Painting and Repainting of Vinyl and Resin Dolls
~ Just so you know, I wrote much of this guide in August 2008.
~ In 2012 I updated the guide and added new insights.
I have been a portrait painter in pastel and oil since 1989. In summer 2008, after two years of reading about dolls, I began to repaint some dolls, finding happiness in the work. My face painting is less stylized than is some repainting, probably because of my background in portraiture. I paint each doll face in a way similar to my commissioned portraits of children. You may see portrait examples at my website, if you Google my name, which will reassure you of my credentials in fine art.
After years of coaxing a flat canvas into the forms of the human face, it is fun to paint on a dimensional face, on a contoured sculpt. While I long to sculpt a doll myself, my art focus has always been on painting instead of sculpting. I admire sculptors greatly, both those who create dolls and those who create bronzes. I especially admire the facial sculpts of American doll artists Helen Kish and Elissa Glassgold, French artist Heloise, Canadian Lorella Falconi, and Sissel Bjorstad Skille of Norway (who makes smiling faces look natural and effortless).
In summer 2009, I viewed a DVD by doll artist Dianna Effner, which I recommend to new doll painters, Painting Expressive Eyes with Dianna Effner. I discovered that I paint in a similar way to Effner, though I do less paint-blending (smoothing), so as to leave bits of impressionistic, pointillistic color and some texture.
Marsha of Hankie Couture (eBay name hankiecouture) designed custom dresses for many of my dolls. It has been a joy to collaborate with designer Marsha, to share projects instead of simply working alone. When I was young, my mother made doll dresses for my sister and me. Mom created skirts with designs that used every fancy stitchery pattern that her Singer machine could make. She also taught us to crochet and to embroider on pillowcases. Our dolls resided in an apartment-building dollhouse built by my grandfather.
The dolls I repaint were factory painted ones. Artisan painting done in a doll factory creates lovely dolls to the specifications of the artist or company. In no way am I implying criticism of such painting! It's just that I am aiming for less doll-like and more life-like, to see how much illusion of life I can achieve. Some painting work I do is of such delicacy, in transparent layers, with such time involved, that it would probably be cost-prohibitive to do it within a doll-factory setting.
Repainting is mostly fun, except for the part of removing the factory paint, which is tedious. All of you doll lovers can be most assured that factory-applied paint is very sturdy. While preparing and painting a doll, I wrap her in a cotton baby blanket to protect her from handling.
I am using artist-grade alkyd paints (in thin glazes) with the addition of alkyd resin to make the paint surface become as flexible as the doll’s vinyl skin and to make it adhere well. I sand the surface lightly to give the vinyl surface "tooth" to better hold paint.
IF YOU ARE NEW to doll painting, you may prefer to learn with acrylic paints. MOST doll artists use acrylics, which are naturally flexible when dry and adhere well to vinyl. Acrylics dry quickly. Some artists use an air brush, a tool I have never used, but one you may like to use for cheek blushing. Other artists seem to like heat-set oil paints, too, especially for reborn babies. Paint manufacturers continue to make innovations, many of which are worth trying. The main considerations are: (1) Do you like how the paint brushes out? (2) Will it adhere well to the vinyl surface? (3) Will the colors remain permanent? Please do a through investigation of the last two questions, since you want your doll to remain beautiful.
A SAFETY NOTE:
None of my oil pigments use lead or cadmium. Though I paint dolls for adult collectors, I want the paint to be safe around toddlers and babies. Consider safety when buying your paints.
Get the best brushes you can, filberts and liners in tiny sizes. Painting is challenging enough with good brushes, almost impossible with poor-quality brushes. Ditto for quality paints! Inexpensive student-grade paints have more-clear-binder and less pigment (which is why the price can be lower).
Paint fingernails last, since it is all-too-easy to bump them while working, thereby to damage the paint on the tips. Guess how I learned this tip!
On the first few dolls I painted, I did quite a bit of measuring. I was considering how to center the eyes and how much cornea (the white part of the eyeball) to show. In adults, lots of cornea shows. In babies, hardly any. Different amounts of cornea suggest different ages. While some dolls have snow-white corneas, often a very-pale neutral gray gives a more natural appearance and makes the eyeball protrude less.
After my first few doll repaints, I began to relax, to measure less, and to paint more from intuition. I usually use light colors to place the eye, eyebrow and lip shapes, since it MUCH EASIER to correct faint colors than dark ones. When I am confident about the placement, I darken the colors, usually in layers, letting each layer dry before applying the next.
On dolls, often one eye has been sculpted a bit larger or has more curvature. First I try to consider the sculptor’s intent. Then, as a painter, I use delicate highlights and shading to add symmetry and to align the doll's gaze. I refine the face in delicate layers until she seems to speak to me and to express emotion. This kind of refinement is what I learned to do on my commissioned portraits of children.
