NOTE: Many of the Artist Images used in this blog post are credited to the artist, and clicking the image will transport you to their website or contact points such as Flickr, Facebook, Etsy or Pinterest – explore with wonder!!!
Let’s get intellectual – shall we, Dears?
Many of my readers have commented on how much they learn when they read my blog, and I am grateful for those compliments. The doll world is a fascinating realm of creativity in miniature, and the battalions of artists who make it all possible. It’s easy to offer criticism to any of these artists; it’s easy for any of us to look from the outside into the intricacies that surround the creations we love to collect. I’ve often said that the more you know and understand about your hobby – the more you appreciate triumphs, or even forgive disasters (especially when good customer service is doing everything they can to make it good in your eyes).
Being employed by a manufacturer certainly opens one’s eyes when it comes to the wicked web that is woven creating multiple copies of a miniature. So I’ve decided to begin a new series into that world to pair with my ‘How It’s Made’ tags, showing just how complicated creating ‘tiny’ can be – and what that means to the doll maker who must simplify designs to make that process profitable. However, clothing isn’t all that goes into a doll – a rather obvious statement. There is the sculpting, the face painting, the making of accessories, the packaging, the advertising and marketing, and the customer service needed to maintain a maker’s reputation. This is what we’ll explore in this series for 2015…it will be informative…but not quite that serious. This is my duty to you – to bring you content of substance, humor, and the occasional diversion…
The making of a doll is a many splendid thing, involving a vast amount of energy and resources – taken in and of themselves, each process stands independent – but the final product is reliant on the orchestrated dance coming together in often remarkable circumstances. While at Tonner, I managed production for a few years, and I created presentations on how a Tonner doll was made. Much of that is now outdated with today’s technology, but the process itself doesn’t really change.
You can sculpt the most amazing character from clay, engineer jointing to give it movement, dress it in manufactured couture to wrap it in luxury – yet none of it really comes together until one final moment is added, and one that has always been near and dear to my heart. This is the moment when the face is defined through a painter’s brush…only then does the life of a doll truly begin.
Of course, I am mostly referring to dolls with painted eyes and other features – yet even the inset eyes placed in a doll’s unpainted face pale in comparison to the final personality brought to the face through added facial definition seen in lip color, blushing and eyebrows. The face, particularly the eyes, is what brings a doll to life – it can be the sole determinant in the success of a doll. There’s a reason I coined the term ‘optical sentience’ in my FRODO comparisons…because if a doll does not have ‘life’ in its eyes, it’s just another miniature wearing clothes.
This is what drew me to Tonner’s dolls of the late 1990s – they had life in their eyes. His 14inch Betsy McCall and subsequent Ann Estelle were two of the most intriguing. Both with inset eyes, their face paint was minimal – but when the pairing of eyes and sculpt came together, you had two of his most iconic characters ever. Compare this to the original porcelain Models, and the all-vinyl American Models – each with painted eyes and expression that captured the essence of Tonner’s sculpts.
When Tyler Wentworth was introduced, several collectors complained about the change in her facial painting from the original prototype…there were reasons for this, which I have already discussed here, here and here – but the production doll lacked the depth they were seeking…most specifically, in the eyes. I personally liked her expression…she had a personality of which I could identify. And when the repainters got a hold of her…the transformations were dramatic, proving that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.
Now, understand that repainting then was no new concept – artists had been repainting Barbie, and then Gene with astounding results. Gene Marshall was another doll that had a certain something in her manufactured eye screening…an ethereal, well-thought and unique dreamlike glance that you either loved or hated. It was this signature look that caused great debate with Gene’s creator and her manufacturer. In the end, lack of an evolving face paint may have contributed to collectors’ growing boredom with Gene, and the decline of her popularity.
I can’t say for certain if this was something that ran through Robert Tonner’s head when he introduced Tyler – Gene had already started her decline, and Tonner was focused on innovation and evolution of his new fashion doll – deciding where and when he could financially choreograph upgrades to Tyler and her friends. For a small company, this is no easy feat. It’s child’s play for collectors to lambast a doll maker for not doing this, or not doing that – but it all really rests in the careful financial planning of what developmental costs will yield the most productive results. Tyler was introduced with fairly basic articulation, and a body posture that was nearly perfect in its sitting pose. But Tonner knew that as his muse would mature, customers would grow bored with her without clever and opportunistic timing of new articulation, hair, and face painting – and later, with a new head sculpt.
