Art Dolls Only Member Spotlight: Debbie Court of Llunio: papier mâché creations

I studied music at university and have spent my working life in the Arts – first as a music teacher, then in arts marketing and education with the internationally renowned Welsh National Opera and more recently in arts administration within various disability charities. In my spare time, but always running parallel to my professional musical activities, was a profound need to make art – to draw, paint and to craft jewellery.  I always enjoyed these activities but it wasn’t until I discovered papier mache that I experienced the intense pleasure I get when sculpting! I wake every morning to a desire to create something beautiful. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fall short, but I never tire of striving to perfect my technique and to getting closer to mastering the medium. It has become my full time occupation, my passion and my obsession.

What kind of Art Dolls do you create?

I am a sculptor of one-of-a-kind figures. I have never actually considered them to be dolls, but as they are almost exclusively human figures, I guess they are doll-like! They are definitely not dolls to be played with though as they are made of paper and are quite delicate.

I like my ‘dolls’ to be realistic figures of people doing real things. Many of my pieces are commissioned portraits of real people and so they tend to depict the subject’s particular interests or profession. When I take on a commission, I really love the challenge of capturing the little details that make the person who they are. I like to capture a snap-shot of the person in the middle of whatever they are doing and showing movement is key to achieving this. So the swish of a skirt, a particular stance or the way their hair blows in a breeze are all important details to attempt.

What is your primary medium or favorite supply to work with?

I work exclusively in papier mache clay and paper.  I make the ‘clay’ myself using just a few simple household ingredients and it’s a wonderful material which sculpts beautifully and requires no firing or baking or any other fussing about! I can sculpt the finest details and suggest muscles, bones, hair, features, clothing….anything! Any colour I use in my work is achieved using paper rather than paint, so I’m always on the look-out for interesting paper with different colours, textures and patterns.

How long have you been a doll maker?

I’ve been sculpting figures for just under 5 years. Art has always been an important part of my life – I’ve always drawn in pen and ink and made silver jewellery – but it wasn’t until I discovered papier mache that I felt I had found ‘my thing’.

How did you get your start in doll making?

It came about quite by chance while I was surfing around on YouTube looking at art-based things. I saw a clip by an American woman called Jonni Good who was making papier mache animals. It looked fun so I made a batch of her paper ‘clay’ (I still use her recipe today) and had a go. The rest is history! I became completely obsessed with the medium – although humans rather than animals – and I’ve been sculpting figures with papier mache and paper ever since.

How has your practice changed over time?

I learned a huge amount from Jonni Good’s online tutorials and her books, but over time, I have developed my own techniques and moved very definitely towards sculpting the human body rather than animals. I’m always striving to improve. I think my figures were a little primitive in the beginning and I always felt that the final painted finish looked clumsy and puppet-like which always disappointed me. I’ve now developed my own techniques for achieving the look I want for skin tones and clothing without resorting to using paint and I feel I have a better understanding of the anatomy of a figure and how muscles and bones work together. Although I still haven’t achieved the standard I’d like for my figures and I’m still trying to capture the style I can see in my mind’s eye, I think I’m gradually getting closer.

Where does your inspiration come from?

After nearly five years of sculpting every single day, I still feel inspired with every new piece I start. I’m inspired by the excitement I always feel about the challenge ahead and the urge to do the very best work I can do. I want each piece to be better than the one before it and I hope that I never lose that feeling because without it, I wouldn’t have the intense drive I feel to improve and grow.

So my inspiration is to create something of beauty and something which is challenging and stretches my knowledge and skill within the medium. I think that’s why I enjoy commissions so much because you have to work out ways of accomplishing the goal your client has set you to the best of your ability and in doing so, you are inspired to try new techniques and think outside the box. A commission gives you your basic subject matter, but then you get to put your own spin on it which I find very stimulating and inspiring.

What is your favourite technique?

I really enjoy sculpting folds and drapery into sculpted clothing. It adds a wonderful level of realism to the figure as well as creating movement and a feeling of depth and dimension which is very gratifying. Another technique I enjoy – but which takes a huge amount of patience – is making paper hair. It involves cutting lots and lots of tiny strips of coloured tissue paper to represent strands of hair and then applying them one by one! It’s extremely fiddly but well worth the result!

What is the most difficult aspect in your process, and how you manage it?

Without doubt, the most difficult process is making fingers. I work on a fairly small scale (most of my figures are between 15 and 20 cm tall) and their fingers are very small. I like their hands to be in expressive poses which means that the fingers are in very precise positions. I usually make the basic hand/palm first and then add each finger individually – waiting for each one to dry before moving on to the next. Even then, fingers are often accidentally knocked off during the process and have to be done again. I have been known to design a figure with its hands concealed in a pocket to avoid having to do them, but most of the time I face up to it and just get on with it!

What research do you do before you create?

If I’m working on a commission, I spend time with my client asking lots of questions about the subject: their interests, mannerisms, characteristics, style of dress, body shape, height, hair and eye colour. I really like to get something personal into a commissioned piece so I try to find out little details about the subject – maybe if there’s a particular piece of jewellery they always wear or if they have a favourite book – and then I try to incorporate that into the design. Then I ask for good photographs – especially head shots from all angles – so that I can try to get a good likeness, and we discuss the sort of setting they would like. By now, I’m forming an idea in my head of how the finished piece could look and I make some rough sketches to get a feel for where the difficult areas will be. Similarly, when I’m working on a project which isn’t a commission, I have a clear picture in my head and sketch my ideas first.

I make full use of the internet when researching things like poses or how the fabric of a jacket drapes or how a dress would swirl if the person was dancing or how a particular hairstyle looks from behind and I use a variety of anatomy books to help me sculpt various parts of the body accurately. Armed with all this, I start making the armature!

What memorable responses have you had to your work?

The most memorable response to my work was from the mother of a young man with severe disabilities. This lady is an acquaintance of mine and she frequently posts photos of her son on her Facebook page. These photos always capture my attention because he has such a beautiful face. I asked her if she’d mind me sculpting him – just as an exercise for myself. She gave me permission and I gave her the finished sculpture. She was moved to tears when she saw it because she was so amazed that someone else besides her had seen beauty in her son. I know that she treasures my sculpture and her response to it was very special and memorable for me.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on something a bit different for me – two dogs playing! I very rarely sculpt animals, but I was asked to sculpt some rather exotic dogs and their owner made me an offer I couldn’t refuse! I was a bit reluctant to begin with, but I’m quite enjoying the challenge! It remains to be seen how they turn out! After that, I’ll be back on more familiar ground with a portrait commission of a man playing the violin!

Click the images below to find Debbie Court Online.