For dolls, glass eyes have one definite advantage over painted eyes. In glass eyes, since the pupil is below the clear layer of the glass cornea, light can travel through the clear layer to make reflections across from the light source, just as in a real eye. In a painted eye, however, whether on a doll or on a canvas . . . this illusion must be created. On a doll, the pupil is actually on the highest part on the curve of the eyeball. How, then, to make it recede? For ideas, I study doll eyes I have purchased from various glass makers. I keep file folders of photos of children with appealing features.
Did you realize that pupil size in eyes can suggest emotions? Try it for yourself. A tiny pupil (the dark center of the iris) often looks alert and intense, while a larger (dilated) pupil often suggests calmness and caring. Even the slightest change in one or both eyebrows will suggest emotions, also.
Many dolls are painted with bright, large highlights in the eyes. I have been using a different approach. While I paint a tiny pinpoint highlight in each eye, I let the glossiness of the eye paint provide its own reflections. In a human eye, the wetness of the cornea is what reflects light. If you look at one of my doll auctions, you will see that the position of the eye reflection changes from photo to photo, since it is reflecting window and lamp light differently in each pose.
As you go along, keep some notes about what works and what doesn't work. Then your confidence will grow.
Like any teacher, I am leaving some questions here without answers. As each doll painter finds some of her own solutions, she (or he) will develop her own recognizable style. If we all paint the same way, our dolls will look alike. Boring! Then doll collectors won't have the joy of picking unique faces and styles. I suggest you read some of the guides about reborn baby dolls for ideas about blushing the body and enhancing the creases and shapes. Like any student, I am always learning, too. Reading about reborn-baby techniques has helped me to learn. Some websites (like the Secrist one) have painting videos you can watch online.
About eyelashes: In college art courses, most professors of fine art & portraiture discourage the painting of eyelashes in even, doll-like rows. "Too Fussy," they explain, "Too Decorative! Less Artistic!" I actually find the evenly-spaced eyelashes on many dolls to be lovely & admirable. But then I remember the admonitions of my professors and end up painting soft suggestions of lashes with only some individual hairs showing. I hope some doll collectors like that style, too.
Applied eyelashes: Some artists insert individual lashes of human or synthetic hair. Other apply a row of eyelashes with glue.
FINISHING UP A DOLL
Whenever your doll seems finished, put it away for a few days. When you look at it with fresh eyes, you will often spot any places that need correction or refinement. Look at the doll's reflection in a mirror, another helpful way to find mistakes (such as eye alignment problems). What you are looking for: Any "False" Notes. If you are listening to a piano tune, a mistaken note often "sticks out" from the song. It jars the ear. On a painting or doll's face, a false note tends to "jump out" (may be the first thing you notice). Then enjoy your doll. Forgive yourself for any shortcomings you see. We all get better with practice. We are usually most critical of our own work.
If you are very displeased, you can always remove the paint and begin again! Most artists have done so, some of us many times!
"Tenderness," part of an oil painting by Nancy Lee Moran
THE MOST FUN
What has been the most fun about painting dolls? I have most enjoyed seeing one sculpt, like Kish Seasons, come “to life” in different ways. One sculpt, many moods and colorings. The details of painting are fun with a tiny brush. I have enjoyed trimming and styling wigs, too.
Following my dad's decline and death in 2003, I found renewed hope by looking at the dear doll faces in Doll Reader magazine. The friendly faces cheered me up, for reasons still mysterious to me, reasons best understood by fellow doll lovers. On a similar note: When hospitals include gardens, water features, and restful paintings of nature, studies have found that their patients need less pain medication. The beauty of nature and art bring joy to our lives from childhood to old age. Art and kindness help heal emotional wounds, too. (Is my background as a registered nurse showing up here?) Back to dolls!
Here is a letter of mine that was published in the April 2008 issue of Doll Reader magazine (with my last named misspelled as Morgan):
Dear Jill Jackson and other editors of Doll Reader,
I am glad that doll artists continue to make progress in having their creations seen as Fine Art, as artistry worthy of galleries. I have been a professional portrait painter since 1989. I see doll artists as being on par with painters and sculptors, combining the beauty of sculpting, textiles and painting.
I find joy in studying the faces in your magazine, in seeing the unique beauty of each face and the loveliness of fabrics. The dear doll faces cheer me up.
I have a small collection of dolls. Sometimes I sketch one of the faces, to practice my drawing. Dolls sit still, while the children I paint are always in motion.
At St. Francis Gift and Thrift, where I volunteer, I have had the pleasure of restoring and cleaning some older dolls, too, which were donated for resale in the charity shop. In back issues of your magazine I have found information on how to clean the dolls without harming them. Thank you for many happy hours of reading.
Nancy Lee Moran