One the things I’m known for in cake decorating is having lots of dynamically posed figures in tableaus all over my cakes. At the 2011 Austin cake show, a judge told me, “We all stood there and said, ‘It’s got a bunch of intricate little figures all over it doing stuff. Must be Kimberly’s.'” Another judge saw me walking by his class and said, “I know what you did!”
So lots of figures is my thing. I’ve practiced it for many years in a variety of media, but none moreso than fondant over the last decade.
To be clear, when I say “fondant” I mean my homemade recipe without any Tylose or anything to turn it into gumpaste. I’ve used commercial fondants, I’ve used gumpaste, I’ve used different recipes, but I always come back to my main homemade recipe because I’m familiar with it, I know how to tweak it to my needs, I know its limitations and what can be pushed, and most importantly I know it’ll dry rock-hard so I can get pretty elaborate with my sculptures. If you like another medium, use it; just be aware that it might behave differently and you should adjust accordingly.
This tutorial is not about elaborate sculptures. This is the distilled basics of how to make a quick human figure with vaguely realistic proportions, simple clothing, minimal internal supports, and all in one go instead of requiring drying time of separate pieces. With practice, I believe anyone can use these instructions to make great figures on their cakes and use this knowledge as a foundation from which to branch out to more advanced techniques such as standing figures with arms outstretched.
To keep things simple, I’ve made a generic person of ambiguous gender in non-descript clothing and a neutral pose. If you wish to replicate a specific character, do a Google image search for pictures of that character (especially if you can find a toy version that has mapped out the sculpting for you) in as many different angles as required. Certain characters and dynamic poses may require more advanced techniques.
A note about the photos: I tried to be fancy in taking the photos for this tutorial and it backfired on me badly. As a result, the colours are a bit off. Hopefully they’re good enough to communicate the point even if they’re not great.
If you have any questions, feel free to post them as comments and I’ll answer as quickly as possible to the best of my knowledge, but keep in mind that I’m a busy person so don’t post an emergency question and expect an immediate response.
Remember that this is one person’s methodology. Your style may vary. Nothing here is a rule (other than physics), so tailor this to your needs and preferences.
Materials and Tools
In all of my crafting, I avoid unnecessary expensive tools and try to use what’s around my house already as often as possible. I carry this philosophy through to this tutorial and try to keep the amount you need to purchase to a minimum.
To make a basic figure you will need:
- Fondant (or the medium of your choice) in colours for the following sections:
- Several toothpicks (Note: do not serve figures containing toothpicks to small children, and warn all others that there are toothpicks inside. You can substitute dried spaghetti if you wish but still need to give a warning and it won’t be as sturdy.)
- A sprinkle canister containing either powdered sugar or corn starch depending on which you prefer or the instructions that come with commercial fondant (I prefer powdered sugar). If you do not have a sprinkle canister you can use a spoon to scatter the sugar but it won’t be as evenly distributed.
- A cutting board (the smoother the better)
- A sharp non-serrated knife
- A medium or small ball tool.
- A small food-safe paintbrush (size 3/0 to 5/0)
- Water in a small container
- Black food gel colour
- A surface to build upon, such as a cake or if you are building figures in advance, a piece of food-safe styrofoam
- A printout of the human figure template (see below)
I learned the hard way that I have a tendency to start part of a figure off at one scale and then gradually increase until half the figure is disproportionate. It’s also difficult for me to make several figures all come out at the same scale if I just eyeball them. For that reason, I started using the template shown above to size my figures. Simply load it into whatever graphics program you prefer (I like Irfanview) and set the height to the height of your desired figure, then print it. It’s also fabulous for planning a cake in terms of being able to size out where figures will be before making them, so if it turns out you need to make them smaller or bigger, you can easily print out another template sized accordingly and check the fit before committing yourself in fondant.
As you’ll see in the photos throughout this tutorial, laying body pieces right on the template will help ensure that you stick to one scale and don’t end up with giant heads on tiny bodies or vice versa. However, keep in mind that it’s just a model; if you’re making a more plump figure, feel free to go beyond the lines as you require.
For this tutorial I sized the graphic to 5.5 inches high.
Fondant is sticky. To roll it and handle it without it sticking to your board, fingers, tools, etc., sprinkle powdered sugar on your work surface and keep your hands regularly dusted as well. Don’t worry about it being all over your figure; you can clean it up afterwards.
