a guide to puppetry 3: the marionette – part two

The ‘Little Girl Giant’ of Royal de Luxe, animated by a team of puppeteers

In part one I gave a brief overview of the marionette. In part two I hope to offer encouragement to participants of this year’s Artlog Online Exhibition, The Puppet Challenge (curated by Peter Slight) in the hope that some of you may consider rising to the challenge of making ‘string-operated’ puppets.

Above: construction detail of a stringed-puppet

Below: two traditionally constructed puppets made by Czech master Jan Zalud. Puppet carving at its most discreet and elegant doesn’t get better than this. Just marvel at the hands in the first image, relaxed and beautifully positioned to open-out any gestures of the arms.

Visit Jan’s website HERE

Of all the varieties of traditional puppetry, I suspect the marionette is the type most likely to make the novice blanch at the thought of the technical skills required to produce puppets as fine as Jan Zalud’s. Historically marionettes have been carved from wood, and for those who’ve never before worked with the material, it might seem a daunting prospect to have to learn the craft . However, I’d never carved anything from wood in my life before making the puppet of Jane Seyes for last year’s The Mare’s Tale, and yet without a vise, a work-bench or even a proper knife, I was able to whittle her arms, lower legs, hands and feet with nothing fancier than a Stanley knife, and moreover at a fair old lick, as time was short.

I would have whittled the head had there been a big enough piece of decent wood lying around for the job, but with deadlines snapping at my heels, I modelled it instead from two-part epoxy putty worked over balled-up aluminium foil, as a chunk of of epoxy modelling compound that size would have made the head far too heavy.

But for those who really feel that whittling or wood-carving, even as crude as my own, is not for them, I point the way to the amazing American marionette-maker DoLores Hadley, who built her puppets from papier mâché.

Above: farmer’s wife by DoLores Hadley (1926 – 1999)

Then there’s Ronnie Burkett, a contemporary maker and puppet performer who models his characters before casting them in a papier mâché compound, repeatedly refining the surfaces in order to create the high finishes he requires.

Above: Ronnie Burkett and marionette

Papier mâché can be rather featherweight for a stringed-puppet, and care must be taken to add ballast to such a lightweight material, to anchor the marionette in gravity so that it doesn’t bob about or wobble. Makers often add lead weights into the feet of marionettes, to keep them in contact with the ground.

But don’t be daunted by Burkett’s peerless modelling skills. His is not the only way to make a puppet. Eric Sanko creates figures that are cruder in terms of finish, and yet are powerfully characterful, quite as capable of holding the attention of an audience as Burkett’s impressively detailed marionettes.

Below: marionette by Eric Sanko

In the first part of this post, I showed puppets by the Russian artist Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Ekster, and here is another constructivist marionette by her from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, that shows just how varied the art of marionette design can be. I would love to see this puppet in action, not least because I’m sure that it would be modernist in its movement, as well as its appearance. Not all marionettes need to imitate human locomotion.


And finally, a puppet by Czech marionette master, Jan Ruzicka, illustrating just how impressive simple construction can be when harnessed to such beautiful design and execution. The leather thongs he’s used for the arms look so good that he hasn’t seen the need to cover them with sleeves. The proportions of this puppet are wonderful. All attention is drawn to the over-scaled head with its vibrant expression, and to the large hands that emphasise gesture. The metal control-rod to the head lends much greater control over movement in such a small puppet than could be achieved with strings alone. This little creature can be made to turn her head, and to cock it in a bright, bird-like manner. A masterpiece in miniature, and utterly charming.


11 thoughts on “a guide to puppetry 3: the marionette – part two

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  5. Fabulous and very useful posts Clive 😀 I was hoping to have a go at whittling some wooden parts, I’ve had to put the idea aside for now due to a lack of time but it’s something I’d like to try at some time 🙂

  6. Wonderful posts and very informative too. I’m glad you talked about weighting the puppet properly, as it makes all the difference with this type of control. I wonder if you’re familiar with the work of Czech artist Michaela Bartoňová from Tineola theater and the figurentheater of Wilde & Vogel?

    And last I want to say thank you for the kind words you left on my blog 🙂 I’m brewing ideas and experimenting with new materials, I shall tell you more about it in due time 🙂

    • Hello Hussam. It’s good to see you here. Yes, weighting is so important. There’s nothing worse than trying to control a marionette that is too light and won’t respond to what you’re trying to make it do. When designing and building a puppet, the the tendency of many makers is to worry too much about what it’s going to look like, and not paying enough attention to how it’s going to move.

      Those are great links, and I thank you for leaving them. I’m sure they’ll be an inspiration to Artloggers. There’s much to be learned from the Czech tradition of carved marionettes.

      Greatly looking forward to hearing from you about what you plan for the challenge.

      Very Best

      • Clive, would DAS be heavy enough for a string puppet? I think Fimo would be too light but DAS has quite a ‘clunk’ to it. What is the best material for the strings, please?

        • Hi Shellie

          I used Milliput for Jane Seyes’ head. The material would have been too heavy had the head been solid, and so I modelled it over balled-up aluminium, into which I embedded a small block of wood with a screw-eye fitting ready to take the neck. It all worked very well. Milliput needs to have the hardener well mixed with it, and you get about an hour of modelling time before it becomes unworkable. (modelling with wet hands extends that a little, and helps give a good finish.) You can carve and sand it once its fully set.

          Fimo is fine, and you can always embed something in it to add ballast. In the past I’ve used whatever bits of metal junk I’ve found rattling around in our tool-box. Don’t know anything about Das, having never used it. You don’t want anything that can’t take working once dry, or might crumble. One must always be able to cut away, or sand to a finer finish.

          String. I use Coats black linen thread.

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