Inside job: Make-up artist

Time Out columnist Paul Johnson tries to make people beautiful

Time Out columnist Paul Johnson tries every job in Shanghai. This month, he tries to make people look beautiful

Cosmetics have existed for thousands of years, dating back to ancient civilisations including the Egyptians, Sumerians, Greeks, Romans, and often used by both women and men. In light of so many cultures independently inventing make-up, perhaps scholars should consider adjusting the hierarchy of basic human necessities: food; shelter; lipstick. The Sumerians crushed gemstones to create lipstick 5,000 years ago, meaning the first wife discovering lipstick on a collar took place 4,999 years and 364 days ago. Ancient innovators crushed precious stones, extracted colourful dyes from plants and fungi, and created pearlescent, shimmering effects from fish scales, all with the goal of enhancing beauty, or perhaps disguising a lack thereof.

Iris Wang has made a career of enhancing beauty as a Senior Event Artist for MAC, working with major brands on runway shows, fashion weeks and magazine covers. Making someone feel beautiful and more confident makes her smile, and hers is a rare form of artistry in which doing good work makes the canvas smile back.

Our model sits before a vanity mirror as Iris lays out the tools of her trade: brushes, compact kits, creams, brushes, powders, toners, brushes, concealers, and more brushes. I had assumed there would be only one brush, maybe two if we got extra fancy, but the dozen brushes vary in use depending on the application of powders versus creams or liquids, as well as the degree of precision desired. She asks if I’ve applied make-up before. I tell her no, but I have painted a lot of houses so I know my way with a brush.

Iris demonstrates each step on the model’s right side and I imitate her technique on the left. We first spray the face with charged water (toner) and use a brush to spread the water around. This cleans the face and gives the skin a bit of moisture. I wonder whether the ‘charged’ in charged water means the water has been plugged into an outlet, or simply means it’s not free.

Next we apply cream, following the bone structure and skin texture. Using the whole brush I dab and smooth, dab and smooth. We then take turns applying a primer, using a similar technique as the cream, to lift the skin for better absorption.

"Makeup-artist-1"We try a couple of different foundations to match our model’s skin tone. With each step I’m told to approach the model from the right side. This reminds me of how you’re always supposed to approach a horse from the front or he might get startled. I wonder if the model would startle and begin kicking if I approached from her left.

Our model has asked for more of a natural foundation and Iris tests two different shades, drawing lines across the cheek and smoothing with her finger to find the more natural look. We apply the foundation using a flat brush in small circular motions to avoid creating grain lines and to create a bit of a shine. I ask whether I’m pushing too hard, and the model says it’s fine but definitely more pressure than Iris used. Iris suggests I hold the brush closer to the end for a gentler touch. I’d been holding it like a pencil.

A concealer kit with six standard colours is used to cover blemishes and dark lines under the eyes. Iris suggests cold colours to match the model. Apparently she means the model has a cold skin tone versus warm and was not passing any judgment on personality. I apply the concealer with a small brush, starting on the side of the nose and covering a ‘triangle area’ from the inner eye to the outside.

Following the concealer I use a large, fine brush to gently apply a powder to help the make-up last longer and to make it sit up. The powder is applied around the eyes, nose and forehead, and more heavily in areas that tend to be oily, creating a matte finish. I avoid the cheekbones, allowing them to remain shinier and lending a contrast with the matte areas.

Applying the eyeliner and eye shadow so close to the eye makes me nervous. I draw a line along the edge and use a small brush to smooth the brown colour upwards creating a smoky eye effect. Iris points to an area I’ve missed and I can see a bare, uncoloured gap. I worried about getting too close to the edge, as the whites of her eyes look just fine without colour. Iris encourages me to get closer: ‘Be brave. Make-up is a brave thing.’

Before applying lipstick, we smooth a gel across the model’s lips as a conditioner, and then a bit of concealer to lighten the lips. I’m not sure I understand why we need to lighten dark lips in order to justify darkening them. Seems like a solution in search of a problem. I apply the lipstick with a brush and follow the model’s natural lip line. Iris says the model already has sexy lips so we don’t need to change her lip shape, which is a relief since I don’t feel qualified to tell any model she doesn’t have sexy lips on my very first day.

Iris uses her phone flashlight to check the balance between the two sides and nods her head. I spray the face with a setting spray to allow the make-up to sit up and last longer. As we inspect our work I become acutely aware of how many layers and steps separate the make-up seen on the surface and the skin below. Toner before the cream before the primer before the foundation before the concealer before the powder before the eyeliner and eye shadow and eyebrows, and a lip conditioner before lipstick, and all this before a setting spray. They say beauty is only skin deep. Perhaps this explains the motivation to add as many layers of beauty atop the skin as possible.

To contact Iris Wang at MAC, call 139 1835 0512 or e-mail