The 12 Essential Steps To Building Your Makeup Portfolio

When I started Mascara Wars I never wanted it to be about me, or my work, or what I’ve been up to this week… Not that I don’t like reading that from others, but I was initially inspired to start a blog at all by hearing from my assistants, or seeing on message boards, the struggles that artists were having on their way up, trying to navigate their way through the early stages of a freelance career with little or no guidance. We’re all drowning in makeup tutorials, but there’s a total lack of info on the business side of being an artist, and I wanted Mascara Wars to shine a light on that.

I touched on it in a previous post, “15 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started My Makeup Career”, but I thought it was time to get specific and really get stuck in. A few readers have asked me to write about how to build and improve their makeup portfolios, and your wish is my command, so here you go guys; this is everything I’ve learned about portfolio building over the last decade, may it be of some help to you! So where do I begin?! Well first of all…

1. Know where you’re headed.

LOTRWhere do you want your “book”, as they’re called in the biz, to take you? This has to come before anything else. Your book cannot represent you if you don’t know who the heck you are as a makeup artist. So figure out where you’d like to end up and start building your portfolio accordingly from the get go. The book a wedding makeup artist might take to a wedding fair is going to be very different to that of a body painter to that of an editorial makeup artist. So…

2. Customise.

giphyIt’s OK to have more than one book. I regularly switch up the content of mine dependant on the client. The type of work I might show to Nike for a commercial shoot is not the same as I’d show to Elle magazine. And the work I’d show to Elle is not what I’d show to Dazed and Confused. It’s more than fine to do and shoot and variety of work of course, but don’t lump it all in your book together and just leave it there!

If you’re showing your work on a website, its also OK to have more than one website. If you want to get more editorial work say, don’t have your other types of makeup gigs on the same site. When I first came to London and was paying the bills with bridal and private clients I made that mistake and was quickly told by agencies what a huge no-no it is. I then separated my work and took bridal clients under a different name with a different site. My editorial/celebrity site has been regularly updated but has remained largely the same since. You might be incredible at all types of makeup but it’s often perceived as being a jack of all trades, and the fashion/celebrity world don’t like to see bridal/bodypainting/SFX… I know it sounds snobby but that’s just the way it is.

Similarly, your actual book that you either take to clients in person, or send as a PDF, should be customised to the client on each occasion. Do they like bold, daring looks? Put more of those in. Do they like pretty, fresh makeup? Take out the crazier stuff. Or if you can’t bear to take it out, move it to the back. Think about your opener. Open on a shot with wow factor, but that speaks to that client’s sensibilities.

3. Lap Up the Criticism.

giphy (1)And try to take any criticism constructively. If you’re lucky, early in your career you’ll take your book to an agency and they’ll tear it to shreds. Not literally (I hope) but they’ll tell you, Anna Wintour Style, that “this is awful… this needs to come out… you need more of this… this photographer is terrible…” And if they do, thank your lucky stars. It happened to me twice years ago, they were a hundred per cent right, and it was a fast track to taking my work up a notch. You may love all the work in your book but there’s a huge chance it’s not as great as you think, yet. I still take advice on the chin and work on my style constantly. In fact just last year I was advised I needed more “effortless” makeup in my book. So I shot that way for six months and it added a whole new angle to the type of editorial bookings I started getting. Criticism is your book’s best friend, be open to it.

4. Mix It Up

giphy (2)Overall, your book needs to show variety, technical ability, that your work is contemporary, and that it reflects the client’s needs. But the variety is hugely important. Don’t just fill it with your most balls to the wall crazy work. Don’t show them twenty pages of bold eyes and nude lips. Show that you can do beautiful fresh skin, that you can smash a red lip, show that you can be bold and creative, show a variety of skin tones, show male grooming… Having a signature style is a great thing, but even Alex Box knows how to take it down a notch every now and then. All of the greatest makeup artists’ portfolios are a masterclass in versatility.

5. Get With The Times

giphy (5)Make sure your work isn’t dated. I see so much work in new artists’ books that looks like it was shot in the nineties and noughties, and it’s just a wasted shoot for all involved. Contemporary work simply means this; look at Vogue… look at iD, look at the work of the artists who are out there at the top of their game, at the biggest agencies, making money and working. And not their work from five years ago, what are they doing NOW? This is the sort of work that should inspire your own. And inspire is the operative word here, no copying please, makeup is plagiarised so often and find it utterly weird and… pointless?! Look at the aesthetic of stories you love, the poses, the settings, the makeup, the general vibe. Inspiration should come from far more avenues than simply looking at editorials, but try to build your own stories in a way that fits in with what the industry wants.

