Interview with Julia Cabral

Julia Cabral is a Brazilian illustrator/animator that became a doll customizer in 2009. Her life is now dedicated to the wonderful art of motherhood and doll customization with a pinch of writing, singing and enjoying other forms of artistic creation.

I tested a lot of techniques for about a year and a half before I was satisfied with my work. Then a few friends asked me to do some trade commissions and I decided to give it a try. (…) I guess my style start to emerge in middle 2010, about two years after I started customizing.

Julia Cabral / Julia Cabral Dolls

DollyCustom posed 12 questions to Julia Cabral about her history as a customizer, her process, and techniques. Here are those questions:

Can you tell me a little about yourself?

My name is Julia Cabral and I am from Belo Horizonte, Brazil. I am married to a comic book artist and we have a three (almost four) year old daughter. I am graduated in Graphic Design, but I worked most of my life as an illustrator and animator. In 2010 I decided to live exclusively of making custom dolls until I became a mother in 2013. Now, most of the time I spend taking care of my house and my family, but I still make some dolls’ commissions and do some freelance design jobs.

I am also a cat lover, at the moment we have two rescued kitties living with us. I really like to eat, sleep, read, write short stories (only for myself), sing (in a rock band and karaoke machines) and watching movies or series. I really enjoy art and illustration, comic books, photography, music, and nature.

Julia Cabral
Julia Cabral

When and how did you discover Blythe dolls?

I was browsing some galleries on Flickr back in 2008. I found some pics of this big headed doll and it took so much of my attention. I decided to make some research about it and discover it was a Takara Blythe. I also saw that a lot of people liked to customize them. I spent hours and hours looking at doll pictures on Flickr before I get one of my own. So, in December 2008, I decided to buy my first one.

How long did it take for your style to emerge?

I decided to try carving and repainting on my own dolls in 2009, after talking about materials with a friend who was a customizer (her name is Sabrina Eras). I tested a lot of techniques for about a year and a half before I was satisfied with my work. Then a few friends asked me to do some trade commissions and I decided to give it a try. After that, I decided to put a real price on my work and make it my job. So I guess my style start to emerge in middle 2010, about two years after I started customizing.

Do you do this as a hobby or professionally?

I make my own dolls’ custom face-ups, I make some OOAK dolls for sale and I take custom commissions when I can, so I guess I do both, hobby and professionally. I am not living off of customizing dolls at the moment because I don’t have time to do it full time anymore, as I am a mother as a primary job now. But I get paid for all dolls I do or sell.

What is your creative process like? Do you plan your custom dolls from start to finish or just go with the flow?

It depends on what I am doing if it is a commissioned doll, one for my personal collection or an OOAK doll for sale. And the most important factor: if there is any drawing involved in the customization process.

Commissioned work tend to be more planned since I am making the customization based on the client’s idea. Usually, I have a reference panel of the kind of carving and make up the person wants on their dollies (most of it are my own previous works). But after I start the doll carving process, I just go with the flow, following the main idea of the custom.

Some people want lids and backplate art, so I have references for them as well (pictures or drawings) printed or on my iPad screen. If the client wants an exclusive drawing, I have to do a previous sketch and color scheme for approval first.

There are some customers who order very complex art on the doll’s faces or backplates and I really enjoy doing it. I have a few videos of my drawing process on my YouTube channel and a lot of WIP pictures on my Instagram.

Blythe Custom Tutorial – 6 videos from Julia Cabral Dolls

Dolls for my personal collection and OOAK customs leave me freer on the creation process. Most of the time I have this idea of what I want to achieve and I just go for it. Sometimes I take a look at some references during this process, sometimes I don’t.

I really like to work freely on my own ideas, but sometimes I love the client’s project so much! People ask me to do some amazing creative dolls that I would never make for myself.

What is your favorite part of this process and your least favorite?

I don’t like the “non-artistic” part of the job. Emails, sales, post office, approval messages and all these boring stuff. Sometimes open doll’s heads and take off scalps can be a pain. And sanding gives me allergy. 🙁

My favorite part is drawing on doll’s head’s, for sure. But put the doll together and see it all done is amazing. I like to photograph the dolls too when I am inspired.

Painting the front plate for a special project presented at the Blythecon BH. Video taken from Instagram

How long does it take you to customize one doll? Do you do one at a time or multiple?

Most of the time I have more than one doll open on my table. Because it is easier to disassemble them and remove stock makeups all together at once. But then I usually work on one doll at a time after that.

I used to do 2 to 4 faceups a week when I started doing commissions. Now my carving and drawing process are much more complex and it can take weeks to finish everything.

Maybe if I am really inspired, working with no interruptions or weather issues, I can finish a simple doll (carving, makeup, and head art) in a week. I don’t make outfits or re-roots, but I make custom painted eyechips and handmade pull-rings and it can delay the process in a few days.

When I accept special projects or make dolls for exhibitions, it can take more time to finish every detail, especially if I have to wait for an item to arrive from overseas’ stores. This is because on these dolls it’s not only carving and faceup process but also outfits and props. Sometimes I have to work sculpting clay, making items with resin or wait for someone to sew a dress for the doll.

Humid weather is also a problem for using spray varnish and drying paint, so it can cause a big delay in the makeup process when it’s a rainy summer.

Where do you work on your dolls? Do you have a dedicated workplace?

I work on my house. I used to have a home office for myself and my dolls, which is now my child’s bedroom.

So I had to make some adaptation after I got pregnant: my computer is in my own bedroom, my drawing table and dolly shelf are in my husband’s office and my tools for customizing are on a little room outside the house.

I do all the carving and sanding outside on the backyard porch. I prefer that way because the light is better and I am very allergic to dust, so it is easier to clean all the residual plastic outside. I also apply spray varnish outdoors (using a mask), because it’s toxic.

Dedicated workplace.

How would you characterize your style?

I am not sure what my style really is. My carving techniques are always changing, depending on the trends. I can see that realistic lips and teeth are a thing now, so I am trying to keep up with the market demands.

For the makeup part, I mostly do more natural faces with pink cheeks, some with backplate and eyelid art. Sometimes I make colorful faceups and drawings on the doll’s faces.

What are your favorite tools? What is your favorite Blythe mold to customize?

For carving, I mostly use a Tombo woodcut set and a Dremel grinding machine. I also use a lot of sanding paper (most of it are from nail file sets) for finishing. 
On face-ups, I use makeup brushes, cotton balls, dry pastels from CretacolorKoh-I-Noor and Winsor & Newton. For drawing, I like Caran D’ache watercolor pencils. I seal everything with Mr. Super Clear and Liquitex varnish. You can see all my tools on my YouTube tutorials series.

My favorite mold to customize is RBL, because of the thicker plastic to carve. But I really like all Blythe molds. <3

How did you develop the pricing model for your dolls?

Well, I guess 99% of my dolls are made for Brazilian customers, so I set the prices according to the market here. Basically, I charge what other local faceup artists are charging. And I sell my OOAK dolls for the prices I see them on the secondary market, depending on the base doll I used.

For the beginner customizer, what advice would you give them?

  • Don’t be afraid to practice! Nowadays it is so much easier to begin customizing: there are loose dolls’ faces to buy for practicing and there are so many tutorials available online.
  • But don’t forget to use protection equipment (masks and glasses). Your safety comes first.

Julia Cabral’s dolls are sweet and a pleasure to look at. Her illustrator skills shine on her doll’s facial paintings, eyelids or in the backplate. She works mainly by request, so make sure to contact her and let her know what you’d like to see. She likes to share her process and work in progress on Instagram and YouTube, so click the Profile button to follow her on her social networks.