But it was Tyler’s new face paint shortly after her 1999 introduction that pushed those on the edge of the fence over to Tyler’s green pastures. I had met Sherry Miller through the Madame Alexander circuit when she was illustrating paper dolls – Sherry was responsible for the amazing face paints I enlisted for my earlier customized Tonner American Models – her style was (and is) distinctive, and when I sent a Tyler doll to her for the purpose of re-dressing and gifting to Robert Tonner at Tyler’s first convention – the result was a historic makeover for Tyler – and one that would define Wentworth, Sydney Chase, Esmé and friends for years. The dress I made was banished to a forgotten drawer – God only knows where it is today – let this be a lesson to any of you gifting your work to any doll world celebrity. The doll, however, became an iconic transformation from a banal and otherwise uninteresting factory face. As Sherry assumed the post of face paint designer for Tonner, her work would bring Tonner’s sculpts to life, and set them apart from their competition. For that, my Puddings, is the power of a doll’s optical sentience. It’s all in the eyes…
Fast forward to a new generation of fashion dolls in resin, vinyl and plastic…even porcelain, too – and you’ll find the undeniable level of artistry that goes into the painting – what it represents to a doll’s final look, and its perceived value. Today, most manufactured dolls have a high degree of hand-painting applied, even in large editions. ‘Screening’, or paint that is applied through air brush over a mask, is mostly used to define the sclera, lips and eyebrow basic shapes – and everything else is added by hand. Eyelashes, when painted, are almost entirely done by hand – and no two will be alike. This is where it all boils down to efficiency – how to get the most consistent results in production, using a small team of painters, within the smallest timeframe – optimizing yield and reducing labor costs. Remember…they are a business…and as such, it is important to monitor and control costs to bring a fair and reasonable profit.
Well…that all sounds really good, right? Truth is…it’s much more complicated than you would realize. Add to it rising costs of labor in most manufacturing centers, and you are faced with a true dilemma in production cost containment. This is relevant when you consider the collectors who see a repainted one-of-a-kind doll selling for hundreds, wondering why manufacturers can’t achieve that same level of detail and beauty. “I would have bought it if it had looked like that.” Remember this statement? The absurdity of this stupid statement arises from such negligent misunderstanding, that it’s offensive. “Why can’t the factory paint it like that?” They can. And they can also add the charges associated with the hours of labor and materials it takes to achieve that look, too…so the real question is, how much would you be willing to pay for that level of detail? Be careful what you wish for, dears…or you’re likely to get another ‘squishy head’ retort.
Repainters have the one added annoyance that factories do not: they have to remove the existing face paint, either fully or partially. This requires application of some solvent such as isopropyl alcohol or acetone (nail polish remover) to dissolve and remove the factory application. This can take minutes…or hours – and at varying stages of the process – sometimes encompassing days for a complete removal. With materials such as vinyl, some repainters opt to seal the porous nature of the cleaned face before beginning new painting – others do not. Nevertheless, the canvas has been purchased, cleaned and prepared – all of which involves time and money – before the new face painting even begins.
With the new process, you now add the partial costs of materials such as brushes, paints, thinners, sealers, etc. – few of which are actually associated with one single repaint. These materials, if good quality, are expensive. Quality refers not only to the lasting power of each, but also to factors that affect the application of paints and their longevity – for example, a sable brush costs more than a nylon brush – each have different uses – quality is measured by how well they are made – and how long they last.
Or, consider if you will, a brush that is so small, so fine…that it only consists of a few fibers in a miniscule grouping – one that you would only use to paint eyelashes – and how often they must be replaced to maintain the artist’s exacting needs when seen from the paint flow demanded by their skill? Sounds like such a fuss, yes? If you agree, then you have such little comprehension as to what it takes to achieve mastery of miniature face painting, and as such, you don’t place any value on its importance.
Many artists will create several studies of their subject before applying to the actual doll. After hours of dropping tiny dabs of paint here and there – the face comes to life…then, there are still more hours of editing, revising, reviewing the portrait – eventually, the artist is satisfied (or completely over it). And when the repaint artist goes to apply their hourly charges to this time – much of it is forgotten. As I demonstrated with a doll dress and doll suit, the application of minimum wage to a standard face paint could easily cost $70. That’s based on $8.05/hour (Florida 2015 Minimum Wage), 6 hours of actual painting, preparation and finishing work, including cleaning of supplies afterwards; $15 for cost of paints, additives to thicken or dilute, sealants, and disposable materials; wear on brushes, and other cleaning supplies; and 10% for a reasonable profit. That rewards nothing for complexity, skill or added efforts associated with body blushing. Of course, none of this includes re-sculpting facial features time or materials, application or rooting of actual eyelashes, or inserting a glass/acrylic eye when the original doll had only painted features (involving additional cutting and finishing efforts). Well, I can say with little-to-zero argument that if a manufacturer had to apply $70 to the cost of a fashion doll (finished basic dolls in minimal costuming only cost half of that – and this is based on data that is roughly ten years old ) – just think about that, Sweetie. And you want some Rembrandt level of portraiture in a factory doll? Bullshit and bunions on the brain, Batman…you have a seriously distorted view of what a doll should cost.
