The size of a doll is very important. There are sizes that are easier to work with and there are sizes that are more difficult. In general, the larger the doll, the more difficult it is to sculpture it and paint it. That is because in a small sculpture, even a serious mistake seems insignificant, but in a large one even a small fault is immediately noticed. Nevertheless, miniature dolls require extraordinary skill. The easiest size of a doll head to sculpture is between 10 and 12 centimeters. (A doll with realistic proportions will be 80–100 cm tall). In such a doll anatomical errors are not as noticeable as in a large size doll and it is much easier to work on small details than in a small-sized doll. I personally like 45–60 cm dolls the most. (The doll that we are making now is going to be 55 cm tall). This size allows you to create a quality sculpture and painting, while at the same time all the details and accessories remain miniature, which makes the work more elegant and charming. In addition, dolls of this size are much easier to send by mail and take to exhibitions. The majority of my many collectors also prefer dolls up to 60 cm in size. However, in my career I have made dolls of various sizes, even life-size ones, which I make only as a special order. I think that they look a bit creepy and also, there is always some strange story involved. For example, my friends once ordered a life-size doll for their gallery and they wanted it to look as realistic as possible. I made them a nice, charming old lady in a knitted scarf and they put her in the chair in their gallery. For some time she successfully attracted visitors, but my friends’ good fortune did not last long. One night the police came to them and said, “There is a problem with your gallery”. My friends became scared, dressed very quickly, and rushed to the gallery. On the way they imagined all kinds of disasters, that someone had broken the windows, that the gallery had been robbed, etc. When they reached the gallery, everything was fine. “But there’s no problem,” they told the policemen. “Why did you call us?” The policemen answered, “There is a dead body in your gallery and you’re saying that it’s fine?” The police made them open the gallery, they poked at the old woman’s nose, and they clicked their tongues, but then they suggested that the old woman be removed.
Materials are not good or bad in themselves. The best material is the one that allows to realize your ideas to the fullest. The material that you choose for a sculpture will determine the entire style of your doll. For example, porcelain does not allow unceremoniousness or carelessness. Papier-mâché, on the other hand, is easy to work with and allows you to easily fix any mistakes. Of course, it is difficult to make a detailed sculpture from papier-mâché if you are not using a mold. In any event, papier-mâché forces you to shape more lapidary form. The most universal material is probably wood. You can use it to make a complex sculpture with a lot of details, and you can also create a character with most austere means: with large dimensions, highlighting natural texture, etc.
Air-dry and baked polymer clay are relatively new materials. The former is designed to be used for simple, stylized form and the latter requires more realism, more thorough attention to details, to anatomical precision. I personally like polymer clay because it has no historical associations like the older materials do. For example, papier-mâché has always been considered a material for handicrafts, even though it was used for making not only jewel boxes, for example, but also furniture. Porcelain inevitably evokes memories of small sculptures, like Meissen figurines. Wooden sculptures provoke the widest spectrum of associations, from Roman Catholic Madonnas to the wooden sculptures from Russia’s Perm region. I have to say that these comparisons are usually not favorable to the dolls.
Air-dry clay is similar to gypsum. It is also sensitive to humidity and many air-dry clay types are very brittle. Polymer clay is more durable (if you bake it the right way), but it is much more difficult to paint than air-dry clay. Overall, however, it is a matter of preference. The most important thing is to try to discover all of the possibilities in a chosen material. Of course, the simpler a doll is, the easier it is to make it, but to make a really good stylization an artist must understand what exactly he is stylizing. This is exactly why I think that courses in which students are taught to replicate some doll made by their teacher are a kind of a trap for beginning dollmakers, especially if the doll is a stylization. Well, first of all, in my opinion it is terribly boring to copy someone’s work. Secondly, people do not learn the basics – anatomy, composition – but simply imitate their teacher’s style, or even not the style but its disparate elements, and as a result we get a copy. Later we are surprised that there are so many identical works at exhibitions. We should not think that simplicity and stylization can conceal a lack of skill. A doll made by a professional is easily distinguished from one made by a beginning amateur, and not only artists but also collectors can tell. Doll collectors, at least the ones that I know, are in general extremely interesting and talented people. Their collections themselves are a kind of work of art. “An art collector is an artist whose paints are ready works from which he or she chooses,” said the Russian art collector Viktor Samsonov. My dolls, for example, are collected almost exclusively by men. I don’t know how to explain this. I can only suspect that they prefer in dolls the same things I do: depth of meaning, irony, and grotesque.
