Making of the Dave Gahan Doll
August 27, 2022
On August 23, 2022, I posted photos of my handmade, custom Dave Gahan doll on social media:
Some of you might be curious to know what all went into the making of the Dave doll. Were there literal blood, sweat, and tears shed from the process? Spoiler alert: Yes, there was. But overall, it was an excellent learning experience in the world of facial anatomy, custom doll-making, miniature painting, and sculpting, all of which are honestly not my strongest subjects. This was my first time making a custom doll at all. The process, which took just shy of 2 months, was exhausting, but most of all, it was extremely fun, and the result was worth it in the end. Here is a detailed rundown of what went into the whole process.
Part 1: Inspiration
I have always thought it was a travesty that no official Depeche Mode dolls or figurines were ever made. I mean, isn't it about time that they are given the Funko Pop treatment, at least? I love collecting miniature figures, giving them props, and posing them in scenes (see my #mistergahan miniseries on Instagram if you don't know what I mean!), but as you can see with the Mister Gahan character in the aforementioned miniseries, I had to improvise with a 2-D cutout, essentially. What I would really love to have is a fully poseable, 3-D Dave Gahan action figure that is somewhat realistic-looking. Many fans have taken it upon themselves to create their own custom Dave dolls and some of them look fantastic, though I have to admit that I am somewhat surprised that no one has ever attempted to create a realistic-looking, true-to-scale-type figure. And I totally get it. Dolls are hard to make no matter the size, and you can be expected to pay a pretty penny if you do want some renowned doll artist to custom-make one for you.
But here is what began to catch my intrigue: Evidentally, there is a small community of people who specializes in custom doll repainting as a hobby all over the world, and they are a phenomenon on social media. This is where you take an existing doll, like a Ken doll figure, for example, and simply repaint it to look like someone else, like shown in the video above. All you have to do is find a new or used doll, wipe the factory paint off from its face, and repaint over it. Easy, right? Well...I soon found out why this was such a niche art form, but at this early stage, I was way too excited to be stopped then. I decided to try my hand at doll repainting in order to realize my dreams of owning a Dave doll.
Part 2: Planning
The very first step that I needed to take to start realizing my dream was to find myself a doll to repaint. I perused eBay to find a good doll. Remember, I was a total newbie at this, but not so naive that I knew that I couldn't get away with using just about any doll for the project. After all, if I was going to repaint it to look like Dave, then it was probably a good idea to find one that already sort of resembled him, right? It turns out that this was much more difficult than I thought. Most of the Ken dolls that I came across were very bland and generic-looking, so it was very hard to find one that even remotely resembled Dave. But I eventually did find what I thought was a decent candidate- it was the "Ken Fashionistas #6 Color Blocked Cool" doll, released in 2016.
I thought this one was perfect because it had black hair styled very similarly to the version of Dave that I wanted to recreate which was "Playing the Angel"-era Dave, specifically his look in the "John the Revelator" music video. Never mind that the doll wore a big ol' grin on its face which seemed out of character for "stage Dave." I thought I had it in the bag and that repainting it to look like Dave was going to be a cinch...at least no more difficult than painting a 2-D portrait of him, right? Thus, I committed what was probably the first and second sins of doll repainting- the first, which was to underestimate the knowledge, skill, and time required for this undertaking, and the second, which was to avoid dolls with smiling faces.
Part 3: Execution
And thus, this brings me right to my third sin that I committed next- being woefully unprepared. By the time I received the Ken doll in the mail, I had the following supplies already on hand: Acrylic paints, paintbrushes, watercolor pencils, nitrile gloves, and a cannister of Mr. Super Clear (which the doll repainting community abbreviates as MSC, so I'm going to do the same from now on). Sounds pretty good, right? But guess what I thought was good enough to use to remove the factory paint from the doll's face? 3-year old generic brand nail polish remover...yes, that's right, and not even the extra-strength kind. I mean it worked, sort of, but it took me close to 30 minutes of vigorous scrubbing and scraping to get all of the paint clean-off with many Q-tips and makeup wipes. The experts recommend using no less than 100% acetone for this step, and now I knew exactly why. So, shame on me for that mistake. If you're curious what a Ken doll looks like completely stripped of its face paint, here you go:
While nightmarish, this also strangely evoked feelings of pity from me.
