August 20th, 2015
She’s the queen of transformation – Maria Malone-Guerbaa has entranced people across the world with her incredible facepainting and make-up skills. Whether she’s becoming a snow leopard or appearing as Freddie Mercury, her detail and precision gets us every time. Warpaint delve behind the designs to meet the real Maria.
WP: What first drew you to make-up?
MM: Holding a lipstick, about the age of three, is my first memory. I’ve always loved colour – I always had a crayon in my hand, so a crayon and a lipstick at that age was the same thing! I was an artistic child, and my mother is an oil painter, so it was very much the norm to have those sorts of sights and smells around me. My art first started getting noticed when I was about seven – nothing major, just a few competitions and mentions in magazines. Art was something I loved to do, but I thought everyone could do it!
In high school I was obsessed with faces – using charcoal to do black and white portraits, using shading, all that kind of stuff. I was getting requests to sketch famous faces for friends, and I was painting the backdrops for school plays and things. I won a competition for under 15s in Limerick, and then later won a competition for under 18s in the whole of Ireland, and the prize was to get my painting exhibited in Dublin! But again, I took it all with a pinch of salt. I started applying to art colleges, put together a portfolio and actually was accepted in Limerick – but I turned it down, because around then I discovered film and SFX make-up, and I couldn’t see a future in traditional art anymore for me.
WP: Where did you do your training?
MM: I left Ireland at 19, because it was struggling economically with recession, and I came to London. Then it all kind of got pushed to one side when I met my husband and opened a restaurant at 21 – and that was my life until I was 33, which is when I picked up a brush again, so it was a long gap! During that time there was this constant yearning to do something with art and make-up, but it wasn’t until I was in a train station and saw this article in the paper about a girl who was doing all this bruise work that things changed. I got so excited, and I just knew I had to do something about it.
I went to the CBMA in Camden. It was a real bootcamp situation, but I picked it because it was short, which suited me with young kids, and I was learning from someone who had won an Oscar and tutors who were actually currently working artists. I was there for three months, came out with my diploma – I left on the Friday, and I already had a job for the Monday, which was really weird. And it was for hair, which is funny because until I did that course I’d never touched a wig before and it turned out I was quite good!
I was at the Barbican Theatre for a while, watching and learning. I think period projects are a great way to really learn the basics. Then I was doing a lot of day jobs – I worked with the BBC and with Channel 4, commericials, a bit of film, but never full-on, and I decided I wanted to work in the West End for a bit. I worked on Rock of Ages, Viva Forever – I’d trained in all these different styles of make-up so I wanted to try them all and see what I liked the most. Then I got asked by my kids’ schools to come in and help out the art teachers for Christmas, for fun days. I was extremely nervous, I’d never painted a face before, and as the day went on the art teacher’s queue got smaller and smaller… the parents just got really excited by my work. People started asking for my phone number for parties and things. I wouldn’t leave until all the kids were painted.
WP: When did you first start painting your own face?
MM: After that experience. I bought a couple of paints to practice – my art training came back ferociously. The kids got fed up of being painted pretty quickly, so I just put down the brush and went to get a mirror to paint my own face. I knew I had to practice somewhere.
WP: Do you remember when you started going viral and getting lots of attention on social media? Which design was it?
MM: My nephew set up an Instagram page for me two years ago, and a make-up page on Facebook, and people really did start giving me attention right from the start. It was around Halloween time so I was playing with a lot of SFX stuff back then, wanting to use those skills I’d learned. There was a gentleman called Kilpretty, he’s quite well known, and he put up a competition – and this is where I first started getting a lot of attention. We had to recreate one of his looks, but instead of just doing it on my face I painted his face on mine with the make-up on. People went nuts for it, saying it was a game-changer, and I won – I think I just automatically think outside the box when in a situation like that, I’m always thinking, ‘Okay, how can I take this to the next level?’
I started really playing with shading and contour and wigs, then I went back to my black and white roots really, doing shading and pencil sketching but on my face with paints. I did Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and that went really crazy on social media – I see it now and think how much better I am at detailing now. Then I did Elvis and Morgan Freeman, and they were the two which really went viral on Facebook. That’s when an American organisation started contacting me – and it was the first time I really realised that I was doing something that hadn’t really been done before. Even two years in, I’m so blown away by all the amazing people I get to meet.
Soon after that people started recreating my style, but I learned to deal with that and take it as a compliment, although some people refuse to credit me. There’s always going to be someone copying someone or something. It’s just the way it is. I started getting regular requests, either for pictorials or videos – I was getting TV requests, went out to IMATS, on German TV shows, I was on The Today Show in the US… I’ve literally gone round the world, and been in contact with people from everywhere. I’ve got to the point now where I can, and almost have to, cherry-pick events because they can be so time-consuming.
When I decided to do animals, that’s when I started getting off-the-scale viral reactions. For my Snow Leopard look, I got more than 60 million views, and got told I was a hot topic on World Google, which was… I can’t even describe. I didn’t even know that was a thing! It all started at Christmas – I just thought, ‘If I see another elf or Santa Claus, I’m just going to scream!’ So the snow leopard look was still festive without me having to do that, but my props were pretty minimal – I just used the white throw which was on my chair and put that on my head.
WP: If I was a client, or someone requesting a look, how would you go about planning that?
MM: At the moment I’m not great at planning. I tend to just find an image on Google and just go for it, but it has to be realistic. I suppose there is a little bit of planning in the fact that placement is everything. If you start off wrong, the whole thing is going to be wrong. That’s something I learned through doing portrait art: I think it is the hardest type of art, because you have to capture the likeness and the essence of that person, and it’s all down to tiny, tiny shifts in placement of where that eye starts, or where that nose ends, which can make big changes.
