Makeup has been around in one form or another since at least Cleopatra. In an age of Instagram, personal branding, and perpetual selfies, it’s more popular than ever, and the same could be said of makeup artists. Mental_floss spoke to a few who ply the trade about their art, their business, and the ongoing appeal of making faces.
1. THEIR WORK REQUIRES SCIENCE AS WELL AS ART.
To the uninformed, makeup artistry may seem to involve little more than applying blush and lip gloss. But there’s much more to it. “I think the misconception is that it’s just putting on makeup,” says Jenn Blum, a beauty and special effects makeup artist in New York.
Blum says that her work requires knowledge of several overlapping disciplines: color theory (for blending and matching foundation); hygiene (for keeping makeup and brushes sanitary); facial anatomy and bone structure (for contouring and special effects creature design); and chemistry (for safety in knowing which products don’t mix, and when working with special effects molding compounds, glues, and removers). It's not advanced chemistry, but it still takes time and study.
2. MAKEUP SCHOOL IS NOT FOR EVERYONE.
While there are a number of great makeup schools out there, many fantastic makeup artists have been self-taught. The late, revered Kevyn Aucoin is one. So is Robert Garcia, a gender-fluid makeup artist and personal beauty adviser at Sephora. Garcia explains that while he received no formal training, his passion, natural ability, and hours spent experimenting provided the skills to get hired at Sephora and launch a career. “Every makeup artist I know has learned more in the industry than by going to school,” he says.
Still, a good makeup school can give artists a solid foundation and help them over inevitable hurdles. Chelsea Paige, a makeup artist specializing in character design for film, says that her education at the Make-up Designory (MUD) in New York was extremely valuable. But according to her, the first four or five years of most makeup careers are typically difficult in terms of making mistakes, gaining skill, building contacts, and getting jobs, and going to MUD “eliminated about three years of that.”
3. PERSISTENCE IS KEY.
As with many creative professions, it takes a tremendous amount of tenacity for a makeup artist to get to the point where they have regular work coming in and a respectable day rate. Hours can be long—often 14 to 16 hours a day for a makeup artist on a film—and newer artists often have to work multiple side jobs while they establish themselves. Paige says that even though she’s fairly established, she still has to hustle, promote herself, and deal with uncertainty between jobs. According to her, the drawbacks are worth it. “I feel truly grateful that I’ve found something so early in my life that I love,” she says.
4. COMPENSATION VARIES FROM GIG TO GIG.
The amount of money that a makeup artist can expect to make for a job varies widely depending on both the scope and nature of the project and the artist’s experience. When first starting out, artists may do a lot of jobs for low or no pay in order to gain experience (though our interviewees advise only working free gigs that provide valuable knowledge, contacts, or exposure). Blum says she has no set rate, instead making decisions about whether to take a job, and what to charge, on a project-to-project basis: “What one of my mentors taught me is [to ask] ‘what is the job worth to you?’”
As for what type of jobs are the most lucrative, opinions vary. New York-based makeup artist Shelley Van Gage says it’s advertising work, while Garcia says that for him it has been weddings. He says his starting rate for a bride is $400, while for some brides he has made as much as $3000.
5. THEIR MATERIALS DON’T COME CHEAP.
It might not seem like a big deal to pick up a CoverGirl compact at the local drug store, but for a professional makeup artist, stocking a complete makeup kit requires considerable financial outlay. This is particularly true because they have to keep abreast of cosmetic trends: “If you want to be an up-to-date makeup artist you have to update your kit,” Garcia says. “Your client wants to see something new and luxurious. Nobody wants to see old Clinique when they know they can get a high-definition foundation from Make Up Forever.”
But there are ways to be smart about cost when starting out. Garcia says skilled new artists can do glamorous work with less expensive brands of similar quality, and build up to premium brands later on.
6. THEY GET UP-CLOSE AND PERSONAL QUICKLY.
Makeup artists spend their careers in very close proximity to other people’s faces. Unsurprisingly, it helps to be a people person. But even for the most relaxed extrovert, the leap from being a complete stranger to total intimacy can be startling. This is particularly true on film or theatrical productions, where artists may be called upon to apply body makeup to nearly nude actors or to help those encumbered with prosthetic claws or other hindrances eat and drink.
Paige says that in the course of her job she touches people “in the most intimate and invasive ways.” This, oddly enough, can lead to accelerated friendships. “You have someone touching your face for umpteen hours a day for a month and a half,” she says, “and you develop a relationship.”
7. THEY CHANGE LIVES.
Sometimes a makeup artist’s close relationship with a client comes from helping them in a time of need. Garcia says a big motivator for him is helping women feel beautiful during traumatic times. He describes teaching cancer patients to paint in eyebrows or apply eyelashes, and how to care for chemotherapy-damaged skin. Speaking of a particular client with cancer, he says that “with skin care and makeup I was able to change this woman’s skin, change this woman’s life … It’s these women who need us.”
And when it comes to makeup for film and television, Blum says she loves knowing that she is supporting her clients’ passions. By doing a performer’s head shot makeup or creating a character for a director’s film, she says that she might “open the door so that they become famous and live their dream. I get chills because I might be helping someone’s dream come true.”
8. WORKING AT A SHOP CAN BE AN ADVANTAGE.
While many makeup artists work on a freelance basis, some have steadier jobs, like working at a makeup store. Besides the stability, working in a shop provides other benefits: Garcia says Sephora provided a lot of consistent practice that helped him early in his career. The company also keeps its employees up-to-date on trends and techniques.
Blum works at Alcone, one of the oldest professional makeup stores in NYC, and says landing a job there was “like winning the makeup lottery.” She explains that her constant interaction with new products and clients in all areas of makeup means that her knowledge base far exceeds her number of years in the industry.
9. IT’S NOT ALWAYS GLAMOROUS.
Some people dream of becoming a makeup artist as a means of rubbing shoulders with beautiful people. While that may be true in some cases, Paige says people often overestimate the glamor of film makeup: “It’s not an easy job. It’s not doing smoky eyes and putting on eyeliner. It’s a lot of design, it’s a lot of science, and it’s a lot of roughing it in terms of shooting.” Describing the task of maintaining an actor’s makeup throughout a long day, she says: “My day is mostly waiting around for people to sweat, and then I get to collect the sweat in tissues.”
10. WHAT THEY DO IS POWERFUL.
One thing many makeup artists agree on is that their work, whether in daily life or in the media, is often undervalued. Not only does it require a lot of skill, but it also influences how people see themselves and are seen by others. Whether it’s applying concealer to undereye circles or full werewolf makeup to an actor, makeup artistry is about metamorphosis. “Whether you want to look really scary or dead ... or if you just want to be the best version of yourself,” Blum says, “the fact that you can use makeup to do that is really exciting.”
All photos via iStock.