Thursday, October 14, 2010

How To Make a Day of The Dead Mask

Today I'm going to show you how to make a Day of the Dead mask. This was a great project for my eight-year old daughter and her friend. 

Day of the Dead masks, or Calacas, are a traditional part of this Mexican celebration and are a lot of fun to make. You still have time to make your costume by November 2nd, but you'll have to hurry!

Most step-by-steps that I read online suggested papier maché, but they failed to show the steps and I know why: papier maché will never dry fast enough on a child's face to be able to be removed. You'll need to use plaster if you want to make a face mold.

Jose Guadalupe Posada

• Gauze bandage (preferably the pre-plastered kind), cut into small strips and squares.
• Plaster of Paris (if you can't find pre-plastered gauze bandage - see above)
• Petroleum Jelly
• Drop cloth
• Plastic containers for water and plaster, with sticks or a brush for stirring
• Lots of paper towels to clean up spills
• Small artist brushes, and 'chip' brushes (available at any hardware store)
• Water-based artist paints, various colors (I used artists acrylic colors)
PVA/Elmer's glue, or, white primer


Apply a thin coat of petroleum jelly, making sure to get around the hair and chin line, and especially the eyebrows. This will allow the plaster mask to be removed more easily.


Mix up a batch of plaster.

In retrospect it would have been easier to use the pre-plastered strips of gauze that you just dip in water; less messy and you don't have to deal with plaster drying out in the bowl. However, using regular gauze is fine too.

Add a little powder at a time to about 1 cup water until it's a little thicker than milk. Your plaster should be thin but not too runny. It will set up very quickly, so be sure you are ready to go and have all your gauze strips cut up and handy.


Apply the strips carefully, paying special attention around the eyes to avoid accidents. I found it important to add extra layers on the temples and the bridge of the nose to stabilize the mask. I left plenty of space around the mouth and eyes, preferring to fill these in later.


Remove the mask...carefully! It's very thin and is not completely dry.


Add extra layers of gauze/plaster to smooth out the surface and add thickness. We painted on a layer of thinned, watery plaster (using a chip brush) once it was at the above stage, so as to create a smoother surface.

Then we put it in the oven for 30 minutes at 150º which helped dry it out (watch to make sure it doesn't start to crack). Otherwise leave it overnight in a warm dry place.


Once dry, you can use a folded, slightly damp rag to 'burnish' the surface until completely smooth.

  Seal your mask inside and out with a coat of PVA or Elmer's glue, thinned with a little water. Or you could use white water-based primer, as we did.

Research! There are plenty of reference images available online and waiting to inspire you. 

My daughter and her friend decided upon the La Catrina figure from Day of the Dead lore, so I drew one (above) on the computer and printed it out. This mask follows certain 'rules' as far as the look goes. Namely the large black eyes, the black Spade shape on the nose and the flower on the chin. Some also have the Viuda Negra, or Black Widow, on the forehead (which we substituted for a heart) and the web. 

I've reproduced the Illustrator drawing here for you, if you want to use that.

Sketch your design lightly in pencil first.

Time to paint! Thin artists brushes for the details and strong vibrant acrylics are best. 

The girls decided they wanted to make some changes to the initial design, which is fine, but remember: If it doesn't at least have a black nose and big black eyes, then it's not a Day of the Dead mask!

You could just end it here, but we added sequins around the eyes. Flowers made of tissue paper in the hair and a black veil would have completed the look, but the girls opted for more 'harlequin' and less 'calaca'

Almost there. You just need a way of holding it against your face. I used a wire & cardboard coat-hanger, and taped it to the inside of the mask. Now your Day of the Dead mask is complete. Have fun!


  1. Great article- thanks! I want to make a mask based on one of those octopus images from Bibliodyssey for Halloween, but I have so much going on right now I'm not sure. At least i know now how to get started.

  2. Lots of fun in your house! I made one years ago...I remember how cold it felt on my face!

  3. Thanks! Now I can brag to my Spanish teacher that I know how to make a day of the dead mask!

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