'I grew up in Cambridge but at 18, I moved to London—as soon as possible after I finished school! I specialized in 3D design at Chelsea College of Arts and ended up going on to study Product and Industrial Design at Central Saint Martins. Recently, I've been trying to figure out how my studies have informed my work and I think that they've given me a different perspective on dimension and an understanding of aesthetics. I learnt how to address the face as an overall, structural entity rather than just in two dimensions. It’s funny really, because growing up I was never interested in makeup. I used to dress up when I was a kid, but then I got into sport—I was a competitive springboard diver and that side of things took over my life. I suppose that I got into my makeup career in a strange way—when I was studying at university, I started doing children’s face painting as a weekend job. Really quickly, I got to a stage where I was taking it too far; the mums would be saying, 'Hurry up, it's been 20 minutes,' and I would be sitting there creating an intricate Spiderman on the face of a crying child. [Laughs]
Then one weekend a friend asked me to make his girlfriend up as a sexy tiger. I thought, 'Why not?' because I already had all my paints with me. And then I realized, 'Hang on, she looks alright! Maybe it doesn't have to be for kids!' Then it became a word of mouth thing and I started getting real makeup jobs. I did my first fashion shoot with for i-D Magazine with the photographer Matthew Stone. I wasn't really into fashion and I didn't know what I was doing—or even what i-D really was—but Matthew asked me to come and do some body painting to turn these boys into gods and deities, painted in clay...and naked. It was just an amazing experience and I suppose that everything sort of really took off from there. Although, there was a while where I just felt like a professional genital painter. I did one willy and suddenly everyone was like, 'She's fine, she'll paint willies!' So I just kept getting asked to. I have one-use brushes now—I don't want to contaminate the makeup!
I didn’t go into what I'm doing now in order to challenge gender or identity concepts, but for whatever reason it’s become this thing that I’ve started to explore. And the environment that our generation is in at the moment is all very virtual and encourages the curation of one’s own identity. Everything's become all about the ego and almost about the loss of one's self. Wearing a mask—even painted on with makeup—is a tool for constructing identity. But painting faces and using makeup is the oldest thing ever—I went to South Africa in January, which was fascinating; particularly the different decorations or patterns of scarification, which are indicative of the individual's place in society. I’m fascinated by all of that; and it's so relevant to modern western culture, where what you do is all about your social and cultural status. For me, makeup can be about creating a character and being in touch with that narrative. Even an eyebrow can say so much! It can engage with a cultural phenomenon and reveal something else. I used to work in an abstract, painterly sense—a red smudge here, a blue line there—but I think I'm finished with that because I'd like to explore makeup as a relevant addition to a face, to engage with the narrative of a character rather than just making something that looks pretty.
I don't really think it suits me, personally, to wear a lot of makeup. Unless it's that time of the month—then I'll slap something on. Although I am wearing a purple Chanel mascara a lot at the moment—Chanel makes some of my favorite makeup, especially the lip colors. In using colorful mascara, I've realized that if you want to change your hair color, you need to try a mascara first because it really does something different to you. I'm really into this South African skincare brand called Simply Bee; it's literally beeswax, propolis and a bit of almond oil. And I love this Jurlique Rosewater facial spray. But I suppose with makeup it's a bit like how Michelin-starred chefs end up eating pizza all the time; I enjoy it all so much, but not for myself. I have a big sack under my desk filled with products that aren't in my kit and it becomes like a lucky dip—I'll stick my hand in and whatever comes out, I'll whack on. Like, 'Oh, brilliant! Today I get Bobbi Brown!' and then the next day it might be 'Oh, shit! Green mascara!'
IN HER KIT
When it comes to my kit, I really love MAC, Mehron, and Kryolan because they are so good artistically, especially for greasepaints, body paints and mixing mediums. When you get into body painting, product quality becomes really important—it's got to be high-end pigment and water-resistant. Kryolan has the most amazing range of colors, and I really love MAC’s paint sticks. Also, I recently got my hands on these DecoArt People Paint Markers that are so great—they're like Sharpies, but for your face! I’ve got a huge amount of marbling paints, too. I went through a period of marbling hands after I did my own for a story for Love and then I kept getting requests for that.
I ended up using Bioderma because every other makeup artist does, but it's perfect for correcting mistakes with a Q-tip. Honestly though, for removing body paint, your best bet is just soap and water. I love Dior Glow Maximiser and Pore Minimiser and, obviously, Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream—for everything. And Shu Uemura does the best eyebrow pencil, it lasts forever. It’s not like a kohl, you have to apply it so many times to make it visible because it’s incredibly subtle, and they have wonderful grey tones in them.
I guess that, in the end, I look at the products I use less as products and more as colors. So I kind of have to separate them into categories of lip and cheek and eye, but, especially with brands like MAC offering mixed mediums, my whole kit should be organized by color. I was trying to explore that idea in a story that I did recently for i-D with Harley Weir, where I painted strips across Codie Young’s face. I only used foundations for that, from the Bobbi Brown BBU Palette, and tried to explore them in a way they’re not ordinarily used. It’s really great for me to be working with i-D because they’re so…real—so into street casting and real faces and characters. That’s obviously a big element of what I try and incorporate within my work, having a character as opposed to nondescript nothingness. Although I don’t know how to articulate my specific style or what ‘my woman’ is, that’s for sure. With artists like Pat McGrath or Georgina Graham, they have such distinct styles. I guess that I’m not quite sure what I’m doing yet, so I’m not quite sure who my woman is. Maybe it’s a bloke! It’d be funny if it was. I do love painting boys…'
—as told to ITG
Isamaya Ffrench photographed by L aura Allard-Fleisch at her home in London. Interview by Olivia J. Singer.