I love it, the craft and artistry of it. When I was a child I dreamed of being a special effects make up artist, a mortician, a beautician and a nail technician. That was, of course, not even a considerable option– I was ‘smart’, and had to ‘make the most of that talent’. A university degree wasn’t required to be a make up artist, so, in patriarchal eyes, that was never, ever going to be a suitable occupation for a prodigal daughter.
I don’t think running away to the circus to be a clown was on the game plan either, really. But that’s the way things turned out. And in that ‘immature’ occupation, I found that intense satisfaction that comes with playing with colors and shades on faces, rekindled and begging to be quenched.
I became, overnight, a ‘professional’ clown, fairy and face painter. For the first three or so months of my new job I was awful to the point of feeling a stomach churning sense of sympathy and regret for my pint-sized party guests as they left the fairy’s face painting chair with a childlike rendition of a butterfly, or a pussy cat, or the eternally popular SpiderMan, slapped onto their face in the most precise way my nervous hands could manage. Which was, in all honesty, not very precise at all.
But somewhere along those first few months, clowning morphed from weekend cash–in–hand to a full time, phone answering, party booking occupation. Being the soapy mind-sponge I am, I began to take in the material around me– magic tutorials; balloon bending instructions; tomes of face painting leaflets written by faux–fairies all around the world; and skinny yellow readers written for people with a evading age of twelve that, nonetheless, gave lessons on juggling, story telling… and clown paint.
Osmosis by fascination.
It took six months to develop a paint and a face that was my own, that belonged to Lilly. The features were mine but exaggerated, playful, large smudges in primary colors. Happy yellow stars on smiling cheeks. Cornflower Blue crosses wiped from across eyes. A tiny dot of a red nose, a geisha–style love heart over my lips.
|Lori, clown- circa 2005.
And long black eyelashes extended from the corner of each eye, a traditional sign of shock for mimes, femininity for speaking performers.
My costume and make up was malleable, and came in graded layers of formality. Being a clown-chameleon is essential when you consider the humid heat of Australian party season and the simple pain–in–the–arseness of costuming up to complete formal attire– a wig, a white face, and all the literal bells and whistles that went along with my babydoll smock, oversized bloomers and humongous shoes– three of four times a day, three or four days a week. For a parade or a formal function, a gig where a clown’s purpose is simply to provide color and movement, a full regalia was almost always necessary. But the closer your potential for direct interaction with the public, the less of a masquerade you become. A too–muchness about you tends to make a clown unapproachable and potentially terrifying to most small children and any clown–phobic adults. So you loose the wig and instead construct high, bunched pony tails stuffed with flowers. You make yourself up only with brightly hued, long lasting crayons, leaving out the layer of white grease paint used to make your face a blank canvas, with it’s smeary un-washability and distinctive, nostalgic smell.
As I developed my own mask, my face painting gradually improved, too.
Learning to make tiny chubby faces resemble cartoon heroes, small animals and ethereal butterflies wasn’t so much akin to shaping balloons (everything is just a dog, with parts shortened or elongated); or feeling a magic trick suddenly ‘work’ with the sound of an audible ‘clack’ deep in your psyche (practice, practice, patter, practice. Over and over until you watch yourself in the mirror and your motions are so fluid that to you, the trick the obvious and vulgar– that’s when it becomes smooth enough to fool people. The magician’s oxymoron, the perfect misdirection– trick yourself into believing you are doing nothing at all, and let your audience visualize their own illusions from the vapors of your actions). Face painting is a talent built and learned slowly, patiently. You gather knowledge on what to use, how to use it, how to elicit the trust of the little people sitting before you. There’s all those social skills that make or break a performer– when to back off, when to launch for laughter, how to adjust your body language to mirror your audience, how to make big kids feel cool enough to play along with the little ones by suggesting a camaraderie, some kind of secret adult role that frees them to play like a child. (‘Play like a child…’ And that’s a beautiful thing. It occurs as I’m writing this, that eventually you do that for the last time ever. Do you remember the last time you were a child, before you grew up completely…? Was it with the permission of someone else, someone older, doing you a favor you never even thought about…?)
All those social restraints and rules are so relevant when you’re sitting, a head lower than most of the children standing around you, hot and slightly flustered and losing track of who’s next in line. Being a face painter in a busy venue often feels like being in the eye if the storm– a calm renaissant absorbed in colors and brushes and paint stains on your fingers; while a seething mass of excitement shuffles and drones around you. I find a day spent face painting peaceful and purposeful. I enjoy being trapped in a bubble of self–silence and concentration, speaking only to ask what my next earnest, innocent canvas would like to be transformed into today, maybe inquiring as to what their favorite colors are if the hues of the chosen design are interchangeable. Children are sweet in their intense concentration while having paint applied to their skin. Something about that earnest look reminds you that, in the world of a little person, wearing a mask for a few hours is a Very Big Deal indeed.
The whole point of face painting is not just to paint, but to make. To change structure and depth. Use light colors to accentuate, dark shades to deepen. Ovals of black paint to extend or widen nostrils for dogs, cats and bunny rabbits. Lines that extend from ears, along the hollow of jawbones, and over the chin and upper lip; then dot that crescent with sharp, white licks of the brush for teeth to make sharks and crocodiles. Your tiniest, skinniest brush tracing the newly formed, natural wrinkle lines on skin to accentuate them and draw age onto youthful faces. Paint the lips of little girl’s ruby red to enhance the entranced expression on their face when you flip the mirror
their way on your mini-project’s completion.
All tricks and glamors, designed to fool the eyes.
And adult make up, it’s much the same. Light make bigger, dark makes smaller. Sharp lines always look unnatural. Skin infections are wholly transferable. You’re always putting make up not onto skin, but into what is already on that skin– for perfection, a palette must be clean.
The point of wearing make up is to look like you’re not wearing any make up at all, and so few women achieve that illusion. While clown paint and face paint are just that– paint– the point of adult make up is still to wear a mask… just not to let anyone else know you’re doing it.