Artistic License

Artistic License

 Make-up artist lan nguyen-grealis on how luck (and a whole lot of talent) shaped her career


Lan Nguyen-Grealis is not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. She has a knack for seeking out the serendipitous, or rather, turning a negative into a positive. You might say she’s one of life’s optimists, but she’s also resourceful in the extreme. Take her career as an award-winning make-up artist, author and beauty editor of Phoenix magazine.

It was never supposed to be this way, with  Lan originally headed towards a career in fashion. Born in Ireland to Vietnamese parents, Lan showed an aptitude for drawing while growing up. She later studied at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College  of Art and Design, but a freak accident on the last day of her final project caused the ceiling to collapse and destroy all of Lan’s work.

She was devastated. But it was to change the course of her life. ‘I couldn’t bear the thought of having to turn up with nothing, so  I decided I wouldn’t go back,’ says Lan.

She took work as a tea lady at a photographic studio, where a last-minute cancellation gave Lan her first job as a make-up artist. ‘I was asked to step in and  do make-up on clients. I was so worried that I wouldn’t get it right but I threw myself into it anyway. I haven’t stopped since.’

Indeed, Lan never looked back. She’s self-taught but believes that this has been the key to her success. ‘The journey is perhaps  a little longer and tougher as you don’t know the rules, but I have no rules to ever hold me back from creating.’ Her career climbed:  a random job with photographer Steve Wood exposed Lan to the Fashion Week circuit;  a chance meeting with a fellow make-up artist led to a L’Oréal campaign. As Lan tells it, opportunity after opportunity presented itself and she was in the right place at the right time. But peel away the layers and Lan is a lot more savvy than she lets on. ‘I started to step outside the box and become a social artist, networking and putting feelers out to clients.’

Nearly 14 years on, Lan is publishing a book aptly titled Art & Makeup. For her, the two will always be inextricably linked. ‘If  I didn’t have the art skills and experience,  I would never have been able to pick up the make-up techniques myself. Having the confidence to treat make-up as an art form is invaluable, especially for creative shoots.’ The book itself is a perfect, glossy testament to cosmetics and their ability to transform, and explores the idea of the face as the ultimate canvas. It pays homage to art in  all its forms – sculpture, cinema and performance – with over 200 breathtaking maquillage set-ups shot by acclaimed photographers including Mark Cant and Rankin, the latter of whom wrote the foreword for the book. ‘What I love about this book is that it reminds us that our understanding of techniques begins with history, art, culture and all the wider things that inspire us,’ says Rankin.

‘Having the confidence to treat make-up as an art form is invaluable’

This fantasy tome is rich with references to cinematic classics – from the gothic charm of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (stained lips, deathly pallor) to the pomp  of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (beauty spots, flamboyant wigs) – while her avant-garde interpretation of Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of Cleopatra has the model bathed in gold glitter. The book also credits the drag scene and the circus as unlikely founts of inspiration. It’s peppered with quotes from industry peers and artists including Picasso and Anish Kapoor – both of whom have pages dedicated to their unique artistic style.

Despite a career forged in a digital age where imperfections can be wiped out with  a retoucher’s magic wand, Lan is old-school in her approach and strives for  an impeccable finish every time.  ‘I didn’t know about retouching, so would always aim to make my work flawless. It was only when I saw before and after shots that  I was shocked to see the difference between good and bad make-up artistry.’ It’s this perfectionism that makes her a pioneer.

‘A wise make-up artist once told me that it isn’t about the destination but the journey,’ she says. With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, so far it’s been quite the trip.

Art & Makeup, £28, Laurence King

  • Words: Catriona Taylor

  • Photography: Camille Sanson, Catherine Harbour, John Oakley, Mark Cant, Tom Bunning