Alex Box is a makeup artist in the truest sense, having earned a fine art degree at Chelsea College of Art, where she began using makeup as a medium in her work, and as such fell into the career of makeup artist almost by accident. Her bold style inspires makeup artists worldwide, whether on the pages of ID and Vogue, in her work with Illamasqua, or on the faces of stars as varied as Michael Stipe and Lady Gaga. I first met Alex six years ago when I moved to London, and have been lucky enough to assist her in the past, and continue to find her work and her thoughts on the world of makeup as fascinating as ever. Alex and I lay on our respective sofas one Tuesday afternoon to have a phone chat about her life as a makeup artist, and she really did let me pick her brain.
Mascara Wars: Hey Alex! So, obviously your work is known for being particularly unique and creative, where would you say you get your inspiration from? Do you work from reference material often?
Alex Box: I don’t usually work from references no, I tend to almost just… feed my brain images constantly, I’m a bit of a magpie in that sense, that I visually just absorb. I never feel that there’s one avenue of reference. I look a lot at things like Life magazine, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The Huffington Post, things that are just more… world view images? They’re never one thing and they’re very rarely about anything to do with fashion, more just like… life! National Geographic is really good because you never know what you’re going to get, I find that more inspiring, nature, and science.
MW: So before a particular shoot for example, would you ever plan in advance?
AB: No, never… no. I just trust it will turn up in my head… The only time I’ve ever done preparation is if I’m going to do something that’s line based and I have to see it first, so I draw it on a magazine or in a book, or do sketches and that’s just almost to get my hand in the “world” of that shape. I haven’t done very detailed line work for a long time, but that’s the only time I would do a shape over and over again, because I think I sort of need to train my hand to understand what I’m trying to do. But other than that no, I mean that’s why I like working live, I think I’m much truer to what I enjoy doing when I don’t know what I’m doing!
“I like working live, I think I’m much truer to what I enjoy doing when I don’t know what I’m doing!”
MW: And on the flip side, would you say you’ve ever struggled with a makeup technique, or perhaps made any memorable mistakes that you feel you’ve learned from as a makeup artist?
AB: Definitely, God, yeah! Haha! I mean, I’ve had moments where I thought I was going to black out because it looked so awful, and there was so much pressure, you know? Like I remember doing a shoot, one of the first I did for Italian Vogue, in New York and everybody on the team were legends. I was very young, and it was the first time I was flown out to New York and they all sat in director’s chairs and said “We wanna see the Alex Box magic appear!” And I was just like “Right, OK…” And I started to do this look… and it looked so shit, it was beyond belief..!
I just had this idea in my head that was full on, sort of quite a tumultuous, in-turmoil look and every colour I put on just went muddy? I was just like “Ohhhh Jesus,” and I honestly thought I was going to black out. I kind of just kept going and I kept putting more on and it just kept getting worse and then in the end I really thought “I’ve got to start again, I’ve gone past the point, it looks awful!”
MW: I think that’s good to hear though, I mean that’s an important lesson to learn, to be confident in your mistakes and to say , you know what this isn’t working and take it off.
AB: Absolutely! I did feel this immense pressure, but there’s something that’s quite exciting to me in that, that when it gets to that real crisis point you’ve got to pull something out of the bag. So I just thought… There was some olive oil that was on the table and I know that when I take makeup off a lot of the time it looks amazing, so I just started wiping bits off and it just started to look really good and they were like, “There it is, here it is, here’s the magic!” It worked, thankfully, but I just remember thinking I want to faint! It was awful, you know you’ve got this great expectation and weight on you and it was almost like my body just went, “OK we’ll go to sleep now” and shut down!
MW: But you survived! Thank God! Well then in contrast what would you say has been your proudest moment to date and of all the looks you’ve created to you have a favourite?
AB: I mean, my proudest moment is having my son, that’s definitely my personal proudest moment, but in my makeup career, it’s always the thing I haven’t made yet. It’s always the thing that is like, “I know this could be done, but it hasn’t been done yet and I want to do it”. I don’t look back very much and I certainly don’t feel I could ever even give you a moment where I feel like y’know “Booya!” Not that I don’t enjoy what I do, or have moments where I’ve achieved something technical, or I’ve achieved something that has captured the spirit of something… It’s ongoing, a work in progress definitely. I do really believe “…just wait,” y’know? I’ve got a lot of passion for the future.
MW: I love that. And how about earlier in your career, did you ever have any moments of doubt in the early days, or did you struggle as a freelancer?
AB: Of course, I still do! I think the struggle is part of being freelance. I don’t think there is any freelance person on this planet that doesn’t struggle, because that is the plight of being… self disciplined. Because you’ve got no structure, you’ve got nobody implementing any security, you’ve got nobody to say “this is great what you’re doing”. You’ve got pretty much nobody to ask because you work alone, and also there is no real career path. Then there’s luck, there’s being in the right place at the right time, there’s connections, it doesn’t reward talent, there’s no visible sort of markers of achievement… And when you get them you push that achievement to another place, because you’ve got in the magazine so then you want the cover, then you’ve got the cover so you want something else, you’re never satisfied because the nature of the work is that you’re always evolving.
