Updating the Masquerade Mask

DATE:  October 13, 2016     CATEGORIES:  Blog, Events


By Jade K. Harley

Mask making is a tradition that dates back to early history. Although the oldest masks that we have in our museums dates back to about 9000 years old, it is speculated that mask making is an art that is nearly 30,000 years old, dating back to early evolutions of humans who may have used them for either ceremonial purposes or practical hunting purposes. Masks are an art form that have percolated through all cultures, from American cultures to Eastern Asia. In the modern day, masks still hold a ceremonial purpose, and are still used in art forms such as theatre and dance.

Bushong Kuba mask

Bushong Kuba masquerade mask on display at the Brooklyn Museum

Although the art is old, the method by which we make masks has changed drastically in 30,000 years. Whereas in early history clay and earthen materials were used, today we have access to a variety of tools that simplify the production of masks. The masquerade as we know it was first recorded in the 15th century in Italy, where Masquerade Balls brought about celebration as public events.

Their rise in popularity is best found in Venice, and the masks of these balls use a technique of cartapesta, which is known in American as paper-mache. This technique uses a method of applying paper with adhesive mixed into the fibers to create a durable lightweight form that can then be hand painted to create the Venetian masks we know of today. Although this technique is common for its simplicity, it requires each mask to be made by hand, which is great for a price point but a bit detrimental for the purposes of reproducibility or speed.

The technique that I use is a technique I am familiar with that stems from the concepts of molding and casting. Although it takes a while to set up and definitely has drawbacks in the sense of initial material costs, the final mask that is pulled out of the molds is a durable piece made of either urethane or epoxy.

The process begins with a foam head that is easily found at an art store, which is then sealed with an epoxy coat. The mask design is then sculpted on with a layer of clay. This clay layer becomes the shape of the mask that we seek, but clay is a fragile substance. From this layer, a silicone mold is made, which is then hard backed with a layer of epoxy clay, which dries rock hard. The resulting mold is a form in which urethanes can be painted into, creating a thin, lightweight base that can be reproduced multiple times.

For quick manufacturing, this is a simple technique that allows one to pull multiple forms from the same mold, and as the urethane can be tinted and dyed different colors, the base forms can achieve many effects that were not easily possible in the original paper-mache forms. In the end though, this is still a labor of love, as these bases are painted by hand to give them a unique life. With hand painting, the masks become individualized, and can be made into many different styles. What was originally a mold for mass production yields masks that are as unique as the person and the ball for which they were made.

From 30,000 years ago to today, what brings a mask to life is the love and care of the artist who made them, and the mask while serving as a window into another soul, becomes a reflection of the soul who created it.

Jade Harley is a replica prop maker and cosplayer, spending most of her time building elaborate costumes for Anime Conventions. She has a degree in Biomedical Sciences from RIT, and trade experience in the field of electromechanical engineering. She is also a photographer, artist, and on the rare occasion, competitive gamer.