2012 Transformations — Face Painting Gallery

by Christopher Agostino

Faces, and a few bodypaintings, from 2012. Mostly by me and some by our company members.With the exception of the bodypainting models, all of these are photos of regular people painted at events around New York. The photos are arranged by name, rather than chronologically, so this year it starts with aliens and ends up with zebras and zombies. The names I give designs help me sort and find them, and also help me remember new ideas while I’m working. It’s very rare these days that I ask someone what they want to be before I paint them. Almost always I’m surprising them, which means I need to have lots of my own ideas ready, so I bring a list of names  as a reminder of design concepts. And it’s very helpful to have a name for what you’ve just turned somebody into, especially when you are being inventive. Part of the fun of surprising someone is talking to them about what they are becoming to build the anticipation, giving them the story.


Click here for the slideshow:  2012 Transformations Video  music by Jeremy Agostino

The 2012 Transformations Gallery:

click on the photos to see the names of the images

face_painting_jaguarhelmet_120825_agostinoartsface_painting_jenn_angel_june 2012 40_agostinoartsface_painting_jenn_astronaut_june 2012 50_agostinoartsface_painting_jenn_dancinginthestreets_ny_2012 face painting 25_agostinoarts
face_painting_jenn_girlwithsmile_2012 face painting 27_agostinoartsface_painting_jenn_lionheadgiraffes_2012_100_0577_agostinoartsface_painting_jenn_snake_june 2012 9_agostinoartsface_painting_jenn_zebrahead_2012 zebra frontview_agostinoarts
face_painting_jenn_zebrahead_2012_zebra backview_agostinoartsface_painting_kingkong_120923_agostinoartsface_painting_klee_bluenile2_121111_agostinoartsface_painting_kleelandscape_back1_kryolan_120525_agostinoarts



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Face Painting — Fine Art Images: Learning from “Living Masterpieces”


Some of the faces I painted recently on a select group of students who acted as the hosts of their  school’s art show. They wore T-shirts that said “I Am A Living Masterpiece”.





Each face is an imitation of a specific painting, or a detail from a painting. It is always a remarkable learning experience for me to get to paint like this.



To learn more about our programs and performances:  http://www.agostinoarts.com

See my fine art bodypainting at  http://thestorybehindthefaces.com/body-painting/


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Why Body Painting? — 3A: Origins — Why did we start painting ourselves? Ancient bodypainting kit discovered at Blombos Cave

Abalone Shell from Blombos Cave- Credit: Science/AAAS

by Christopher Agostino

“Archaeologists in South Africa uncovered two 100,000-year-old abalone shells and assorted bones and stones that served as toolkits to make some sort of ochre-based compound. The mixture may have been used as a paint or adhesive. It’s the oldest evidence of humans making a complex compound, and even the oldest evidence of humans using containers.” – from LiveScience article (see article link below)

What I am quite willing to label as “the oldest bodypainting kit ever” was recently discovered in Blombos Cave in South Africa. 2 abalone shells with remnants of ground reddish ochre pigments that had been mixed with some kind of binding agent or liquid, found with implements for grinding the pigment and mixing and applying. Sounds like a makeup kit to me. 100,000 years old—which puts it maybe 40,000 years earlier than any other such discovery, and 20,000 years earlier than that etched ochre stone from Blombos considered the earliest existent example of symbolic art. Blombos Cave is a story in itself, and I’ll get to that below.

But first the question: if 100,000 years ago our earliest ancestors were mixing paint, what were they painting? My perspective makes me confident they were mixing pigments to paint themselves—ochre pigments like these are still used as traditional bodypaint in some places  (although ochre was also possibly used as an ancient adhesive). The anthropologists that make the case for bodyart that long ago point to evidence such as ochre pigment found on bones in burial sites, the universal use of bodyart in tribal cultures and the general rule that when humans appear in ancient art, such as rock paintings, they are depicted with markings like bodyart on their forms, or with animal masks or other transforming imagery. The ubiquitous silhouette hand images that appear in cave art around the world would have been made by placing your hand against the rock and blowing ochre pigment onto it—probably through a hollow reed, the first air-brush—that would paint your hand as it made the silhouette on the wall. One researcher found that if he took the patterns of symbols on isolated sections of a certain painted cave and transferred them to a body they would wrap around in a repeating pattern, as if the cave painter had used his own body markings as the source of the design. In The Painted Body, Michel Thévoz says that the one universal constant in pictorial art is objects painted in a symmetry that follows the morphology of the body: “It is as if the artists of the most diverse tribes and people had all proceeded by transferring onto the wall…or whatever the object being painted, a composition originally conceived as a face or body decoration.” My own view is that art is intrinsically a statement of identity, and our bodies are our most personal vehicles for self-identity, so art has always been linked directly to our bodies, to how we present our self-identity.

