I don’t drink, so this doesn’t mean what you might think.
Sunday, Robert and I went over to Maggie’s house to help with a slightly-more-involved costuming task that I’ve mentioned before, but haven’t completely gone into here. Namely, face casting. Thinking about casting your face can seem a bit daunting at first, if you’ve never tried it before – I’m sure some of you folks out in costuming and make-up land have seen behind-the-scenes video of models and actors covered with a thick layer of casting agent, with straws shoved up the nose to make sure they can still breathe.
If that’s what you think about when you ponder doing a face cast, it’s no wonder you might be feeling a little panicky. You don’t have to cover your whole head in the scary type of plaster that the big boys use in Hollywood. You can do a much simpler, much quicker cast using cheaper materials available in your local craft store. The best material we’ve found for quick casts is Rigid Wrap. It’s a pretty ingenious little product. It’s basically gauze that’s covered in plaster dust. When you get it wet, you can shape it around objects. When it dries, it forms a pretty good mold. I’ve found it at Michael’s, JoAnn’s Fabrics and Crafts, Hobby Lobby, and A.C. Moore. A quick search online has turned up online markets such as Target and Kmart and Etsy. The link I’ve posted here is to the entry for Quill.com (this is where I order office supplies for work. Occasionally they’ve got deals for free cookies. Just saying).
By now, I’m an old hand at this method. My first casting was done way back in my undergrad days, when I took a puppetry class for one of my electives. (I was, by the way, the only history major taking that class). All four of us taking the class had to sit for a short casting session. Since I was the last to go, and class had long since ended, I actually got to wait by myself in the empty black box theatre while the plaster dried. (Then I had to quickly scrub as much plaster from my face and hair as possible, in order to make it across the street to start my first day of work at the movie theater, but that’s neither here nor there) Thus began my experience with plaster gauze. Since then, Maggie and I have done several casts – for Blink Angel masks, for silly ninja half-masks, for face casts intended to build make-up sculpts off of. This Sunday, however, marked our first attempt at a full head cast. For that purpose, and in an effort to make this process a little less scary for those who haven’t yet attempted it, I decided to do a longer entry here, to detail the whole process.
Step 1. Preparation of materials and space. It’s good to do this in a place where any mess that you make (and rest assured, you will make a mess) won’t do any damage and can be easily cleaned up. Linoleum or tile floors are best. Wood a little harder. Outdoors would be a bit more ideal. Try to stay away from carpet. Of course, we did our casting on carpet. This is where I put in my disclaimer, to keep parents from yelling at me, after some kid comes across this and says “But Meg did this on carpet!” If you absolutely can not find a tiled/linoleum/concrete floor to do this on – or, if you’re like us and want to be able to hear the television in the living room while you’re working – make sure you do a little advance prep for the floor, as well. Lay down some garbage bags or a lined dropcloth, to catch any plastery drips that will inevitably fall.
You’ll want to cut the plaster gauze into smaller pieces. I recommend having a variety of lengths and shapes. Small squares, longer strips, and the all-important triangle shapes. These are really good to use around the nose, and areas around the eyes. Get a nice assortment of shapes and sizes, preferably keeping them separate, so you don’t have to go hunting through a pile with wet hands, trying to find what you need. Also, make sure you have something underneath the pieces – they will shed plaster dust as well, and easier to just pick up a big swath of newspaper than try to scrub all the plaster dust off your coffee table.
You’ll want a nice big bowl of water, of course, to dip the plaster gauze in. That is, after all, how one activates it. One of the things I recommend doing is filling the bowl with water on the warmer end of the spectrum. Not boiling hot, mind you. But more than just room temp. Believe me, both the person doing the dipping and smoothing and the person whose face is being cast will appreciate this.
While we’re at it, make sure the ROOM is a nice temperature. I would say to put it more towards the warm side. You might feel a little warm while getting everything ready, but the person having their face cast is going to get a bit chilly as water drips on them and the plaster strips dry. Making sure they’re comfortable from the start will help alleviate any stress they might have later, as they become further encased in a mummy-like apparatus.
Step 2 – Preparation of person to be cast. The important thing here, as you start, is to determine what, exactly is going to be cast. As I’ve mentioned, our previous sessions have all been half-casts, done of an individual’s face and forehead. The purpose for this session , though was to wind up with something that Maggie can use to mold her Valkyrie helmet, so we needed to do a full head cast. This means more prep for the person being cast. The first thing you want to do is get something to cover your hair. If your model happens to be bald, this is less of a problem, but most folks you’ll need to do this on probably will. We’ve covered hair with a variety of things in the past – bandannas, tights, wig caps – but I think the best thing to use is something non-porous. In other words, something plasticky. I would suggest a shower cap, swim cap, or a generous bald cap. Ideally, you want something that will keep your hair as close to your head as possible, so you don’t get weird air bubbles on the top of your head, and so you can get a good idea of the shape of the individual’s skull. You also want something that will cover as much hair as possible. We’ll get into that in a moment.
Once you’ve affixed your swim or bald cap to your head, and tucked in as many errant strands of hair as possible, it’s time to break out the Vaseline! Petroleum jelly should actually be a standard element of your make-up/prop-building tool box. It’s got a number of uses – it creates a nice “dewy” look in makeup, for one – and it’s cheaper than some of the alternative products that people try to get you to shell out the money for.