On that note, an ombre lip never got anyone any further than Instagram on the whole, so I’m sorry, but lip art and contouring and brows on fleek are generally not what you need in your book if you want to work in the fashion, celebrity or commercial worlds.  I know this is a process and we all start somewhere, but it took me years to realise my book needed work that emulates the top magazines, not some random image I found on Tumblr that I thought was cool, or just whatever my creative little mind had vomited out that day. Each shoot should be a STORY, of at the absolute least four pages (you can get away with less for beauty, but most stories are eight to twelve pages), meaning it should have a theme, that all elements should work together, and that theme should carry the viewer through a variety of looks.

6. To Print Or Not To Print

giphy (8)Being a dinosaur I am attached to my physical, print book. Yes it costs money to update but I believe that’s how my images look their most beautiful; well-printed, full size, in a portfolio. However, in the digital age physical books are undeniably becoming obsolete so honestly, it pains me to say it but a print portfolio is not essential. Most people will now look at a website first and foremost and may never even get round to seeing your book in person. Some websites are separated into editorial/beauty/commercial/celebrity sections, my agency’s is like this, my own is a smaller curated stream of work, in this sense how you present it is entirely your choice. Take a look at other artist’s sites and see which layouts resonate with you.

But yes back to the book – a lot of people nowadays are using iPads/tablets and despite my initial resistance I can’t see a problem with that… Just please GOD always use the high resolution images. As a side note, you should be able to request these from the photographer. Unfortunately some photographers, particularly in the early days, can be downright rubbish at sending them to the team, and in that case they’re straight up unprofessional. It’s rare though, and I’ve only ever had that problem in the past with frankly crappy photographers. The professional ones, and the ones you want to continue a relationship with, will always send you the hi-res files on request.

And if you do want to go down the beautiful print route, which certainly still impresses, standard print book size is around 12×14 inches, embossed with your name if possible (this isn’t as expensive as it sounds!) Try here, here and here for some sexy portfolio options. Depending which you go for you may also need sleeves and binding screws to hold it all together, and preferably a presentation bag to carry it about in to keep it pristine. Always give your book a once over before presenting it, stuck together pages and scratched up covers will be more memorable than your work if you’re not careful. And just stick with the classic black option. Luminous pink might be tempting but you should be showing off in the content, not the cover.

7. The Layout.

ezgif_com-cropYour images do not need to fill the whole page in your book. Ideally you’ll eventually be inserting tear sheets (That is, pages taken from magazines. Neat edges please, no ragged ripped pages – and yes you may need two copies of the mag if you want both sides). If your shots are from test shoots or online work, print them as though they’re tear sheets, so magazine quality paper (not the finest glossy photographic prints) and size. I still get my printing done from the same affordable place I went to up north ten years ago, I just send them the hi res files and they post it down to me in London. Try to get your prints done out of the town centre at least, and shop around for quotes, it’ll be a lot cheaper.

In terms of the layout, show your images in pairs. Apart from the opening page of a physical book which I appreciate can throw this off somewhat, (you may choose to leave it empty and start on page two, or show three images to begin with, or a portrait followed by a two page landscape shot), either way an open book should have images on either side from the same shoot or story as often as possible. If you shoot a ten page story you don’t have to include all ten images as a makeup artist. Particularly if there was only one makeup look, we have the luxury of choosing our absolute favourites! Two or four from a story is fine. And as mentioned above, if an image is landscape, spread it across two pages. You don’t want the viewer to have to flip your book all the time. The same goes for iPad, they should be able to move through seamlessly without having to turn your work around every two seconds. And please please please know the back-story of your book. As in know who the teams were on each shoot and what it was for. People will ask and you will look incompetent if you can’t remember, believe me I’ve been there, it’s cringeworthy.

8. Quality Not Quantity.

542Hold your horses and don’t put everything in there! Forty shots is more than enough, and as little as twenty is fine.  And once you have a decent amount of work to show, each time you add something, try to take something away. The standard of your work should be rising all the time and you’re only as good as your weakest shoot so edit as you grow! Five killer shoots is better than ten shoots that are half mediocre. Similarly, if you shoot something and you’re super excited about it, and then the shots come back and they aren’t what you imagined, then… good. Honestly! It’s certainly a bummer but what’s good in the long run is that it means you have an eye for the standards of your own work, and that’s a great thing, so just leave them out and keep going! I have a couple of shots from five years ago that have never left my book, and at the same time have probably shot five things in the last year that haven’t made it in at all. Be selective.

9. How To Get The Shots

giphy (21)This is where a lot of new artists get exasperated. It’s the Catch 22; you can’t shoot with photographers because they want to see your book and you can’t get a book without the photographers. But with a little effort, and tenacity you can get there. And no, you won’t start by working with your dream photographers off the bat most likely, but if you’re clever about it and shoot often, you can get swiftly on your way.