To stick pieces of fondant together, brush a thin coat of water on one of the two surfaces and then press them together. You might need to wiggle them a bit to get them to stick, but water is usually enough. Some folks like to use various edible glues, either home-made or purchased, but I almost never need to bother. Water is almost always good enough for my needs, and it’s cheap!
If you are in a dry environment, you may need to soften your fondant to prevent it from cracking by adding a bit of water and kneading it in, and/or warming it up in your hands. Working quickly also prevents things from drying and cracking as you go. If you are in a humid environment, you may need to stiffen up your fondant with a bit of extra powdered sugar kneaded in and give pieces a bit of extra resting time between steps so they don’t slump over.
If you are in some kind of crazy science-fiction mixed environment or extreme climate, please send me a picture of your finished figure because you are inherently awesome and I want to see your result. If you experience four seasons in one day, you are in Melbourne.
Roll a long snake of fondant in the pants colour so that it’s about the right thickness relative to your printed template. It’s best to err on the side of too long rather than too short.
Use the blunt back edge of the knife to make an indentation at the crotch and then bend the snake inward at that point.
Lay the bent snake down on your template so that the curved edge is at the top of the hips. If necessary, cut at the ankles to trim to the correct height.
Flip the legs over to they are beside the template. Use the blunt side of the knife again to indent at the knee line. You are making knee-pits so it will once again bend without bunching up any excess.
Turn the knife gently side to side a little to make the indentation a wider angle. The undersides of the legs should now look like this:
If you are building directly onto a cake, you can wet the underside of the legs and attach it now. However, I made this figure on styrofoam to be mounted on a cake later, so the rest of the directions will continue with that methodology (be sure to check periodically that the figure hasn’t stuck to the styrofoam).
Put a good amount of powdered sugar on the edge of the styrofoam to ensure the legs don’t stick, the gently bend the knees and sit it down on the edge.
For added stability, run a little bit of water between the legs with the brush and press them gently together.
Make two even balls of black a little larger than the feet on the template (shoes are actually quite large compared to feet, unless they’re thin slippers). A trick to making two equal-sized balls is to make a fat sausage with flattened ends, then cut it in half.
Roll the balls into dull teardrops (ie tear drop shapes but without much of a point), then press lightly flat.
Break a toothpick in half and insert each half into a lower leg with enough protruding to hold the shoe on.
Put a bit of water on the shoes, including between them (and on the back if you’re mounting directly onto the cake), then press them into place on the toothpicks.
Push a toothpick down through the hips so that it goes into the styrofoam or cake a little as an anchor, but the rest sticks up to support the torso.
Make a slab for the torso, wider at the shoulders than at the waist for a standard person. Thickness will vary based on your overall size but about a half inch is good. Lay it on the template; it should go to the top of the shoulders and down as far as the hips where you laid the legs. The top edge should be smooth, but you may wish to lightly indent the bottom if your figure will have a shirt hanging over their pants.
With some water to join, slide the torso down onto the supporting toothpick until it rests stably on the hips.
Gently push down on the sides to make the bottom edge sit flush with the hips, or to stretch the shirt down as desired.
Roll a long snake in the shirt colour. Again, longer is better than too short. Lay it on the template along the arm with the hand exposed. Cut it on a sharp angle along the body’s vertical line.
Note that if you were making an arm that would stick out, you’d want to cut on less of an angle. This sharp angle is so the arm will sit flush against the body with the hands in the lap, because that’s easier to do without needing internal supports or drying time.
Repeat for the other arm with the opposite angle, ensuring that they are the same length.
As with the knee pits, make the insides of the elbows with an indentation with the dull edge of the knife.
Bend in toward the indentation, then gently pinch out a bit of a point on the backside of the elbow. Knees are fairly smooth, but elbow should be a little bit pointy. If the arm feels floppy, add a bit of water into the indentation to glue it together.
Use a ball tool to make a round indentation in the cuff. You will later insert a wrist in here. It doesn’t need to be deep, just enough to make it look like a hand coming out of a sleeve instead of a disembodied hand stuck to a flat pole.
Wet the entire length of the inside of the arm and press it against the torso and legs. As you mount the arms, gently shape the shoulder as desired.
