Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Guest Post: Tiffany Gholar's A Bitter Pill to Swallow Doll Characters

First, I'd like to thank Debbie for her hospitality in allowing me to share this guest post. I've been a fan of Black Doll Collecting for a few years and really enjoy reading her posts.

I found a way to combine my interests in doll collecting, art, and creative writing: creating dolls of my characters and photographing them. My story is told primarily through the perspectives of 3 different characters: Janina, who is 14 and being treated for depression, Devante, who is 15 and is being treated for acute stress disorder, and Gail, a medical resident in psychiatry who is in her early 30s.

The three doll characters and book cover

I was drawn to creating a visual representation of my characters and their surroundings because I am a visual person, and also because I hope to have the film version of my book produced someday. After beginning to put together 1:12 scale model sets, I wanted to populate them with dolls. Later I decided to make 1:6 scale counterparts to my smaller dolls.

Big and little Janina
I created this doll photography series because I thought it would be a great way to help promote my book on sites like Tumblr and Instagram. I wanted to supplement my hand drawn illustrations with photography. I started on this project around the same time I was in the final stages of taking pictures for The Doll Project, in which I also used fashion dolls. What sets this series apart from The Doll Project is both the photography style and the types of dolls I used. For The Doll Project, I wanted to use only factory made dolls. I wanted the pictures to feel familiar in some ways. For this series, I learned to do repaints. I wanted the dolls to look the way I imagined my characters.

Gail's cover illustration

The biggest challenge I faced was finding dolls that fit my particular requirements. I wanted to use Black dolls, but I wanted them to have facial expressions that were neutral. I painted all of them with a Micro Mini Brush Set from Jerry's Artarama.

Devante in blue African shirt

For Devante, I decided to use a Menelik the African American Prince doll from Olmec. I needed a teenage boy with a high top fade, and he was perfect. Since I wanted him to have an articulated body, I tried different ones. The first was a 1:6 scale soldier's body with numerous points of articulation. It was too muscular for a high school freshman, though, and the hands looked too mature. Then I tried a Flavas Tre body, which wasn't as jointed as I would have liked. I also used the Texas A & M male cheerleader body, which was okay, but still didn't seem right for many of the photos. I was considering getting an Obitsu slim male body and painting it brown, but knew how involved that would be. So as a last resort, I tried out a Monster High Clawd Wolf body. The slim build made the clothes I dressed him in fit as baggy as hip-hop clothes, and he has plenty of points of articulation. But the doll's short little t-rex arms were a problem. I used the Clawd body for photos in which Devante is wearing a jacket so that I could disconnect his forearms at the elbows to make his arms more proportional. And, of course, I de-clawed the fingertips first.

Devante pretends to be normal.

For Janina, I went with a Fashion Fever Teresa doll. I bought her on eBay, not realizing that she had been carelessly rebodied along the line. Her head didn't match the body she came with and her skin tone was a bit lighter than I expected. I repainted her whole face with a mixture of Testors Acryl and Liquitex acrylic paint so that her head would match the Liv Alexis body I put her on.

For Gail, I chose a Generation Girl Nichelle doll. I used a Princess Tiana body for her because I knew the articulated arms would be useful. For all of the dolls, I chose to paint their faces in the generic and somewhat cartoonish style characteristic of fashion dolls so that they don't resemble any particular person.

The doll making process ended up influencing my cover design. I used many of Janina's floral dresses as references when designing the patchwork jacket on her book cover.

Janina's jacket illustration process

The story is set in the early 1990s, and I wanted my characters' clothing to reflect that era, as well as their particular personalities. The most challenging doll to find clothes for was Devante. There just weren't that many hip-hop clothes made for Ken dolls. I was able to use a few things without altering them, like this colorful Benetton jacket. I added some ribbon with a tribal design printed on it to make this shirt a little longer, more in keeping with the oversize silhouette that was so popular then. I used a few things from the Mattel Flavas line, though they are from the early 2000's and reflect a somewhat different fashion sensibility. I also found some great jackets from Monkey Depot, and a military style shirt from a vintage GI Joe action figure. The kente cloth pants are from a Menelik doll. I made this vintage Littlechap beach poncho into a long-sleeved hoodie with a few minor alterations. It reminds me of what Garfield, lead singer of 90's R&B group Shai, wore on the cover of their first album.

Devante in colorful hoodie

Finding clothes for Janina was much easier. I wanted them to reflect her eclectic, artsy style. In the book I made references to her shopping in thrift stores and wearing clothes from all over the world (kimonos, dirndls, Mexican sundresses, etc.) despite her fear of the world outside her school. She is also a big fan of florals. The early 90's Barbie clothes I found were full of colorful floral prints. I also picked up a few vintage and handmade items that suited her style. Finding shoes for Janina was a bit more difficult. I got one pair of Liv boots in purple, and a pair of Unoa Quluts boots that I painted brown. I also bought two pairs of Barbie hiking boots, one in pink and one in tan, that looked so much like the Doc Martens that were popular in the early 90s. Since they were designed to fit Barbies with high heel feet, I had to use some hobby knives to carve out enough space to accommodate the doll's flat feet. It took a while, but I felt it was worth the effort.

         L-R:  Janina in orange sweater; she just wants to be normal.

Finding clothes for Gail presented its own set of challenges. I wanted her to look professional. I envisioned her in earth tones and black and white. The newer Barbie business suits were a bit too colorful, but I did find a beautiful vintage American Airlines stewardess suit that I updated with a striped shell top underneath. I think the blue looks great with Gail's complexion. I also found a very nice houndstooth jacket from the Anne Klein Barbie, as well as a handmade one from Etsy with a more boxy, 90's style cut. Footwear was a bit of a challenge for her as well. Though I didn't have the flat feet issue with the doll, it did take a while to find "sensible shoes" that I could imagine her actually wearing to work.

Gail wears black and white dress (left) and houndstooth boxy jacket (right).

When I took my pictures, I chose to use my little point and shoot camera instead of my DSLR. The pictures I take with it are more grainy, making them look like I shot them on film. Instead of shooting on sunny days, as I did with The Doll Project, I shot on cloudy days because I felt that it better captured the mood of the story. For a backdrop I used a custom placemat I made with my cover design on it. I ordered it from Walgreens photo, so it was inexpensive.

The hardest part of this project has been knowing when to stop. I have taken so many pictures and come up with so many different looks for my characters. However, there is only so much wall space in the gallery where I am showing my work, so that forced me to pare things down. If you would like to see my artwork in person and are in the Chicago area, come to my book launch and art show on Friday March 11th. Click here. If you can't make it, you can see the photo series on Tumblr.

Tiffany Gholar
Author of A Bitter Pill to Swallow


Thank you Tiffany for sharing the customized doll characters of your new book, A Bitter Pill to Swallow. After reading the review copy, which was quite enjoyable, I wanted to know:   What were Janine and Devante's ultimate fates? Did they receive the necessary treatment to improve their mental states?  These are just two of the many questions that will get answered after I have read the book in its entirety.   

Check out my eBay listings here.



  1. Wow, this was a very interesting guest post! I find the topic of Tiffany's book very interesting. As a parent to 2 teenagers, I am acutely aware of the extreme pressures of our youth today. I love that she uses dolls to illustrate the story. Well done!

  2. Congratulations on your success, Tiffany! I love the entire concept.

  3. Wow! I love it! Many blessings to Tiffany!!! Awesome concept to use dolls to illustrate.

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