How to Paint Russian Nesting Dolls

Posted by Mary Stillwell on

Matryoshka dolls, more widely known as Russian nesting dolls, are easily considered Russia’s best-selling toys and souvenirs. The country has been making them for more than a century, with the first set made as early as the 1890’s. After earning a bronze medal from an international exhibit, exposure for the dolls quickly spread globally. Since then, there have been countless matryoshka dolls seen in stores all over the world.

These Russian nesting dolls are mostly given as gifts, home decorations, and travel souvenirs. Patterns and designs vary from classical to comical, the earliest being local Russian peasants and members of a matriarchal family. Today, matryoshka dolls can be decorated to the owner’s liking. Some of them do not include pictures of people instead of animals and nature. Some paint politicians, cartoon characters, holiday-themed images, or even customize them to display their own family members.

Other matryoshka dolls for sale are blank, which is perfect for any family activity or school project. Painting is a great way for both children and adults to let loose, express themselves, and unleash their creativity. Before we tackle how to properly paint them, let’s take a look at how they were first painted.

How the First Matryoshka Dolls Were Painted

Though the process of creating and painting of the matryoshka dolls remains unchanged, some parts of the process have been slightly revised for faster production due to worldwide demand. The first sets of the Russian nesting dolls were most likely made by hand, as there wouldn’t be a machine readily available to make such a specialized product. After shaping and hollowing out the dolls, they are then coated with oil to retain the moisture of the wood thus preventing them from cracking. After that, a starch-like substance is applied as a primer to create a smooth surface for painting and to prevent smudging.

All matryoshka dolls are hand-painted. It takes exquisite skill and technique to make sure that all dolls are identical as if they were painted by a machine. Traditionally, nesting dolls are painted with gouache, a paint similar to watercolor that has a matte finish when dry. The original peasant characters would primarily use red and yellow colors, but the tradition has evolved over time and various characters and other colors can be painted on the wooden sets. Finally, when the painting and drying were finished, the dolls are coated with lacquer for a glossy finish and to seal the paint within it.

Painting the Russian Nesting Dolls Step-by-Step

While a mastery of painting skills is needed to perfectly paint characters and themes, this doesn’t eliminate the fact that most matryoshka dolls are sold in blank hollow blocks of wood to paint for recreational purposes. To start off with painting your own set, here’s what you will need:
  • A blank set of matryoshka dolls
  • Paints (gouache, tempera, oil, or acrylic)
  • Lacquer (varnish is also acceptable)
  • Paintbrushes (broad and flat ones for filling in the colors, small-tipped for the details, and a regular round-ended brush for those in between
  • A soft drawing pencil

Now that you have all the tools and things needed, let’s start painting your very own custom-painted Russian nesting dolls:

  1. To start, you need to plan your designs and colors, what each doll will represent, and so on. Line up the dolls in order from smallest to biggest to be familiar with the order. Originally, the first dolls were characterized by the typical Russian peasants: girls and boys clothed with traditional attire or farm clothes with animals or tools on their hands. You can have your family as your theme for the set (you can include pets if you want), or you can go for something completely different! Be creative with no limitations.
  2. For beginners (especially if you have kids in this activity), it’s preferred to paint each doll a uniform color. Painting them with one or two layers of white can act as a base layer for more vibrant colors. Others choose to paint the patterns and details directly on the dolls without a uniform color which also works.
  3. Using a pencil, create faint outlines for the details of your matryoshka dolls. A circle on the top part for the head will do. If you chose to go traditional for your nesting dolls, you might want to add a headscarf for your females. For kids, you can ask them to draw another circle on the doll’s belly let them draw whatever they want inside. This makes it easier for them, so they don’t feel overwhelmed with too much detail. Otherwise, feel free to design and “dress up” your dolls in any attire that you wish.
  4. Now it’s time to paint away! Starting from the head, fill in the outlined circle using a skin-tone color. Add in some fringes or baby hair if you’d like. Next, using the small-tipped brush, outline the headscarf and add some details like a knot, lace or some fur if it’s a hood.
  5. If you did not paint a circle on the doll’s belly, you can proceed to the next step. Otherwise, keep reading. Fill in the circle with any solid color of choice. Let the kids draw whatever they like inside. It could be flowers, a simple sunny scene, or their favorite cartoon character, their name or initials can also work well. The purpose of this step is to make the dolls a little less busy in the children’s eyes, which cause confusion and loss of interest for some.
  6. Begin painting on the matryoshka dolls’ clothes and other details. It’s best to outline everything with the fine-tipped brush to set boundaries and fill them in afterward. Add the facial features of your dolls and any additional details you might want. Be creative in this part and let your imagination run wild. Upon completion of the process, leave the dolls in a dry environment for a few hours (much better if left overnight) for the paint to dry.
  7. Once the paint has dried, give your nesting dolls a few coats of lacquer or varnish for a glossy finish. Leave them to dry and you’re good to go!

Playing with matryoshka dolls feels like traveling on a time machine. The nesting dolls bring memories of the days where entertainment never revolved around technology. Painting your own set can also teach the importance of why the dolls are treasured in the first place. Creating them takes complete mastery of skill, patience and time. Perhaps after this activity, you’d get a better understanding of what it symbolizes and the amount of work and effort it takes that made the dolls one of the most respected Russian recreational pieces in history.


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