Here at the Blanche Macdonald Centre we think that Makeup Graduate Blair Petty is a pretty special talent.
They feel the same way in his new hometown of Toronto too. That’s where Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks hosted the Procter & Gamble Beauty and Grooming Awards, where Blair was honoured by being named Canadian Makeup Artist of the Year.
“I felt like I was going to throw up,” laughs Blair, recalling the events of the most exciting night of his young career. “It was a bigger event than anything I’d ever been to before. Even the nomination was a surprise. I went with Carlyle Routh, who’d shot some of the images that had been submitted by my agency, Judy Inc. It was a shoot recreating famous paintings as a beauty campaign. All the agencies submitted their best work, and P&G’s judging committee picked the nominees and winners.”
“That night was a really positive experience. It showed that I’m doing what I should be doing. If you’re a creative person you’re not going to be happy unless you’re creating.”
Blair’s makeup has become a fixture in Toronto’s fashion scene. His artistry has been featured in magazines around the world including Flare, Sharp, Glassbook, NOW, Toronto Life and Chloe and he’s worked with fashion clients like Roots, Hudson’s Bay, Call It Spring and Cleo, along with celebrities like Alexander Skarsgard and Jessalyn Gilsig. The shoot that won Blair his trophy saw his brushes recreate masterpieces from historic painters including Magritte, Vermeer, Frida Kahlo and Roy Lichtenstein; fitting inspiration for an artist who was creating long before he ever picked up a makeup brush.
“I spent a lot of time drawing when I was a kid,” he continues. “I grew up in Red Deer, Alberta, then went do a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Calgary and at UBC. I remember meeting Beau Nelson, a Makeup Artist from Alberta. I was like, ‘As if Makeup Artist is real a job!’ I didn’t understand the process of fashion. I thought images just materialised. Someone would take a picture of someone good looking, and that was it. During my last year at University I did a fashion art project, and found doing the makeup the most fun aspect. That’s when I started thinking about the possibilities of becoming a Makeup Artist.”
As a self-taught Makeup Artist with a background in painting and drawing, Blair’s talent was recognised before he even came to Canada’s #1 Makeup School, stepping into a position at MAC without any professional training.
“It was all backwards,” he smiles. “I knew a couple of people that worked at MAC, started out as a cashier, and would just pick up things from other artists.”
Even though Blair had his foot in the door, he wanted more. Speaking to his colleagues at MAC, the next step in his makeup journey was some formal education.
“Everyone I talked to who’d been to Makeup School had been to Blanche Macdonald. They all said good things about the school. I actually wanted to fill in the gaps in my Makeup education and learn Makeup Effects. I thought that would be where I wanted to go.”
That was the plan. It just didn’t work out that way.
“I had Sandra Anderson as my fundamentals teacher. I thought she was so fascinating. She had this great aura and was lovely. Jen Folk was my fashion teacher and I really liked her too. Fashion Makeup has this fleeting element to it that I love. You just need one shot. It can fall apart afterwards. People would go ballistic with ideas, like putting sesame seeds on their model’s face. That’s the fun part of fashion for me. It can be fragile. Makeup Effects is more like science. It needs to stay put and last all day.”
Blair realised that he wanted to move into fashion. He also appreciated that when it comes to a craft, practice makes perfect.
“The writer Malcolm Gladwell said you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice at anything before you’re an expert. Eventually it clicks. So I stayed at MAC, starting in Burnaby and eventually moving to the Pro Store in Downtown Vancouver. The people that work there are amazing artists. The amount of creativity and information these people have is incredible. It was like being surrounded by unbelievable teachers and really good friends too. They could always show me new ways to navigate things that I found frustrating.
“If you work in that environment you’re doing so many makeups on so many types of skin, skin colours and personalities. You get a lot of experience and get really good really quickly. When you’re dealing with somebody’s face, you have to remember that people have a specific way they see themselves. It can be humbling navigating that. You’re right up in their personal space. You sometimes need to break down people’s self-consciousness.”
Away from MAC, Blair was also working hard on becoming established as a freelance Makeup Artist.
“It was tough,” he admits. “Getting a photographer to take a chance took forever. I worked with various people on Model Mayhem, which was interesting. Then I worked with Matthew Burditt. I basically harassed him until he gave up and invited me over. We did a lot of shoots and got to be really creative.”
Blair’s creativity caught the attention of powerhouse agency Judy Inc., which signed him onto their roster. It was the springboard he needed to take his talents to an entirely new market.
“I came to Toronto for a visit and did a few shoots with photographers, then made the move. I wanted a change of environment and I wanted to work in the heart of the fashion industry.”
A new city and fashion scene came with new challenges.
“When I first arrived my bookers told me that I had to make my book more ‘Toronto’. Toronto is fashion conscious but very commercial too. Clients here are all about clean skin and clothing with mainstream appeal. No sesame seeds on the face. I thought my Vancouver book was fine, but my agency told me it was too ‘granola’. It was full of surfer girls and hair blowing all over the place. They wanted it shinier and cleaner.
“Soon after I arrived I was able to work at TIFF, the Toronto Film Festival. It was crazy – true Hollywood! I was assisting an artist from LA and I was working on the promo for the movie Anonymous with Joely Richardson and Rhys Ifans. Producers were in the lobby talking budgets with stars were running in and out, and I was wondering, how did I end up here?”
Blair now has an extensive list of celebrity clients of his own including Alexander Skarsgard and Nicholas Hoult. His Toronto portfolio has grown too, having teamed up with top shooters like Mike Lewis, Carlyle Routh and Richard Dubois.
“Those three are all amazing working relationships. Kind of like my Toronto family. We were all pushing the boundaries and trying to come up with shoots that are relevant for our market, but also really creative. Creative shoots in Canada become editorials a lot of the time. We’d sit down with stylist friends and discuss what we wanted to accomplish and how we were going to do it, and we ended up with a lot of really great shoots. The photographers would send it out and we’d end up in bigger and bigger magazines. I did a shoot with Richard that ended up in Zink. You try to be creative and clients see that.”
As P&G’s Makeup Artist of the Year Blair’s creativity is not in question. But he takes pains to point out that artistic talent alone hasn’t led to his success.
“This isn’t an industry where you can be an asshole and still get booked. You have to be good and do the job, and you have to be a good person to work with. You have to get along with people. It can take a long time and you’ll get discouraged along the way, but once you find your people and your crew, keep them. There are so many amazing people in fashion.”
“It sounds cheesy, but I’m proud of all my jobs. Any time someone hires me I’m still like, ‘YES!’ Now I’m getting calls for jobs from people I’ve never met. They’ve seen my work and said ‘Here, have a campaign!’”
All photos provided by Blair Petty.