Paper Doll Principles: Intro & Playability

Some of my favorite paper doll shoes! Stick with me, they’ll make more sense towards the end.

I don’t talk a lot about the “craft” of paper doll making. How to make paper dolls just isn’t something I tend to discuss. I don’t know why that is exactly, though I suspect there’s some deep seeded insecurity in play there.

Well, all that stops now!

This is the first of a series of paper doll posts I have planned on how to make paper dolls.

And I sincerely hope that some of my fellow paper doll artists will chime in with their thoughts in the comments.

The first thing I want to do is introduce the my paper doll principles. The things that I believe are important when I design paper dolls.

Paper Doll Principles:

  • Playability: Every paper doll must be a functional toy.
  • Artistic Quality: All paper dolls must be beautiful before and after they are cut out.
  • Diversity: Every person deserves a paper doll that affirms their existence.

Each of these qualities is important. However, were I am pick one to focus on the most, it would be Playability.

Playability is a term that evolved in the video gaming community. It refers to how well a video game can be played. For me, I think of it as a way of measuring how well a paper doll can be played with.


Because paper dolls are toys. (Sometimes, I think people forget this.)

Playabilty Factors

In this set the shoes are individual and wouldn't work well for an playable set. While pretty, this set really fails the "playabilty" standard I now hold.

In this set the shoes are individual and wouldn’t work well for an playable set. While pretty, this set really fails the “playabilty” standard I now hold.

  • Functionality
    • Does the clothing fit? Does the doll stand up? Do the tabs keep the clothing on?
  • Versatility
    • How many outfits does the paper doll have? How many mix and match pieces? If it’s a paper doll with  just one dress, that’ll get boring fast.
  • Theme 
    • What is the theme of the paper doll? How well does the paper doll reflect the theme the artist has chosen for her?

Now, if I told you I thought every paper doll set in Paper Thin Personas got a perfect score in all these categories, I would be lying through my teeth. You have to balance these things.

The best way to demonstrate how complex playability choices can be is through paper doll shoes. (Is anyone surprised that for me, it comes down to shoes?)

The Parable of Paper Doll Shoes


Shoes can be attached to the paper doll figure directly, if desired.

Paper dolls need shoes and shoes pose a unique challenge. There are three solutions for paper doll shoes.

  1. Attach them permanently to the doll.
  2. Attach them permanently to an outfit.
  3. Make them separate.

Option 1: Great for functionality, because you can not possibly loose the shoes. Unfortunately, it also means the shoes can’t be changed. (Functionality over Versatility) A few examples include Cora in Stripes and Her Ladyship.

Option 2: Keeps the shoes from getting lost, but also limits the mix and match options. (Functionality over Versatility) A few examples from my site include Ethan, Best Friends, Sci-Fi Girl and Bone Fairy.

Option 3: It is easy to lose the shoes in this option, but they can be changed which is fun. (Versatility Over Functionality). Individual shoes are both too easy to lose and tend to fall off. The best two ways to have interchangeable shoes are to attach them to a base or to attach them together.

Julie of Paper Doll School often used the attached shoes together option, as does my Madison paper doll. I tend towards the “shoes attached to the stand” option, as shown at the start of this post (and with nearly every other paper doll on this site.)

Deciding Which Option is Best for Your Paper Doll

Choosing the best option comes down to the third playability concept- Theme.


Most of my paper dolls have separate shoes attached to their stands, because they are intended to be a series where any paper doll could share with any other paper doll.

If your plan is to have the paper doll in some sort of underwear that is specific to her time (Victorian doll of 1886) or theme (fantasy lady like Her Ladyship) than the best option is to attach the shoes, I think. In this case, Theme over-rides the needs of Versatility.

If you plan on creating a single base doll and then having lots and lots of different themes around that doll (most of my paper doll series) than Versatility overrides the needs of Theme and simple undies, plus removable shoes are best.

If you plan on changing the dolls poses through their clothing OR making the clothing in a single piece (not mix and match), than I think the best option is to attach the shoes to the outfits as I do in Cybergirl or Spring. This is also the technique usually used by Boots of Pop Culture and Paper Dolls for her Star Wars paper doll series.

Also remember, you can do more than one at the same time!

Her Ladyship has shoes attached, but she also has ice skates. You can also put shoes on the base doll AND put shoes on the outfits. I couldn’t find an example of this in my archives (weird, but true), however, it can be done.