Try an experiment – take a toothpick, dip it in some acrylic paint – and try to create a drawing – any drawing – it could be a stick figure for all I care. Now tell me how easy or complicated you found this task. Now, using two or three individual hairs bound together on that same toothpick…attempt the same task using the same paint – was it a little easier – or more difficult? I actually know artists who use these techniques with toothpicks…it’s a miracle they’re not blind. In the end, you only see the finished work – and rarely do you see the steps it took to achieve it. This is exactly what stains doll collecting through uneducated perceptions about doll artistry and its associated costs.
But that’s always what it boils down to, right? Perceived value – how expensive it looks – what one would actually pay – versus what it actually costs. How is it that a hobby that is largely luxury in nature has descended into voices telling doll makers what they think a doll should cost, or their ability to pay up to a certain amount for a doll. “It shouldn’t be that expensive.” No, dear…what you mean to say is, “I’m only willing to pay a certain amount for a doll of which I understand very little about its production costs.” I think such people would be better off collecting spitballs.
Much of this stigma has been caused by deep discount retailers from the late 90’s onward…and the rush to find a coveted doll for the least possible price. So little effort has been put into increasing perception and value that collectors are simply doing what the retailers have trained them to do – that is, hold out for the lowest price, regardless of true demand or quality. Everyone loves to get a good deal, but until collectors give appreciation to the value of the dolls they buy, this is unlikely to ever change – and we’ll always have people stupidly bitching about how expensive dolls are…oh, the joy.
Not only has this practice distorted and damaged the artist doll arena, it has catapulted dollmakers like Superdoll, Dollcis, Kingdom Doll and others to shatter the mold of what a fine fashion doll should cost. These makers know their customers…and their customers want finery in all its luxury – they are also willing to pay the asking price upon its issue, because they know the maker will deliver. Mona makers like Popovy Sis sell their dolls for exponentially higher prices – because their customers have an elevated understanding of the craft; one that is justified by the amount of time and energy necessary to create art of which they highly value. See a trend here? The converse is also true of why collectors shy away from buying Tonner dolls upon release, or even at 10-20% off from a popular retailer, because they know they can get most of what they want later at a significant discount directly from the doll maker’s repetitive factory sales.
Newcomers to this arena, who happen to have some extra cash lying around, finally get a Mona or a Goddess – at issue price, only to suffer from buyers’ remorse when they get the credit card bill. That’s when they go back to that purchase and start to scrutinize what they bought without fully understanding what it is they bought…or why they did it in the first place. These types of collectors are a cancer in our community…and they have little-to-no association with others because they just can’t see what enlightened collectors who appreciate the art can. So they bitch, whine and moan about it online…we know who they are…but do they know themselves?
Repainters face a similar dilemma. Theirs is a subset of our world that is greatly distorted by inconsistencies in the craft. One repainter can command hundreds of dollars for a repaint…yet another is lucky just to get a modest opening bid. Self-marketing is mostly to blame, but there is also a fair amount of responsibility cast into the arena by the lack of value placed on repainting as an art. It’s easy to see a repaint sell directly from an artist at a premium price; and yet, it’s unlikely that same repaint would recapture its price when sold by its new owner on the secondary market – a funny concept, considering repainted dolls sold by any artist are already on the secondary market.
Many feel that once a doll has been repainted, its value diminishes. But to those that collect this type of customized work, they could really care less…because they are seeking individualized art, as opposed to the manufactured kind. You will also note substantive artistic differences in fantasy repaints, celebrity repaints and reborns…there are other types springing from this genre, but these are the styles that attract the most attention.