Polymer clay is, in my opinion, practically a universal material with limitless possibilities for sculpturing. At present there are many kinds of polymer clay made by various manufacturers. I have tried them all and I can tell you that for sure the best clay is Living Doll by Polyform (Super Sculpey® Living Doll by Polyfom). It is the most convenient for sculpturing, being soft enough that the elements can be joined together without seams, but it is hard enough to keep its shape. It bakes wonderfully; it does not melt slightly (like Cernit, for example), which is particularly important in complex, detailed, small-sized sculptures. Furthermore, it does not crack or form plaques as sometimes happens with e.g. Fimo. Apart from that, this clay easily withstands multiple baking and practically does not change color, and this is very important, especially if you paint your doll with Genesis heat set paint. After baking, the surface comes out very nice, especially in the case of the light-beige Living Doll. Living Doll clay is produced in several colors: brown, beige, pinkish-beige and light beige. The beige color after baking becomes somewhat translucent, which makes it similar to human skin, but the color itself is a bit dark. Occasionally I mix it with the light beige to obtain the right shade. But in general, I prefer a lighter hue. The light-beige Living Doll has the best color after baking, although it is not translucent. It also withstands repeated baking better than others. I would also like to mention another type of polymer clay made by the same company (Polyform); this is called Super Sculpey Firm. It is harder and gray, and it is very convenient for creating models for casting in different materials or for casting in polymer clay. (By the way, I make forms for polymer clay from a material specially designed for it, by the same Polyform company, called Mold Maker). Gray clay is excellent for sculpturing exercises, because it does not get dirty, all the smallest details of sculpture can be seen very clearly on it, and if you don’t bake it, you can reuse it many times. When working with Living Doll I always use special clay softener and liquid polymer clay (Translucent Liquid Sculpey). I use Clay Softener for softening clay that is too hard. In general, Living Doll has no expiration date, but if you store it for more than three years, it tends to harden. In this case it is enough to knead it with a small amount of clay softener to bring its former texture back. Clay softener is also necessary when a sculpture is made in several stages (with interjacent baking), to obtain invisible and durable joining of baked and raw elements.
Liquid clay is necessary for creating different textures in a sculpture. Apart from that, I use it for fixing cracks which can still, albeit very rarely, occur while transporting dolls. When painting dolls, liquid clay can be used for creating the effect of enamel, stained glass, etc.
Polymer clay is a chameleon-like material. It not only looks beautiful in itself, it can also imitate dozens of other materials. Of course it is not easy to work with polymer clay. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that by learning to make dolls particularly from this type of clay, a beginning dollmaker will manage to learn much more, both from a technical and from an artistic point of view, than if they were working with any other modern clay.
It seems no one today would dispute that dolls are a form of art. However, the question of what is considered as art doll remains a subject of heated debate.
I believe that the main feature that distinguishes art doll from an artisan doll is not so much the technical perfection, but rather the translation quality. The quality of how it translates the artistic conception, the idea into the language of shapes, colors and textures. One can judge any work to be an artistic creation only if it is made according to the rules of art, that is, if it is designed with the aid of composition, color, texture, etc.
If we take Michelangelo as a starting point, for example, then from such a height one cannot see much qualitative difference between the best doll-maker in the world and the clumsiest beginner. Nevertheless, some dolls have something in common with the works of the great sculptor while others don’t. This is a general matter of using the elements of art in a meaningful way to create the image. Of course, by itself it doesn’t guarantee that something will automatically fall into the category of “art”. But any work that doesn’t have a meaningful composition and color solutions, cannot be a work of art for sure.
The “aesthetic value” of a work of art is something quite relative, and it changes as time goes by. However, with some preparation beforehand, it is completely possible to objectively evaluate the quality of a composition, design solutions, use of color, and so on.
Working on a doll, like with any other work of art, begins with an artistic conception, that is, the formation of the very idea in the artist’s mind. It does not necessarily have to be complicated, but it should contain the kernel of the doll’s image, a certain something that could only be expressed visually. For example, “an old lady with spectacles” is not an artistic conception, but a “winter night”, “gossip” (where the image of an old woman could also serve as the basis) are already certain ideas. A conception is something that reflects the personality of the artist, it is the world as it is filtered through his or her soul. If there is no conception, no idea, the choice of the elements of art
will inevitably be a random one. You can sculpt a very pretty face, spend days on the embroidery, use antique lace, age and decorate the fabrics you use, fanatically shape every little wrinkle, but if all these elements don’t work in the image, then the doll will remain merely an exercise in technique.
