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Benjamin PuckeyMakeup artist

Paris, France. November 4th, 2020

Interviewed by Alexei Key

Photographed by Lucas Lehmann

Makeup artist Benjamin Puckey talks about the evolution of the beauty industry, how to work safely amid the pandemic, and the current move away from “Instagram face.”


 

I’ve been interested in the mystery of makeup ever since I was little. I used to love playing with the colors and textures of makeup products, and I had the urge to play with them as paint. I started doing makeup more formally while studying fashion design. I invested in a makeup kit and just started working by helping fellow students who were shooting their collections. 

My parents moved from London to Amsterdam, because the art scene was better there for my father’s work as a performance artist and sculptor. We moved at the height of the punk movement, and I still have vivid memories of the hair and makeup from that period. Growing up in the Amsterdam in the  ‘80s and ‘90s was a really colorful experience. It was a very diverse and inclusive environment. Being exposed to art, fashion and beauty from an early age helped me develop a catalog of imagery in my mind, and I’m grateful to have that as a resource in my creative process.

After a while I joined the House of Orange makeup school in Amsterdam, where I was trained in all the classic techniques. We would spend hours working on the perfectly shaped lip or an ‘80s-style winged smoky eye. After graduating from art school, I started building a portfolio and began assisting Peter Philips on shows and shoots. Peter really taught me the importance of preparation and research, and that inspiration has no boundaries. Ultimately, I think what drew me to makeup is the creative and transformative nature of the work and the way in which it brings fashion and beauty together.

As someone who is shy by nature, work has forced me to come out of my shell and put myself out there. Moving to New York in 2008, where I had to start from scratch again in a recession, really taught me how to stand up for myself and present my ideas. Europeans don’t mind a bit of shyness, but in America you have to be ready to put on a show.

I’m always looking for a balanced harmony of color and texture in makeup. My work generally starts with perfected skin, and from there I like to explore. I consider myself a conceptual makeup artist , so anything can inspire me from a vintage reference, to a specific shade of blue or a character from a novel. When I’m on set, I like to use makeup to create a persona in the same way an actor would. I always strive for the model to look as beautiful as possible and I’m always analyzing what makes a look cool, when does it become chic and at what point does it turn glamorous. There are so many fine lines and subtleties in makeup that can totally change the look and feel of the model.

My generation of artists who started out in the early 2000’s, we were heavily influenced by the concept of perfection and symmetry. Now we see the idea of beauty evolving into a larger realm of possibilities. When I started out, the industry was still very much “top down,” with a small, exclusive group who dictated what fashion was about. If you followed the rules and worked hard enough, you might be chosen by that group to be a part of it. Today the opposite is happening, because people are going out there and doing it themselves, which in a way is a very punk thing to do. They don’t want the approval from the upper echelons of fashion, but from their friends and peers.

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When I first started out, models were mostly very thin, very young and white. I’m glad to see more diverse ethnicities, ages and body types in the models I work with now. It always baffles me how that changed from quite a diverse industry in the late seventies and early eighties. However, there needs to be more age and body diversity among male models in fashion as well. As someone who loves to buy clothes, I’ve never understood why men’s fashion brands feel like I would want see their pieces advertised on painfully thin teenagers. I don’t find it aspirational at all.

In my own work, I’ve always tried to have a fully inclusive kit that includes all skin tones. I love working on different skin tones, and I believe that all makeup artists should know how to work with any complexion. Isn’t that something to take pride in?

Early in my career makeup was all about correcting “flaws”, but now I see it as something that enhances what makes you unique. When I first started out I had a strong urge to be very experimental with makeup. I was all about color and graphic designs and playing with decorative elements that could be glued to the face. The longer I’ve been working, the more I’ve come to feel that doing something that is considered and subtle is the hardest thing. Anyone can cover a face in makeup, so it ends up being more about what you leave out.