Anyway, now with the doll completely stripped of its face and clothes, it was time to get to work on the repaint. Oh, but first, the experts recommended that I spray the face with MSC first so that the new paint would adhere better to the vinyl, so that's exactly what I did. MSC is extremely toxic, and I knew this, but now you're really going to cringe when you hear what kind of protection I used for myself while spraying the stuff. Ugh, I am not proud of this now, but I thought a dust mask was good enough. I did spray it outside, far away from the house and downwind, but I still recall catching a whiff of it. I didn't really experience any adverse effects afterward, but I knew that this was not a good thing to expose myself to without the proper protection.
After the MSC dried, I used watercolor pencils to sketch out the outlines of the facial features- the eyes, eyebrows, lips, and various wrinkles on the face. Since the doll was smiling, I figured I'd recreate Dave's smiling face on the doll. The result of the sketch is below:
After this, I filled in the eyes and lips with acrylic paints, being careful to also add important details like the dark hazel eye color, black eyeliner, and various face creases, shadows, and highlights. Then, after I was done, I sealed all of the paint by spraying with MSC, again wearing my measly dust mask (ugh!). Experts usually recommend spraying MSC more than once throughout the repainting process to seal each layer, but I was too scared to spray this stuff too frequently because of my lack of adequate protection.
Part 4: Finishing Touches
I went back and forth on whether I really wanted to recreate all of Dave's tattoos on the doll's body, but then I finally managed to convince myself that it would be worth it. After all, it wouldn't be a true Dave doll without them! So, I studied all of his tattoos up close and from afar, using this article as a guide, and also other reference photos to ensure that I got all of his "PTA"-era tattoos right (he has since acquired a few more since then). I simply used watercolor pencils to draw each of his tattoos, and I have to say that I am proud of how they all came out; no complaints there!
Dave said that his back tattoo took 10 hours to apply. I did this in 10 minutes and it's not perfect, but I'm also not a tattoo artist.
At this point, I need to point out that while I was repainting this doll, I was also collecting up clothes and accessories in order to adorn the doll with them when it was finished. Most of them were handmade doll clothes acquired from Etsy and so that took a while to gather all of those up, but I will list the following clothing and accessories that I had acquired below:
- Pair of black pants
- Black belt (made from a cable tie)
- Black waistcoat
- White tuxedo jacket painted gray
- Black socks
- Black boots
- Black bracelet (made from a plastic silver-colored doll watch painted black)
- Cross necklace
The clothes themselves turned out to be another adventure. First, the black boots were too small for the doll's feet, so I cut off the toes and sanded the feet down even more to get them smaller and narrower to fit in them. So, I guess I will never let this poor doll go barefoot because it has some gnarly-looking, mutilated feet now! Also, it was impossible to find a tuxedo jacket in the exact color and style as in the photo below:
So, I had to improvise by getting a white tuxedo jacket and spray-painting it gray.
Part 5: Regret
Now, this story is far from over. I had a finished and fully-clothed doll now, but as I looked at it more and more, the more I hated it...Why? I had worked so hard and did the best that I could to faithfully recreate Dave's face, tattoos, and outfit, but something about it was still bothering me. A lot. As I studied everything on the doll and thought about it more, I found that everything from the neck down actually looked just fine...but from the neck up, it just looked way off. The shape of the head was all wrong, the eyes were all wrong, and the unnatural grin was grating on me. The face looked nothing like Dave's face and was admittedly kind of creepy-looking.
This is embarrassing for me to post, but this is what that first face looked like.
Where exactly did I go wrong, I wondered? And more importantly, is there anything that I can do to fix this without starting all over again with a brand-new doll? Honestly, the thought of having to painstakingly redraw all of the tattoos all over again on another doll sounded daunting; I really did not want to do that, especially since those actually came out really good, in my opinion. I also forgot to mention that during this whole process, I watched various YouTube videos and read articles about other custom doll artists and drew inspiration from them. I greatly admired the skill and talent that these people had; they practically lived and breathed this craft and therefore had years and years of practice; no doubt they had also made similar mistakes when they first started out. The truth of the matter was, I was simply an amateur at this, and I just needed to learn. And you bet that I had already learned a lot just from this first phase. One of the most important things that I learned, though, was not to give up and accept defeat. I was determined to try again and make a decent Dave doll no matter what, even if it killed me (kidding on that last part).
