Modelling dolls – all about bodies.

If you are going to model dolls sooner or later you have to get to grips with the human body, as it were.

There is no question that the human body is the hardest thing to depict realistically in art.  If you doubt that this is so, consider some famous paintings and sculptures. Throughout history, some of the most famous are those that have depicted the body accurately and used it to tell or reveal some truth about the owner of the body.  The statue of David, the Mona Lisa, The Birth of Venus are instantly recognisable images of the human body that not only get it right but tell us about the attitude and expectations of the body’s owner.

I don’t buy the modern proposition that we now have such good photography that art students need no longer concern themselves with the depiction of people but instead ‘find’ art everywhere.  That could be because, having sculpted bodies for 17 years, I know that it’s really difficult.

I take Michelangelo as my mentor in many things and I hope he doesn’t mind.  If you have seen the ceiling of the Sistine chapel by standing under it, as I have, you’d be as astounded as I was and am at the sheer number of bodies up there.  Each one is a masterpiece, each depicting the person not only tells their story but catches them in the act of performing it.  God absolutely whooshes across the ceiling, creating at top speed.  Adam is undoubtedly as fine an example of an Italian stallion as you’ll ever get.  However, there are mistakes up there for all to see.  The painter is great at clothed women yet if you look at Eve in the garden of Eden and her musculature and the position of her breasts and compare it with, say, a photograph of a real nude woman or the depiction of Rubensesque Renaissance women, something is wrong.

Painters and sculptors of the past did not always have access to life models of real women.  Taboos of past centuries meant that only one type of woman was available as a model, and that not usually until a few hundred years ago.  Unless you had a handy wife (and do check out quite how many painters married their models or modelled their wives – there are lots) to get her kit off for you, you had to do it from imagination, or from yourself, if you’re a bloke, and add breasts.  You would imagine that someone married to a sculptor would adore to be preserved for posterity, wouldn’t you?  Not so!  I am married to a man who loves going to the gym and hasn’t a bad physique and, like any man, looks in a mirror and sees one of God’s better efforts and he still finds standing around with his shirt off, even in the summer, a right trial.  I get five minutes if I’m lucky and then he’s off to the pub, thirsty and exhausted.

So, in order to model the human body, you first need a body.  Unless you are very unusual, you may find, looking down from the computer screen for a moment, that you have one of these yourself.  This is a good start.  As soon as you’ve finished reading this, or before, if you like, I’ll wait, go and get a full length mirror, get your kit off and have a good look.  If you are a woman try not to be horrified  by your thighs, if you’re a bloke try not to start smirking and combing your hair, what we’re after here is some really basic information about what joins to what and at what angle.  Look at the planes, relative to each other, look at the proportions, how long is a certain body part in comparison with another?  Despite the difference in people there are some constants.  Your elbow is half way down your arm, in repose your fingertips reach mid thigh and so on.  Now fetch  easy modelling material, such as plasticene or take the mirror to your work table and get busy.  Don’t stop until you have a full body, as a model.  Then get dressed again, put the mirror back and go off and do something else.

It’s really important not to look until you have either lost the despair about how rubbish you are or the joy of being a genius and can really see what you’ve done.  I’d recommend not looking at it until the next day.  What you want to be able to see is what you’ve actually done and not what you meant to do.  It’s a sort of visual proof reading, the sooner you look, after the modelling, the harder it will be to see the mistakes.

When you are able to look and assess your effort, ideally the following day, it’s time to get the kit off again (I hope you’re doing this somewhere warm) and compare the model with the reality.  Have you got the proportions right?  Have you made your limbs too long or too short?  Have you made your body too fat or too thin?  Are you projecting wish fulfilment on to what you see?  Are the joints convincing?  Are you already aware that you have one or more weak points in modelling?  Something you really can’t do?  At this point if you possibly can, archive this model. If it is plasticene put it somewhere cold, if you did it in oven-bake polymer clay, bake it, if it’s air drying clay, allow it to dry. I would not advise using Milliput at this stage, although the permanency of it is attractive.  You need to concentrate on getting the shapes right and take as long as necessary to do so.  If you can avoid looking at the sculpt for a couple of years and keep sculpting, I absolutely promise you will be utterly amazed at the progress you will have made.  Michelangelo said that sculpture is the father of painting and regarded himself as a sculptor first, if you look at his earlier works you can see that he found his monumental scale quite soon.  You can also see if you follow the progress of his art that it did take a few years for his bodies to become very assured and eventually, life captured in stone.

