In our previous article on body styling (Introduction to Body Styling), we began to explore the concept of creating a living sculpture by using materials and decorations easily obtainable from crafts and fabric stores, around the house, and even from the outdoors.
As we discussed, the principles of body styling are not new, and can be found in a number of different venues and cultures around the world. As a means of making a fashion statement, body styling has seen a surge in popularity over the past few decades.
In this installment, we will take it up a notch by adding body painting to our toolkit. Like other forms of body decoration – and unlike tattoos – body painting is meant to be temporary (which means selection of paint material that is compatible with human skin is crucial). And unlike traditional two-dimensional painting, the blank canvas has dimensional form and (skin, not canvas) texture.
In all my fashion nude presentations here at SWP, Heather Filipski (Heather Marie) is my valued colleague and stylist. A consummate professional who is skilled in hair, makeup and wardrobe styling, Heather is my go-to person who is responsible for the ultimate look of the model. She has recently started working with an airbrush system for makeup application, so it only made sense for her to use airbrush for the bodypainting seen in this series.
Our model for this session was Oliver Ellen Davis (Oliver, or Oli), a young alt model local to our (Richmond, VA) area. Oli is quite petite; at 5’ 2” (157 cm), she has a nicely proportioned figure that is ideal for this type of body styling. She is also a trained dancer – this becomes evident in the posed series after the body painting is complete.
Layers, Layers, Layers
Just as with digital photo retouching, body paint is a construction process utilizing a series of layers.
Technique-wise, it is somewhat similar to painting with watercolors. A close-up detail shows how Heather is creating the basic framework for Oliver’s torso.
Once the red foundation is in place, Heather started adding the yellow fill color. Detail shots of Oli’s pubic region illustrate how body paint can subdue – even practically eliminate – areas of the anatomy that otherwise would be quite obvious.
Meanwhile, Heather and Oliver continue to work on her front torso and begin work on her front thighs.
Although airbrush body paint dries rapidly (more on the material used in a moment), to give the “frontispiece” an opportunity to set up, Heather began to work on Oli’s back side.
Still working with bright primary colors, Heather decided to use colors in the cool part of the spectrum on Oliver’s back side to differentiate it from the predominantly warm colors on her front side. Heather explained that she wanted that difference so that when Oliver turned in her dance moves, the difference would be obvious, yet transitionally smooth.
Model Prep: The Smoother, the Better
A quick note about airbrush paint effects on normal skin: it is very important for the model to exfoliate her skin the night before the session to the maximum extent possible. Super-fine body hair which would normally not be visible tends to clump together in the face of the onslaught of sprayed paint. The resulting micro-clumps of hair then become very visible and the only remedy is on-the-spot shaving with a straight razor – and without benefit of lubrication from shaving cream. The shaving has to be done with great care and delicacy to avoid irritating the model’s skin.
Let’s Get Creative!
Time for the next layer of decoration: Heather had prepared a hand-cut stencil with which to create a medallion-like design on Oliver’s chest. Held in place by small pieces of tape, Heather used a metallic gold paint through the stencil to create the framework for the medallion design. A detail shot shows how the design spanned the inner parts of Oliver’s breasts, roughly stopping at an imaginary line from her nipples bisecting each breast.
For the next layer, Heather put a plastic mesh sock (actually a rescued citrus fruit bag, available at any grocery store) over Oli’s head and face – another form of stencil. She again sprayed gold to create a fish-net design over Oli’s face.
With the airbrush portion of the body painting complete, Heather then switched to brush mode to fill in the designs created by the airbrush work. After some work on Oli’s hair and some last-minute brush touch-ups…
After patiently enduring being a human canvas for a good eight hours, Oliver was eager to present herself as living art. Through a series of dance moves on a set designed with Oliver’s proportions and colours in mind, she presented a veritable kaleidoscope by twisting and posing her body in a variety of positions. A detail close-up of Oli’s face shows an innovative technique Heather used to create a “third eye” that only showed when Oli closed her eyes.
A Few Technicalities
Body paint need not be applied by airbrush as it was in this session. Some body artists prefer to use “manual” brushes all the way, while others will use only an airbrush. Much more common, if airbrush is used at all, is the hybrid method illustrated here. For model safety and comfort, it is crucial that the paints used are formulated specifically for body paint use. Since some paint systems are latex-based, it is very important to determine beforehand if your model is allergic to latex compounds. If so, a switch to a different paint system (e.g., silicone- or alcohol-based) is indicated.
As you can see from these illustrations, body paint design is limited only by your imagination. Stencils can be used to great effect to create complex patterns as well as patterns that repeat. Colour choices are virtually limitless and can range from wildly polychromatic as Heather did here, to the near-monochromatic (think of the James Bond movie Goldfinger). As a practitioner of fashion nude styling and photography, you can enjoy that there are really no rules (other than model safety and comfort) and if a few pop up here and there, rejoice in the knowledge they are meant to be broken!
The Back Story
In keeping with my personal preference toward simplicity in lighting design, this entire session was lit with a single large rectangular (4-foot x 6-foot, 123 cm x 183 cm) softbox positioned camera-right at about 45 degrees from the camera-to-subject axis line, occasionally augmented by a 30-inch (76 cm) umbrella, positioned high and camera-left, for highlighting. To maximize the impact of color-on-skin, I created a “black box” consisting of a black muslin backdrop cloth 10 feet (305 cm) wide on 12-foot (366 cm) backdrop stands. Large black foamcore sheets placed on either side perpendicular to the backdrop created the box that contained any potential light spillage.
A final note: a key success factor for a venture such as this is…patience. Assuming that you, the photographer, have engaged the services of a body paint stylist, both you and your model must have patience to allow the body design to come to fruition. It is not uncommon for a body paint session like this to occupy the better part of eight hours. Such was the case here; the actual on-set shooting of Oliver as she moved through her dance routine took less than 45 minutes!