So, why are we using petroleum jelly in this particular instance? Simple…you don’t want to be stuck inside your face cast forever, do you? The jelly is going to create a nice barrier between your skin (and any exposed hair) and the plaster gauze, making removal of the dried cast MUCH easier and less painful in the end. We’ve forgotten this step before (poor Casey can attest to that), and I don’t recommend it. You’re going to want to put a thin coat on the swim cap or bald cap that you’ve put on your head, as well as around your ears, on your eyebrows, on the bits of hair that will inevitably poke out from under the cap you use, and generally all over your face. Even if you’re not a man with a big bushy beard, you’re going to have some peach fuzz on your face – yes, even you, ladies. Trust me, you’ll realize it’s there when it comes time to pull the cast off, if you don’t jelly up your face. Also, remember to coat your eyelashes! Some hairs will still be pulled out, regardless of putting on the Vaseline, but remembering to close your eyes and wipe a bit of jelly across the edge will keep you from losing your eyelashes to this process.
The person being cast should put a drape on before you start casting. This will keep some of the drips from going all the way down the clothes, and will make the whole process a little more tolerable and easier to clean up.
Step 3 – Casting the back of the head. You are going to actually cast the entire head in two pieces. You could, in theory, do it all in one, but then you’re left with the question of how on earth you’re going to get OUT of the darn thing. So, take it from me, and take the extra time to do two pieces. Your friend will thank you. I started working from the top down, wetting strips and smoothing them on the bald cap. I took the casting for the back of the head up to just past Maggie’s ears. I knew this would make taking the back cast off a tad little bit tricky, but I figured it was going to be the better alternative of the two. Since we didn’t need the full neck for what Maggie wants to do (she can always build up a false “neck” with plaster later),
I took the plaster cast down to the bottom of her bald cap, just under where it covered the bottom of her bun. Once you’ve covered what you deem to be the back half, you’ll have to pause for a bit and let the plaster dry some. You can’t move on to the front casting until the edges of the back are dry, so just hang out for about 20 minutes. The whole thing will need to cure overnight, but the edges will be dry enough to work with much sooner.
Step 4 – Prepping the seam. Before you start casting the face, you’ll need to determine how far you are going to overlap the edges. I suggest taking a marker or pencil and marking the line directly on the back half of the cast. I made an overlap of just under an inch. After you’ve marked the cast, you’re going to break out the petroleum jelly again and thoroughly coat the edge of the cast. This is done so that the two pieces of the cast will actually come apart after the front is dried. Again, you don’t want to get stuck inside it!
Step 5 – Casting the face. I suggest starting around the edge of the face, where it will overlap with the back half of the cast, and then slowly move out to cover the rest of the face. I generally “outline” the edge of the face, covering the forehead, cheeks and chin first, then work in and block off the rest of the face. I’ve found that most people will say that they are not claustrophobic (and probably really believe that), but will still have problems when it comes to casting the face. It has less to do with feeling closed in, and more to do with the very understandable fear of being suffocated. This is why it helps to know the person sealing you into your cast, and to be sure that they harbor no homicidal thoughts towards you. Talking to the subject while you lay the plaster often helps, but make sure you don’t say too many funny things, as laughing and smiling will affect the casting process. I usually start to cover the bridge of the nose first, work around
(but not over) the eyes, and then cover the mouth. I leave the eyes and nose for last. You don’t have to insert straws, as long as you make sure not to cover the nostrils with the plaster. Just build around it, leaving them open.
Make sure that you do a fairly even, thick coat of plaster gauze when you do the front and the back of the head. You and the model should be able to drum your fingers along the cast with your fingertips, and feel where more strips need to be applied. You don’t want a really springy feeling. It can have a
little bit of give – and will until it’s completely dry – but you want it to be as sturdy as possible. Once you’ve completely covered the face, it’s time again to let it dry. Again, you can usually pop the cast off after about 20 minutes. The model will be able to start pulling their face away from the inside as it dries (it’s a weird feeling).
Step 6 – Covering the holes. If you’re like me and have left the nostrils free so your model can breathe, you’ll want to take a strip or two of gauze and cover the holes before you cure the head. This is important if you intend to pour plaster or wax into the cast later, to create a positive mold of the person’s face. I suggest holding the pieces up to the light and looking for thinner places that might need a little reinforcement. You shouldn’t see light shining through any part of the cast.
Step 7 – Drying. Remember, the pieces need to cure overnight. You aren’t going to want to lay them flat on the table, as the edges will flatten out as the plaster dries, and you won’t have the overlapping seal you intended to. If you’ve got a wig stand, I suggest wrapping the pieces around it, holding the halves together with some loosely tied twine. Or, you can drape it over something that will support the nose and some of the more important areas of the face (cheeks, chin, etc).
And voila! You’ve got a negative mold of someone’s face! You can either piece these together and use them as a head to make helmets on (which will provide about 1/16″ of room between your head and whatever you plan to make, Or you can temporarily seal the pieces together with duct tape or more gauze (remembering to re-coat the seam with Vaseline, if you do the latter), and pour plaster inside to make a positive cast of the model’s head. Just remember that you’ll want to coat the inside walls of the cast with jelly or cooking spray, to form a barrier between the cast and the plaster you’re using. Always use a release agent!
As I finish this up, I just want to do an extra special shout-out to Maggie, who was worried about being fully encased in plaster for this project and who did remarkably well (especially considering the fact that we were eating over on the couch while the plaster dried on her head) and Robert, who took wonderful shots of the whole process. There were actually a lot more, but I could only fit so many on here!