Moral of the Paper Doll Shoe Parable: How you balance the issues of playability is all about your intent as the artist. Never forget you are gaining and losing things each decision you make. And you are making decisions, even if at times you don’t notice.

Playability VS Artistic Quality

So, is playability the most important factor?

Well, only you can decide that about your own work. (I know, cop out answer right?)

Some collectors paper dolls are never intended to be cut out. These paper dolls value artistic quality OVER playability. That is okay. Some of my own work falls into that category. As I have gotten more experienced, however, I have come to view playability as one of the most critical factors in paper doll creation.

The paper doll has to work, even if you would never cut it out. The clothing needs to fit. The tabs need to work (if you draw tabs) and the thing needs to be functional EVEN if you don’t imagine anyone will want too actually play with it.

And that wraps up this first installment of Paper Doll Principles.

So, I have two questions for you today:

  1. What would you like me to talk about in this series? Any questions about paper doll creation?
  2. What do you think about these principles? Is there something I missed? What makes a “good” paper doll for you?

Rachel’s Five Rules of Scanning

scanning-rulesAfter I wrote my tutorial on how to clean up line-work, it occurred to me that I should talk a little about scanning. I didn’t have space to do it in the linework tutorial, but I do have a few thoughts on scanning. Here’s some advice from someone who scans a lot both for my hobbies and for my job where I usually am the one digitizing historical materials.

Scan in High Resolution.

When I was first learning how to cut wood, I was taught- You can make a piece of wood shorter, but you can’t make it longer. In other words, cut a little bigger if you have to choose. Since slicing off an inch is easier than realizing you’re short an inch.

You can always reduce the resolution of an image, but increasing it will result in loss of clarity.

Resolution is something people seem to get confused about, so let me try to explain. Resolution is always measured by the number of dots per one linear inch (in the US, other places use the centimeter). This is shortened to DPI (Dots Per Inch) for as most printers or Pixels Per Inch (PPI) for digital media.

No matter how high PPI (Pixels Per Inch) your image is, the internet has a resolution of 72 PPI. Meaning, if you create an image that is 200 PPI and measures two inches tall, when you post it on the internet it will appear to be 5.5 inches tall. ((22 PPI * 2)/72PPI = 5.5)

Some professionals work as high as 1200 DPI, but I think that’s a bit much. Bare in mind that professional publications are usually printed between 300 and 400 dpi.

Choose your File Format Carefully.

There are many digital file types. I’m going to talk about a few common ones here.

“JPEG” stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group- a fact mostly useful to show off your knowledge, but won’t really matter much. It is sometimes also called a .jpg or a jpeg. JPEGs are always compressed files. JPEG is designed for compressing either full-color (24 bit) or grey-scale digital images of complicated real world images (photographs). It is a great format when there is subtle color change in an image, but using a high compression rate can result in loss of quality.

“GIF” stands for Graphics Interface Format. It is an 8 bit format meaning that maximum number of colors supported is 256. GIFs are always compressed and rarely used these days.

“PNG” stands for Portable Network Graphics format. This was an updated version of the “GIF” format and literally supports millions of colors. It is the format I usually use for my web posts as it tends to compress to a small size without loss of detail and my paper dolls are full color without a lot of subtle shades. PNG has largely replaced GIF on the internet.

“TIFF” stands for Tagged Image File Format. TIFF was originally designed for scanners as a universally acceptable format in a time when scanning companies all had different formats they were using. TIFF images are not compressed as a default setting. This is the preferred format for archival scanning, because there is no compression. However, the lack of compression results in very large sized files. Therefore, TIFF files are rarely posted or shared on the internet or printed from. TIFF files can handle bi-level (black and white), grayscale, palette-color and RGB full-color images.

When I scan, I scan at 600 dpi as an uncompressed TIFF files in greyscale, since I work in black and white.

Save your raw files.

I call my rough scans “raw files”. Theses are my 600dpi uncompressed TIFF files, usually in greyscale. They are very large files.

I keep them in a folder called “Raw Files” it contains all the raw scans dating back a long long way. Sometimes, you have to go back to the very beginning, so keep a copy of the unaltered scan in case you need it.

Hopefully you won’t, but if you do than you’ve got it. I have only had to go back to these files once or twice over the years, but I have been grateful I had them if I needed them. (Usually, because I accidentally deleted something.)