The second question is, why did we start painting ourselves? There is no way to know this one. Since I like stories, I think about it in those terms, but one thing to remember is that we are talking about cultural developments that would have happened over a course of many generations and perhaps thousands of years. Craig Tracy once told me a story of how he imagined bodyart may have started, with a couple of our ancestors fooling around. One gets a streak of mud on him and it strikes the other as funny so he laughs. The first one says, oh yeah and puts bigger streak on the laughing one, leading to a mud fight in which they are both laughing and all marked up. The fellows back at the cave get a kick out of it and start playing the game too.

I’ve wondered if it didn’t begin very practically, as camouflage, marking the skin to blend into the dappled forest, or striping it to hide in the grasslands. And then I can imagine how a successful hunter might stylize the markings and wear them as a status symbol, and I can see that over time leading to an establishment of symbolic skin marking as vehicles for individual status and tribal identity. Camouflage and enhancing sexual attraction are both found as reasons in the animal kingdom for creatures that alter their appearance, changing color or decorating themselves. It’s also occurred to me that as a species we humans are relatively dull looking, no spots or stripes, feathers or bright colors, and as we came to be increasingly self-aware we may have begun to decorate ourselves as an aesthetic act, and as an exploration of individuality within the group.

We really can’t know anything for sure about anything going that far back. In his writings on origins of human culture,  Joseph Campbell makes the point that so much of our theories are based on what survives  as opposed to what doesn’t—really only rocks and bones survive from truly ancient times, and only those in protected places, buried in caves. We have no surviving evidence for what art we created on wood or animal skin, or our own skin. The earliest cave wall paintings, like Chauvet Cave, are already so technically and aesthetically sophisticated that we must have done a lot of painting before painting them. 

Blombos Cave - The entrance to Blombos Cave, indicated by the white arrow, about 180 miles (300 kilometers) east of Cape Town. Credit: Magnus Haaland

As for Blombos Cave, it’s better to get the real anthropology from the real anthropologists, but from an artist/storyteller’s perspective, here is one of the most amazing stories there could be to tell, perhaps the primal story: Comparative DNA and other studies of people all over the world indicate that we are all descended from one small band of ancestors. Though there were numerous early human species millions of years ago and many migrations of such species, eventually all of those other species came to an end. All of us, all modern humans, come from one isolated group which arose in Africa, multiplied and gradually filled the world through migration. It was this one group that made the “great leap” and achieved that final spark of intelligence and consciousness that makes us who we are. Although this one ancestral group was part of a much larger population of early Homo Sapiens, about 140,000 years ago glaciers covered most of the world and massive droughts hit Africa, remaining over the course of thousands of years, until the only surviving Homo Sapiens populations were withdrawn into the few remaining habitable sites in Africa. Researchers theorize that the struggle to survive in such difficult climatic conditions accelerated the development of these ancestral humans—to survive they required greater intelligence and ingenuity, and the ability to pass increasingly complex information from generation to generation.

Discovery-The excavation site at the time when the 100,000-year-old toolkits were uncovered Credit: Science/AAAS

Along one such remaining habitable place, the Pinnacle Point region of South Africa, caves (like Blombos) have evidence of a long period of human occupation which remained continuous through that difficult climactic period, and anthropologists, going back in time as they dig down through the layers of artifacts, see in this area a timeline of progressive human development from a technology equivalent to our Neandertal predecessors through to increasingly complex developments seen at this site tens of thousands of years earlier than at any other site in the world, including the earliest indications of art and symbolic activity, such as the pigment processing from 100,000 years ago.

Perhaps 60,000 years ago, as the world climate improved, this new type of human began to spread around the world, carrying with them an ability to understand and re-imagine the world through art and symbology. As an amateur folklorist I’m aware of how many underlying aspects of world cultures seem related, how many folktales touch universal themes, and I imagine that these earliest ancestors also carried with them a fundamental human culture of art, music and stories.

Ancient Tools- One of the abalone shells with the quartzite grindstone found nestled inside. Credit: Grethe Moell Pederson

Shell Toolkit- The other abalone toolkit under excavation Credit: Science/AAAS

Learn more about my work at my Body Painting Page http://thestorybehindthefaces.com/body-painting/

Why Body Painting? — 3: Origins — Touching Ancient Sources

"Chauvet Lions Watching"

by Christopher Agostino

At the core of my approach to bodypainting is my continuing exploration into its traditional sources and cultural functions. Just as a painter on canvas studies the masterpieces of the past to find his own way forward, I study the images and significance of traditional bodyart as a foundation for my work. Searching for an understanding of how and why we paint ourselves leads back to the origins of our humanity and our most ancient art. Whenever I paint someone I am aware of my small place in this vast tradition, one more human seeking to understand how our art can transform us. Although bodypainting is ephemeral, its legacy is timeless.

