Props: Elizabethan helmet

Our next and final play this year will be Much Ado About Nothing – particularly suitable as I’m the official illustrator for Portsmouth University’s ‘Much Ado About Portsmouth’ festival to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th deathday! 

As we’re building up our own Wardrobe dept at school, I’m trying to make as many re-usable costumes for the Outdoor Shakespeares that have become our end-of-year tradition. We have a really good stock of Elizabethan-style shirts, pantaloons, and a few gorgeous dresses that were originally standard fancy-dress fare until I modified them. 

Having learned to sew so that I could make costumes for the last show, I thought I’d have a go at another skill, so have tried my hand at armour from Craft Foam.

The type of helmet I wanted to make I had a clear idea about. It’s for Dogberry, who is so innocent and wide-eyed in our performance I wanted to give the actor a fun prop that would add to the character. A slightly-too-big pikeman’s helmet with an oversized fin, that, if possible, will keep tipping forward.

The basic frame was actually very easy to make (and as I did it on a whim during the second read-through of course I forgot to photograph it in progress) but if you fancy imagining it, here goes: take a piece of A3 craft foam and bend in half to two A4 pieces. Holding the two sides closed, it luckily fit the actor’s head. I cut a curve to  match the shape of the helmet, then used pieces of masking tape to hold the shape together along the curve. I tried it on the actor and cut along the base to create a higher ‘peak’ at the front, like the helmet in the picture.

The fin was then modelled from another piece of A4 foam: I drew around the shape of the helmet where I wanted it to come out from, then drew a tall fin from that line. I left a 1cm margin at the bottom, which I snipped into tabs. I slit the masking tape along the very top of the helmet and slotted the fin in, bending the tabs side to side inside the helmet and taping them down.

The brim of the helmet was easier than I expected. Again, I drew round the helmet, the base this time (stretched out to the circumference of the headband) and then drew a 4cm brim around it, culminating in a point at the front and back. I then simply used masking tape strips to hold it on. Had I had a glue gun with me I think I could have used that instead, but like I said, this was a whim during rehearsal.


  Ok, imagination over. When I got home, I missed up my normal PVA glue mix (1 part PVA to two parts water) and sloshed it onto the foam before layering kitchen paper over it (my last rolls of Star Wars) and adding more mix. Making sure the paper overlapped and went under the brim into the helmet’s insides, I left it to dry out near the radiator, making sure to keep the sides held apart to keep the shape in case of shrinkage.

  As with all my kitchen-paper projects, the final finish was pretty rough. However, as this needed to look like metal, I tore up some smooth magazine paper (the Vogue edit from last Spring, in fact) and soaked it in mix before applying it in small pieces and stroking it down. It ended up being nice and smooth – and very tasteful 😉  

  At work, I gave it a coat of silver spray paint. The PVA seals the paper and foam so it doesn’t drink up the paint. So now it was lovely and shiny, and very boringly silver.


 Back at home, I used some Silicone Glue to add details: ‘welding’ at the join of the fin and round the edge of the brim, and a couple of ‘rivets’ in the sides. (Seen below with the Beauty and the Beast mirror)

Finally, after a day of drying, the silicone was ready to paint.  I used a dull silver Acrylic paint to go over the silicone, and also dry-brushed it over the rest of the helmet. Once that was dry, I brushed a medium-wet mix of black and green into the crevices, along the silicone ‘weld’, and around the rivets. I brushed off the excess with water and paper towel. Then, taking a dry brush of the black-green mix, I brushed roughly over the rest of the helmet and inside the brim, before rubbing off with paper towel again. This really brought out the battered texture I wanted, and made the helmet look pleasingly old.  
It just needed something more: a bit more age.

Adding a blob of bronze Acrylic to a blob of burnt umber and mixing with a fair bit of water, I washed this with a dry brush all over the helmet in stages, buffing most of if off straight away afterwards with a piece of kitchen roll.

ET VOILA.  Pics of it in use later in the year.



Props: Beauty and the Beast mirror


 Since costuming A Christmas Carol (and building and working The Ghost of Christmas Future, which I’ll have to post pictures of at some point), we’ve now started the Junior production: Beauty and the Beast, the Disney musical. It’s adorable really. Plus, as we’ve hired most of the costumes from a local youth theatre group who did it a few years ago, it’s almost stress-free.

A few pieces aren’t supplied with the costume hire or the staging hire, so I’ve put together a few things with the help of my Backstage Club. The Magic Mirror is one of them.   

