The Art of Mask Making

It is a ubiquitous craft in many cultures that I have been pondering over for some time. Anything that requires so much detail and labor, like most projects in life, deserves some closer examination. What was the purpose of a mask in the first place? Was it strictly for theatrical performance? Perhaps it changed the social status quo to an even keel on special days… I came across a few things in my quest for greater knowledge on the subject and here are a few little things I picked up.

  1. VenetianCat wrote in 2008: “The bauta was worn by both men and women, and was not considered a costume but a form of dress — required wearing if a woman wanted to go to the theater. Il medico della peste had a long beak-like nose stuffed with disinfectants, and, as its name implies, was used to protect doctors from the plague.”
  2. Wikipedia shares that for a Venetian mask they have three different names to describe mask styles: Bauta, Moretta, and Larva. Below, I quote what Wikipedia posts regarding these Venetian masks:


…One may find masks sold as Bautas that cover only the upper part of the face from the forehead to the nose and upper cheeks, thereby concealing identity but enabling the wearer to talk and eat or drink easily. It tends to be the main type of mask worn during the Carnival. It was used also on many other occasions as a device for hiding the wearer’s identity and social status. It would permit the wearer to act more freely in cases where he or she wanted to interact with other members of the society outside the bounds of identity and everyday convention. It was thus useful for a variety of purposes, some of them illicit or criminal, others just personal, such as romantic encounters.


The moretta is an oval mask of black velvet that was usually worn by women visiting convents. It was invented in France and rapidly became popular in Venice as it brought out the beauty of feminine features. The mask was finished off with a veil, and was secured in place by a small bit in the wearer’s mouth.


The larva, also called the volto mask, meaning face and mask or ghost is mainly white, and typically Venetian. It is worn with a tricorn and cloak. This mask is simple and worn by most at the Venetian carnival. It is thought the word larva comes from the Latin meaning “mask” or “ghost”. Like the bauta, the shape of the mask allowed the bearer to breathe and drink easily, and so there was no need to take it off, thus preserving anonymity. These masks were made of fine wax cloth and so were much lighter and were not irritating to wear making them ideal for eating, dancing and flirting.

3. Jade-Feng-Shui posted this information on their site:

Opera facial make-up originates from totem in ancient times, develops into facial paintings of the Song and Yuan Dynasties, and eventually takes the shape of facial costume of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It is a pattern of put-on facial make-up for opera actors and actresses in the stereotype roles of “painted face” and clown. It plays the artistic functions of implying commendatory and derogatory connotations and differentiating benevolence and malevolence, enabling the audience to get a glimpse of the inner world of actors and actresses through their symbolic facial make-up. In this sense, facial make-up has obtained the reputation as “painting of heart and soul”.

Gold and silver colors are usually used for gods and spirits. The main color in a facial makeup symbolizes the disposition of the character. The facial makeups date a long time back to the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties at least. Simple patterns of painted faces are found in tomb murals of that age. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), improvements were made in the skills of drawing and in preparing the paints, leading to the whole set of colorful facial patterns that we see in today’s Jingju (Beijing Opera).

Opera facial make-up utilizes the color of red, purple, black, white, blue, green, yellow, dark red, gray, golden and silver, with each color representing a unique stereotype character. In general, red symbolizes utter devotion and loyalty; purple embodies fortitude and resourcefulness; black manifests faithfulness and integrity; white implies craft; blue represents valor and vigor; green signifies justice and chivalry; yellow exemplifies cruelty. Dark red is reserved for loyal old generals while golden and silver are used for Buddha, gods, ghosts and demons. Opera facial make-up, as the product of fine artisanship, has become part of the masterpieces in the thousands years of Chinese culture and art.

This is all just the tip of the iceberg it would seem, as so many cultures have their own version of a mask and interpretation of how it is to be used, displayed, or worn. I have not even gotten into Tribal masks. I’ll be sure to add to this reference list as I keep learning. Please feel free to share your own knowledge and experience too!

So, finally, the reason I have started looking into masks is because I find them so interesting, and to often times, have so much cultural significance behind them. Half of my family is of Asian decent, and I have grown up with quite a few masks of Happy Buddha and angry opera masks found around our house. My interest lies in exploring how I might attempt to create these traditional visions in a new way (for myself). Through porcelain medium, if not papier-mâché. Stay tuned!

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