“Facepainting” or “Face Painting”? The Medium is the Message

by Christopher Agostino

“Facepainting” or “face painting”?  “Bodypainting” or “body painting”? I tend towards the former term in both cases, making it one word rather than two — to the consistent consternation of spell check and search engines — because I believe that within this field what we paint on is as intrinsically important as the act of painting. Without the body there is no bodypainting, so, truly, the medium is the message. It is the face, the body, that gives the painting its value, its reason for being.

If the face is removed from the facepainting the result changes. I got to thinking about this as we began to use a new Dega-inspired promotional postcard design in which the art is more apparent than the face, so at first glance most people see it as just a painting, rather than as a facepainting (despite the text indicating otherwise).

Each year or so I select a new photo for our postcards, emblematic of our current creative explorations. We’ve been focusing on taking inspiration from Modern Art recently, so I looked for one of those images for the postcard. I painted this face at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY   http://www.hrm.org/  , where we appear regularly. To suit the venue I was spending the day re-creating famous paintings on museum visitors, surprising each with my choices. The Degas image was painted on one of the museum’s volunteers. Two of their volunteers came to get painted when there was a lull in the line, and I took my time to work more subtly towards the painterly quality of the originals, and not just a copy of the image, as I made one into a Monet waterlily painting and the other into these ballerinas. In working with real paintings as inspiration for face and bodypaintings, my artists and I have all noticed that trying to capture the way a true master works the surface of the canvas is the real challenge (building up layers of color, working with the texture of the paint, etc.), and it’s something I may try to do when taking hours to paint a model in a studio, but not usually while facepainting with a line at a gig.

At the event, on their faces, the finished waterlilies face looked better than the ballerinas, and when I decided I wanted a modern art face image for the newest postcard I remembered that facepainting and thought I’d use the photo I took that day. But, cropped to postcard size, with the face less apparent, it didn’t work as well. It lost its identity as a copy of a recognizable painting, and looked more decorative, less transformational. It is something we have noticed when painting these modern art faces at events: they don’t always look like facepaintings in the same way that turning someone into a tiger will, they don’t always look like a face transformed. And they don’t always photograph as well as they look live, for I had a number of faces I had remembered painting that I thought might work for the postcard but didn’t, when cropped, because they lost their identity as a face.

Conversely, this Degas image worked for me as a postcard, I think, because it does function more as a painting than as a painted face, especially in a close crop like this. Looking at the finished face when I painted it, I felt the Degas painting job was ok enough, but that the image as I placed it didn’t take the best advantage of the curves of her face so it only looked good straight on, which limits the attractiveness of a face design — so the same quality that made me disappointed in this face seen live at the event makes me like it seen flat on 5,000 postcards.

A painted body, a painted face, viewed live is a very different art form than that same painted body in a photograph. They are two distinct works of art, and they carry very different intrinsic values, they function by very different aesthetic rules. In viewing them, the observer brings a very different context to what they are seeing, and so much of the value we accrue to an object depends on context, especially perhaps to objects of art. My understanding of this was enhanced by a recent Ted Talk by psychologist Paul Bloom about how our beliefs about the history of an object change how we experience it, as in why a watch owned by our deceased grandparent is irreplaceable in our mind even though there might be many other watches available of the very same type. Part of his illustration of this was the story of a Vermeer painting, “The Supper at Emmaus”, which, based on its aesthetic quality, was revered as one of his greatest accomplishments and worth millions, until it was revealed to have been painted in 1936 by the master forger Han van Meegeren and not even the copy of a real Vermeer, at which point it lost all of its value. Very much the case of “the story behind the painting”.     http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_bloom_the_origins_of_pleasure.html

So for me it is “facepainting” and “bodypainting”, especially when viewed live on the person that is painted, for the living person carries that intrinsic value that gives the painting meaning. They are the story behind the face. Seeing the painted face looking back at you, talking to you — seeing the painted body move, change. On a postcard, in a photograph, maybe then it is a “face painting” or a “body painting”, but viewed alive the person can not be separated from the art.

The Monet waterlilies face, which looked very nice on this young lady as she walked around the museum, but didn’t work as well as a foto cropped for the postcard.
Usually I prefer photos with the subject’s eyes open — I refer to them as canvases with eyes — but in this case it worked better for me when it was more like a painting, with the eyes closed, and less like a face.
Another Monet inspired face from the same day, and probably my favorite face of the that day’s painting, because I painted it very quickly but still managed to get the Monet-esque colors right, but cropped tight the image was not something that most people would recognize.
This was another favorite from that day’s painting. An image inspired by a Paul Klee painting. He’s an artist whose work relates very directly to face and body art — but, again, no one would recognize this as inspired by a famous artist, in the way people might recognize Degas’ ballerinas or Monet’s waterlilies.
This postcard from a couple of years ago was the first one in which I chose an image that specifically said “art on faces”, with a painting inspired by a Picasso cubist portrait in combination with a Nuba inspired tribal image. I don’t think I have ever painted a better face design than this one.


2 comments on ““Facepainting” or “Face Painting”? The Medium is the Message

  1. Christopher, from The first day I met you I was so inspired by you. It’s just like you mentioned in your blog post, there are 2 part of everything.. The face painting and the person who carries it… For me I am inspired not only from your art , but mainly from the real person and the way you express yourself. I perhaps like everyone, get caught in the fine thick line or in a nice blending. But at the end, I return back to my true roots, my inspiration, read your words and redefine my purpose, my passion…. The art as a whole, not in pieces (perfect line, dots or blending) And for that splash reminder that it comes across when I read you, I will always thank you.

  2. agostinoarts says:

    Thank you for the compliment. I think that “the art as a whole” is a very important phrase. How the art affects the person wearing it and those that see it — their whole experience. The cumulative effect of all the faces you paint at an event — your whole impact on the event.

    As to the general emphasis on lines and blends, I am as concerned about these elements of technique as any painter. My concern is that the lines and blends I use most effectively achieve my goals when I paint a face, the art as whole.

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