From these reference photos, the mirror has certain features that need to be replicated: the applied detail at top and sides, the ‘beast’ face at the join between mirror and handle, some crossover vine details around the handle, and the fleur-de-lys on the back.

I started by cutting two mirror shapes from corrugated card. The top one I cut out the recess that the mirror would sit in. As this is a kids stage show, I just used a layer of tinfoil between the layers to create the mirror. I used PVA glue in a decent layer to glue the layers together. 

 Next, using the reference pictures to design them, I cut out the shapes for the sides, top and handle. These were then also stuck on with PVA, front and back, and left to dry. 
Then comes the papier-mâché. I’ve discovered that the hair tinting accessory kits you get from the Pound Shop are ideal for holding the PVA-water mix (about two parts water to one of PVA) and brushing it on. Nice. Paint the mix onto the card, then apply your paper. Note: I needed a smooth finished surface for this project, which is why I should have used newspaper. However, I only had kitchen roll. Star Wars kitchen roll. It’s a bit rough, but covering the whole dried project in another layer of neat PVA generally fixes this. 

In any case, I applied a few layers of paper to the card, brushing the layers flat but making sure there was a lot of overlap of the paper to keep it strong. When sticking over the raised details, I made sure to stipple the brush closely around the raised areas and into crevices to make sure the paper didn’t hide the shape. 

I forgot to take pictures while I was papier-mache-ing, so here’s the glue mix instead.

Finally, after leaving to dry by the radiator overnight and then applying a coat of neat PVA to smooth the surface and prime for painting, I wanted to add some additional detail: the vines and facial features on the Beast ‘face’. For this I used Silicone Glue, applying it in a line through a nozzle where needed and leaving to dry. It dries to a hard-jelly-like substance that can then be painted. I also used it to add detail to an Elizabethan helmet I’m making for our next play, Much Ado About Nothing.

Now I’m just waiting for it to dry…

Make your own Gladiator Paper Dolls

My school does an ‘Open Day’ every Summer, when we open the school on a Saturday  to parents, prospective parents and pupils, and anyone else who wants to come. Each department puts on a kind of showcase with games and events linked to their subject, and the whole thing turns into a kind of fete.

This year, we build a makeshift Colosseum in our classroom, and the kids made gladiator paper dolls!

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Greek Myth Comix – a bit of success!

The New Year’s Resolution I made to draw more and read more mythology has turned into (for me) a bit of a monster, but more of a fluffy, puppy-eyed cuddly monster that makes me feel warm inside than a hydra or Scylla/Charybdis deal. The comic strip blog now gets at least 1000 hits a month, except for today, when it got over 500 hits over about eight hours:

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MISS, ARE THOSE YOUR *GUTS*?! Or, how to make (edible, if you feel like it) guts for your Hallowe’en costume

Recently, we had a ‘Haunted Library’ at work for the First and Second year students. It was all the work of our wonderful librarian, who turned our school library into a walk-through Haunted House, filled with willing participants – staff in various sates of costume – who were looking forward to scaring the wits out of teeny tiny pupils…

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New book series covers: Text Guides

I’ve spent the last day making cover designs for our new small range of play text guides for Blackboard Fiction. I wrote the guides originally for home learners for Wolsey Hall Oxford, and they’ve given me the go-ahead to republish them myself.

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A pretty decent Death Star Birthday Cake

First, let me point out that I am in no way a professional baker. The fact that this worked in any way makes me very happy, even if, compared to other Death Star cakes on image search, it’s a bit crummy 😉 But, I’ll try anything. This was fun.

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Prezi, and Steve the Skydiver: how to analyse poetry

I’ve discovered Prezi, a new way of creating presentations that appear more interactive and, well, ‘swishy’.

It’s not that much different from Powerpoint, despite it wanting to be, but it’s very user-friendly and, for teachers like me, there are already lots of ‘prezis’ on the short stories and poems that make up some of my taught courses, all done by students, demonstrating both their understanding and the platform’s usability.

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Blackboard Fiction Publishing: ‘Swansong’, by Barbara Swanson


One of the things that Blackboard Fiction does, aside from write educational books for students, is to help other people self-publish. After some small success with my own volume of short stories, ‘Death and Stationery’ (sneaky plug: download Kindle or iBook) I was contacted by the grandmother of a friend. Having self-published her autobiography in paperback, and, although not having many expectations, she was keen to find out how to take the text to the new opportunities electronic publishing could offer.

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