So, I reassessed the situation and also drew from what I had seen in the videos. There was nothing wrong with the body so there was no reason for me to trash the whole thing and start all over. The head was what I wanted to start over with. But I knew that simply erasing my work on the current head and repainting it was not going to be good enough. I had to start over with a brand-new head, and I also had to take a different approach. I had learned from the experts that this was not uncommon- to mix heads and bodies of different dolls to create a custom look, so I was comforted by that fact. And not only that, I could even sculpt my own head from scratch using polymer clay if I wanted to. But as I thought about it some more, I realized that sculpting a new head from scratch was a step too far beyond my abilities. Therefore, I figured that the most reasonable approach to get the result that I wanted was to do a hybrid of the 2- use a pre-molded head but custom-sculpt select features like the nose, for example. Again, drawing inspiration from the experts, I saw that this was most easily achieved by using a sticky putty material like Apoxie Sculpt or Milliput. So, I went out shopping for some, and I also got myself some more things that I knew I was going to need for this second phase of the project, like better protection for the toxic fumes of MSC, pure acetone for erasing factory paint, and a smaller paintbrush for more fine-resolution drawing. Next, I needed to go hunt for a new head!
Part 6: Re-examination
This time, I knew that I had to change up my criteria when searching for the perfect head (that sounds so weird to write). It wasn't enough to just look for the right skin tone or hair style and color. I really had to pay attention to the overall facial structure. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time studying Dave's face, moreso now that I wanted to really get a grasp on its unique structure. There are much worse things to do in this life, right? Ha! Anyway, I knew that I had to study his face from all angles- front-facing and profile, smiling and not smiling, mouth open and closed. I had to approach it from a purely scientific and mathematical perspective and see things in proportions and abstract shapes.
A couple of the reference photos I used.
Once I got a good idea of the overall shape of his face and then also the overall shapes of individual features like his eyes, nose, mouth, and cheeks, I knew that I had to find a doll that had similar shapes. It took me over a week of searching eBay every day, but I eventually came upon something that I found promising:
Don't ask me how, but I was somehow able to see "PTA"-era Dave in this face.
I ultimately chose this doll head because I thought that its overall face shape would serve as a good base. It wasn't until much later that I even found out the origin of this head; apparently, it came from a 1986 "Barbie and The Rockers Hot Rockin' Fun Ken." The hair obviously needed lots of work and the skin would need to be completely repainted to match the shade of the body that I was going to attach it to. Also, the nose and cheeks would definitely need to be resculpted, but the rest of it was pretty darn close to Dave's own facial features, even down to the almond-shaped hooded eye sockets which I knew would be perfect. The only thing that I couldn't tell from the eBay listing was whether it would be a good fit proportion-wise to the body that I wanted to attach it to, but I was just going to have to take that risk. It was cheap, anyway.
Part 7: New Life
A picture of the table where my Dave doll was born.
Once I got the new head in the mail, I got right to work. First, I gave it a haircut, taking extra care to make the middle longer than the sides, and then I performed a little plastic surgery by filing down the chin some, again following what I observed from Dave's facial proportions. Then, I finally reached for the brand-new acetone and wiped the factory paint clean, which took just a couple of minutes and not the 30 agonizing ones I had spent on my previous jaunt. Anyway, now the next step was to apply the sculpting material. I used white Milliput, which you have to mix together in your hands first (yes I did wear gloves, by the way), though my noob self initially cut off way more putty than I needed for this, as all I needed was a tiny, not-even-pea-sized amount for the nose, and even much less than that to fill out the cheeks. Once the tiny pieces of putty were carefully stuck onto the face with tweezers, it was a nearly hour-long process of pressing it on, shaping it, and smoothing it out. Try as I might with the smoothing process, though, I could not get it down to a super-smooth, glass-like texture, but I was still pretty happy with the result. I then let it cure overnight.
I started the very next day by painting the head a lighter shade of beige as I needed to match its skin tone with the body it would eventually be attached to. I was very nervous about this step because I didn't have an airbrush and knew that I was going to have to wing it with a plain, small paintbrush instead. I chose one that was flat and broad, thinking that that would make the paint go on super-smooth and watered the acrylic paint mix down quite a bit to thin it out. Then, I took a deep breath and carefully painted the head all the way around and at its base. Aside from the bumpy texture of the cured Milliput, I actually thought it came out pretty well:
The paint was still pretty wet here, and I regret that I didn't take a photo pre-paint as the face looked pretty funny with white blobs of putty on.