The Transformation Lecture - click here

This is a primal part of the story I’ve told myself to keep myself painting, that “before we ever painted a cave wall, we painted ourselves…” — my slogan. Going back 30 years when I was first trying to convince people that facepainting could be an art and not just something that clowns did at kid’s parties this was  an important part of my argument.

You search for validation when you are working in a fringe art form and I continue to get jazzed seeing moments like the one in the PBS Nova episode “Becoming Human” where, just as they are describing the final evolutionary shift that made us the humans we are today they are showing a re-enacted image of an ancient human painting themselves. video.pbs.org/video/2098138008…  Or the book How Art Made the World: A Journey to the Origins of Human Creativity by Nigel Spivey, which makes the case that it is our ability to conceive, record and understand symbols (through language and art) that lifted us above the animal state—”we are the symbolic species”—and he also points to our own skin as the original canvas for these social symbols.

Our skin is the physical edge of who we are, the place where we touch the world, and so, as we first gained self-awareness, that spark of consciousness that makes us human, we marked our new awareness onto our skin to tell the world who we are.  And that is a fine answer to the question “Why Body Painting?”

In The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis-Williams  presents a timeline of the development of ancient art and culture. Cave paintings go back about 32,000 years, but art is older than that. The image here of the etched ochre rock from Blombos Cave from 77,000 years ago is considered the “earliest art object” yet discovered, and  there is evidence of ochre colored earths being processed to produce pigment from much earlier. Pigments derived from ochre are still used as traditional body paints. It’s discovery radically reorganized anthropologists’ understanding of the origins of humanity, and the place in our collective history of our ancient  ancestors at Blombos Cave is a truly remarkable story, as depicted in the PBS “Becoming Human” series. See also the links below for more information, including the incredible recent discovery of what might be the earliest facepainting kit ever.

The bodypainting at the top uses imagery from European cave paintings that are 10,000 to 32,000 years old, and I painted it several years ago. Ancient sources, modern inspiration for this bodypainter.

30,000 year old cave painting from the Chauvet Cave

The most inspirational art exhibit I have seen in many years was while sitting in a movie theater this past May watching Werner Hertzog’s 3D film of the Chauvet Cave in France, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Seeing Hertzog’s film, I experienced art that is as great as anything I have ever seen in a museum, both in the technical quality of the painting (as Picasso said upon seeing similar cave paintings: “we have learned nothing!”) and in the depth of response it requires from the viewer. Through Hertzog’s fantastic use of 3D to bring the physical shapes of the painted cave walls to life, and dramatic flickering “torch-light” effects to recreate the experience of the original audience for these paintings, I could imagine myself there and understand how, at our origins, art was a driving transformational force.

Learn more at my Body Painting Page http://thestorybehindthefaces.com/body-painting/

Scraping Paint for the Power of the Ancients — Rock Art from Pecos River area

A caller into today’s Science Friday show on NPR asked archeologist Solveig Turpin how later inhabitants of the Pecos River region responded to the more ancient, more elaborate rock art there as they created their own. She replied that they apparently respected it/ revered it as the work of their ancient ancestors. They didn’t destroy it or paint over it, though they would sometimes add their more modern drawings to it. And then she said something that really caught my attention. There is significant scraping of pigment from some of the ancient rock paintings because apparently the newer cultures would then mix the ancient pigment from the rock paintings into substances they would use or ingest during puberty and other rituals to gain the power of the ancients. “Scraping Paint” kinda feels like what I do when I look to all this stuff and try to find my inspiration in it by re-creating it as bodyart.

She said this Lower Pecos River style of rock art dates back 4-5,000 years, with sophisticated, complex painting techniques.

It features “shamanic” figures (to use that modern term for all of these ancient human/animal transformation figures whose true meaning and purpose we can only guess at), some 12 – 15′ tall. The thematic content of much of the art being interpreted as relating to human to animal transformation (or animal to human?, or humans acquiring animal attributes?) — and the panther is the key animal power figure, just as the lion is in similarly themed “shamanic” images in ancient Eurpoean cave art. Solveig Turpin: Research Fellow, Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory, University of Texas at Austin Author, “The Indigenous Art of Coahuila” (Universidad Autonoma de Coahuila, 2011)

Click here for a video of examples and her discussion of the art:


More examples and some great fotos at  http://www.rockart.org/gallery/index.html (their site asks that they not be reproduced without permission so I am not posting any here) Rock Art Foundation

National Park site information on the area and its indigenous history: http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/amis/crs/sec1.htm

An image of a "shamanic" figure, from the National Parks Services site