Know you Scanner and Choose it Well.

I have used HP scanners, Epson scanners and Canon scanners. They are all a little different. Learn your scanner settings. Read the manual. Get comfortable using it.

If you are scanning full color art work, than carefully check how many colors the scanner can read. A colored pencil drawing, for example, can literally have millions of subtle shades. If your scans are coming out poorly, than is it your scanner? Your scan settings? Or can your scanner just not handle the color depth.

I don’t own an expensive scanner. I use an all in one printer with a cheap scanning bed. I work in black and white, so I don’t worry about color loss. If you do worry about color loss, invest in a good quality scanner. If you do invest in a good scanner, avoid letting it get bumped or knocked around.

Prep your Image.

Before I scan, I erase all my line-work carefully, than I correct any problems I see.

I stick a piece of white paper between my sketchbook page and the next page, so the image on the page behind won’t bleed through.

These things make sure my scan comes out pretty good the first time. Re-scanning at the high resolution I want in takes time and I don’t always have that time.

So, these are my rules of scanning. What are your rules? Anything important that I missed? Let me know in a comment.

How I Clean up Black and White Linework

Today, I am please to present a tutorial on how I prep my scanned line work for paper doll sets. I was asked some questions about this by Bethany, who shows off her paper dolls on her Pinterest board.

In this tutorial, I will show you how I clean up linework from a rough scan to an image with only black & white. I don’t know if this is a perfect set of instructions, but I have done my best to encapsulate the process I use.

Before you begin, you will need your scanned linework. I scan at 600 DPI, but other people scan at other things and that’s okay. Load your scan into your version of Photoshop. I use CS5 and CS3, because I am quirky.

Ready? Okay… let’s do this.

Step 1: This is Your Scan.

lwt1In the image above you can see my 600 DPI Tiff that I have opened in Photoshop. My scanning bed is just a little too small to fit my 9 by 12 sketchbooks, so normally I scan in two parts and then join those parts using Photoshop’s automated picture combine features. In the end, this is what the scan looks like right before I am ready to start cleaning it up. As you can see, this is for a majorette set for Marisole Monday & Friends.

Now… let’s get ready to mess with it.

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How I color my paper dolls…

The number one question I get is- How do you color your paper dolls?

And my usual answer is- Photoshop and the BPelt filter.

Still, I keep getting the question, so clearly that answer does not satisfy.

So, this post aims to illustrate the steps that go into the average paper dolls coloring and to answer questions I get about the process I use to make paper dolls. In other words, this is how I color paper dolls. Hopefully, you’ll find some of it interesting and useful, or at least fun to look at.

I’ve tried to include everything someone would need to copy the way I do things, but I’ve been doing this for a long time and I might forget to say something important. So, bear with me as I try to show how I do things with lots of screen captures and a sneak peek of Coastal Princess’s colors.


1. You already have Photoshop (I use CS3, but others will work) and you have installed the BPelt Flatting Plugin for Photoshop, available here for free.

2. You have an image you’ve scanned and cleaned up that you want to color. That image must contain only black and white. If there is ANY other color in the image, this process won’t work.

So, armed with an image saved in black and white, we begin the epic battle with the world of coloring paper dolls… Fortunately, short of paper cuts, we should be okay.

More Below!

How to Draw a Shirt for a Paper Doll

shirt-tutorialI think I’m grossly unqualified to be writing this post.

I don’t have any formal art training after high-school. In fact, I think of myself as an avid doodler more than I think of myself as an artist, but I’ve had a few requests for thoughts on drawing clothes for paper dolls, so I am going to try to offer a tiny tutorial on how I draw.

I encourage people to draw their own clothing for the paper dolls. That is how I learned to draw by drawing for my own paper dolls and those my mother drew for me. I think the best way to learn is to do it over and over again. I have some of my old paper dolls from high school… perhaps I shall post them for people to see my early works.

If you want to learn how I draw a t-shirt, the post continues below. I don’t normally do that, but this ended up LONG, mostly due to the photos. Speaking of the photos, I am really bad at them… so, please forgive the remarkably poor iPhone pics.

More Below!

How to Make a Stand for Any of the Paper Dolls

For this to work, the doll has to be printed on card-stock or been glued to some. It won’t work if the doll is just made of flimsy paper. I used Florence to demonstrate this method, but it will work with any of the paper dolls that have bases.

