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“I’ve got all these balloons which feel like rose petals. When they pop they make a quite organic shape, almost like something from nature. I pinched them and stuck them to the face, to create textures that felt quite natural out of something that wasn't at all” – Scarlett BurtonPhotography Luke & Nik

How creative escapism was beauty’s antidote to 2020

Artist duo Luke & Nik’s new creative project explores how we’ve responded to this year’s difficulties – tasking six make-up artists to experiment using their own faces as a canvas

For Luke Norman and Nik Adam – better known as artist duo Luke & Nik – 2020’s many and multifarious challenges presented an exciting new opportunity. They began to go out into nature, camera in-hand, to find a new sense of purpose. “The way that we’ve responded to tough times this year has been with a sense of escapism. It’s been a creative release,” Nik tells us. 

The natural landscape has long played an important role in their personal work, whether that be building organic sculptures in a coastal landscape or the vibrant hue of a flower. But with a wealth of time and a slow-down in other engagements, their interaction with the world outside stepped up a notch. And interestingly, they began to see a similar shift in the work of their peers. “We’ve seen make-up artists we admire, or work with regularly, start to do things on themselves, using their own faces as their canvas,” Luke continues. “So we put it to them. We asked: what is your creative escapism?”

The “them” in question is six different practitioners: David Gillers, Michelle Dacillo, Scarlett Burton, Emily Wood, Mata Mariélle, and Wendy Asumadu. Each one is an artist in their own right, translating a creative concept or ever-evolving train of thought to one chosen canvas: the face. But with so few faces available to work on throughout the lockdowns, which have changed daily life around the world this year, these artists turned their attention to their own.

The results have been radical. Michelle Dacillo, for example, began creating looks on herself for the first time in her career. “I used to see what I do as a job as really separate from myself, and I notice that a lot of people I work with are like that, turning up and trying to be invisible,” she says. “Before, I’d think, I’m not the canvas – I’m here to do this for somebody else. I’m still not about to turn up every day in one of these looks, but I realised that this can be for me too, if I want it to. I’d never connected it with myself before.”

Make-up artist David Gillers used the lockdown to create the Corona Chronicles, a series of avant-garde looks that he captured in self-portraits and which blew up on his feed. “Lockdown gave me freedom, definitely,” he says. Before, I was trying to be somebody that I’m not. Instagram is always influencing you to do things a certain way, and you start subconsciously repeating that. Lockdown was the breaking point. I thought, screw it – I’ll smear some blue paint on my face and call it a look! I had time to rethink what my aesthetic is. Now, it’s evolved into what I call ‘ugly beauty’.”

Scarlett Burton trained as an artist before a love of fashion led her to beauty, and this year she has relished injecting more of her conceptual ideas into her day-to-day output. For this story, she turned to an overflowing box of art supplies, digging up a collection of metallic balloons which, when popped, ”feel like rose petals,” she explains – a collision of the natural with the distinctly manmade. She has even begun painting again, she explains. 

But creating a look and then photographing it on themselves, not to mention sitting to be photographed by Luke & Nik in the studio, has also led many make-up artists to confront conflicting feelings about their faces. For Emily Wood, taking photographs of herself in looks she had created, or filming and editing the process behind making them, was an exercise in self-love. “Fucking hell, some of the angles,” she says. “I was nearly deceased. But then I said, no, sit with that discomfort. That is your face. You’re going to have it forever, and you’re going to have to get comfy with that. So it was inspiring, I felt brave. It was quite vulnerable posting videos of myself.” For her part, Mata Mariélle longed for different faces to work with. “I got very bored of my nose,” she laughs. “I was like ’ugh, this again?’”

“Personally, I’ve always been an artist who never really wanted people to know who I was,” says Wendy Asumadu. “So it’s interesting that now I’m the face of what I do.” An artist and content creator, Wendy creates bold, graphic looks using brightly coloured liners and paints, using experimental improvisatory techniques. “I never really take pictures of myself, and now all that’s on my camera roll is my face!

“I think I’m still the same though,” she continues. “If someone says, ’send a picture of you’ I can’t find anything that doesn’t feature face-paint. I’ve come to understand myself a bit more – I’m more assured of the person I am. I’ve focused on exploring my identity, and using my face has made me a big advocate for really understanding who you are. Self-care, self-love.”

For this series, Luke & Nik shot each of the six make-up artists and then applied their signature style to the negatives – cutting, cropping, collaging, and interrupting the images with fragments of the work they made in nature throughout this year. It’s a unique lens – different creative releases overlapping and intersecting, clashing in colour combinations, shapes and forms to give rise to something totally new. Because if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that out of the chaos, something brilliant, beautiful, and totally unexpected can arise.