Over the years, I have painted and drawn a pretty good amount of images of doll heads. I enjoy using them as still life objects – usually just the head of the doll on its own. I’ve found some interesting ones at antique stores and thrift stores, and some have been given to me from friends who are aware of my affinity for them.
On left: painting study of doll head (oil on board) / painting tool caddy with misc still life objects
Why do I like to paint doll heads? It’s not necessarily because they’re odd or scary (I actually don’t think they are, really, but I know that many people do). It’s mainly because they’re relatively simple objects that have character and that I find interesting. They’re basically a synthetic cross between a potato, a basic sphere, and a human head.
On left: Drawing from life in graphite / On right: Drawing from life in Colored Pencil
Simple Forms and Lighting
I can use them to demonstrate simple forms for drawing and painting, and that information can be used to relate to drawing the human head and other objects especially in terms of light and shadow, and simple comparative measuring. I can light them from different angles, turn them in different directions to show how light affects the undulations on the form, and can even remove them from their bodies to do so!
On left: Doll Head Painting study (oil on canvas) / On right: a corner of my home studio
I have also painted directly onto the surface of the doll head itself to create interesting color choices in my paintings of them that otherwise might not be utilized aside from using colored gels when lighting them. Painting directly on them not only provides for various color choices, but adds varying textures and unique problems to solve because of this as well.
Small study of Doll Heads from life – oil on canvas board
Just like any other still life object, and unlike a living breathing human, doll heads can stay in one place for hours, days, even weeks, and I can return to paint them from life whenever I choose as long as the lighting and setup remain relatively constant. Because I can return to paint a doll head over the course of several hours or days, I’m able to take the time to study and observe as long as I want – and time and careful observation are key components to gaining a better understanding of something as well as leveling up on skill in representational drawing and painting.
Home studio window sill with studio buddies, Rey and Maz
Doll heads also take up very little space, and add personality to an otherwise straightforward shelf or window sill. I have a couple mannequin heads too, and those also make for interesting still life objects that are very similar to dolls and doll heads. I’ve used mannequins to drape clothing over for the study of folds, and sometimes have re-created setups using them to finish a composition that initially began with painting from a model.
On left: Doll Head in Wooden Box (oil on wood) / On right: Doll Head on Carburetor wearing Strainer (oil on canvas)
The doll head is basically a small and caricatured version of a human (usually baby) head. I enjoy painting portraits as well as still life, and this somewhat allows for a combination of both. As with any simple still life object, a doll head can be used when drawing or painting an image and needing a refresher with the subject of how light and shadow define the form simply by placing it under a light and turning it in space. I believe that still life painting in general is a great way to practice such aspects as brushwork, varying techniques, dexterity, and observation.
On left: Doll Head on Studio Lamp (oil on board) / On right: Skull on Doll Body (oil on board)
I like to use doll heads quite a bit when painting still life and a lot of times I also combine them with other objects to create different ways of thinking of a still life setup, and to give myself a challenge. Really, overall, I would suggest finding something you really enjoy looking at and that you think might be fun – or a great challenge – to paint. Look around – what do you see in your surroundings that you think would be an interesting object to paint or draw? Go set it up and start today – have fun!
Vanessa Lemen is a painter and educator based in Carlsbad, CA, and her work has shown in galleries and exhibitions nationwide. She has an extensive background in both online and in-studio instruction teaching drawing, painting, illustration and design in traditional and digital media. She and her husband, Ron, together run an online program instructing art and mentoring artists, as well as instructing at workshops in various locations in Southern CA and across the country, including The Fantastic Workshop with 1FW, and yearly week-long intensive creative excursions with Legendeer.Vanessa's work is in private collections internationally, has exhibited in the Main Show at IX Arts for the past several years, and can also be found at the online gallery EveryDayOriginal.com and IXgallery.com. Published in such art books as Spectrum, Women of Wonder, and Infected By Art, she has also been featured in articles in magazines such as Painter and ImagineFX, writes monthly columns for the Muddy Colors blog, and has been interviewed by the One Fantastic Week webcast. Her recent work has earned her the Grand Prize Award in the IBA Annual, a 6-person show at Rehs Contemporary Galleries, an Honorable Mention and Gallery Award with the ARC Salon, and participation in the International ARC Salon Exhibition.Described through metaphorical imagery, it's excerpts from her personal journey and reflection that she credits most as the inspiration for her work, and rolling with the unexpected as the very nature of her process. Each piece she creates seems to come from a chaos, and in it, she is able to create a place of reflection and curiosity, a balance of the deep-seated and the unknown, with areas of rest and of movement that intertwine to form a calm amid the chaos.