Then, I got to coloring the hair, which I did by using both a small paintbrush and old (but clean) mascara brush to color both the scalp and strands. Again, I used plain black acrylic paint, and that in combination with the mascara brush actually allowed me to style the hair a little and give it that shiny, almost greasy look that Dave had. Then, I sprayed the whole head with MSC. This time, I wore my new 3M half-face respirator with P100 filters- much better!
Looking like something from a cyberpunk anime.
Later in the day after the MSC had completely dried, I took to painting the whole face with watercolor pencils and acrylics like I did with the first head. But unlike during that first failed attempt, I took it easy with the wrinkle lines and used a much smaller paintbrush that I had newly obtained. With the previous face, the smallest paintbrush I had at the time was a 5/0 and even though it appeared to be very, very tiny, it was still pretty heavy-handed and thick with the painted lines, especially on a tiny surface such as a doll head. Since then, I went looking for something smaller, and went with a 30/0 paintbrush, which I think is the smallest that even exists. The tip is so tiny that I could actually barely see it, but it was perfect for the job. I was able to easily paint the eyes with the brush as well as insert little details like the pupil and eyelashes. I tried to do some detailed shading and highlights on the nose and browbone with pastels, but ultimately gave up when it looked like the color was not sticking at all. After painting the eyes and lips, the very last detail that I added to the face was the five o' clock shadow on the chin and around the mouth. This I achieved by dotting black paint around the area with the 30/0 brush, and then applied a very watered-down coat of beige to give it a sheer layer and tone down the roughness and darkness of the black spots. I also noted the happy coincidence that the unintentionally rough texture of the underlying Milliput actually made it look even more realistic. Finally, I applied one last coat of MSC.
Part 9: Tying It All Together
The final day of this project was spent figuring out how to attach the head to the body. And with that, here was another sin that I can add to my list: Not bothering to inspect the current head attachment and what that looked like in advance...like before even choosing the head. When I took the original head off of the doll body, I was disappointed to see that the base of the neck below the head peg was far too long. Sticking the new head on it real quick, I immediately saw that it wasn't going to work. I was going to have to shorten the neck and then figure out how to attach the head onto the modified base. I also ended up cutting off the narrow base from the bottom of the new head, something that I realized I shouldn't have done in retrospect, but I was really winging it at this point, which was probably the worst thing one could do at this juncture. Thus, I stepped away from it before I did any more damage and took a short break to brainstorm for a bit. It then finally came to me. I could cut off part of the neck and the peg and use some super-glue to re-attach the peg to the modified base of the neck, stick the new head onto it, and then use a very thin layer of Milliput to smooth out the seam. Because of this method of attachment, it meant that the head would not be able to move or even rotate from side to side, but I figured that that was the sacrifice I was going to have to make.
I also enlisted the help of an assistant at this point. Say hello to Dr. Frankenfrog!
So, I got to work with a saw to cut nearly an inch off of the neck and then also cut off the peg. Unfortunately, because there was now a big gaping hole at the top of the body where the neck had been, I could not use super-glue to re-attach the peg. Thus, I used big globs of Milliput instead to fill out the inner sides of the hole, being very careful not to get any too far in or it would gum up the shoulder joints, rendering them immobile, and I was able to bind the peg onto it that way. Now, I still had a problem where the hole at the bottom of the new head was a tad too small to completely cover the peg without the neck bulging out at the bottom. I was going to have to make that hole a little bigger by shaving off bits of vinyl from the inside, which I started doing with an X-ACTO knife. At one point, I became too careless with the shaving when my hand slipped and accidentally sliced my other finger holding the head down (not slicing it off thankfully), but there was a lot of blood. No blood got onto the doll, though, thank goodness (or my assistant for that matter). But I let out a choice word or 2 and had to run to the bathroom to get a Band-Aid on before continuing, this time being much more careful with the knife.
Finally, I was able to fit the head onto the neck and only a small but unseemly seam was visible, so I sealed that off with a very thin layer of Milliput and painted over it. I finally finished it off with one more coat of MSC and the whole project was done. I had done it...I had made the doll of my dreams, and now I can simply enjoy the fruits of my labor!
Oh, and you know what it took me until now to realize? I forgot to paint nipples on the doll...oh, well.