Makeup is not traditionally considered a fine art, but that perception may be shifting. Through the work of multidisciplinary talents like Laurel Charleston, whose nonconformist and illusion makeup looks recently made waves in the public via the likes of Doja Cat, viewers are invited to consider the face a canvas rather than simply a medium for trends.
Illusion and abstract makeup has long held a place in editorial work and, more recently, on social media, but it’s remained somewhat rare to see such designs in real life or on celebrities outside of Halloween (or the Met Gala). Lately, though, the partnership between Doja Cat and Charleston has begun to change that, with the duo experimenting with trippy, campy and delightfully weird beauty looks, particularly throughout fashion month in September. Whether a French flag extending from the lower lip or comic-book-character-worthy spiky eyeliner, Charleston’s eye-catching looks have gone viral and generated plenty of buzz. Through these types of surrealist beauty statements, her makeup artistry has defined the rising minimalist illusion trend, influencing new fans in the process.
To feel like she’s painting on canvas, Charleston refrains from using stencils on her clients, instead relying on an impressively precise freehand technique for graphic, geometrical shapes. Having graduated from Pennsylvania State University, where she studied music performance and orchestra, the Pa. native’s theatrical pursuits inspired an exploration of makeup art between classes, letting her imagination run wild through avant-garde beauty methods. At the heart of Charleston’s work is her penchant for technicolor intricacies, bringing the fantastical to real life through vivid hues and detailed patterns.
“When you do makeup on yourself, your wrist is pointing toward you and it’s a very intimate, safe experience,” she tells Fashionista. “When you have to do makeup on someone else, you turn your wrist 180 degrees around and you use completely different muscle movements, angles of your fingers and your wrist — everything that can feel so foreign to you. I’ve had to spend years on so many different faces and bodies, doing this type of artistic work to get it down to a point where I feel comfortable doing it quickly and efficiently on different clients.”
While other celebrity makeup artists aren’t as specialized in cutting-edge illusion techniques or the skill of manipulating depth perception, Charleston honors Doja Cat’s “deeply expressive, authentic and bold” personality through these elements. The two got acquainted on Instagram earlier this year; Doja Cat was already familiar with Charleston’s experimental and fashion-forward makeup through editorials and brand clients.
“Through most forms of media, so much makeup is about the eyes and the lips. It’s about human features and trying to achieve this similar goal of what standard beauty should be or [what it] currently looks like,” says Charleston. “When you release yourself from those standards, you can begin to explore the endless possibilities of makeup.”
Doja Cat is famous for her eccentric wigs, but when the Grammy-winning artist debuted her shaved head and eyebrows in August, admitting that she “never liked having hair,” it opened an even more expansive canvas for Charleston’s work. Prior to Paris Fashion Week, the artist painted Doja Cat’s entire head for the “Vogue World” show during New York Fashion Week.
“I like to see makeup as using the whole face as the canvas. That was the epitome of this [New York Fashion Week] look; exploring what that can mean with makeup and showing the world that makeup can go beyond the geography of an eye. It can encapsulate the entire face and body,” she explains.
Using “minimalist” makeup to draw attention to specific parts of the face, Charleston continued the streak of intricate looks during Paris Fashion Week, paying homage to Thom Browne’s statement French flag while keeping the rest of Doja Cat’s face a bit more classically made up. The “Need to Know” artist went full Pantruche-chic, wearing a wrapped Browne ensemble from the designer’s Fall 2022 collection, with her buzz-cut hair and eyebrows shaved down and tinted blonde. To highlight the French flag painted on her lips using acrylic paint from MAC Cosmetics, Doja Cat’s eyes were concealed by sheer, oversized sunglasses.
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“Thom Browne’s fashion is known for the red, white and blue stripe — you can find it on every single piece of clothing on the brand,” says Charleston. “It was about taking that and putting it somewhere interesting on the face and body. Putting it on the chin and lip, I think, was beautiful, poignant, unexpected and a very bold statement.”
Turning makeup experimentation into high art, Charleston aims to compliment her clients’ fashion ensembles, even if it means contrasting styles to create an even bolder look. At Vivienne Westwood‘s Spring 2023 show, for example, Doja Cat played up her bohemian side with a pattern-clashing, roomy ensemble. To accentuate the look, Charleston painted the perfomer’s eyes with a punk rock-inspired spike, while her lips were bolded with deep brown lip liner. It was Doja Cat’s handiwork, says Charleston, that was behind the jagged eyebrow illusion that capped off the look.
“[Doja Cat] is an incredible makeup artist herself who does all of her brows — those are her accents that she creates and brings into her work,” notes Charleston. “It’s always a process of looking at the styling for the show with any client that I do. When I arrive on any set, I go to the stylist and I’m like, ‘What is the look, babe?’ I can have an idea, but at the end of the day, if it doesn’t have a marriage in some way to the physical styling, it’s not going to work.”
While Charleston’s Paris Fashion Week makeup on Doja Cat has generated internet fandom, the artistic visionary isn’t a gatekeeper when it comes to opening up her kit and divulging which beauty products she uses in her work. To achieve her whimsical looks, Charleston religiously uses Danessa Myricks Beauty Colorfix and Vu Studio Taboo Liner, both of which she also recommends to aspiring makeup artists for their longevity and impact.
“Danessa Myricks Beauty Colorfix is a lifesaver. It is a brilliant artistic product that I swear by. I used it in many of the looks [on Doja Cat] as well as Vu Studio. They have literally the best felt tip liners I’ve used my entire life,” says Charleston. “I think everyone should have access to the best tools, especially when it comes to makeup, and Vu Studio is my favorite liquid liner. They have so many cool colors and never dry out. I really feel like an artist with those; I can just keep throwing down line after line after line.”
Toward the conclusion of Paris Fashion Week, Doja Cat went full-abstract for Beyonce’s “Club Renaissance” Tiffany & Co. party, wearing a “Matrix”-esque leather jacket and black gown, but it was her statement makeup that did the talking. Recreating a 2020 look by Prague-based makeup artist Artsy Quynh, Charleston gave Doja Cat the illusion that black pigment was bleeding through her eyes, with curved lines swirling around her face. To underscore the artfulness of her Charleston-painted “canvas,” Doja Cat even asked Charleston to sign her neck, leaving her initials as a footer to the look.
“I think there’s something so cool and almost brutalist about painting through an eyebrow as if it’s not even there,” says Charleston of the look. “That’s what I love about using the face as a canvas in general: No, we don’t need to do lip and we don’t need to put on a lash. Let’s paint through these facial features as if they’re not even there and elevate the face as a canvas beyond standard beauty.”
Charleston envisions a future where more makeup artists join the minimalist illusion movement and begin to think more creatively about how they approach the canvas of the face. And she also acknowledges that she’s not the originator of this vein of makeup artistry, but rather someone who appreciates those who have forged a similar path before her.
“Trends come in and out of our culture and zeitgeist, but there are just so many brilliant, talented makeup artists out there that have been doing this type of makeup work for a very, very long time,” says Charleston. “I really hope that more artists want to experiment, be bold with their looks, break the molds of standard beauty and step away from that to have their own stamp on this world.”
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