Different strokes of a makeup career

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The picture on the left was a lovely day with a great team and a highlight of my MU career! The picture on the right is part of an illustration I did when 19 yrs. old and still at Art school. It’s painted on an A3 board, using gouache- a type of opaque watercolor, painted mostly with a “00” size brush. I find it slightly scary to look at, that bit at the back of the woman’s neck with all those precise minuscule lines and dots – it is about the size of a thumb.

It reminds me what a hermit I became doing these illustrations to build my fashion drawing portfolio. This illustration was my attempt to break away from photorealism and go simple and graphic! I tried so hard to do bold brush strokes but didn’t have the confidence for it, so my illustrations took hundreds of hours and I got a few hundred dollars in payment- obviously unsustainable! I don’t even want to go into how freaked out I became if some one asked for a revision! OMG!!

My obsession with perfection made me a hermit really; I was very insecure and convinced myself that through perfection in painting I would become more confident. I suffered terribly from the “not good enoughs” of my inner critic.

The school I studied fashion illustration at, also had a fashion photography department where I had my first forays as a makeup artist. 

I am so thankful that I had this opportunity. Working on sets of fashion and advertising shoots got me out of my self-imposed prison of perfection.

As a MUA I was forced to learn many things that, initially difficult to come to terms with, were so beneficial for me.

  • Working quickly, to prioritize the demands of the job
  • The end result was a team effort, not just about me
  • What I painted wasn’t precious- it was washed off as soon as the shoot was over
  • Learning to get on with loads of different types and teams of people.
  • Exploring recommended artistic heroes to expand my own catalogue of inspiration.

Over the next few years Makeup jobs took over from my illustration work- thank God! I escaped obsessing about every tiny line and dot in solitude, and shared the ups and downs of a creative project as part of a team of artists. Funnily enough what I couldn’t do on paper- those bold brush strokes- I could do confidently on a face or body. Over the next decade I worked with Great Film Directors, amazing Fashion designers and editorial directors, and A-list celebrities. I was still plagued by the “not good enoughs” but my confidence improved tremendously every time a fellow artist I respected gave me a thumbs up. 

Thirty years later in today’s world a young MUA can be a whole creative team in their bedroom and publish their own images. These changes have made an extremely vibrant and exciting Makeup community. The way MUA’s can rise to the top has become much more democratic with social media. The fashion aristocracy will always have a strong voice but now we can pick and choose which dictates we want to follow.

 I think about the pros and cons of this new approach a lot. I would have loved the possibility of experimenting with Makeup endlessly and getting the results out to an audience immediately. This was a real struggle as an aspiring MUA without social media- getting work published and seen. But, for my own confidence in the real world, it would have been terrible for my younger self. I know how much I have gained and learned from working in creative teams and how much it expanded my resources of inspiration. It also reigned in my unstable ego- that had to go- too many instances of doing good work that was ripped to shreds and mediocre work that was considered brilliant. In the end I realized that doing my part to the best of my ability in the time given to me, for the sake of a cohesive end result, was the only way to go.

I wonder constantly how many young MUA’s are finding it difficult to deal with their own inner critics when they work in isolation. Is it too easy to lose sight of a bigger picture? I do notice that there are some wild claims made by younger social media MUA’s that they invented MU looks that have been around for decades. Is this because they access a very limited pool of inspiration? Or they inherently know their fame could be short-lived?

I would really like to know.

Certainly I think some young MUA’s seem to suffer from a constricting of preciousness about their work- I understand this only too well. I know for me I escaped this by getting out and interacting with other artists more. I can’t express enough how brilliant it is to collaborate and be trusted by other MUA’s to help design Face Lace’s for celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Tess Daly, and Paloma Faith.

If I could wave a magic wand I would give each MUA the opportunity to have the control and success of their own work for social media, but also to have the experience of working and learning form a diverse range of co-artists as a creative team. I couldn’t have done the painterly lines so confidently on Pharrell if I hadn’t progressed from doing the piddly lines so painstakingly on illustrations so many decades ago.

By Phyllis Cohen

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