When the artistic conception is decided, you need to choose the elements of art that are most suitable for bringing it to life: the composition, color, value, form, shape, texture. In order to use these elements correctly, it is best to understand how they affect the viewer. For example, a composition can be static or dynamic, stable or unstable, symmetrical or asymmetrical, light or heavy, closed or open, and so on. The color can be bright or subdued, warm or cold, dark or light, etc. The artist’s task is to choose precisely the kind of composition, color or texture solutions, precisely that particular material, which best corresponds to the result he or she wants. This is no less important than technical skills, and just like in crafts, one has to learn them.
In the next Break, we’ll look at different artistic solutions.
Sometimes students ask me, “What do we need all these compositions and color schemes for? It’s all so complicated, can’t we do without them? And why should we make anatomically correct dolls? That’s so hard, and we could just be making stylized clay dolls. After all, the important thing in a doll is soul.”
Of course, if you want to make just cute toy doll for yourself, you don’t have to get into all these complicated matters at all. It’s like how, to sing a children’s song, you don’t need to learn music theory first. But to play the piano, you have to learn how, and that includes theory. The same is true of the visual arts.
To make good dolls, you do not need to have formal art education , and far from all doll makers have such education. However, you must realize that being a doll-maker is a profession like any other, and that’s precisely why it takes time to learn it. Somehow no one imagines that he or she will be able to sing at the opera and give voice lessons after only a two-month course. And to make dolls, you’ll be all set by the day after tomorrow! Often people come to my courses thinking, “Now she’ll show us a couple of approaches, a handful of techniques, and she’ll tell us how to sew the costume and paint the eyes. And that’s it, we’re ready to be doll makers.” At the end of the course, almost everyone realizes that this is just the beginning, and they will have to keep on learning, whether from me or somewhere else, or on their own, it doesn’t matter. But even if dolls are just a hobby for you, it is much more fulfilling to learn to make creative, artistic and – most importantly – your own original dolls.
Clay dolls are a kind of art where it doesn’t matter what field the artists come from, even if they are professional, their knowledge will be insufficient at the beginning. For example, a costume designer won’t have the sufficient skills to work with sculptures, while a sculptor won’t have the skills to work with fabrics and color, etc. The longer you make dolls, the more you will realize that you still have a lot to learn. But you’ll get more and more satisfaction from this learning. The amount of new things that you have learned will inevitably translate into greater quality of your dolls. Not only will you notice this, but so will viewers and collectors.
Something no less important than learning how to do, is learning how to see. To see how a work of art differs from all the other products of material culture around us. There is only one way to do this: to learn the history and theory of art. First of all, this knowledge will raise a person’s demands on him or herself, which will inevitably be reflected in the higher quality of the work. Secondly, once you understand the rules to follow in making a piece of art, you can try to apply them in your dolls. You can see what theoretical and technical skills you lack – and go and learn them. Or do not go☺ Thirdly, this is all something unbelievably interesting! As a side effect, learning the history of art will make you immune to any temptation to be arrogant.
Of course, if a doll-maker doesn’t have a command of sculpting and painting techniques, he or she will be unable to make a good doll. Regardless of whatever wonderful “soul” there is in that doll, the viewer will be unable to see it under the numerous mistakes in technique. The skills of an artist, ideally, should be brought to the level where he or she can realize any conception that can be imagined, without any limits. But even the most anatomically correct doll will remain just a lifeless 3D copy if the artist cannot realize an artistic conception within it. This is the difference between realism and naturalism, which are often confused. Realism is one of the styles of art, while naturalism is empty craftsmanship. Realism maintains a small distance between a work of art and real life. This small distance is the most interesting thing, as in it one finds the artist’s personality, his or her likes and dislikes, relationship to what is depicted, his or her knowledge and experience, mood and imagination. Naturalism is a meaningless copy of nature, what 3D printing could do much better. If the first thing that a viewer notices in a work is its technical perfection, this is a bad thing. As Ovid said, “True art is to conceal art.”
Stylization also has its own rules, and its simplicity can be deceiving. Without knowledge of anatomy, you won’t be able to make a good stylization: the dolls end up not only poor in terms of technique, but also indistinguishable, all with the same stamp. The communication between the artist and the viewer will be reduced to just repeating two or three basic statements. This will soon bore even a viewer unversed in dolls, let alone a collector.
Don’t be worried if in the beginning, working on a doll seems very complicated. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “If everything seems easy, then it unmistakably proves that the worker has little skill and the work is vaster than what he can imagine.”
Anyone at all can learn to make good dolls. All that matters is your willingness to learn. It is important that you be more attracted by the doll making process than by the result, and then you will succeed!
Here you can find a full list of the materials you will need to make an art doll