I've Assisted So Many Celebrity Makeup Artists—This Is What I've Learned

Updated 04/03/19
how to assist a makeup artist
Faith Xue

I decided I was going to become a makeup artist after realizing my mind was consumed with makeup. I’d spend hours at the makeup counter looking for the perfect nude lipstick. I made notes on which artists were doing all the magazine covers and editorials. I’d look at ads and red carpet images and try to figure out why their makeup looked like a work of art. I was obsessed with it all. Back then, there wasn’t much information on how to get started, but I’d heard that in order to do so, you need to assist a makeup artist.

So I compiled a list of every single agency in L.A. that I could find and emailed all of them asking to be put on their assistant list. I included my portfolio, which consisted of only five or so shots. One, maybe two, agencies actually added me to their list, and the rest turned me down or just never responded.

I also emailed makeup artists directly if I was able to find their email address. I once even walked into an agency to introduce myself to the agent without having an appointment. For an entire year, I continued to follow up with all of the agencies and an opportunity finally came through: I got the call to assist a celebrity makeup artist. The job was for the cover of a major fashion magazine with a beautiful actress who was starring in a blockbuster film. This was the moment I’d been waiting for.

There were just so many questions I pondered. What do I do? What do I say? What will be expected of me?

My goal from the moment I started assisting was to be the best and most useful assistant. I walked into that job with confidence, and I nailed it. Soon after, I began getting booked regularly with that artist. I made myself available for every single job request. I became indispensable. At the time, Instagram was still sort of new, and we were all figuring it out. I focused on building a relationship with the agencies since I thought that would be more important than a social media app. Today, we all know that Instagram is another stream of networking and self-promotion.

It's an online portfolio and, in some cases, just as important as your skill set. Being active on Instagram is expected of all artists, especially those who are working their way up the ranks. Because there are so many new artists wanting to assist, an agency really needs to be able to see who you are and the type of work you do before even thinking of sending you out with an artist.  

I continued assisting that same makeup artist for nearly four years and built a really great relationship with her. Having a good reputation in this business is invaluable, and many agents rely on referrals, so if their artists can vouch for their assistant, you’ll continue to get more work. I pursued other agencies to really get my name out there and network. At one point, I was working with seven to eight makeup artists regularly. Assisting a top makeup artist in the industry requires a great deal of perseverance, positivity, and intuition.

As assistants, we’re not given a briefing on the artists’ idiosyncrasies, nor do we know the specifics of the job ahead of time. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to form a bond with someone you’ve just met and now have to work effortlessly together in front of the client. Most artists like their setup a specific way. Some like to bounce ideas off of you and want you to be a part of the shoot. I love those kinds of days. For a big red carpet event, sometimes I’d help prep the night before with the artist, go over the look, and pack specific products in their kit.

 

So much is required from the artist on social media nowadays for red carpets, and a lot of work goes into that element. Even after the client leaves for the carpet, we’re still working on interviews, beauty breakdowns, and Instagram posts. Each job can be very different. I remember my first time working on a big fashion campaign and the feeling of being inadequate. The aesthetic and environment were so different from what I’d been used to because until then, I mainly worked with celebrities and red carpet.

That experience was invaluable and necessary in order for me to mature as an artist.

 

I can say that there is no “secret technique” or magical product that every artist uses. There are some popular products that most artists carry in their kits, but each artist is unique in their technique and aesthetic. Some swear by prepping the skin with facial oil, and others think it disturbs the wear of the foundation. Some have every single color of the rainbow in their kit, and others prefer to work with minimal product and mix to get the perfect shade. Some cannot live without makeup sponges.

Others think they're a waste of time. What I’ve learned is that there’s an infinite amount of ways to apply makeup, but as long as you understand color, understand the face, and know how it will be interpreted on camera, your makeup will turn out beautifully.

There’s never a dull moment on set. One of the most embarrassing moments for me happened while assisting on a commercial job. We were all finishing up lunch, and it was a big set with a lot going on. A little while later, I saw one of the models was still eating. Since we needed to get everyone ready, I walked over to where she was eating and asked her to go to glam after she finished eating. She replied, “I’m not eating lunch. I’m on camera, and this food is just a prop.” I had just walked onto the set while filming.

You live and learn.

It’s also so important to know your stuff. Know your colors, undertones, shade names, new brands, new products, and trends. Know the makeup artist’s aesthetic. This is all very helpful when the artist asks you to grab a certain product and you have three seconds to find it. I recall a moment when we were working with a client who requested a certain lipstick, and I knew the artist didn’t have that specific one. (She had hundreds, just not that one.) I happened to know the exact brand and shade and was able to quickly mix up a custom blend to match that specific lipstick.

An assistant should be able to ensure the artist works with ease and can focus on their client. Our job isn’t always rewarding, either. A client once asked me to leave because there “was no room” for me in the dressing room. I hadn’t even finished setting up yet. It happens.

This makeup business is very challenging, and you have to love your work. Social media can give younger and new artists a false set of expectations because the glitzy element is what’s usually presented. Success may seem as though it’s achievable overnight because we post what makes us look good, but what’s missing from the picture is the reality—the struggle. Every single makeup artist makes mistakes. All of us have moments of feeling invincible and feeling defeated. There are so many sides to this business, but the quality of your work should be paramount.

We’re so consumed with “success” that our craft can become second-string.

A sushi master in Japan who is regarded as the best in the world trains his apprentices for 10 years before they’re even allowed to prepare a single piece of sushi. This is inconceivable to many, but that amount of commitment and dedication is incredibly admirable and inspirational to me. For those out there looking to start assisting or get into this business, my advice would be to love what you do, act with integrity, don’t be lazy, and stop comparing yourself to everyone else. The process of building the necessary skills in order to mature as an artist takes time, and you’ll eventually earn the confidence you need to start landing your own jobs.

Keep scrolling for my top five makeup products in my kit!

Erborian Yuza Double Lotion $36
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I always prep the skin before makeup and really address the needs of my clients’ skin. Slathering on a moisturizer isn’t always the best option, in my opinion. I prefer light layers of hydration, and this Korean brand is a gem! It's similar to an essence, and I massage the skin using this product. It really hydrates and brightens the skin. 

Guerlain Terracotta Bronzing Powder 04 Medium Blondes
Guerlain Terracotta Bronzing Powder 04 Medium Blondes $53
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This bronzer actually makes you look like you just came back from a tropical vacation. Guerlain nailed down the shades and undertones so you never look too orange or red. I haven't found a better bronzer. 

Becca Shimmering Skin Perfector Liquid Highlighter $41
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This liquid highlighter has been my favorite because the light-reflecting particles are very refined and never look sparkly or chunky. I like the undertones of the shades, and they all make the skin look glowing—a look I personally love.

Nars Radiant Creamy Concealer
Nars Radiant Creamy Concealer $30
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I carry loads of different concealers in my kit to tackle every situation. This concealer is my favorite because it comes in a variety of shades and undertones, and the texture makes it easy for me to blend into the skin. It gives a satin finish that works well underneath the eye and for the complexion.

Giorgio Armani Eye Tint Liquid Eyeshadow Matte $39
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When working on the eyes, I usually lay down a cream base to give me a blueprint of the eye and to understand where I’ll go from there. I love these matte tints because they are sheer but buildable and blend like a dream. Once they dry, they don’t budge. A lot of matte cream shadows can look chalky, but these are on another level. You can also use one shade all over the eye for a gorgeous, simple smoky eye.

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