Final maquette for Kaitlyn’s mask

After two decades–and a LOT of wasted silicone–I’ve gotten pretty good at building durable, well-engineered silicone molds for glass casting. I should be able to make a custom silicone mask, right?

We’ll see. My friend Kaitlyn (Kat) is making a Halloween costume depicting the probable offspring of Batman and Catwoman (who apparently met at a singles bar, fell madly in lust, and got REALLY busy). She needs a mask for the outfit, and I’ve agreed to make it. Halloween is less than a month away, and we both have demanding day jobs, so this oughta be fun. Or crazy. Or both.

Kat is a seasoned cosplayer who’s played Cruella DeVille, Daenerys Targaryen, a pirate wench, zombie ghost bride, Alice in Wonderland, and heaven knows what else at ComiCons and celebrations. She sews her own outfits, builds props, outfits her husband in complimentary guise, and heads out for fantasy immersion with friends.

Some of the many faces of Kat:

(In case you don’t remember Kaitlyn, she needed crystal wedding goblets a few years back. I made the following pair, which used the same kind of mold we’ll be using.)

Silicone moldmaking is as much art as science, with a LOT of little tricks along the way. The mask Kat had in mind was essentially a decorated silicone glove mold.

Glove molds are reasonably easy to make: Brush layers of thickened, soft silicone onto your sculpt/form, and let it cure. Then you peel it off your model, giving you what amounts to a decorated rubber glove.

This would be a little different: Glove molds generally capture form and detail on the INSIDE of the mold. A mask displays its detail on the OUTSIDE…with the added complication of needing to fit snugly but comfortably over someone’s head.

That meant I’d need to first create a head armature, make a removable core mold from that, and then make a core (if the armature wouldn’t work). Then I’d make sculpt the actual mask model (AKA pattern) on the armature and take a glove mold of THAT, this time of the outside detail of the mask. I’d then suspend the core in the center of the mask mold; the space between would be the shape of the final mask.

I’d pour silicone into that space, tinted to the lightest color of the mask, and let it set. When I separated the two molds, I’d have a thin, flexible mask, custom-fit to Kat’s head. I’d apply silicone paint and any details to the mask before it completely cured.

Since I’m coming from the glass world, I had a pretty close analogy to this process: Karen LaMonte’s incredible sculptures, where the human form ghosts through the hollow, transparent glass dress.

Turns out maskmaking is a LOT more complicated than I thought.

So is writing about it–this may be the longest introduction I’ve ever written…

Kat wanted her mask to be a cross between those worn by Batman and Catwoman, but with my–ahem–interesting interpretation creating something unique.

Ooookay. No pressure here. I started by looking for inspiration(s).

Researching masks

Batman’s mask has changed rather dramatically over the years–the original comic version was essentially a dark blue ski hood with fox ears, over a slightly angular black half-mask. It’s evolved since then, from the hokey vinyl drawer-liner version of the 60s TV series, to a highly sculpted and contoured form with huge, stylized ears.

Where Batman’s masks adhere pretty closely to the original, Catwoman’s masks are all over the map.

Halle Berry’s seemed the best model…if I could find a photo that actually showed the mask instead of well-lit breasts. Catwoman took a lot of flak for its oversexualization, but Berry’s mask was actually pretty true to the comic versions. DC likely set the women’s movement back about 200 years by making Catwoman more latex wet dream than superherovillain. Apparently the artists figured that no one would ever look at her face, so Catwoman’s mask was given minimal attention.

Made a fast head armature from terra cotta Sculpey, then rolled out a sheet of turquoise Sclupey for the mask. (You can see a trial ear shape in the background).

Kat chose Bale’s Batman, from The Dark Knight Rises, to be the batty-side model. Catwoman was played by Anne Hathaway in that movie, and sported a TV series-like Mardi Gras mask+ears ensemble. Blending those would be was an interesting challenge, and since I have trouble drawing, I decided to sculpt instead of sketch, with a maquette.

Testing designs…and a detour

I used some spare Sculpey polymer clay to cobble up a fast head armature, about five inches high. I draped it with a sheet of turquoise Sculpey, and began forming the initial mask.

