If you associate fashion dolls with Barbies, Bratz, Monster Dolls, or any similarly commercial brand, you’ll be as delighted to discover the world of “art dolls”: real one-of-a-kind objets that sell for thousands of dollars, who have more than seven points of articulation, and whose garments reference either haute couture or the creator’s artistic sensibility. While the most energetic art-doll market can be found across Asia and Eastern Europe, in the United States, artist Joshua David McKenney and his “Pidgin Dolls” have largely popularized the medium beyond the usual audience of collectors.
In 2012, McKenney, a fashion illustrator, got into the art of doll-making. “I was interested in it as an art form,” he said, admitting that he knew very little of what the collectors’ communities were looking for. Mostly, he wanted to create something he would have loved to own himself. After a period of trial and error, a viral story of artistic appropriation, and a pandemic year that’s “been pretty big,” he created a series of dolls whose appeal extends beyond his large, pre-existing collector base (who can spend $650 just for a doll’s body).
On Instagram, where @pidgindoll has 175k followers, make-up artists and cosplayers recreate McKenney’s looks, and on Tiktok, McKenney reflects on dolls, masculinity, and doll history for an audience of 350k followers while also sharing plenty of work-in-progress videos where he might sculpt a doll’s face with drag-style and contouring techniques or dyes and styles a wig from scratch. He spoke to ARTnews about the creative process behind his 1:4 scale Pidgin Doll, his signature mold.
Resin for The Body
Pidgin Doll’s body is made out of resin, and exists in a range of skin tones including Milk White, Light Mocha, Cocoa, and Obsidian. The main sculpt, launched in 2017, is in a 1:4 scale. The first Pidgin Dolls were larger, in 1:3-scale. They were completely handmade from porcelain, and they had what McKenney defines as a “soft girlishness” about them. Then he scaled them to 1:6 digitally —1:6 is the size of a Barbie doll. This new version had a very “delicate’ beauty,” but presented another set of challenges. “As an artist, I was finding it very hard to paint the faces and have them look as expressive as when they were larger.”
Eventually, he settled for the 1:4 scale in resin. “Resin, I would say, is most similar to porcelain, but it’s not as brittle,” he said. “So when you hold it you can tell it’s a substantial art piece; it does not feel like a commercial, plastic doll.” The doll alone weighs three to four pounds. Building the body starts with a digital sculpt that is then 3D printed. Then, he makes molds from the prints, which are finally cast in resin. “They’re not 3D printed per se, but the master-sculpt to make the mold to make the doll is,” he said.
“Make-Up” to Sculpt a Face
The blank sculpt of the doll’s face is designed to be ethnically ambiguous. “The idea of Pidgin is that she’s a sculpt of a doll, and she is very fluid in how she looks: she is not racially specific,” McKenney said. In fact, her face sculpt fully morphs through make-up. “I’ve always loved make-up artists and I’ve always been interested in the way you can transform a face with make-up,” he said. “Make-up is all about styling features.” What differentiates one face from the others is mostly carried out by eye make up. “The most of the expressions is always in the eye,” he said. “So it’s just using color and shape to not really sculpt the eye, but just sort of give it a different mood: my doll’s eyes are made without a lot of detail in the sculpt. So when I paint on, there’s a lot of room for interpretation.”
Pidgin Dolls sport eye make-up such as full-on glam smokey eyes, a bold 1960s, Twiggy-like MOD look, and e-girl makeup. He credits drag culture as an inspiration. “I consider my dolls to be very much a drag-adjacent expression,” he said. “I am a masculine-presenting person, but I’ve always been interested in femininity and feminine makeup. I am not a performer, and I don’t really consider myself a drag queen. But I do have a lot, artistically, that I want to say about femininity and aesthetic, and to kind of do that through the dolls.” Make-up is done with standard art supplies. “I use powder pastel, which is the same consistency as eyeshadow, but eyeshadow has oils and things in it to help it stick to the skin, and you don’t want to put that on dolls, because it’s added chemistry that you don’t need, and it could hurt the resin,” he said.
Finding the Perfect Hair
Every Pidgin Doll has hair that makes Disney princesses and anime heroines look drab. Unlike the case of resin and powder pastel, there’s no one-size-fits-all process when it comes to making Pidgin Doll’s wigs, which, by their own design, are interchangeable: your doll won’t be stuck with a Farrah Fawcett cut if you want to switch it up to a Rita Hayworth mane or a mod bob.
The three main materials are acrylic yarn, alpaca, and wool. “If you’re doing a sort of set hairstyle that looks very contrived, you would use acrylic fiber,” McKenney said. “If you want to have a sort of flowing, natural, mermaid hair, you would use alpaca.” For curlier hair texture, wool is the best option. Materials also affect what dyes you can use: animal fibers can pull off human hair dye, while synthetic fibers need dyes suitable to their composition. Human hair does not work for dolls: it’s too thick for a 1:4 scale model, while alpaca and acrylic faithfully reproduce human hair and texture on a doll that size.
A Fashion-Conscious Wardrobe
As a former fashion illustrator, McKenney has, over the years, designed many series of doll garments that run the gamut from Rococo-inspired fashion to 1960s mod to ballerinas to video game aesthetics, with a particular eye for feel and material as it pertains to a 1:4 scale model. “A lot of times when you try to take a human-scale garment and scale it down, there’s not enough gravity to get the garments the way that it needs to look good,” he said. “So I tend to make things that are kind of either fitted or very voluminous because they look good on the doll.”
Recurring elements include holographic details, sparkle, and shimmer. “When there’s a little sparkle in there, it just makes her feel a little more special,” he said. “You don’t want to overdo it so it looks tacky, but I think just a little bit of sparkle — it makes a doll feel more special.”