Sorry about the image quality. I only have an iphone for picture taking and I know it’s not ideal.


Cut out the paper doll and place her on top of a spare strip of card stock, at least three or five inches wide. Carefully draw a line in a curved line down from the doll to the bottom of the card stock. I recommend doing this in pencil. I did it in bright red pen so it was visible.


So, after you cut out the stand, it should look like this. Draw a line a quarter inch in to make the tab to glue to the back of the doll. I’ve drawn the red line where I would fold back this tab.


Fold back the tab and then glue it to the back of the doll. Double sided tape would also work fine, I think, but I always used glue.

And now the paper doll can stand on her own.

How to Make Magnetic Paper Dolls: Two Methods

How to make Magnetic paper dolls: Two Methods

I have become fairly addicted to the idea of magnetic paper dolls, so my first ever tutorial for the blog is about how to make magnetic paper dolls with a set of images I created for the purpose. I used to dismiss magnetic paper dolls as the misbegotten children of paper paper dolls, but I promised a friend I would make her some magnetic paper dolls.

Magnetic Paper Dolls Using Adhesive Magnets
Magnetic Paper Dolls Using Printable Magnetic Sheets

After a fair bit of experimentation, I found there are two ways to make magnetic paper dolls. One uses adhesive backed magnetic sheets available from craft stores (I got mine from Micheals), the other uses printable magnetic sheets (I got mine from Staples).

Personally, I liked the printable magnetic sheets better, but only when I could get my printer to feed them. It was not cooperative during a lot of this process which left me with wasted sheets.

So, if you’re being money conscious (and who isn’t these days?) go with the adhesive magnets; however, I found the adhesive magnets were weaker when layering many pieces of clothing. I guess, in the end, it’s a personal choice.

Magnetic Paper Dolls Using Printable Magnetic Sheets


    Printable Magnetic Sheets

PDF’s of the Paper dolls can be found here

    Metal Tin (to hold the paper dolls)


Put the magnetic sheets, one at a time, in your printer. I found it worked better if I put a stack of paper underneath each magnetic sheet to convince my printer it didn’t need more paper. If you have a bypass feeder, use that.

Print the paper dolls onto the magnetic sheets using the “fit” setting in Adobe viewer. The ink might take a few minutes to dry completely, so handle the sheets with care.

Carefully cut the excess from around the paper doll piece. I like to leave slight border of black, except around the tops of shoes where skin is visible, there I cut down so the skin of the foot would meet the skin of the paper doll without there being a line.

Repeat for each piece. I tossed mine in a metal tin as I finished cutting them out so that they wouldn’t get lost in the couch cushions, but a cookie sheet also works well or a ziplock baggie

To play with them, find a magnetic surface. I like magnetic white boards, but filing cabinets and refrigerators both work well.

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Magnetic Paper Dolls Using Adhesive Magnets


    Good Quality Paper for Printer

PDF’s of the Paper dolls can be found here

    Adhesive Backed Magnetic Sheets
    Metal Tin (to hold the paper dolls)


Print out the paper doll on heavy weight paper (I used non-gloss photo-paper), using whatever settings your printer recommends. In order to match skin tones, it’s best to use the same settings on all the sheets of paper dolls and their clothing.

Begin by rough cutting around the paper doll (or dress, or accessory or whatever), cut close to the piece but not actually as precise as you plan on cutting it.

Cut a piece of magnet the same size as the rough cut paper doll piece leaving the backing in place.

Remove the backing and stick the paper doll piece to the magnet. Work from edge to edge to avoid wrinkles. I also found smoothing with the back of a spoon was helpful.

Carefully cut the excess from around the paper doll piece. I like to leave slight border of black, except around the tops of shoes where skin is visible, there I cut down so the skin of the foot would meet the skin of the paper doll without there being a line.

Repeat for each piece. I tossed mine in a metal tin as I finished cutting them out so that they wouldn’t get lost in the couch cushions, but a cookie sheet also works well or a ziplock baggie

To play with them, find a magnetic surface. I like magnetic white boards, but filing cabinets and refrigerators both work well.

Hint: You might want to unroll your magnetic sheet the night before and lay it flat on a cookie sheet or your refrigerator so it can flatten out. I found this made cutting the pieces a lot simpler.

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