Paper Doll Principles: Artistic Quality

One of my early paper dolls with an elaborate background.

Today, I want to talk about Artistic Quality and my belief that paper dolls should be beautiful both before and after they are cut out.

Listen, let’s do something radical for a moment, let’s think about Art.

No, let me say right now that I do not think of myself as an Artist. I just don’t 99% of the time. I am an avid doodler, a lover of paper dolls and someone who likes to draw.

But in that 1% of the time I do slip into that Artistic Head-Space, I realize a few things.

The first is that paper dolls are not fine art. There, I said it.

Now before people get out their pitch forks, let me tell you why.

Art is useless. By definition, a piece of art has only a decorative function. And this is wonderful. Making art is part of what makes us human and we should darn well continue doing it, but paper dolls are toys.

One of my more recent paper dolls with her custom background and layout.

That means they have a function- to be a plaything. (Remember my first Principle about playability?)

So, I think of paper dolls not as an art form, but more as a craft like sewing or quilting or knitting.

(This is not the place or the time to get into a debate about craft vs art. I will NOT go there, today.)

However, in the 1% of the time when I enter Artist Mode, I do consider two things.

The first is that paper dolls actually exist in two states.

State One is as a flat print object of a doll figure and her clothes. Sometimes, as a booklet, but often just as a flat sheet.

State Two is when the pieces have been cut out and then the paper doll can be fully realized as a toy.

If a paper doll is art, it is when it is in State One- flat sheet mode, before it has been cut.

Sometimes I use the same backgrounds on all the paper dolls in a series for coherence.

So, when the paper doll is just a sheet it needs to be attractive, just as it needs to be attractive when it is cut out.

The point I am making here is this- Layout and Format Matter!

The backgrounds I put on my paper dolls are there, because I think it makes for a more attractive work before it is cut out.

Now none of this matters if you are just creating for you, but once you start putting your work into the world, you have to ask, “Does this look good before it is cut? Does it look good after it is cut?”

So, I charge anyone who is thinking about these issues to go look at their favorite paper dolls and notice the layout, notice the time spent thinking about spacing, about placement, about clarity. These things are all important.

It’s not just about the doll and her clothes, it is about the whole experience.

Thoughts? Comments? Let me know 🙂


  1. “It’s not just about the doll and her clothes, it is about the whole experience.” I think you just invalidated your own argument that your paper dolls aren’t art! With the amount of time, energy, thought, creativity and talent that you put into your “paper thin persons”, from one artist to another, I respectfully have to disagree with you: it’s art. Have a great weekend!

  2. I try to test my paper dolls to make sure they can be cut out, the clothes fit, and the tabs make sense. I’ve had a few beautiful paper doll sets that had fitting issues when cut out/

    1. Me too, doesn’t everyone?

      I think that’s the point I was trying to make above- that what makes paper dolls not fine art, is that their functionality is paramount. If you can’t actually USE the paper doll than it’s not really a paper doll, you know? It’s something else…

      I will openly confess that I do not playtest ALL my paper dolls, but I do erratically test them. I feel like if I started charging people, than I would playtest everything.

  3. I agree that form & function are very important with paper dolls. This doesn’t negate the artistic value of it as a medium any more than a building’s functionality negates its artistic merits. But I do agree with you that paper dolls are not really “capital A” Art. Then again, we live in a post-modern era where “art” is itself a tough thing to define.

    Before I started sending paper dolls to Paper Doll Studio Magazine, I thought very little about backgrounds. As someone who played with paper dolls as a kid, backgrounds were just wasted paper. Why have them at all? But now, I see the merits of backgrounds because it’s like you said, paper dolls ideally exist in two forms and both of those forms should be beautiful.

    Also, I love this paper doll principle series. Very thought provoking.

    1. And I think when I tell people paper dolls aren’t Art than they assume I am disparaging them in some horrible way and that is not my intention. I actually think function art, craft, is often more interesting and engaging to me than fine art.

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