Painting Nesting Dolls—as demonstrated by Vera Masyagina
1) Inspect the blank doll carefully. Any rough patches must be sanded smooth before the painting begins. Dolls from master carvers, like Misha, need not be sanded at all.
2) Apply a priming layer of starch (optional). The starch soaks into the wood, plugging pores, to provide a smooth base for the paint and to prevent the paint from being absorbed by the wood. This step is particularly helpful when using thinner paints, such as water colors or analine dyes as used in Semenov and Polkhovksi Maidan, but is often skipped otherwise. To prepare this priming layer, mix a starch powder with water until a loose gel is obtained which will slowly pour from a spoon, like honey. Take this starch gel in the hand and smear it all over the blank doll, rubbing it in and wiping away the excess. Set the doll in a warm place, such as near a wood stove, to let it dry . When “starching” a large party of dolls, the first ones are usually dry by the time the last ones are getting “starched.”
3) Using a pencil, sketch the outline of the design you intend to paint on the blank doll. Start with the face, the most important feature. Many artists use a compass to draw a circle for the face of their doll. (Perhaps you’ve noticed a little dimple in the forehead of a doll in your collection and wondered why it had such a mark. Now you know—from the foot of the compass!) After painting several hundred dolls, you may find you can skip this step and go straight to the next.
4) A heavy black outline is achieved by tracing over your penciled in design with a thick felt-tip marker. Concentrate first on the major lines: after the face, draw the shawl, arms and hands of each doll in the set. Then go back and fill in the finer details with a fine-tip marker: hair streaks, eye lashes, lips (red marker). Finally, such details as the flowers on her apron can be drawn to fill in the open spaces.
5) Paint first with the lightest color paint you plan to use. If your Matryoshka will be blonde, then paint her hair first, along with any garment or flower that will also be yellow. Progress to darker and darker paints: pink, orange, green and blue, etc. The darkest paints can cover up mistakes you might have made with the lighter colors.
6) For the finishing touch, Vera likes to apply real blush to her matryoshka’s cheeks —straight out of her daughter’s make up kit!
7) The last step is to fix the dried paint with a high gloss varnish or lacquer, not unlike the polyurethane varnish used to coat hardwood floors. While the lady artists of Polkhovski Maidan and Zagorsk find it easiest to apply the lacquer with their hands, just as they applied the starch, other artists choose to apply the lacquer with a paint brush. Still others have developed dipping methods. Any way you tackle it, this job is messy and unpleasant, due to the strong fumes and the unforgiving nature of the lacquer, which is certain to retain fingerprints, dust, hair, or other undesired debrie. Many a beautiful doll gets marred by poor lacquering.
For your nesting doll project, consider purchasing a spray finish from a local craft supplies store. Unless you need a really thick coat, you can’t beat a spray varnish for ease of application and convenience.
Quality of blank nesting dolls
Golden Cockerel offers top quality linden wood unpainted blanks hand carved in Polkhovski Maidan, the biggest center of nesting doll production in Russia. This is provided by an extra step in production: only selected top quality blanks get shipped to Golden Cockerel’s warehouse after extra sanding and final quality control. Satisfaction guaranteed!
The quality of blank nesting dolls found on the market today varies widely, so the artist must be careful to choose a blank worthy of her time. Some obvious problems:
1) the bottom of the doll is not flat but slightly rounded, so the doll wobbles when it should stand still. It must be trimmed with a knife or sanded flat before painting.
2) While a typical knot in the wood cannot be avoided and can easily be painted over, or even used by a clever artist to enhance the artwork on the doll, a severe knot in the wood may pose a problem, causing either an unacceptably rough spot on the doll, or even a larger problem if the knot breaks out opening a hole in the blank.
3) By far the most common problem encountered involves ill-mated tops and bottoms. While the wood, and therefore the fit, does flex a bit with changing humidity, a reasonably snug fit should be expected under most normal conditions. If the linden was not properly cured, the problem may not become evident until after the doll has been painted, exported, purchased, and set out on display. If the doll was not properly carved, the top may be too loose and fail to hold onto the bottom. That’s a pesky problem! My estimation of “too loose” is measured thus: if the inner dolls have been removed, and you pick up the doll in question by the top and the bottom falls off, it’s too loose! If you happen to have a doll that’s become loose, consider this fix: smear a bit of clear-drying glue (not too much!) along the edge of the inside rim of the top; let it dry hard, then test the fit again. If it’s still too loose, repeat the glue job and test again when dry.
4) If your doll’s too tight to open easily (see my tip on opening dolls above), the fit can be loosened a bit by sanding the inside rim of the top (not too much!). As you sand, test the fit often, until the optimum fit is attained. I prefer to have a doll a little too tight than too loose.
Opening Your Doll
Always open a doll by "breaking" it open sideways as if you were breaking a stick. Try holding the doll horizontally instead of vertically as you open it. Do not twist the doll open as this can cause the paint to chip around the edges.
Occasionally, fluctuations in humidity and temperature can affect your doll's fit. Heat can cause the lacquer to seal, making the doll seem impossible to open. Don’t try to pry it open with a sharp object—that will surely injure the doll. The best way to open such a “frozen” doll is to squeeze it until the lacquer seal breaks. First, squeeze it between the butt of your hands, pressing hard right on the doll’s joint. Often you'll even hear a small "pop" as the lacquer seal releases. More extreme cases require greater pressure on the doll: place it horizontally on a soft carpet and press upon the seam with all your weight until you hear the lacquer seal “pop.” Don’t worry, it’s nearly impossible to crack the wood if there are more dolls inside. In the most extreme cases, subject the doll to extreme temperatures. I’ve had success opening even the toughest cases after leaving them in the freezer several hours, or heating them in the microwave for 20-30 seconds. I don’t remember ever encountering a doll I didn’t succeed in opening.
Excessive humidity can loosen your doll's fit. Time and a warm, dry location usually correct this problem.
We suggest that you display your dolls out of direct sunlight since excessive heat can affect appearance over time. Periodically wipe the doll with a soft, clean cloth to keep dust from marring its surface. Polishes and cleaners may dull your doll's finish. With just a bit of care, your doll will last for years, allowing you to enjoy being part of the Russian Nesting Doll tradition.