“I’ve not met anybody freelance that hasn’t had one, two, three breakdowns! There is nobody that sails through.”
MW: Absolutely. I think it’s encouraging for emerging artists to hear people like yourself say that, because often they don’t get to hear the behind the scenes, they just get to see the career highlights and the big jobs and the retouched beautiful photos and its easy to imagine that everyone else but them is having a really easy ride!
AB: Oh you know I’ve not met anybody freelance that hasn’t had one, two, three breakdowns! There is nobody that sails through. There’s an amazing interview with Ethan Hawke about Robin Williams, and he said y’know, you’d see him do these amazing, incredible scenes in a film and he’d be laughing and Ethan would watch him and think, “God it’s so easy for you.” And then he’d see him off the set sort of almost shaking, totally like something’s just been drawn out of him and just completely empty, not enjoying it almost. It’s like, it doesn’t come for free, it just doesn’t. I think anything that’s creative or anything that is perceived as “Wow they’re up there and God they’ve got it so easy,” it just doesn’t come for free and like it or hate it that’s the same for everybody.
MW: So true. So, just to totally flip subjects, you’re the creative director of Illamasqua, I’m a big fan and I have a few of the products that are kit staples. I was wondering if you have any favourite Illamasqua products that you use in your kit when you’re working?
AB: Ohh so many! I think the Skin Base Foundation is the best foundation I’ve ever used in my life, it’s just incredible. When David (Horne, Illamasqua’s Head of Product Development) and I invented it it was just like the Holy Grail, it just does everything on our wishlist for a foundation. To see it work on anybody from 15 to 75 and still look amazing is really incredible.
Also Gel Sculpt which came out today, which I’m just head over heels about. I’ve been really pushing for ages for intelligent products that other people just don’t have and that come completely from a makeup artist’s perspective. I wanted to make a see-through contour, something that gave you the complete feeling of a natural shadow which you would see the skin through, the opposite of the Kardashian thing, something really subtle and beautiful. So I’ve just been beavering away, trying to make that for ages, and people have gone absolutely mad for it, saying we’ve never seen anything like this. You can use it on the eyes as well, it’s just such a makeup artist’s product, honestly, as a makeup artist you would love it .
MW: Sounds dreamy! So, how long does it take you to create the more intricate of your looks would you say?
AB: I’m really quite quick, I don’t actually take very long, and when people have seen what I do in that space of time they’re quite shocked because they always imagine that it takes forever, but I actually I cannot go slow! I don’t like to stop and I sort of get in this flow and it just sort of comes out, with looks that have more of a painterly feel it’s never more than an hour. But things like the black line look that I did with Rankin (below left), I mean that was like seven hours, so it kind of depends on what it is. If it’s line work like that it’s not going to be fast, but anything else that I do, I do very quickly.
“I do feel very spiritual when I’m doing makeup . . . I fall in love with the face and the light that’s hitting it and the energy that’s coming off that person and the situation.”
MW: So finally, I often think when I see you working that you see the structure of the face in a very unique way, that your use of colour and texture is really clever and instinctive, and I wonder how much you think being a great makeup artist is learned and how much of it is just innate?
Well I can only speak for myself in the sense that I think it’s all feeling. I don’t think I’ve ever looked to be taught so I stay very closed off from a lot of other makeup. I mean, I’m fully aware through social media but I tend to try to keep almost a sort of clear mind of styles… It’s hard to explain but, for me, if it wasn’t makeup it’d be on a canvas, if it wasn’t a canvas it’d be a sculpture, if it wasn’t a sculpture it’d be sewing, like the face is where I’m doing what I’m doing but it could easily be paper cut-outs on the floor y’know?
I do feel very spiritual somehow when I’m doing makeup, in the sense that I feel very much like I fall in love with the face and the light that’s hitting it and the energy that’s coming off that person and the situation. I feel almost high after I do very intuitive makeup, especially when I’m doing it on someone that I know quite well, like Charly, or Georgie (Charly Wright and Georgie Hobday, two of Alex’s regular models of choice). There’s just something there that becomes very magical in the sense that I know that face very well, and I really like that person…
I like to work on people again and again and I really like to connect with their energy and become in a space that’s really trusting and exciting. I hear stories that a lot of my peers don’t actually do makeup anymore, they just sort of instruct it, and I feel like when I do shows people say “Oh its so quaint that you do the makeup,” I’m like, “Jesus are you kidding me?! That’s the best bit!!”
Follow Alex Box;
To Follow Mascara Wars, click here!