Don’t bring the cuffs too close together unless you plan to overlap the hands, which can be tricky to do without making the hands bend at an unnatural angle.
When you’re done, insert another toothpick that can later support the head. Push it down far enough that it won’t be sticking up out of the head (if it does at the time, you can push it lower, or if the torso is too dry, you can trim it with some wire cutters and hide the hole with hair).
Leave the arms to firm up a bit before moving on to the hands.
Roll a teardrop shape in flesh tone for the head. Lay it on the template so it just covers the edges. It is better to err on the side of too small in this case, because you can build up hair bigger to compensate later, unless your figure will be bald, in which case you need to take care to size the head very well right now.
To avoid having to make a flesh neck, which can be tricky to do well, cheat by making the sweater a turtleneck. Make a small fat disc of fondant.
Slide the disc down the toothpick into place. Indent it in front with the ball tool to accommodate the chin.
Gently press the head down onto the toothpick on an angle so the chin is pointing outward a little. If you push it straight down, it’ll look like a balloon and then sag! You want the chin to be pointing forward. Look at your own chin in a mirror if necessary (in fact looking at your own body regularly is a good idea when sculpting the human form!).
For a super-simple face, you can skip the next sculpting steps and simply paint on faces with black food gel as I did with some of the figures on my daughter’s second birthday cake. Otherwise, keep following the next steps to make a more three-dimensional face.
Use the ball tool to gently make indentations for eye cavities. That’s the whole curve into the skull, not just sockets. Be sure to support the head as you go so it doesn’t squish or get knocked off. Go slowly, widening out the cavities as much as desired. You can feminize them slightly by sweeping the ball tool out to the sides a little.
Make a super-small teardrop for the nose. Pinch it so the top is stretched, then give the underside a little pat to flatten it slightly.
Mount it on the face so the point is at the brow ridge.
Pinch down with a bit of pressure to stretch it into place at the same time as adhering it to the face. You may wish to wet your finger a little and smear the top tip into the forehead to blend in the edges, but don’t worry about it if you think this might distort the soft head (I usually make heads over several days now with drying time so I can do more smoothing).
Use a needle tool or the sharp end of a toothpick to make nostrils. Pulling out as you go a little will help define the sides of the nose. For African noses, pull out further, less for Anglo noses.
For the mouth, you can paint one on or sculpt it. For the latter, start with a sharp knife point incision.
As you withdraw the knife, pull down slightly to pull out a lower lip.
Shape the underside of the lip and close the mouth a bit by pushing up with a straight edge, such as the side of a toothpick.
Use the rounded end of a toothpick to gently indent the upper lip in the middle. To turn the mouth into a smile, use the tip of a sharp knife to very gently make small slits pulling upward. Resist the urge to cut a long smiling mouth unless you’re making The Joker from Batman, because a long-cut smile will come out creepy like that!
Let the head firm up a bit while you make the hands.
The ultra-simple method to making hands is to stick to a simple mitten-style hand with no finger definition. That works fine for a basic figure, especially on a cartoonish character, so feel free to do that it you’re a beginner. For those who want to know how to cut more realistic hands, here are some instructions.
Note that this takes a bit of practice but is easier than it looks. I taught my daughter how to do this at age 4 and she got it right on her second go. Just follow the steps and take care not to mangle it as you put it into place later (although if you do, you can always re-cut the lines).
Start with a flattened tear-drop sized to the template.
Next, decide which hand you’re making: right or left. Put your own hand out beside the one you’re about to cut. Which way does your thumb point? Make sure you’re cutting the thumb out of the proper side. Check, and check again. Having once accidentally made 12 left hands for a series of figures instead of 6 right and 6 left, I have learned the hard way to check this frequently as I go. Learn from my foolishness!
Cut a right-angle wedge out of the hand as shown.
Cut further down along the thumb line.
(This is about when I noticed why it turned out to be a bad idea to buy black kitchen towels, because at this zoom you can see little bits of black lint in the fondant.)
Cut another small bit out along the inside of the thumb to shape it.
Square up the rest of the fingers.
Make three parallel cuts to form four fingers, or two cuts for a cartoon three-fingered hand. Be sure they are parallel or else the fingers will turn out wedge-shaped.
