn’t wait any longer to paint him. Which means he wasn’t entirely coated in cold porcelain clay. But I didn’t care. He was smooth enough for me, and the little painting fairies in my ears were swarming me and urging me to paint him. Painting fairies can be deafening.
Step 6: Paint your sculpted masterpiece!
I used acrylic paints. When I first painted elephant, I coated him in ALL BLACK.
Once his black coat was dry, I painted a bunch of African-inspired/tribal/Egyptian designs on his back, trunk, etc. All metallic paints. Blues, greens, pinks. He was beautiful.
Then, I painted his feet GOLD.
And I LOVED THOSE GOLDEN FEET.
I LOVED THEM SO MUCH I PAINTED THE REST OF HIM SOLID GOLD.
I LOVED him all golden and I knew he was finished. Elephant sculpture was finally complete.
Here are some closeups of his imperfections, which I think give him character. He has so much of it, what with all those layers to him.
Below is a recent picture of his trunk. You can see where some of the gold paint has flecked off, revealing his cold porcelain skin beneath. I attribute these flaking flaws to my laziness post-painting. I should have coated him with something (polycrylic, etc.) to secure his final layer.
But, such is life.
Nowadays, he has cracks all over, revealing his little body inside.
The only cure is to strip him of his flaking paint/clay and re-cover him, sealing him correctly once he’s coated. Not sure if that’s a task I pursue in this lifetime…
I like him all lumpy and cracked and weird. He’s my spirit animal.
And he’s a lovely centerpiece.
And I love him.
Now, go out there and make your own sculpture! And tell me how it goes. And send me pictures! Also, if you have any tips for me/everyone else regarding homemade sculptures (like other successful ways to smooth out a sculpture’s surface!), please share them in the comments!