by Cliff DeArment

Shadow Character Construction

Indonesian shadow characters, or Wayang Kulit, are made of rawhide. Kulit means skin, usually from the hide of an oxen or bull. Other materials in use around the world include, goatskin, cardboard, and plastics.

Most Indonesian characters are carved in profile. Some figures have two moving arms, some have one, and some have no moving parts at all. Some have a leg that kicks, a few have mouths that move.

Size, physique, type of clothing, amount of jewelry, skin color, shape of eyes, and sometimes shape of teeth, determine the character of each figure.

For example, Arjuna, shown to the left, has slim narrow eyes and fine hair. This denotes a skilled and refined type of character. His clothing is fancy and delicate.

Tracing and Carving

The figure is drawn or traced onto the leather or other material, including interior shapes and motifs. The maker uses intricate metal tools to carve the figure. Small tightly curved chisels are used to make holes. Larger arc chisels are used to carve more elaborate designs and outlines. One "hole" may take several different tools with varying blade arcs to execute it correctly.

Once all interior holes are carved, the figure is cut out from the hide. Arms and other pieces are cut out next. The arms are made in two pieces and jointed with thick plastic line, or joints made of bone. They look like small white rivets and function in the same way.

Indonesian Wayang have exaggerated upper body proportions and the lower area is shrunk. This makes the figure appear with correct dimensions in shadow. The entire length of the puppet is never totally flush with the screen. The face pressed against the screen for clarity, and the lower half stands slightly back. Without this special sizing technique, the image would appear bottom heavy.

Some other cultures, such as China and Turkey, hold the characters flush to the screen from top to bottom. In this case regular proportions produce the desired shadow.

Sanding and Painting

The carved leather is sanded to make it smooth and ready for painting. The figures are blacked out with ink, rendering the puppet opaque.

At least one coat of white paint is applied over the black to prime the figure before coloring. Any area to be painted with gold leaf must remain black. Acrylic paint replaces the vegetable dye used in earlier times.

The Balinese use a four layer shading technique for each color, from dark to light. In Java, the colors are blended to show a more even gradation. Gold leaf is always applied last.

Not all cultures use opaque puppets. Some, like the Chinese style to the right, are translucent, so color can be seen in the shadows. This is done by dying instead of painting the leather. In Indonesia, the shadows are black, with one exception. In Bali, the face of Agni, the fire, is opaque, but the flames are not blacked, creating a translucent red after paint is applied.

One or two thin coats of acrylic finish are applied, and when dry the sticks are attached. The figure is sewn onto the main stick in three or four spots depending on the puppet's height. The top of the stick ends slightly below the top of the figure. The bottom of the stick continues about six inches below the bottom of the puppet. Arm sticks are affixed at the hands and hang freely.


After coloring, arms and other moving pieces are fastened to the body with plastic or bone hinge joints. Some characters have moving mouths or legs. The mouth moves via a string trigger connected to a perpendicular wooden or horn stick which acts as a spring. A thumb pad of tanned leather or suede makes operation comfortable. When triggering the mouth, the horn stick flexes past the cut out of the eye, creating the appearance of blinking eyelids.

Indonesian Wayang have a main structural stick for operation that runs the length of the figure. It is split down the middle so that it supports the figure on both sides. There is also a stick for each moving arm. Sometimes the stick is fashioned from bull horn by heating and stretching it into a particular shape. In Java, this has become a very refined craft, making sticks that twist and curl with the shape of the character.

The bottom of the stick is tapered to a point so that it can be stabbed into a banana log or other soft material to support the character against the screen.

In China, the sticks are usually metal rods. The main rod is hinged to the character and held out and away from to the screen. In Turkey, a thicker stick is mounted perpendicular to the character. This type of mounting allows the characters to twirl.