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Make-up artist Grace Ellington is done with boring beauty

With make-up that is playful, joyful and expressive, Polyester’s beauty editor is just having fun

From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to make-up and nail artists, in our Spotlight series, we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.

“I do think that make-up isn’t really a serious thing,” says Grace Ellington. “But that’s really liberating because if you remove the pretence and lower the stakes you can just have fun with it.” And that’s exactly what she does. The south London make-up artist’s work is full of colour, energy and the kind of off-the-wall looks that come out of creative freedom and joyful experimentation.

Ethereal butterflies drawn across the face, skinny brows with piles of silver eyeshadow, an unapologetic use of glitter and rhinestones – Ellington’s playful style is expressive without being gaudy, maximalist while still remaining nuanced and luxurious. It’s make-up from a women’s gaze, free from the expectations and restrictions of conventional beauty culture. “I always want people to look and feel beautiful in my make-up,” she says. “I find it so satisfying to think about what small details I can tweak to really amplify the wearer’s beauty, even if it is a really wild look.”

Ellington’s playful, sensitive approach has been tapped by everyone from clients like Ganni, Valentino and Nike to photographers including Tom Blesch and Campbell Addy. For Polyester magazine, where she holds the role of beauty editor, she has painted the faces of stars including Chloe Cherry and Gemma Collins, and her work has also appeared in Dazed, Puss Puss and international Vogues.

Here we chat to Ellington about her magazine obsession, nurturing creativity and embracing messy glamour. 

Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?

Grace Ellington: I can’t remember one specific moment but I always remember being super conscious of my appearance. Often in a very critical way like I think a lot of girls can relate to, especially as a preteen and a teenager. That is one nice thing about getting older, you do feel really released from that. The early beauty memories I have are the classic early 00s state school ones like black pencil in the lower waterline only, clear Miss Sporty mascara and pressed Rimmel Stay Matte powder.

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?

Grace Ellington: Growing up I was obsessed with magazines. First Vogue and then Dazed, i-D and lots of independent ones. I used to have this whole archive with every month since 2001 but it just got too much in my early twenties when I was moving to a new shitty flat every six months. I’d have to take boxes and boxes of them up and down the stairs so I massively condensed, something I do regret now.

The first editorials I remember being really obsessed with were the Nick Knight April 2004 shoot with Gemma Ward and Lily Collins – that image where they are both lit by the yellow spotlight; then Lily Cole again, it was that era, by Tim Walker in Vogue July 2005; then Lara Stone by Alasdair Mclellan for i-D 2008, that shoot had a huge impact on me.

Why are you a make-up artist?

Grace Ellington: I think I came to make-up through fashion rather than beauty. Growing up, I always wanted to work in fashion, but I didn’t know anything about the jobs that were available. I had a vague idea about being a designer but that was the only fashion role I could identify.

I did art at school and always felt confident that it was something I was good at. Then there was a point where make-up suddenly became more visible, maybe thanks to Instagram, but when I found out who people like Pat McGrath were it suddenly clicked for me and felt like make-up, it being in a sense an extension of just drawing and painting, was the thing that I could be good at.

Is it something you learned or is it more instinctual?

Grace Ellington: I’ve always been obsessed with fashion photography, magazines and editorials since I was young. I think there are two parts to it, one is that visual language which I do feel is instinctual, but in terms of technical skill that has grown with practice and experience. I can definitely cringe looking back at a few times when I was starting and I just hadn’t learned enough yet to execute what was in my head.

How did you break into the industry? Was there one big moment or was it a gradual progression? 

Grace Ellington: It’s been a gradual progression. Some things I thought were going to be the moment never really landed and other things I didn’t expect much from have. I do think persistence is really at least half of it.

What is your creative process? How do you translate someone’s initial creative vision into a final look? 

Grace Ellington: If you’re someone who needs to have a constant creative output for your job, it’s important that you nurture inspiration separately from any one specific brief. So I would say it’s really important to me to do visual research as part of my day-to-day, even if that’s just like going to see a film at the BFI or something. I think you have to care for your creativity and feed it in a way that’s not just about responding to someone else’s ideas. That way when it comes to working with photographers and directors you have richer references to offer, and they are things you are genuinely inspired by rather than scrambling to find appropriate references. 

I love the work of so many make-up artists but I do try to make sure that my references are either not directly fashion or make-up images, or if they are, that they are pre-90s. I think that’s important to make sure everyone isn’t just rehashing the same ideas.

What are the projects that you’re most proud of? 

Grace Ellington: I’m super proud of everything I do with Polyester zine mostly just because Ione, Gina and the other women who run it are just amazing, but also because as beauty editor I’m involved in the process a lot earlier than I would be if I were booked by a client normally. The Chloe Cherry shoot we did was my favourite. It was so exciting being able to be there from the initial concept onwards.

What should the make-up bring to an editorial?

Grace Ellington: I think that the make-up is so important because it’s literally the face, which I think is the most emotive part of the photo, but also it should be part of the editorial and work seamlessly within it. The make-up artists I most admire know exactly how something is going to feel texturally in the light of the final image and will make a choice to have no make-up at all if it is the correct one for the benefit of the picture.

Have you noticed a change in attitude towards make-up since the lockdown?

Grace Ellington: I feel like people want to party again and are maybe a little less serious about it. So I feel like people are embracing a bit of messy glamour.

What’s the most significant thing you’ve learnt over the course of your career?

Grace Ellington: This work is about collaboration, finding people you are excited to work with, and working towards the best result without ego – that’s what’s really important. 

What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?

Grace Ellington: Learn how to photograph your own work behind the scenes. Even just with your phone, that’s what I use. But that way you can build a visual identity without having to rely on final images that may not always be what you were hoping for, especially when you are starting out and testing.

Who would you like to shine a spotlight on next?

Grace Ellington: Hairstylist Ryo Narushima.