There used to be a great site called “Who Is Testing” where a curated selection of newbie photographers could be found, but it’s no longer with us (RIP), so nowadays try sites like Model Mayhem, or local makeup/photography groups on Facebook. Now I’ll be blunt, there is a LOT of crap on there. It can be like searching for a golden needle in a very ugly haystack. But the jewels are there to be found. I would spend hours searching the local photographer listings on Model Mayhem back in the day to find the good ones, and they were indeed there, maybe one in every fifty pages but that’s the effort you may have to put in! Or try searching Instagram hashtags like #ManchesterPhotographer or wherever in the world you may be, although if you’re in a small town consider travelling to the bigger cities to shoot, that’s where the best photographers tend to be hanging out… Look at online and smaller independent magazines, who are the teams? Can you look up their sites and dig out their contact details? If you’re assisting, suggest to the hair and photography assistants that you may want to shoot together. There are a tonne of avenues in. But what do you do once you’ve found them? How can you get them to work with you?

Well, don’t send a copy and pasted email. That’s rule number one. It’s rude, it’s obvious and it’s very often an automatic no. This goes for makeup artists at any stage of their career to be fair, not just the beginners. If you want to work with someone, send them a personal mail, tell them what you love about their work, what’s your favourite shoot of theirs. You should know this anyway if you’ve been looking at their work. Put together a concept before you approach them, preferably with a simple moodboard. And this isn’t a one size fits all approach, if they’re known for shooting black and white natural beauty, don’t send them a psychedelic rainbow concept, tailor it to their work! Let them know you have this great idea you’d love to shoot with them, that you’d be really interested to meet and chat about it. It’s that simple. Start with beauty so you don’t need to involve a stylist as this can be a lot more difficult early on. Email twenty photographers… you may only get one reply but that’s all you need. And off you go.

The same goes for finding the rest of your team, hair stylists, stylists, nail techs. And once you’ve found them and worked with them, stay in touch! You should be doing this anyway, it’s called having fun, making friends and enjoying life, but also they’ll usually get in touch in return needing you for their teams, and at some point you’ll no doubt be asked by a photographer for recommendations, and as you all make your way up the ladder you continue to help each other out!

10. How To Get The Girls (and Guys)

giphy (22)The photographer may already have model agency contacts, but if not, feel free to get in touch with agencies yourself. Call up and ask who you need to email about booking new faces for an upcoming test shoot. Then simply be polite, be honest, let them know the team you’re working with and offer to shoot some fresh beauty shots of their new girls, or present them with your shoot concept. On the day, do the simple beauty shots for the agencies if you’ve offered them, then the more creative stuff for yourself and everyone’s happy. And always make sure to get your girls from the biggest and best agencies possible. Model Mayhem and Facebook groups are not the place to find “models”, let the professional scouts at the agencies do that for you, a bad model will ruin an otherwise great shoot.

Many of the bigger agencies also have Special Bookings divisions that look after celebrity names, pop stars, actresses and more, so why not put together a team, including stylist, with a studio space and offer to shoot them some great press shots? You can contact management and PR companies in the same way. If you offer to do the hard work for them at no cost they may jump at the chance. And don’t shoot me for saying you should work for free. If they contact you it’s a different story but in the first instance consider your payment to be the opportunity to elevate your book, make great contacts and maybe even work with that celebrity on future paid gigs (just the one free gig people, don’t let them use you!) And another way to get great shots?…

11. Make It Easy For Them

giphy (25)Now I’m not saying you can pay your way in, but a lot of photographers starting their own careers don’t have studios or spaces in which to shoot, and getting locations for no fee can be tough. If you have a great space to shoot in, let them know. Even just a big, airy living room with high ceilings can be a great makeshift studio, so if you have the space, offer it up! I used to live in a warehouse and photographers would come and shoot at mine all the time. If you want to pay for a studio, you can, but try to keep your own costs down. However if you do organise a shoot or put feelers out to the photographer to shoot with them, you should cover the costs of keeping everyone fed and watered on the day itself. Catering is on you. It doesn’t have to be fancy but Haribo, Pringles and a warm can of Coke do not a working lunch make. Also they don’t owe you travel expenses and you don’t owe them to anyone else. People are always banging on about travel expenses. Unless someone asks you do travel a considerable distance (i.e. outside of your city) at considerable cost, then you get your own butt to work like the rest of the world.

Oh and pet hate; once your shoot plan is underway, if you get in touch with anyone with a request for them to join your team, for goodness sake give them all the details. I hate getting emails that just say something like, “Are you free to shoot on Wednesday?” Well maybe I am maybe I’m not… Who’s the photographer? What’s it for? Where are you shooting? What are the hours? Who’s the model? What’s the concept? A shoot you’re wildly excited about simply may not be someone else’s cup of tea so don’t make things awkward, let them make an informed decision.

