Makeup artist Alex Babsky never formally trained in painting faces, but that didn't hold him back. We found out how he made it to the top, and what he's up to now he's there
Firstly, why makeup? When did you discover or decide that makeup artistry was your bag?
I never decided as such. I was studying fashion; I went to Central Saint Martins, which I enjoyed very much. When we’d made something for college, obviously you couldn’t put the garment itself in the portfolio, so we photographed it and put the photos in our portfolio. When I was photographing my designs I started doing the makeup on the models to make them look how I wanted them to, in line with the clothes that I had created. I looked at a lot of fashion magazines and I always drew, so it wasn’t alien to me how makeup worked. I knew what I wanted to do when I drew on a model’s face, it was quite instinctive to me. Before long other students started asking me to do makeup for their shoots. Before I knew it, I had a body of makeup work without ever meaning to.
Also I used to go to a club in Brixton every Tuesday with about five friends of mine. I was in my early twenties. At that age getting ready was the best part of the evening. I’d get to their house at six and we’d leave at eleven. Two of my friends were sisters - beautiful girls - and I started doing their makeup before we went out as part of the ritual every Tuesday. Often we’d do something quite elaborate that might take a couple of hours each, and every week I’d do something that was completely unrecognisable from the week before. People would see them in the daytime having been dancing with them the night before and not recognise them! One day a photographer came up to them in a club and asked ‘Who does you makeup? I’d like to work with the person who does!’. So I did some stuff with him and the stylist he worked with. Through word of mouth I started getting jobs here and there. So it started really organically!
What would you say was your big break?
A friend of mine, Jessica Ogden, was putting on a show and she had no money so she asked me to come along and help with the makeup. A friend of hers was doing the makeup but she needed all the help that she could get. Her name was Pat McGrath. It was just before Pat McGrath became Pat McGrath! So I did that show and I guess Pat must have liked what I did, because she asked me to do the rest of her Fashion Week shows with her. I didn’t really think anything of it, it seemed like a laugh.
Six months later I got a call from Pat’s agent; Pat’s career had really taken off and she had a Prada show in Milan that she urgently needed help for. Then I started doing really big shows with Pat - Prada, Gucci, Valentino and Versace. I found myself in an odd position; I was at college but I was also going off to do these amazing fashion shows. The course I was on was a four year course - two years of study followed by a year’s work placement before your final year. I was just coming up to my year out and I was really enjoying makeup. In a work placement you could do anything fashion related, so I asked my tutor if makeup counted and he said yes. In my placement year I did more makeup work and by the end of that year I was in a really good position and was really enjoying it.
I enjoyed it for the same reasons that I wanted to do fashion in the first place, in that I was making someone look a particular way, but instead of creating a design, cutting a pattern, doing a fitting, making adjustments and all of that process, I was just doing it in front of me. I was drawing on what I liked, and if it didn’t work I would just wipe it off. It was much more immediate than fashion which I found really gratifying.
At the end of that year I reflected that I’d come a long way and that perhaps it would be foolish to stop it all to do my final year. I deferred it for another year to see how I got on. I got an agent, started working and never went back. My training was on the job, thanks to Pat. I owe her everything really; you couldn’t get a better teacher than that.
You’re the first UK makeup artist ambassador for Lancôme - how does that feel?!
It feels great. I love my job but there’s something quite solitary about it in that I never go to work with other makeup artists. Occasionally I have an assistant but in general I don’t really see anyone else work. I know what I like when I work, I know when I’ve enjoyed doing something or have done work that I’m proud of but I don’t always necessarily know what’s thought of it in the wider world or if other people like it. I’m okay with that but it felt wonderful to have a brand like LancÈme like what I did enough to ask me to be their ambassador. I loved the brand already and had a great relationship with them anyway, but I couldn’t have picked a brand that suited me more.
I really enjoy that people have confidence in the brand’s products and know that they’re reliable. It gives me the scope to really go to town and push the boundaries with what you can do with them. A look doesn’t always have to be pretty or safe, the products are quality enough to do something really creative and unique.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I love that every day is totally different and I love the contradiction of it all as well. Some days I relish the freedom to be able to do whatever I want, others days I really enjoy when I have a very specific brief and I know I’ve nailed exactly what the client wants. That’s really satisfying.
I enjoy the confidence that I’ve gained over time too - that translates into every aspect of the job. Previously my tentativeness may not just have showed in my brushstrokes, but also it would sometimes affect the model, which is something that you don’t think about when you’re starting out. Now I can pull off something that might have scared me years ago and the model can sense that I’m in control. Doing makeup is such an intimate thing, you’re right in someone’s face. Your energy and the way that you work affects the model. If she gets it, then it’s highly likely that we’ll get a great picture.
Are there any downsides to your job or anything that you find tough?
Washing brushes is pretty tedious! Also while the travel is wonderful, you’re often on the earliest flight to go straight to work and on the latest flight to get back. The hours can be a bit crazy! Much of the travel that I get to do is incredible, but if I had to pick something I found a bit tough, that would be it.
What advice would you give to would-be makeup artists?
Just do makeup. The more you do it, the more you find your own style and get a feel for what you’re working with. You get better every time you pick up a brush.
Also get yourself into a creative environment where you’ll meet photographers, stylists and hairdressers. That’s how you begin working and doing test shoots. The work doesn’t just come at the end of a course; you need to generate work somehow. Look for websites where you can link together with other people hoping to crack the industry. Always assist whenever you can too, that’s how it dawned on me that I could do makeup as a job. There’s no step-by-step, you’ve got to find your way of doing it.
Do you have a signature style or favourite look to create?
I spend a lot of time making skin look as good as it can before I even begin. I would like to think that my style has a basis in a ‘real’ complexion. Whether I’m creating a natural or dramatic look, I love working with skin that’s recognisable as skin! Whether a look is dramatic or natural it’s always grounded in real, believable skin texture.
What’s your favourite beauty trend for spring/summer?
I like the shift of black liner from the top to the bottom that’s been seen at quite a few shows. An orange lip has been about for a few seasons now too, but I’ve always loved that. It’s been a favourite of mine for ages!
Any makeup bugbears?
I’m a fan of defined eyebrows but not ones that are obviously drawn on. That stencilled-on look gives me the creeps a bit. Eyebrows should look like eyebrows.
What are the most essential products in your kit?
As I said I often spend a lot of time making skin look nice before working with makeup. Normally I spend longer prepping the skin than putting base on. My absolute favourite cleanser is LancÈme Gallatée Confort , £22.50. I massage it in for ages and sometimes I’ll repeat the process three times. LancÈme Tonique Douceur toner, £22.50, is great too - it makes the skin feel and look so fresh. Sometimes that can make a greater improvement to the way that skin looks than applying foundation. I also couldn’t be without Shu Uemura Eyelash Curlers , £20, or my Makeup Forever Flash Color Case , £73.50. It’s full of great cream colours, they’re almost like face paints. If my kit didn’t turn up, I could just do a makeup look using that palette if I really had to. The colours can be used on eyes, the mouth and cheeks, and they’re great for tailoring shades to a model’s skintone. Foundation wise my favourite is LancÈme Teint Visionnaire , £36.50.
Who are your top people in health, fitness and beauty?
I just get my haircut on shoots, or go to my friend down the road! I tried a bootcamp once. It was awful. It only lasted an hour but I thought I was going to have a heart attack.
Finally, how do you switch off from the day job and chill out? Do you have a favourite destination to escape to?
I like to go out dancing. I travel so much and I can’t really go home when I’m on a lot of jobs, so when I get home I want to get away from it all and go out with my mates!