Gently use your own fingertips to roll the tiny fingers to soften the cut edges. This is the hardest part and takes some patience. Be sure your fingers are dusted with powdered sugar so the fingers don’t stick to your skin. Also, try to work quickly, especially in a dry climate, because this little hand will dry out fast and a small crack will break off a finger.
If you stopped there, you’d have a decent little hand. But it does look a bit slabby. Here’s a trick I learned to really bring life into hands: form a rounded palm that gives a curve to the whole thing. Again, look at your own hand: unless you hold it out straight (which hurts after a bit), your hand has a natural curve to it. Replicate that by placing the tiny fondant hand palm-up in your own curved palm. Gently press in your ball tool to curve the whole thing.
The hand now has a nice curve and palm:
Gently pinch the back to form a bit of a wrist. Put water into the cuff of the sleeve and on the leg, then slide the hand into place.
If you want to add some serious detail, use the rounded end of a toothpick to gently impress nail lines on the ends of the fingers. For the record, I almost never bother with this level of detail unless a character’s nails are important. You can also paint the nails with a bit of white food colouring, or even other colours for painted nails.
Repeat for the other side.
If you want the figure to be holding something, make it in advance to ensure it’s completely dried, then let the fingers curl around it. A tight fist takes some practice, so start with basic hands like these, then the hand over something in the lap or to the side, and work up to something being held in an outstretched arm.
Hair can be made in many ways. Running fondant through a garlic press or clay extruder will yield ropes that can be individually placed on the head. However, on this scale, such hair will look like dreadlocks or a yarn wig. Those styles may suit your character (red fondant through a garlic press would be perfect for a Raggedy Anne and Andy pair), but if you want a more usual hair style, the trick is to not go for individual hairs but rather the suggestion of waves and locks. That applies in large scale as well: it is likely impossible to use any edible sculpting medium to achieve a look of individual fine hairs, so you should always plan to make broad, sweeping marks instead of hacking thousands of tiny cuts.
An easy way to learn to make basic hair is to start with a pinch-pot bowl. Shape a lump of fondant as shown below, with a flat side against your thumb and a raised top:
Continue pinching and turning gently, allowing a bit of a peak to form on one side as you bend the fondant around your thumb.
Checking the size loosely against the head several times as you go, pinch the little bowl out to the desired size and lightly flatten the peak. When you have the size you wish, tightly pinch long the edge to thin it and flare it out a little. A chunky edge looks like a helmet, but a thin edge retains the strength of the thick fondant behind it while allowing you to suggest hair ends and a brow line.
Wet the inside of the bowl and adhere it to the head, taking care to not mangle the face as you put it on. You can use the eye cavities for pushing.
Use a sharp knife to cut lines along the hair’s edge to suggest separated locks. Be sure to clean your knife frequently, because if it’s gummed up with fondant, it’ll tear instead of cut. You can also use the blunt side to form a part line, if desired. If you do that, make some cuts perpendicular to the part line to highlight it. Always consider how hair falls naturally, looking at reference photos or your own hair in a mirror, and use the knife to draw lines to indicate that.
Long hair can easily be achieved by pinching the pot more on one side than the other and arranging it on the head with the long side going down the figure’s back. Make cut lines in the ends as with the bangs.
Some hairstyles hide ears, so if you don’t want to fuss with ears, feel free to leave them off. Just ensure that there’s hair over where an ear should be. If you want to include ears, however, here’s how.
Cut a wedge out of the hair, leaving a bit to remain in front of the ear. For men, you can leave a bit more extended down as a sideburn. As you practice and want to get fancy, you can attach a little curl cascading down in front of the ear for an elegant look on a woman’s hairstyle.
Remove the cut-out hair. It’s okay if a little remains in there. You’re going to cover it with the ear so don’t fret about getting it completely clean as long as there’s room to get the ear in.
For the ear itself, start with a tiny teardrop shape, then nudge it slightly so it’s flat along one edge as shown in the photo below. Also note that it’s on my fingertip; these ears are tiny! Go smaller than you think you’ll need with ears lest you end up with a caricature.
Using the rounded edge of a toothpick, make two indentations along the ear to start to form the curves and features.
Join the two indentations along the back curve with the sharper side of the toothpick, pushing forward to form a ridge in front. Poke a hole in the indentation near the lobe.
