Watch how Day of the Dead is celebrated in different parts of Mexico.
This week’s activity is to make calacas, the skeletons and skulls that dominate Day of the Dead celebrations, and to create paintings using sand, salt or flower petals.
Calacas (Skeleton) Figurines
The Day of the Dead Ofrenda (altar) includes figurines and sugar skulls to represent the person who has died. In addition to stores that sell Mexican folk art, the figurines are also available on-line:
Mexican Sugar Skulls: Includes paper mache and ceramic. The paper mache are more expensive.
In the Mexican markets, you can find calacas made from a variety of mediums-paper mache (papel pegado), wire, wood, cardboard, cotton and/or clay. However, it’s not that hard to make your own.
Start by making the basic shape of your figure using wire. Check out Make a Wire Man if you need help with the basic shape. Once you have your wire armature, start adding clay, molding it to the shape you want. Polymer clays (Sculpy, Fimo) work well for this. Skull Beads and Charms have directions and photographs to illustrate the process of making a skull.
Painting with sand, salt or flower petals
From the video links below, you can see that these paintings are used to decorate graves, adorn churches, and are even parts of contests. These are generally temporary works of art.
At this time of year, there isn’t much in the way of flowers where I live so I’ve been experimenting with dried leaves. They work but don’t have the same impact of flower petals. You can also use beans, seeds and herbs to get a similar effect.
The technique is simple-sketch your design and fill in with sand, salt or flower petals.
I’ve been experimenting with sand and salt all week and am amazed at how incredibly beautiful the paintings are. So some basics:
• Salt and sand can be colored by using regular food dyes. Putting the salt or sand in a baggie, add the dye and massage until the color is absorbed. Add more dye for richer and deeper color. Let dry before using. Using different types of salt will yield different textures.
• I used my small Zen garden to experiment with different sand on sand techniques. My favorite was laying down a stencil and pouring sand on top of it. Carefully taking off the stencil, I was stunned by how beautiful it looked. This is a technique that is used in some parts of Mexico and stencils are handed down from one generation to the next. You can obtain contrast and detail by using a pipette filled with sand and carefully outlining your design.
• By laying down a base of wet sand, patterns can be carved and filled in with different colored sand. As you’ll see in the videos, you can use funnels and small strainers to control the amount and placement of the sand.
• While these paintings are often large and in very public places, you can make small ones using a picture frame, tray, large bowl or whatever type of container that strikes your fancy.
As one friend noted, “Americans like permanence” so if you want to save your sand or salt painting, you can spray adhesive on them, or lay down a base of watered down white glue before adding sand or salt.
Sand Painting Links
• Day of the Dead Sand Paintings, Oaxaca
• Day of the Dead Sand Painting Video
• Video How to Make a Sand Painting
Other Dia de la Muertos Activities
• Introduction to the Holiday Paper Cuts and Skulls
• Food and Coloring