Friday 24 May 2013

New art project part 3: Smoke and Mirrors

Tuesday saw the next stage of my new project with burlesque/drag and professional make up artist Grace Oni Smith. 

Planned as a skills swap session, I was going to draw her in preparation for her Pre Raphaelite style portrait and she was going to show me her make up ideas for the painting. (To find out more behind this project about transgender femininity take a look at past posts)

The thing was I hadn't counted on how much work goes into creating a drag persona. Cue almost 2 hours of make up application as Grace, using Rossetti paintings for reference (particularly Bocca Baciata as seen below), slowly transformed herself into one of the Victorian glamour girls.

It was fascinating to watch, and I'll take you through the many stages right now to give you a taste of how the transformation happened.

Lets start with a before shot like they do on QVC. Here we see the lovely Grace sans any make up and incidentally any eyebrows (I'll come back to this in a bit). She is sporting this seasons must have,  the make up pashmina (for keeping you glamorously warm while applying). I gotta get me one of those! 

Here is Grace's make up, this is just a small part of the many drawers full to the brim with foundations, powders, creams unguents and glosses. To a make up fanatic like me, this was Aladdin's cave!

Primer: Throughout the afternoon, I saw many comparison between applying make up and the painting of a picture onto canvas. Just like preparing a canvas, the skin must be primed. And this is drag, not your average make up so it's important to use heavy duty stuff. This was a silicone based primer, which takes other make up on top very well and holds it in place.

One of the mantra's from the afternoon was 'Blend, blend and then blend again!' Here Grace blends her primer in.

OK, it's not as bad as it looks, this is actually the contouring that was drawn on before it was blended. As you can see the shadow (a dark concealer for dark skin tones) was painted onto the hollows and dips of the face and around the jaw line. The purpose is to create the illusion of sculpting the face. Just like painting, you 'knock back' the darker areas to create shape.

This is TV stick, a make up used for television, or as Grace pointed out TV=Transvestite, this is a favourite for drag queens as it has such strong coverage. I think this was used for highlighting, which you can see...! Already, a more defined look is coming through. Grace took great care to sculpt her nose, giving it a streamlined and straight look similar to a Rossetti model, and also highlighted the centre of the forehead as she explained a domed forehead is more feminine. Whereas shading pushes areas back, highlighting brings them forward. If you want and area to stand out, highlight it!

Once blended together very carefully with a sponge (which btw is NOT good for day to day make up as it really pushes the product into the skin. It is however wonderful for drag and theatrical make up for that very reason) translucent powder was applied all over, then as can be seen here, MORE shading, this time with powder. This was followed by more highlighting in powder also. The reason was to really create an intensified look.

Next is eyebrows. Remember I said I'd tell you more about the eyebrows? Grace recently shaved hers off, and not for the first time. She explained brows act as a boundary to where make up can be applied and taking them away gives you the opportunity to alter the structure of the face. This is a woman dedicated to her craft (it'd be a cold day in hell I ever waved goodbye to my brows). I could totally see what she meant. By having no brows she had the chance to create whatever shape or line or absence of line she wanted. In order to achieve a Pre-Raphaelite style, Grace drew on a high arched brow in a blonde pencil. Using feathery strokes to create the illusion of hairs. Again, this is very similar to painting brows for portraiture.

Now it's on to the make up most women would be familiar with, the pretty bit, the eyes. After using a windscreen wiper action in the socket with a taupe colour, Grace applied a sheer mineral powder of green and pink on the lids. The colours were chosen to emulate those found on the Pre-Raphaelite women. Colours which helped to give them an ethereal look.

A bit of mascara and the eyes are done. Deceptively natural and simple but still defined. A little tip Grace passed on at this point was that you should always work on the feature you want to be your focal point first. This allows you to work around it and create a balanced look.


For this look Grace decided to just use a dark neutral lip liner and left the centre bare as her own lips are quite dark naturally. Just a touch of balm was added to give them luster.

At this point I asked if Grace was always called upon to do her fellow queens make up when performing, but interestingly she answered that most drag queens prefer to get ready alone without disturbances (just like me and my friend Olivia). She called this process of transformation 'coaxing the lady out'. I think that is a gorgeous and provocative way of describing the process.

After a soft peachy blusher was added to the cheek bones, dots of glimmery pigment powder were added to the highest points of the face and then softly blended in to give luminosity.

The look was completed by a cascade of raven curls. This isn't the wig we will use for the portrait but it does give an idea of how the finished look will be. Words we used to describe the Pre-Raphaelite paintings we visited at Manchester Art Gallery certainly spring to mind here: Sensual, strong, luminous and soft.

Make up used to create this look included high quality brands such as Illamasqua and MAC right through to Rimmel, Sleek and theatrical make up. It just goes to show top names do not always have to be used exclusively to create a high quality finish, although years of training and practice do help. It might be worth sliding back to the before photo here, just so you can see how utterly powerful artifice can be. Grace has totally created a different persona inspired by the iconic beauties of Pre-Raphaelite art.

As she applied the many stages of make up Grace's whole demeanour changed. She became more fabulous, more energised and more expressive. This was truly an example of someone who uses make up as an extension of their personality, and it was mesmerizing to witness.

I never did get around to sketching her as we ran out of time, so join us next time as we take the next step along our Pre-Raphaelite adventure, challenging conventional ideas about beauty and femininity...