A brief cosmology of cosmetology: A make-up artist's meditation on the science and art of transformation

I am a makeup artist, but is what I do art? Or is some other act of creation?

Published January 8, 2017 12:30AM (EST)


Her face is like the landscape to Mars. But it is a mistake to get lost in that. I must see the whole planet, must view it from afar, even squint my eyes to do it, although I could just as easily remove the magnifying glasses I’ve come to depend upon to see the minutiae up close. The stray eyebrow hair. Foundation lost in a wrinkle. No, to start, I have to consider the spaceship view of this planet and dredge up what I want to believe is a subjective view of beauty, but is really a regurgitation of what I’ve absorbed in Western film and print. In Japan beauty means something different than it does in the suburbs of New York; in Brazil, another. I’m thinking of a post on a beauty blog of a woman photoshopped to better fit the beauty standards of several different countries. An editor sent the photo of the woman to various editors in different countries to gauge their ideals about beauty. The photo came back with wider hips and a smaller waist from Brazil and Columbia, taller and thinner from Italy and South Africa, more petite from the Philippines, bustier from Venezuela, stockier from Spain.

Who were these editors to assume the power to judge that woman too narrow or too wide? Who were they to make corrections and be the ultimate jury over a woman’s beautification?

I pick up a brush and begin. Eyelids are closed in anticipation, breath mint has mercifully been accepted. One for myself for good measure, though I was careful not to eat garlic last night.

I’ve gotten “the hit” with this woman — a flash forward of how she will look best wearing the beaded emerald dress she’d shown me on her phone. Dewey, peachy skin; clean, defined, lashy eyes; natural-shaped brows, rose-colored lips: my version of what I see as her best self. She will look ten years younger, as she wants. They all want younger. Except the younger; they want sluttier, hotter, edgier — Instagram lookalikes of Kim Kardashian with anime eyes and alien contour.

This planet belongs to a wedding guest; she booked for an “evening out makeup,” which takes the pressure off because she’s not the mother of the bride or the Bar mitzvah girl. This also presents a problem. That my life has become so low-level in its ambition that I will work for a 50 percent commission on this “evening out” look and yield a total of $22.50. I am 46 years old, for Christ’s sake. My life was supposed to have reached some sort of mastery or expanse — preferably at something worthy or noble.

“He really is curing cancer,” a friend said of a friend the other night.

“Does he need his makeup done?” I asked, facetiously.

I know there are makeup artists out there who cover burns and scars, and there is undoubtedly a nobility in that. But I’m not one of them. I’m a woman who once was a little girl who dreamed of becoming an actress, a dancer and a singer; a woman who as a teenager saw her future as an animal rights lawyer, a woman who thought by now she’d be using her platform to end factory farming once and for all; a woman whose life, 15 hours a week, has shrunken to standing before a mirror that is encased in Hollywood lights, and feeling a strobing headache coming on. Though for the record, this woman uses cruelty-free brushes.

“You’re doing what?” my writing mentor balked some time ago. “Makeup?” She waited for me to tell her that I was joking. When I didn’t, she looked at me squarely. “You need to stop that immediately. It does something to the brain to do something you shouldn’t be doing.”

She was right, of course — unless this was something I should be doing. Two years later, I haven’t stopped. And I’m not sure why. Maybe I am waiting to see what it does to my brain.

Mars clears her throat. I drop my glasses from crown to nose — it’s detail time. I snag a small, flat-headed brush from its case, dab it into a pot of eyeshadow primer and coat the skin near her thinning lashes, careful to lift up her crepey, hooded lids as I move upward.

“Just do what you can,” Mars says in answer to my manipulating her excess skin. I recognize the tone — it's the same one I use with my gynecologist every year as I lay there exposed, trying to be lighthearted, but slowly dying inside. Things in those parts aren’t what they used to be.

“Don’t be silly. You’re going to look great,” I tell her. She’s not buying it. Mars is the resolved type — the better of the three mature types who book "evening outs." I work hardest for this type, concentrating and holding my hands steady, even knowing, no matter the outcome, that she will be the easiest to please. Mars is the type who has figured out how to have a rich inner life; a woman who has learned some time ago that while beauty is transient, that while we all get our 15 minutes of red carpet shine, what keeps us burning brightly is the nourishment of family and love. I don’t know how she has personally come to these conclusions. Personally, I know these conclusions exist, and I’m trying to come to them. Maybe she has been fearless. Maybe she has just waded into time. Whatever her story, there is a climactic moment of acceptance in there. I have such a friend—she’s told me that the trick to enjoying life is to fully embrace each stage. “I’m 59, and enjoying being 59, not wishing I was 25.” I think of my nine-year-old, wanting to be ten, wanting to be 25. Personally, I don’t want to be 25. I just want to feel like I’ve reached some sort of destination.