Continue refining the shapes until you’re happy with the result, keeping in mind that it all might shift as you mount it on the head.
Nestle the ear into the hole you cut in the hair. With a wet, small, soft paintbrush, blend the front middle part of the ear into the side of the head.
Look at the figure from multiple angles, especially directly from the front, to ensure the ear placement looks good and it’s not sticking out funny. If it looks too big you can try to trim it, but it might be easier to remove it and try again. If it’s sticking out, push it back as you push in or else it’ll just turn into shapeless mush.
This figure ended up with its ears slightly too high which gives it a Hobbit-ish appearance from some angles.
Repeat for the other ear, especially the part about checking placement at the end. You want them to line up properly from all views or else it’ll make the whole head look lop-sided.
For this tutorial I’m sticking with basic painted-on dot eyes. They’re relatively simple, very cute, work well on this scale, and don’t get involved in the intricate business of upper lids, lower lids, upper folds, creases, irises, pupils, etc. Also, it’s easier to get a uniform direction for dot eyes than complex eyes.
Ensure that the eye cavity is clean and dry. While you can brush powdered sugar off of the rest of the figure easily enough later, a painted eye might smear.
It’s best to start small and add more since it’s very hard to fix if you make a mistake at this point. If the head is dry, a badly placed painted eye might be able to be wiped off, but that’s nearly impossible if the head is still squishy at all. Also, you want to maintain good control because if there’s a crack in the eye cavity, any flow of black gel will go down into the crack and then you end up with this sort of mess:
So ensure the surface is clean, dry, and smooth. Dip the tip of a pointed small paintbrush into black food colouring gel. You want a tiny ball of gel on your brush but not a big gob. Don’t aim for the centre; the dot eyes should be a little above and to the inside of the cavity to avoid the figure looking bug-eyed. Start with a tiny dot, then slowly and carefully spiral around it to make it bigger. Stop before you think it’s big enough; better to be too small than too big.
Face the figure directly and start a tiny dot for the second eye, taking great care to imagine that it’s a little person looking at you. This is the time to stop thinking of the figure in terms of its parts and consider it as a whole. That will help you aim the second eye properly. If you put it too far askew relative to the first, you’ll have a Cookie Monster look (of course if you’re making Cookie Monster, you’d better have the eyes misaligned since that’s a vital characteristic for him!).
If your second eye turns out a bit bigger than the first, you can enlarge the first a little, but avoid getting trapped into going back and forth adjusting constantly or you’ll end up with gigantic black splotches, which is neither cute nor realistic (well there was that ongoing story arc in X-Files along those lines but chances are you’re not going for that look either).
When you’re done, wipe off any remaining excess black gel from the tip of the brush and then, with the tiny amount remaining, gently sweep in some small eyebrows, taking care to orient them according to your character’s mood. Again, if you’re not sure how to depict the mood, go make faces in the mirror and observe your own eyebrows, or refer to Jim Borgman’s classic How Are You Feeling Today? poster. (UPDATE: I now have a separate small tutorial on using googly-style eyes to communicated emotion.)
In this case I went for an upward angle enough to denote happiness without going so far as to look surprised.
If you figure is on a cake already, you’re done. If you worked on a temporary surface as I did in the photos, do another check that it hasn’t stuck, then let it dry as long as possible before moving it. The toothpick in the hips should help it stay on the cake, but push it on carefully so that toothpick doesn’t push up into the body instead. If that seems likely, make a hole in the cake where you want the toothpick to go in and then mount the figure, using a bit of extra-softened and wet fondant as glue under the backside.
Once the figure is mounted, clean up any remaining powdered sugar or corn starch carefully with a damp paint brush or small pastry brush, taking extra care around the eyes or other painted details since gel colour may not dry fully and will smear.
Remember that any new skill takes practice, so if your first figure didn’t turn out how you wanted, start over and try again. Once you’re comfortable with these techniques, push yourself to try new things.
I have prepared a truncated handout version of this tutorial for when I teach basic figure modelling as part of the Capital Confectioners Cake Club or other volunteer teaching around Austin. I am posting it here with the understanding that it will only be used for other non-profit classes. Individuals may print it for themselves and of course charge for cakes using these techniques, but I am trusting that nobody will distribute it as part of a class for which they are paid or for other for-profit intentions.