Fantasy repaints, or ‘face-ups’, are common throughout the resin BJD, fashion doll and child character worlds. Why the term ‘face-up’ needed to distinguish itself from ‘face paint’ is a mystery – maybe it was because ‘face-up’ also refers to an original factory paint…because it’s not what Merriam-Webster says – that, or the unfortunate misunderstanding of the Asian BJD makers in writing copy for their own advertising without having an in-depth knowledge of English and its varying subtextual meanings (such as “happy doll dances at sun with marshmallow smiles” or some shit like that) – if anyone knows the actual origin and can translate the meaning of ‘face-up’ – please enlighten me. I’m not afraid to admit I know little about the term’s origins.
This genre commands attention because it usually involves a complex layering of painting techniques, color application, design sense, texture, and even re-sculpting to turn a human-esque character into one from fantasy realms. Re-sculpting can take place using a Dremel tool – carving out features, or sanding them into new shapes – some features are even rebuilt using polymer clay, putty or additional resin.
Celebrity repaints are just that – the goal is to achieve a likeness of a celebrity, or celebrity-based character. The same techniques found in fantasy repaints can be seen here, too…but the most common detractor is that the doll has already been sculpted in the likeness of the celebrity by another artist. It takes skilled talent to paint a miniature portrait…but when exacting specifications involved in a likeness take priority, it involves added precision requisite to make sure it actually looks like the given subject. One can always argue that the face sculpt is merely the canvas to apply the paint – and I would say, well let’s see you do that with a non-likeness sculpt…or better yet…sculpt your own. There are several repaint artists that can do just that…and actually utilize these techniques frequently to achieve a certain expression, or if no existing likeness sculpt is available. This is masterful, because it shows depth and range of skill.
I do not diminish the work of creating portraits using an existing likeness sculpt – but it’s nice to see some acknowledgement of the ‘canvas’ that was created by someone else. I don’t care if you are Pablo-Fucking-Picasso…your painting received benefits from that pre-established framework, I don’t care how expensive it is…how detailed it is, nor do I care if it was on TMZ or if Ashton Kucher squeezed it out of his ass…the work is not purely achieved through a single artist’s hands. There is a reason these dolls possess an “uncanny resemblance to the people they portray“…and just like those that copy, plagiarize, or remix/sample music…unless the credit is shared, or at the very least acknowledged – it’s a thievery of sorts. Show some humility for crying out loud. No one’s going to jail for it, but there are plenty who make a shitload of money from it. When you observe this from a purely esoteric point-of-view, re-casts are really not very different – someone has taken another’s work, copied or transformed it, and sold it to make money. The primary difference in repaints is that the artist creates a new work of art – and a re-cast is still just a copy.
From a legal standpoint, little objection is raised from the original doll maker, or even the celebrity – so I guess that makes it OK, right? After all…if no one objects, then how do you know you it’s wrong? Manufacturers rarely credit sculpts done by the factories in China, or sculpts contracted through an artist that is to represent a specific brand. But how would you feel if another artist took one of your repaints, changed the color of the eyes, added a bit of detail to the eyebrows, shaded the lips a little – and then sold it as his or her own? Or better yet, what if a doll maker saw a repaint of yours online, and had their factory copy it precisely, manufacture it…and make their own shitload of money (because I can assure you – it has happened), giving you no credit…and definitely no payment. Tell me again exactly how that would feel…
Tonner gets high marks here…he has observed repainters’ work with appreciation for the art (being a doll artist, himself) – and he has pushed the limits of the art through his factory to see just exactly what they can do. But he never put such works into production unless the designer was compensated, as is the case with Sherry MIller’s work for Tonner. Well…at least when he knew about it…but that’s a whole other story, Puddings.
Oh yes…I know you (or someone else) has paid for that doll…and you’re free to do with it what you please. That’s true. And that’s what makes copyright laws about such issues so difficult (and expensive) to enforce. Most repainters I know are happy to credit the original sculptor or dollmaker (some original sculpts aren’t done by the dollmaker itself – and some have no original sculptor credited at all). The message here isn’t for those types of folks…it’s for those that would rather die than to give credit where its due and rest on laurels created by another artist – and those that follow and support him or her. Ignorance is bliss…yes? Need I say more about not knowing your hobby as well as you should…?
Most repainters I know well not only give credit, they celebrate it. These are artists who know their customers, too – and adding information about who made the original doll is a strong selling point. These are the artists who respect the art in its purest form – and their mutual admiration for each other knows few boundaries.
Much in the same way that fine dolls’ value have been destroyed by aberrant discounting over the decades, repainting has been devalued by bad marketing ploys and separation of one artist over another. There’s nothing wrong with touting your abilities in the name of marketing your brand, but when one artist claims superiority over another through claims of grander techniques, materials or results, the entire craft is damaged over simple name-calling and finger-pointing. Man, artists can be eccentric, but juvenile behavior? Petty.