Now that you begin to understand the task, you’ll enjoy looking to see how others tackled it.  It’s time to amass art books or scour the internet for copyright free, downloadable works of art by famous painters and sculptors throughout history.

It is necessary to be aware that there are fashions in the human body.  Currently thin is in fashion.  I have a theory about fashions in bodies; I believe they are directly related to population statistics.  These are evident as far back as the fourteenth century in Europe.  In the mid fourteenth century the plague known as the Black Death depopulated Europe to such an extent that there were not enough people left to work the land.  Entire villages in areas that were already not populous were deserted.  Consequently pregnancy was seen as a most desirable state.  This was so even before the Black Death, as pictures such as The Marriage of Arnolfini bear testament.  In this famous painting the bride has a huge sticking out dress that makes her look pregnant, even though she is not.  You can see the same effect in doll number 7 in the shop, which is a mediaeval angel of that era.  The fashion for chunky, fruitful looking ladies continues for several centuries in art.  In truth, as we know by surviving clothing, most people were underfed and many pregnancies were fatal, even for the prosperous, such as Jane Seymour, Henry the Eighth’s third wife who died a fortnight after giving birth.  The fashion has settled to more realistic depictions of the body by the eighteenth century but soars again to the desirability of the well fed during food shortages after the second world war – all of the Fifties film stars were noticeably busty.  That famous white dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to stand over a hot air vent in, was a size 16, which is the average dress size for the British woman today, though certainly not in the 1950s.  Interestingly the average height of the British woman now is still only five foot three, which is very far from the ‘ideal’ of the six foot, size zero model.  The fashion changed in the 1960’s round about the time the contraceptive pill became available, which was the first time since the 1920s we had seen androgynous female figures with flat chests and a long slim silhouette.

So, in assessing any body to model, you should be aware that you are looking through eyes that have been manipulated by current  fashion, whatever that may be. 

It is helpful, once you have had a good look at what other artists have done, with informed eyes, to assemble a selection of reference material of real people.  This is known as an artist’s morgue.  The morgue is easy to assemble, every magazine and newspaper carries pictures of people.  Recently the photographic artist Spencer Tunick has become famous for his installations of many nude figures, which is very helpful of him if you wish to look at the amazing range of variations in the human body.  As always you should be aware of copyright issues.  Some famous people have their image copyrighted and would not be pleased if you sculpted them and sold the result.  Some images are copyright and may not be reproduced.  However there is plenty of copyright free material, featuring bodies, which you can access and save and, of course, you can always borrow books from a library and just have a good look.  The more bodies you see the better.  Model frequently.  Don’t despair about the difficult bits.  From observation and interviewing other doll artists I’d say that hands and length of arms are a frequent problem, and, naturally, you will wish to concentrate on heads.  Heads and faces are wonderful.  Everyone I’ve ever met has their face arranged with the eyes at the top, the nose in the middle and the mouth underneath, yet the variations are so extreme within these parameters that we can recognise everyone we know by their face alone!


If you do manage a good realistic sculpture the next thing to consider is how you wish to translate this into a doll.  This is where the art comes in.  I deliberately make my dolls with slightly bigger heads than real people because I want to give them the proportions of children.  I do so wishing to invoke tender feelings, which I consider the natural and desirable attitude to dolls because I don’t intend them to be fashion models or figurines.  My dolls are first and foremost dolls and I model them as such.  They have to have all the attributes of people but in a doll way.  I also give them foreshortened arms because of the way people look down at their arms, my collectors are busy people who rarely see arms in repose; short arms, which took me some years to arrive at, feel righter.  I also exaggerate the size of the eyes and position them where the most light can shine across and through them.  These are my artistic choices to produce a very non-threatening, lovable doll.  Your artistic choices may be very different.  You may strive for realism, for increased length in a fashion doll to look elegant, for massive qualities in a hero doll, to make certain body parts out of proportion to create a cartoon doll, or caricature.  However, before you can do all these clever things you first need to produce a body that looks like a body.  Your own will do very nicely.  No matter what you think is wrong or right with it, if you can keep the model fifteen years you’ll be stunned at the way your sculpting skills have flourished and firmed up in inverse proportion to the ghastly way your physique has crumbled and been affected by gravity.


People are amazing and very varied.  Sculpt some soon, in any size, I’ll be back later with some chat about heads.  Meanwhile, if you’re still in front of the mirror, modelling clay in hand, it’s all right to keep your socks on (until you get to your feet!) starting Monday morning chilly but interested.

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