Color creates a testimony of emotion, unique to each individual. It defines a part of our existence as humans; a most powerful, visual cue that helps to identify how we engage with the world. While it saturates our lives, it so commonly goes unnoticed. Captivated by the importance and the art of perceiving color is the experimental make-up artist, Phoebe Walters.
Back in 2016, she was labeled by i-D as one of the next-generation make-up artists to watch out for. With a striking portfolio, spanning from Wonderland magazine to Peter Pilotto, we caught Phoebe on her rise to her success for a chat about her perception of color and the impact of the digital world on the makeup industry. Her humble, yet sharp approach bridging her academic training in color theory to the dynamism of the beauty world, Phoebe brings us closer to understanding the forgotten impact of color.
The inspiration behind your work is motivated by color, and in this instance how to “unweave a rainbow”. How far do you think the connotations of color and the emotions that they induce are still regarded today or do you think they are overlooked by the focus on visual aesthetics?
I think there is a large element of aesthetic when it comes to color, and that’s the main reason people choose to include colors in their work or everyday life. I think what’s interesting about it, is that it can dictate a particular emotion, but also you can’t assume what feeling it’s going to create. Someone’s relationship with color is very personal and different for everybody. I think that’s why I’m so interested in them. For my dissertation, I looked at the relationship between color theory and film and how color is used in film to create a character and how they build a relationship with that character as a viewer, dependent on the colors used. So, I think it’s both, it’s aesthetic and it’s the meaning behind it – it’s all personal.
What was it that particularly drew you to this poem by John Keats?
I found this poem so interesting. I read David Scott Kastan’s On Color and that’s where this came from. He goes through the early findings of color, referencing how long-ago people referred to the sea as purple. It makes you ask the kind of questions, is a rose actually red? It talks about the poets and the scientists having their disagreements, you either see color from one side or the other.
Throughout your portfolio, there is a really dominant theme of transforming models into a different character through their make-up. Can you talk me through this process of how you take inspiration from something that is textual for example and translates a line of poetry into an image on a face?
I am a very visual person, and this is the first shoot that I’ve ever done where I’ve taken such a literal approach from a piece of writing and molded it into my work. When it comes to planning shoots, a lot of it depends on the day. I’ll meet the model and decide what would look cool on them based on their personality or the way that they move their face.
Have you found it difficult this time coming at it from a literary perspective?
Yes! I’m very free when I’m working and that’s the beauty of make-up, you can take it off and change it so quickly. I can plan, and this shoot required a lot of planning, but I like to be spontaneous when it comes to my work. I like to be able to change my mind at the moment. But with this shoot, because it’s based on “unweaving the rainbow,” I really wanted to do that through six images, in color order – each shot nods to the next color. In the pink one with red face paint, she’s got orange lashes which leads to the next photo, orange with a tiny bit of yellow on her waterline, therefore the next photo is yellow. It really works as a fluid series, so you couldn’t afford to have one shot and take it out, it was always going to be represented as those six images.
Looking at the wider context of make-up across creative industries, to quote Keats, there is a “dull catalog of common things”. In this context, the mainstream portrayal of make-up on platforms such as Instagram is about glamour. How far has this impacted your work in communicated a vision that is more diverse and experimental?
I think it has made it more inspiring to come up with something different from the Insta make-up, where a lot of it comes from brands trying to sell things. That kind of celebrity contour makeup is an art in itself, but as a result of that, we see so much imagery, visuals, and product every day through Instagram. I think the contrast between the two styles benefits all artists. So, I think it makes me more driven to be creative and do something really different. In a world where everything is the same, if you try and push for something really different, it will eventually get noticed.
Is it hard to strike the balance in how far you can be experimental with your work when you’re working on a shoot with a stylist and a director who want the clothing, or the location to have as much impact as the make-up?
When you’re working in the industry and it’s something you do every day, I’m on the shoots where it’s a huge fashion story and it’s not appropriate to have a huge make-up moment. But then I’ve been on shoots where it’s all about the makeup – it’s about finding that balance. It is collaborative, and you have to find your moment. Make-up is there to aid the story without taking anything away from the overall concept.
How important is it for you to stay abreast of make-up trends and incorporate that into your work, particularly with the rise of make-up culture through Instagram?
Never. I make a point of not following any other make-up artists on Instagram unless they are my friends, or I know the person. You can see an image in your head, and you’ll think it’s original until you go back onto your “Explore” page and it’s there. It’s so hard to be authentic on Instagram, so I pride myself on taking inspiration from other places such as my color theory books and visual books and documentary photography. It could also be something so random on the day too, as a pattern in the dress or texture that I want to manipulate. As a freelancer, it’s really hard in this digital world. You can post a picture of something you worked really hard on, get hardly any likes and then you end up thinking it’s awful. It’s about breaking that mentality. Instagram is a great platform to get your work noticed but it’s not the be all and end all. You can’t base your credibility on Instagram.
Across your work, it’s clear that you’re fascinated by the relationship with color and the eye of the beholder. Have you noticed a change in the dialogue around color, particularly as the focus now is about diversity?
I think there’s been a massive shift in regard to diversity and race in fashion and beauty, but it does still have a long way to go. For example, Fenty Beauty releasing so many shades, there isn’t an excuse anymore not to represent everyone. If you can’t do everyone’s, then you shouldn’t do anyone’s. Anyone who sits with me when I’m about to do their make-up, I want them to feel confident regardless of what I look like. We take color for granted, as we use it to identify so many things, even without realizing that it’s been using against us. In my dissertation, I was reading about how McDonald’s used to be red and yellow because it was appealing, but then everything changed to green and brown, so it appears more organic – it was tricking us into thinking we were being a bit healthier. But I think in regard to creating fashion visuals and beauty, color will always be a big part. The creators are aware of that, but it’s about presenting it to the viewer without saying that it’s there and letting them find their own meaning.