Mars’s eyes are primed perfectly. Coincidentally, she is the easiest of types to make beautiful — crepey hoods have nothing on her. I choose a pink wash, go brighter just under the arch of the brow to give her a lift, use a matte, medium taupe over the lid. Shimmer will only show the eyelid texture. I stencil a darker brown over the hooded lid, heavier in the outer v, essentially creating a new eye shape. I coax brown liner onto her upper lash line. Black can be too harsh. I draw it thinly — you don’t want to go too thick on a hooded eye — and add individual lashes to the outer lashes only. I’m thinking of the look the makeup artist used for the woman who played the Russian spy in "Homeland," keeping to the outer eye. Then I cream and prime her face, using two different foundations for the wrinkled and unwrinkled terrain.

I like to do eyes first. In makeup school, they taught us to do foundation first, and to heavily powder under the eyes with white dusting powder to catch eyeshadow fallout. But I think that’s because it’s hard for most people to summon a vision before they start. It’s sort of like choosing windows before the framework, or curtains before the windows.

I conceal under her eyes, use a dry brush to blend into the cracks, then bronze and blush her. Human colors. Life blood colors. My father used to apply makeup up to the dead. Is there a connection there for me? For 40 years, among other tasks as a funeral director, he powdered and puffed corpses. He liked that they didn’t talk back. And he liked to joke that they didn’t talk back. He still has that funereal humor — one I probably rallied against my whole life. Is standing here in this makeup shop this a rebellion against my father? Against death? If so, it’s not an impressive one. I can think of at least ten other ways to connect to the living. Food, sex, language . . . OK, three other ways. Maybe doing makeup has nothing to do with my defying the sepulchral. Maybe I am not as astute as I think I am. The hardest B I ever worked for was Psychology 201. The hardest B plus, Astronomy 101. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the curvature of space.

I add camellia oil to her cheeks — yes, this over the powder, "a big no no" as my makeup teacher would say. But here is where I consciously rebel. Oil over powder sounds like a bad mix, but it actually humanizes the skin again, and adds luminosity, something we naturally have in youth. If I believe the cosmetics company, camellia oil is the oil closest to the sebum our skin produces. I don’t believe the company. In my downtime between appointments, I used to read "Don’t Go To the Cosmetics Counter Without Me." I would become an authority, I’d decided — my hook would be to offer substantiated information about the products women were blindly lathering on. But these women don’t want that. They want hope. They want fiction. So I went back to reading novels. Right now I’m in the middle of "IQ84" by Haruki Murakami. It has one of the most compelling passages I’ve ever read about the art of editing a manuscript. The story is essentially a dystopian love story set in an alternate universe.

I switch brushes and catch a glimpse of my own reflection in the mirror. Am I in "1Q84?"

More self-taught techniques, these learned to help the resolved type: I “juvederm” Mars’s marionette lines by stenciling in highlighter. It brings the shadowed creases forward so that they disappear, taking their sad effect with them. I do the same to the downturned ends of her lips, then fill in a soft, rose lipstick, cheating her cupid’s bow to make it fuller. If I pushed myself, I could probably learn to transform one face into another. It’s all about the light and shadow.

Lately, I’ve stopped even taking pictures of “before and after,” which was something I actually enjoyed. Transformation was how I justified spending my time like this. Getting the vision, and along with it a little prickle of passion in my gut, then executing the vision and seeing the change not only on the surface of faces, but in the step and smile of people like Mars. But herein may lie a more fundamental problem. That transformation of doing makeup can be a one-sided street.

For some reason I am thinking about being in my twenties, and the year I approached my final cigarette. I used to hide puffs, wear gloves, spritz myself with orange spray to mask the scent. Perhaps this is why last week, when my makeup cards ran out, I didn’t re-order them.

I step out from between the mirror and Mars to let her see herself. She squints at the hot, white lights, and her reflection. “Oh my god. Is that me?”

“I hope you like it?”

“I love it. You are a true artist,” she says. She hands me ten bucks.