Lola, watching me sculpt…and helping with the design

Lola sat on the bench as I worked, which probably had a whole lot to do with the sudden catlike turn the maquette made. I had a cat right in front of me; what better model? I pulled up a few bat photos, and got busy.

Cats have a triangular nose that terminates the slip-slidey bridge of the nose, and soft, puffy cheeks with whiskers. Bat faces are as varied as they are exotic, but most have gorgeous, wing-like ears that can be translucent and often ribbed.

I mimicked the facial markings on some bat species, and added oversized ears. Not sure at this point just HOW oversized I can make them; the soft silicone I’ll use is meant to stretch and doesn’t have a lot of body until very thick. I’ll probably need some kind of wire or ribbed support inside so those giant ears don’t flop down like a basset hound’s.

The Resident Carpenter was complimentary but dubious. “Uhm…well…it looks more like the real animals than the masks in the movies,” he said, and then, thinking fast: “But I’m sure you’re just doing what Kaitlyn wants.”

Kat sketched HER vision of the mask…

“We’ll see,” I said loftily, a bit stung, and sought a second opinion.

“It looks like an evil chihuaha,” said Mom, “I really like it.” “Chihuahua!” exclaimed my sister, “That’s exactly what I was thinking, too.”

Humpfh. I’ll just let my very GOOD friend Kaitlyn be the judge of my beautiful sculpture.

She stopped in last Sunday morning. “I know you were concerned about the design so I made a drawing…” and she trailed off, looking hesitantly at the maquette.

I viewed her sketch: Less organic and animalistic, more of a movie mask with Eartha Kitt cheekbones, big bat ears, cat-like jowls at the nose, and a brow reminiscent of Batman’s.

OK. Round 2.

I smoothed out the detail of my original maquette, added a ridged brow, and made the details more angular, almost masculine. The resulting mask was going to be much thicker and heavier in front, which would require some engineering if we didn’t want it dragging down her face. But we both liked it.

The final maquette–it’s not smoothly finished because it was only the concept. I’ll get much more detailed on the actual model.

Coloring comic books

Kaitlyn wanted a throwback nod to the language of comic book colors, which has fascinated me for years.

Comic book artists turned a depressingly small color palette into a vocabulary, thanks to the limitations of printing.

Printing presses lay down ink in a series of dots, using what’s known as halftones, which simulate continuous shades of color. Most presses use four colors of ink (the famous CMYK: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). Combinations of adjacent ink dots fool the eye into seeing many colors, just as monitors use pixels.

The smaller (and closer together) the dots, the more colors can be created and the more detailed the art. The problem is, the paper must “hold” the ink and keep it from spreading to maintain that color illusion.

Comics were printed on newsprint, a cheap, thin, and porous paper. Drops of ink tended to spread a lot on newsprint, so the images needed to be relatively coarse to work. Larger dots–and a tight budget for process and ink–meant printers could produce relatively few colors.

Comic palettes were generally restricted to 64 or fewer colors, sometimes 24 or 32, which meant comic artists had to become really creative to make effective illustrations. Skin tones might be pink or gold when fleshtones weren’t available, greys were actually lavenders or greens, and colors that would never go on walls, went on walls.

One of the ways they compensated was to evolve a kind of language of color. What color families they had were used to set moods, or identify villains; frequently, in old comics, you could remove the words, stand at a distance, and still know what was going on, thanks to the colors.

Comic book heroes were typically depicted in red, pink, gold, blue and brown. Scenes with villains–or menacing, reluctant heros–were dark and off-color: Black, grey, purple, mustards, yellow-greens, and extremely dark blues and burgundies. The movie Dick Tracy used this to great effect with a palette of just seven very saturated colors.

(Turns out you can do this in glass, too: My favorite pate de verre portrait, pictured here, uses that comic book palette.)

We’d stick to traditional comic colors used in the original Batman comics: Purply, midnight blue and black. We’d do some tests to see how coloring the little triangular cat nose differently–orange or yellow–would work.

Next up

We had the base design, and we’d picked our palette. Now we needed to scale things to Kat-size, and start making our molds. For that, we’d need an engineering plan and a few test runs for color and shape.

Stay tuned for engineering the molds.