Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tutorial: Day of the Dead Art Dolls

Since it's that time of year, I thought I'd pull out a tutorial I wrote for ArtTrader Mag a couple of years ago on Art Dolls for Day of the Dead.

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a holiday that focuses on remembering family and friends who have died. Altars are set up in remembrance and people gather at the graves of family members with gifts of their loved ones’ favorite foods and drinks. Sugar skulls and skeletons are popular symbols of the holiday and are usually depicted as colorful and smiling.

Before we get started, there’s one thing to know about Polymer Clay—it can feel slightly hard and tough when it comes out of the package. But don’t worry. It just takes a few minutes of warm kneading in your hands and it will start to feel like putty or Playdoh. 

Materials & Tools List
  • Polymer clay, white and other colors
  • Small pliers
  • Eye pins
  • Jump rings
  • Charms
  • Dried flower(s)
  • Inking pens
  • Gel pens
  • Oven for cooking the clay (a kitchen oven is fine)

Step 1: The first thing you need to do is to gather your materials together and make sure you have the right size eye pins. I have a few different sizes in the picture above but I used the 1” silver versions for this project. If you only have larger eye pins, don’t worry about it, simply make a bit larger art doll or cut off some of the eye pin with wire cutters. There is no size requirement on these art dolls. See photo above.

Step 2: Knead your Polymer Clay to make it soft and flexible. This takes a couple of minutes usually. Using your hands, make your clay into a flat skull shape like the one pictured above. Mine is about 1/2” thick. Once you have a shape you’re happy with, you will need to insert an eye pin into each end of the skull, one in the top and one in the bottom. Make sure your pin stays within the clay. Don’t let it poke through. You will need to insert your eye pin slowly and carefully so you don’t distort the shape of your (still very bendable) molded clay.

Step 3: For making the bones, I simply rolled small, even pieces of clay and left a larger bit at either end to form the bone ends. I made my leg bones slightly larger than my arm bones. Please note that it’s not necessary to make perfect bones. Mine have fingernail scratches and are slightly different from each other. As long as they sort of look like bones, it’s all good.

Step 4a: The Body Flower Version 1 For the body of my Day of the Dead (DOTD) art doll, I made a big flower since flowers appear often in DOTD art. I used pink clay and rolled out one long snake and then cut it into fairly even 1 1/2” pieces to be used as the flower petals. For the next step, simply pinch each end of the mini snake together to form a petal shape.  You only need 5 petals by the way--one for the head and one for each of the limbs. Place the petals into a flower shape.  Create 5 new petal shapes in another color. I made mine in orange. Use another color clay to add a centerpiece on your flower. You can squish a circle and make it flat or wind some clay to give it a little texture. You might want to do the same on the other side of the flower. It’s not necessary but it looks neater.  Carefully insert your eye pins into the top center of each petal and push them in towards the center. Each petal will be attached to a limb or the head. Be careful not to allow the end of the pin to poke through the sides. It must go direct through to the flower center so it’s strong and sturdy to hold the limbs.

Step 4b: The Body Flower Version 2 If you find making petals too tedious, you could try a small cookie cutter for making your body flowers.  These can be decorated nicely with gel pens and paint so the plain, single color look is fine for now. My flowers are approximately 1/4” to 1/2” thick. My cookie cutter had 6 petals so I left one petal without an eye ring.

Step 5: Baking! Once you have all of your polymer clay parts made and the eye pins inserted, bake the doll in the oven on a baking sheet at 275 degrees for about 15 or 20 minutes. You will need to let them cool for a couple of hours or overnight before attaching them together.

Step 6: Lay out your skeleton and decide which charms you want to use for the hands and feet. In my photo above, I have some polymer clay feet I made as well as some shoe charms and other bits. I didn’t have two hand charms to use so I just used one hand and some playing cards for the second hand. The little black item in the top left of the photo is a plastic hat (from doll supplies) that I’ll be using to glue onto his head after decorating him. Using pliers to open the jump rings, attach limbs together through the eye pins. I use two pliers to open and close the jumper rings. You might have your own specialized tools for jumper rings, but I find the pliers work just as well.

Step 7: Decorate! Using your inking pen (I used Microns), draw on the eye and  nose areas along with the teeth. Give your skeleton a nice big smile. Decorate your flower with your gel pens and let dry.  Lots of flowers, swirls and dots can really dress him up quickly.  Have a look online for images of sugar skulls and Dia de los Muertos type art to give you decorating ideas and inspiration.  I used some embroidery yarn to create a hanger so my DOTD art doll could hang from a rear view mirror or on my wall.

Here are a batch of Day of the Dead art dolls I've made using the above technique!


  1. These are so cool! It's too early to make these with my daughter, but most certainly, I'll try out your suggestions in the future. I've never used polymer clay, but I've always wanted to make something with it. This seems a good project to start from. :)
    Happy Halloween!

  2. these are the cutest skeletons that i have ever seen!
    you are so generous to share your article with us. How wonderful that you had this published.
    Indeed, Happy Halloween

  3. wow they are fabulous..well done

  4. supercute skeletons!! Looks really doable and fun too!

  5. Wow, such a cool little project! Oh my gosh, I don't need more projects! But it's such a great one lol. :D

  6. they are really BEAUTIFUL.. o.k. it sounds crazy to call skeletons beautiful..but they are!

  7. Fantastic! Love them. Thanks for sharing!