My 11:00 is a vain type — the worst of the three types — and crotchety. She declines the breath mint, which is a shame; spewing gossip and nasty comments, she is the one who needs it most. She is the hardest to make look beautiful, and the most critical of not only the work — “Are those two eyelashes stuck together?” — but of herself. “Ugh, my neck looks like a turkey’s.”

“Stop,” I say. I could say more, but I don’t. I’m trying to summon a vision for her. Trying to dredge up justification — someone wronged her; she can’t let go. I’m seeking sympathy. She hasn’t figured out how to wade into age; instead is clawing and fighting and injecting herself into a swollen planet. But it’s hard to feel for Pluto. Hard to feel for darkness and disconnect and a demotion to a Dwarf Planet. I hold my breath through the negative comments about her daughter-in-law, the tiff she had with a store clerk at Macy’s, the story about the “idiot” who left the pump in her gas tank. When our hour is up, I need to wash not only my hands, but my face.

I step outside and inhale cold air. I stay outside until I’m chilled to the bone and can no longer summon her hot breath on my face. And then it hits me: She hasn’t figured out appreciation. She hasn’t figured out how to be happy. Like me, she may be looking for some big revelation, some big bang, when maybe all there is — all there ever is — are these tiny ripples of revelations.

Poor Pluto. I didn’t even use my special lipstick-on-cheek technique on her. Now I wish I had.


Planet Earth is my 12:00. Maudlin, she is type number three. “I used to have great eyes. They were my best feature.” “You still have them,” I say. "I just need to bring them to the forefront." I manipulate folds and creases, working in shadow and light.

I do the same for her sunken cheekbones, first filling in the apples of her cheeks with a lighter shade of foundation. A cheekbone is like a cylinder. Think light catching from above and how it rounds down, darkening as it washes over the face. Our first assignment in makeup school was to shade in a cylinder from light to dark. It made me hopeful. It made me able to sleep at night. It made me continue the program with that prickle in my gut. I would create art.

But is makeup really an art form?

It depends who you ask. Yes may say fans of Kevin Aucoin, Gucci Westman and Charlotte Tilbury. Yes, too, perhaps from fans of their favorite vloggers, like one of the originals, Michelle Phan, whose makeup tutorials are some of the most watched YouTube videos out there. No, might say the oil painter, the photographer, the sculptor. No, too, would say the owner of a small cosmetics company who teaches out of her studio in Manhattan, “There is no such thing as a makeup artist,” she told 30 of us one afternoon, “only makeup technicians.”

I would agree with critics that makeup is a form of expression. I think even history supports that, with the way makeup styles have changed along with the cultural climate: the heavy-eyed Roaring Twenties, the austere light makeup of the '40s, the classy, heavy lipped '50s, the lashy, free-spirited '60s, the colorful '70s and unnaturally colorful '80s, the regressive clean and orderly '90s, and the anything goes 2000s.

I would also agree that makeup is just as much about science as it is art. Studies have shown that the darker a woman’s eyes are, the more attractive she appears to the opposite sex. Redder lips, too, signify that a woman is nearing ovulation. They also show arousal—as do blushing cheeks. Makeup, one can argue, is a way to screw with Mother Nature.

Still, whatever its fundamental definition and purpose, I’d like to figure out why I continue to involve myself with it. Maybe it is to remind myself that life is about the small things, like showing up, being present and trying to make a connection to strangers. There is undoubtedly a part of me that enjoys all this—I could even convince myself on certain days that there’s something noble about it. There is also a superficiality to it all. Which could also be the point for me. Maybe a person needs a superficial place in her life to piss off her brain and get it thinking. Maybe a person needs to detach herself every few years and float around for a while, trying something different to see how it makes her feel. Maybe a person needs to orbit around others to begin to understand her own existence.

Could also be that I’m masochist. Or a sadist. “Close your eyes. OK, open. OK, close again.”

Maudlin complies, closing her eyes, and I draw over the brown lash line in black. She asked for light makeup, but she’s not getting that for her evening out. My vision tells me that she needs something darker and more striking. I feather the color into her outer lashes and nick it outward, just enough to hint at a cat eye and grow her eyes bigger. My belly tickles as I feel a sense of power come over me. A power to judge these eyes too narrow that they need opening. A power to decide these cheeks are too sunken that they need filling. A power to make corrections and be the ultimate jury over this woman’s beautification.

Who am I to do this? Whoever I am for the moment, for one hour and $22.50, I’m yours.

By Heather Siegel

Heather Siegel is the author of "Out from the Underworld" (Greenpoint Press, 2015).

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