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Drag and using the body as a canvas

A drag artist’s body functions as their canvas, displaying their art using makeup and clothing as the medium. As a former painter and contemporary artist myself, when I transitioned to performing in drag, I had the impression my painting skills would easily transfer over to makeup. But I soon found out I was sorely mistaken. When I started applying makeup, or “painting,” as it is known in the drag community, I found that even a simple straight line was near-impossible to achieve at first. I felt no more in control than a toddler colouring inside lines, and even three years later it remains a difficult feat.

The challenges start with having to rely on an inverted mirror reflection to paint and the strange angle brushes need to be held in to accommodate for the contours of the face. Subsequently, I realized that the techniques used to paint on a flat canvas do not have the same visual impact on the face’s subtle and complex contours. Eyes are often the focal point of makeup and come with their own unique challenges - a hooded eye (where the brow bone protrudes over the eye) or a double eyelid (where there is a fold in the eyelid) make it so that common techniques taught in YouTube tutorials may not work for everyone but are difficult to even identify as an amateur.

Drag today includes more free-form aesthetics

where the gender binary is ignored.

Painting on human skin presents many unique challenges that canvas painters may not be familiar with. Unlike a canvas, the face is an uneven surface that moves, heats, sweats, dries, releases oils, grows hair, has bumps, scratches and may have uneven colouring and strong undertones. All of these attributes are addressed individually, each requiring their own techniques that take a lot of trial and error to master especially when trying to maintain the appearance of natural skin. All of this is compounded with the fact that any makeup project must be completed in as many hours as there are in a single day, a hard fact to digest for a former leisurely oil painter.

One must overcome the steep learning curve that comes with building sufficient skills to use makeup artistically and with intention, especially for drag makeup which is usually more complex and detailed. Through practicing makeup, I learned the importance of taking care of your skin as skincare directly affects pimples, scarring, dryness and pores, which significantly impact the final outcome of a makeup look. Learning what skincare is appropriate leads to the other confusing and expensive world of skincare products. Makeup application is further complicated by the fact that every artist’s skin functions differently, making product recommendations and reviews difficult to rely on. Furthermore, advice in online tutorials from other artists is not universally applicable, challenging artists in ways that most people do not experience with painting on traditional canvases.

Even a simple final product such as in this early 2000’s look,

requires difficult techniques such as eyebrow blocking.

The challenge of working with different skin types is also exacerbated by the fact that skin as a canvas is not blank; it comes with pre-existing and complex entanglements with society, history and power, through race and ethnicity. The majority of makeup tutorials are made by and for white people. I learned to work with my dark South Asian skin tone by first watching popular white YouTubers followed by watching less popular Black YouTubers, eventually finding a middle ground that works for me. Important conversations about topics such as appropriation and blackface are commonplace today from which it has emerged that there are boundaries to the techniques and shades that are appropriate for each individual to use in makeup, but it is not always clear where the boundaries lie. Access to makeup and skincare itself is a function of class and privilege as beauty products are often prohibitively expensive, especially for drag as it requires a large number of products to successfully execute.

Drag artists have also invented unique techniques to physically alter the shape of the body and face, a key part of the art form, which allows us to play with and imitate gender norms and tropes. The traditionally desired hourglass figure is also prized in the drag community and can be achieved through corseting and hip pads. Hip pads are pieces of foam that add volume to the hips and derrière, which are concealed and smoothed by many layers of stockings. “Tucking” is used when wearing tight-fitting bottoms and is coupled with a stuffed bra to imitate a feminine form, an effect that can be enhanced using makeup to paint on a cleavage. Putting on “body” (as the amalgamation of these numerous undergarments is known in the community), is a unique skill that takes time to perfect and can cause a lot of discomforts. The clothing worn on top of a drag artist’s padding is often visually dramatic and often comes with numerous cultural and historical references.

Just getting into the numerous layers to create this shape takes at least

15 minutes; Many drag artists often forgo the foam hip pads to cut down on time.

Drag artists have also developed special techniques to change the physical shape of their face. Facetape is a tool used to create the illusion of a cosmetic facelift. Pieces of tape are placed on the temple and/or the neck, which are then attached to a piece of string and tied around the back of the head to tighten the skin. Alternatively, cosmetic fillers are common in the community that more permanently exaggerate facial features. Eyebrows are often drawn on in various shapes using makeup, which first requires hiding the natural eyebrows. This can be achieved by applying many layers of a regular glue stick or spirit gum (a special effects glue used to attach prosthetics) to produce a smooth but delicate surface that blends into the surrounding skin, another unique and difficult technique to master in drag. Shaved beards can leave a shadow that is visible through layers of makeup, which can only be hidden by evening out the cool grey tones by layering a tint of a warm red or orange makeup underneath.

Sometimes, I reminisce about my days of simply stretching and gessoing canvas to prepare it to paint on. Today, as a drag artist, preparing my canvas requires a lot more time and skill for each new project. The learning curve is steep, but when done right, the effects of drag makeup & body are titillating, transformative and empower me to reimagine my identity and self. Now, instead of creating physical objects as art, I embody my art, even if it is just for an ephemeral moment.

By: Shyenne Pepper


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