There are a lot of well known Fashion Doll repainters, like Noel Cruz who is famous for recreating celebrities as dolls.
Valkyrie of Dolls and Daggers’ fame also had her start in portraiture and applied the same techniques, materials and discipline when she transitioned into customizing dolls.
Plastic is a relatively recent invention, so a lot of its properties as an art canvas are yet to be fully understood. A lot of artists and hobbyists learn through experimentation; there isn’t one definitive process of how to use it. Some methods seem to stand the test of time, but there’s still a lot to learn.
The process I currently use is something I like to call the “layer principle.” It’s a concept similar to oil painting, where the canvas is primed, you do your painting, and you finish it off with a protective layer.
Who says you have to use a sealant or fixative? When it comes to fashion doll painting, it isn’t necessary to use a fixative or a sealant if you don’t want to. High quality doll manufacturers even state that it isn’t “mandatory” to seal your work. However, it is recommended that you do.
For a lot of Play line dolls like Barbie, Bratz or Licca it’s almost necessary due to the porous nature of the plastic used. What we do know about a lot of plastic fashion dolls is that the squishy parts are porous, rubbery and don’t react well to most commercially available fixatives and sealants. Why use fixatives and sealants in the first place?
- Create a smooth and consistent finish (no globs, you have the choice of giving it a matte or shiny look)
- Create a layer that prevents your paint or materials from bleeding into the plastic over time.
- Create a layer that allows your paint or materials to adhere to the plastic.
- Create a protective finish for your work, letting it last longer and protect it from damage.
- Create various effects and/or textures in a controlled way. Some of us don’t like to see our fingerprints all over the place.
Reality vs Expectation
It’s natural to want to get affordable materials and supplies, but if you want to get specific results, you shouldn’t skimp. It’s critical to get the right materials. The quality of the paint, pastels or watercolors you use is especially important. What you want to use for painting miniatures are artist grade materials. This is extremely important since you want the “pigment.” Ordinary materials contain a lot of filler (and sometimes no pigment at all) which might actually be harmful to plastics. Low quality materials also suffer from fading, deterioration, uneven consistency—just not a good idea at all.
That said, there are small trace amounts of metal or materials used as pigment that could be an allergen concern for some people. If you’re an especially sensitive person health-wise, consult a medical professional.
How do you know what the difference is between low grade and artist grade materials? The short answer is to visit Blick’s website. They do a really good job with their product listing. You can also consult any art teacher for something more specific!
I’m assuming that most people who ended up looking at this article are absolute beginners and want to explore doll repainting. If there was a recommended fixative or sealant to use, Mr. Super Clear is a popular choice. Check out my article on Mr. Super Clear, here!
A lot of artists and hobbyists like to use fixatives or sealants that come as an aerosol due to ease of use, consistent application and the variety of finish (matte, semi-gloss, glossy!). An obvious concern is that sealants can be harmful for the following reasons:
- Strong smelling fumes that can linger.
- Atomized particulates that can be harmful when inhaled. These are the tiny little dust-like result of the fixative or sealant drying in mid air.
- Chemical additives included like acetone which are used as vehicles or necessary for the aerosol to perform or function a certain way.
That said, be sure to practice the following when using an aerosol type sealant:
- Ensure proper ventilation. Make sure you have access to fresh air.
- Ensure that you do not inhale the particulates. You can do this by wearing a mask or a gas mask.
- Wear gloves or clothing that cover up exposed skin.
- Create ideal conditions in which the aerosol can be used as stated by the manufacturer. Most aerosols will not work as intended due to high humidity, bad weather. Read the label. Follow those instructions.
- Read the ingredients if available. Some folks are sensitive to certain types of chemicals so be sure to check for anything that doesn’t agree with you. Talk to a medical professional.
These are all just general knowledge so if you have more questions or concerns about aerosols in particular, talk to a medical professional. Some people may require more safety precautions than others especially those who have pets and children in the household. If you have a specific question about a particular aerosol product, contact the manufacturer.
The following are aerosol sealants recommended as an alternative to Mr. Super Clear. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a “non-toxic” alternative. All sealants are toxic. Practice all safety precautions and protection when using sealants:
- Testor’s Dullcote
- ZM Finishing Powder Spray
- Games Workshop Spray Varnish Matte
- Mr. Hobby Top Coat Flat/Matte
The most important safety consideration is proper ventilation. Folks who don’t have the option of going outside can use a spray booth. A spray booth is essentially a little box that has a fan in the back that acts like a vacuum that keeps aerosol or anything that requires spraying from spreading. A spray booth functions just like the fan/hood above your stove.
These things vary a lot and it’ll take a lot of research to see which make or design will work best for you. There’s a lot of tutorials available at YouTube to create your own Spray Booth. Blick has some for sale!
The Airbrush Alternative
Popular BJD Faceup artist Andreja has demonstrated that you can use a brush-on alternative using Liquitex Matte Medium or Liquitex Matte Varnish as an alternative to Aerosol. The benefit of using an airbrush is that it requires no added chemical propellant, so the only substance sprayed on your doll is the paint itself. Like aerosol fixatives or sealants though, you are still subject to atomized particulate exposure so you still need to wear a mask or a gas mask when working.
Brush on Sealant
The least “toxic” approach is simply to use a brush. I wrote about an experiment in a previous article. I would do this more often but it tries my patience and doesn’t achieve the kind of results I’m looking for. I’m sure that with more practice, experimentation and exploration that Brush on Sealants will work just as well.
Taking the brush-on route simply means looking for a reliable paint medium like Liquitex Matte Medium or Liquitex Matte Varnish which are compatible with plastic. Keep in mind that this isn’t the most well-established method; the long term results when it comes to Fashion Dolls are not fully known. It seems to work just fine for plastics used for BJD (Ball Jointed dolls) which are superior in quality to play line dolls but it’s worth a try.
A lot of artists or hobbyists don’t like to share their methods because they feel protective about the knowledge they discover (It takes YEARS to observe and realize what long term results might be), or because they really don’t know and are still in the process of perfecting a method they are comfortable with. A lot of beginners tend to follow a tutorial/process and not understand why the methods are the way they are which sometimes lead to unintended results.
I like to document my findings because, after all, a lot of what I know now I learned from other artists. It also helps to get feedback and confirmation that certain methods or materials work and that can only be known if there’s some kind of documentation about it. The key is to understand the materials, how they work, how to use them and if you don’t mind at all, share your findings with others!
- Parabox Repaint Tutorial with a rooted male head.
- Parabox Repaint Tutorial using weak thinner as primer.
- Brush On Sealant experiment
- Repaint FAQ: Using Watercolor Pencils
- Mr. Super Clear
- Review: Krylon UV-Resistant Clear Acrylic Coating
- Den of Angels – What you Need to Know About Respiratory Protection!
- Respiratory Protection Guide
What’s your preferred fixative or sealant to use for fashion dolls? Please share your thoughts, concerns and findings in the comments!