12. Keep. On. Shooting.

ezgif_com-crop (1)Over time as your book improves, you can contact more established photographers and slowly but surely, it builds. Putting together a great book can take years and that’s totally normal. The editorials will come later, there are a lot of great online magazines now too, but there is no shame in just testing. Don’t obsess over submissions or getting your work in print, especially at first. I still test now and have zero problem with it. You’re looking to learn, to be the best artist you can be and build the ideal book. Do that and the print credits will follow. Be patient and before you know it you’ll have a makeup portfolio you can be truly proud of, and more importantly, one that can build you a solid career.

And there, in a nutshell, you have it. It’s a lot of information but at the same time dare I say it, it’s a lot of common sense. So let me know guys, how is your portfolio building going? Are there any problems you’re having that I haven’t addressed? Let me know! Any resources for finding teams that I haven’t mentioned? Fill me in below!

Lucy xx

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4 Responses

  1. Sukhy Bhandal August 26, 2015 / 12:09 am

    Hi Lucy, I’m fairly new to your website having seen Pixiwoos fb where they often repost some of your amazing articles. You seem spot on with all your knowledge, and it’s great to see your passion and how you give back to us fellow makeup artist, so thank you. I just read the above article about building your portfolio; something I am doing all the time as a relatively new artist in the world of fashion! I was wondering, what sort of job did you have whilst you were in this stage of test shooting etc? I’m freelancing with my bridal and events etc, and I recently quit my job as head of sales for an IT company so I could solely focus on my passion for makeup, as well as focus on getting signed to an agency so I can hopefully one day work on editorial, celebrity, t.v. and music video jobs. But whilst I freelance and test shoot to gain more exposure within the fields outlined, what other line of work could you recommend as a way to gaining contacts/networking in a way that will benefit my makeup career? I’m considering counter work as working for a brand can be one avenue to take. However I must be honest I’m not keen on the focus of sales (even though I have a sales back ground). I would love to work somewhere that allows me to continue to think creatively whislt testing etc… or am I asking for too much here? Would love to get some of your insight and honesty :) Thanks in advance and sorry for the very long-winded msg!! Sukhy – also any tips on how to approach assisting would be very much appreciated also! Thank you so much and keep up the inspiring work – you’ve just got yourself a new fan btw, I’ve been totally checking your work out and I’m in total awe!

  2. Lucy G August 26, 2015 / 7:06 pm

    Sukhy! Thankyou so much for your lovely comment, and so glad you’re finding Mascara Wars helpful! That’s great that you’ve taken the step to change careers and focus on your passion for makeup, shows you’re determined already which is the first quality any makeup artist needs!

    In my own career, upon leaving college I first of all started temping on some makeup counters before taking a job at Mac. Please don’t be put off by the sales side of things there, as there’s also so much creativity and artistry encouraged in the role. If you’re going to take counter work though, on the way to becoming an actual makeup artsist, I would really only recommend Mac. They have great training, great opportunities and the chance to be incredibly creative in your daily work on counter. Obviously there are targets to achieve but if you’re a great and passionate artist the stuff often sells itself, I never felt I was in a “sales” role so to speak.

    After a year and half at Mac I began my freelance career working at makeover studios, doing bridal work, and assisting. This was the time when I was testing and working on my own book. Honestly, the testing is where you should be networking and pushing your creativity. Other than actually being a makeup artist there aren’t hugely creative paid makeup roles in the very early stages of your career, besides on a Mac counter. Illamasqua/Smashbox/specialist makeup stores could also be a good bet but I don’t know that they have the training or opportunities in place that Mac do.

    I hope that helps somewhat! On the assisting front I have a whole post on assisting planned for the near future, so keep checking back and that will be with you soon. If there are any specific questions you’d like to see covered just let me know. Thanks for the support Sukhy!


    • Sukhy Bhandal August 31, 2015 / 6:28 pm

      This is extremely helpful and insightful, I’ve made an application off the back of this to a few make-up counter stores, so thank you for taking the time to reply and providing your expert advice! I’ll def continue to follow this site for more info on Assisting and in general as I really do love what you’ve got going on here. It’s such a tricky industry at times, we only have ourselves and unlike some jobs where you have a career path mapped out for you, it’s not easy to know whether you’re making the “right” decisions or not. Having a site like this and your expertise to refer to is so helpful! Much much respect :)

  3. Shayna August 28, 2015 / 5:31 am

    Hi Lucy! Like Sukhy, I also found you through Pixiwoo! I’ve been struggling for a while to find people to test with. Do you think it might be a good idea to advertise (for a lack of a better word!) my services at places like art schools? I was thinking that there might be some photography students/fashion students that need help with their books. Thank you so much and I love your blog! It’s a godsend xx

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