Painting is painting…and let no one tell you otherwise. You can absurdly attempt to copyright your painting techniques by comparing them to the delicate beauty of a paperweight glass eye, or try to set yourself apart as a ‘real’ artist when all other makeover artists are ‘amateurs’ – or even elevate your artistry to deity by comparing it to God’s miraculous work seen in the human eye – and it may all be true, but it’s still bullshit marketing. If anything, you need not disrespect your fellow artists to set yourself apart – rather, try letting your work speak for itself…and for those who it may attract. Bitch, please…anyone can dab a dot of white paint in the corner of an eye, and seal it with a glossy medium and make it look realistic with ‘natural look and light reflection’. As for the definition of OOAK – yeah, it means ‘one-of-a-kind’…and that pretty much says it all, if you speak English. I don’t really care what the Grand Poobah of Whatever Doll Art Compendium blathers on about using ridiculous definitions that only help to further segregate our community of artists – which has been the most heinous crime against repainters – accusations that their work isn’t ‘real’ doll artistry. If it’s art…and it’s on a doll…it’s doll artistry. It really is that simple…and no certification, or organization membership, or blessing from the Poobah is going to negate that…ever. If anything, it’s all an excuse for somone else to make money off you, desperately hoping you need that kind of validation. Repainters’ work may not appear on HSN or QVC…but who the flying fuck cares outside of the Marie Osmond/Richard Simmons/Candy Spelling illuminati? Apparently, not even they do anymore.
I’m not going to cover the reborns phenomenon, because we are all pretty much aware of its existence. These artists have a damn large market – and their work sells. You might not like the subject matter, but like any applied art – it deserves respect, too.
If you are interested in repaints, get to know them well…the artist and his/her techniques – it’s not only enlightening, but it’s fascinating to see how they build the dimensions of a facial expression or attain added realism through body blushing. I remember when Madame Alexander introduced that skank, Alex…with painted nipples – it was quite the shock. But not to repainters…they’ve been doing it for decades.
Understand how repainters work in terms of commissions – they are typically more expensive than stock work. They require more time and level of precision to get exactly what the customer is seeking. You also need to allow the artist to do what they do – so leave them alone. No one likes having to send ‘in-progress’ images, unless you are willing to pay for the time it takes to do so. But the hardest part is when you request revisions on the ‘in-progress’ updates – you’re creating havoc and duress – of which can’t end happily.
You must also realize the Power of Photoshop – most repainters I know avoid it in their promo photography, because it detracts from their work – that, and it’s counter-productive by increasing expectations for folks who can’t tell the difference. But also know that human eyes, computer monitors and digital images vary when it comes to color perception (despite that crap blue dress – there was a point to the whole maddening exercise).
You must also have a keen eye when it comes to a face paint in three dimensions, or in various lighting. Much like Seinfeld’s two-faced girlfriend, you can easily see very different results at different points of view, or in the play between shadow and light. Some repaints only look good when viewed head-on – whereas, more accomplished work is visually appealing in profile, full frontal, or in three-quarter views. A repainter who fully understands all three dimensions will render accomplished work from any angle.
But perhaps the most annoying behavior of some requesting commissions is constantly badgering the artist as to when will the work be finished. Often, the painter may have several commissions going at once…or may be selling stock work to pay the bills – this doesn’t mean your project is being ignored…it means they have other things happening in their studio (and lives) – much of which is none of your damn business. So back off…or have your doll returned to you with a polite note stating how you should probably find another artist to take your request.
And Repainters, a note to you – grow a big pair and tuck them soundly away in your big girl panties – you’re gonna need it when accepting that next commission from batshit-crazy Gertrude and her desire for a doll to look just like her. Make sure you’ve taken a few Voodoo lessons if you accept such a project.
The reality of the issue is that face painting is admired by all…but only a precious few value its application to the doll in its own right, and are willing to place a fair price on it. Those face painters (face-uppers?) that have achieved success will largely tell you that it’s been a struggle over the course of many years – and you’ll also find these artists largely hold a mutual respect for each other, and the resources for which their work relies. They are always learning, quick to share techniques with others, humble to a fault…all in the name of artistic enlightenment. The more people understand the art of miniature painting, the more they are willing to pay for it – or to simply value it as fine art – whether it be on an original sculpt, a Sybarite, or a playline Barbie.
See…knowledge doesn’t hurt…much.