A turning point for me was a story I did for W, featuring Claudia Knoepfel and Stefan Indlekofer, in 2011. Being named as a “new talent” in Vogue Paris in 2012 also was definitely a turning point.

Today, after a decade of homogenous “Instagram face” beauty, I think we’re entering a more individualized phase in makeup. The emergence of “Gen Z” has really shifted the focus of makeup into a tool for personal self-expression. Growing up in the ‘90s, when makeup was more playful, creating a signature look always inspired me, so I love the current change of direction. I think there will be an explosion of colorful makeup post-Covid 19. People will want to express their joy and definitely feature their lips!

Besides the more individualized approach, I really see perfectly radiant skin as the new status symbol. The new question should be: “Is she even wearing any makeup?” The technology in makeup now is making concealer and foundation almost imperceptible to the eye.

I love the work of the new generation of Chinese fashion photographers, such as Leslie Zhang. They’ve rejected European fashion ideals and use their own incredibly rich culture for inspiration. It feels like such a refreshing point of view.

The most rewarding times are when you work closely with a photographer and build a symbiotic relationship of trust and inspiration. The biggest kick still comes when a new story is published and looks amazing. One of the most satisfying aspects of the work also has been being able to travel and being inspired by far-flung places and incredible locations.

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Depending on the shoot, my process varies. I usually start with image research, which can lead to drawing and product research. On set, though, I feel like you shouldn’t be held back by your references and research. Instead I prefer to work with what I feel at that moment. Also, I won’t stick to an idea if it isn’t working, and I’m not afraid to move on to something new.

I can spend hours looking for vintage editorial references. I love finding inspiring images that I haven’t seen before. It’s important to view everything you see that’s going on in the world as inspiration for your ideas and your work. I don’t want to be someone who lives in their own creative bubble, completely separated from the outside world. A big part of my work is researching color and new products. Before shoots, I will often dive into my studio and go through my makeup products for inspiration as well.

I also love researching vintage makeup products and collecting vintage makeup packaging. Staying fit also has been very important to me as I’m always lugging around heavy work cases and traveling. Time spent with friends and family beats all other passions, though.

These days teams have become a lot smaller because of the onset of Covid-19, but I welcome this. On advertising jobs in the past, the client’s entire office, plus the creative agency, would be visiting the set, and that could sometimes make things a bit convoluted. Editorial budgets also are smaller than ever, so we’re all more careful with how we invest our time and money as artists. I am very sad about the death of print, because there’s nothing like opening a beautiful magazine.

Lockdown ended up being quite a busy period for me, because I started working on a new beauty project. I was grateful for the distraction. I also did a complete makeup-kit overhaul, eliminating excessive products and reorganizing my favorites. 

Makeup artists now have to work in a completely different way. To prevent cross-contamination, product needs to be taken out of containers and placed on sterilized palettes before being applied. There is no more double-dipping into containers, and we’re in constant disinfection mode. I now come prepared with a UV sterilization box and all kinds of sanitizing products. It has definitely taken some of the spontaneity out of makeup.

But until we have a COVID-19 vaccine, mask-wearing will continue to greatly influence current beauty trends. Eye and brow makeup and mascaras are the new focus, as well as matte makeup that doesn’t transfer on to your mask.

Currently I’m happily working on a secret project that will be announced next year. Other than that, I’ve been spending more time in Europe, because there has been a huge creative shift from the U.S. to London and Paris.

The most important thing is to find the thing that makes you love what you do. There is so much competition right now, you really have to focus on your own ideas and passions. Also don’t suffer for fashion: work with people you like and who treat you well. If you’re not careful, the industry will eat you up and spit you out. I can’t stress enough how important it is to create a beautiful life outside of your work.

Being unique to me means trusting your instincts and focusing on what you feel is right for your vision. Never copy, but use a reference as an inspiration and create something new with your own visual language.

To me, beauty is anything that enlightens you, inspires you and grabs your attention. Being exposed to beauty makes life more enjoyable to live.


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