I quickly realised that I needed to do animals with closed eyes because human eyes stop animals from looking like animals, then I could move everything further apart and create the distance I needed. The reindeer look was another great challenge, since they have eyes on the sides of their head in real life. The rabbit was another good one, as I decided to push the eyes further down my face to be able to fit in the ears.
Sometimes when I paint I don’t actually do the whole thing. For example, if I did a tiger I’d do a really realistic tiger face, but I wouldn’t draw on or stick on any ears – the brain fills it in for you. You don’t realise it’s doing it because it’s so realistic, just like how your brain can unscramble words and you can read them. No-one has ever commented ‘Where are the ears?!’ [laughs] I’m having a lot of fun with it too, which is something I hope people pick up on. Who sits in the kitchen at one in the morning, painting someone else’s face on themselves?”
WP: Do you have a favourite look you’ve created on yourself?
MM: Oh that’s so hard! I love becoming famous people because it’s a challenge, I never really know how it’s going to turn out. Christopher Walken was one of my favourites, it was the second famous face I’d done with my eyes closed like the animals. I was really happy because I could see him.
WP: We heard you’re using Kryolan Aquacolours almost exclusively at the moment. What is it about Aquapaints that you love using?
MM: Their palettes are just divine. I love to mix colours, it’s just second nature for me, but I find these paints so beautiful and realistic that I can just use one paint. With the snow leopard grey, for example, I didn’t need to mix that grey, and they blend so well, it never cracks. I like paints that I can manipulate and layer up; I might be painting for three or four hours and I never have to rub anything off, or start again if I make a mistake, because the lighter colours are so pigmented they can be layered over dark ones.
WP: Who else’s work inspires you?
MM: When I was growing up I loved fine artists like da Vinci, Monet, and Van Gogh, Picasso – something as simplistic as a window open with the sun shining in, but I was fascinated with how they managed to capture that light. When I started facepainting I went onto YouTube and I really liked the Wolfe brothers – it was a real, ‘Oh my God, look what they can do!’ moment. So my first inspiration would be them, the shapes and the bold colours they used, how they really changed the face. Since then I’ve really loved artists like Pashur, Craig Tracy, Carolyn Roper… I don’t try to imitate them but I do derive inspiration from them. And then Instagram artists who have been churning out amazing work – I love Instagram, it’s such a great way to bring beauty and art together. I use it like a portfolio!
WP: Are you still doing traditional day jobs, or is this a full-time job?
MM: At the moment I’m doing some commercials, and a lot of events – UMAe, Paintopia, IMATS, things like that. I’m glad it’s happening now; my youngest is starting high school next year, and I’ve focused on being mummy this year. I’ve been able to stay at home and paint, rather than be out working all the time. I judge competitions and I’ve done some teaching, rather than go out on traditional freelance work. I’m in no rush for anything, and I’m lucky that I’ve been able to afford to do that.
WP: Looking at your make-up kit, what are your essential products?
MM: I absolutely love the Kryolan Foam Barrier – Paul [Merchant] gave it to me earlier this year and it’s perfect. It lasts forever and a lot of the models prefer it, and it creates a beautiful base. It helps you avoid any dry leftover or staining when you take off the face paint. I can’t praise it enough! And the Aquacolors, as I said – and the Aquacolor Plus. Basically the whole Aqua range [laughs]. Other than that, I’d say my brushes. Personally I adore the Facepainting Shop brushes, especially the pink-tipped ones, the tiny ones! Kryolan and Grimas brushes are great too, they’re my three favourite brushes. Great for fine, fine detail. I had some girls who wanted to do my class, but their brushes were absolutely horrendous – I wasn’t sure how I could even draw a straight line with them. Now most colleges invest in new brushes and paints for them – and they get a lot more out of the classes. I always keep baby wipes on hand, and cotton buds, and water for mixing – you don’t want to be running around looking for a tap. I’ve got two brush cleaners I love – the Face Paint Shop’s soap in a tin is great, and ideal for travelling, and the Mehron Brush Cleaner – it’s quick and it works. It doesn’t leave them sopping so that you have to wait ages.
WP: What is the next big accomplishment you’re looking to check off on your career list?
MM: One day I’m going to go to LA to work on something over there – my dream is to go over there and be involved in something, whether that be a film or commercial, I don’t mind. I have a lot of friends over there, we talk every day, so it would be great to go. Personally, I just never want to stop trying to better myself. My experience so far has been some real flukes – I do something and surprise myself, I can be quite random. But I never want to stop improving. I think everyone’s motto in life should just be ‘have a go!’
WP: Do you have any advice for people who are training, or perhaps who are looking to branch out and start work as a freelancer?
MM: I mean I’ve been contacted by a lot of girls in colleges who have asked if I can be their subject, and it’s like, ‘What, me? Really? Of course!’ My advice to all of them is that if you’re passionate about something then follow your passion, because it will keep coming back to haunt you. The passion for art and make-up never left me in all those years I didn’t do it. Keep giving it 110%, and don’t ever stop when you get a knockback. Get up and try harder the next time. And be sure to talk to people, to network and make friends; it’s very easy to be alienated in this world and in this industry.
You need a bit of maturity about it; no-one is better than anyone else, you know? It’s not always glamourous, not about meeting celebrities – you might be out at 4am, unable to feel your feet, or cramped in a basement. And you definitely need to be good with people, to be able to get on with people. I have come across people who have decided the job just isn’t for them, no matter how great an artist they were. Go out there and give it your best and you’ll be welcomed, because who doesn’t want to meet another artist and potential inspiration?