Cathy Lomax. Make Up. Artist.

Cathy Lomax started out painting faces in a peach pinny working the Miss Selfridge makeup counter. Then it was the faces of models, for fashion bibles like The Face, i-D and Arena. Now Cathy paints in oils and acrylics rather than blusher and eyeshadows, but cosmetics, glamour and fashion linger like a lipstick kiss. “My work assimilates this seductive imagery and juxtaposes it with personal narratives and the everyday.”

Words and Photography JOHN WILLIAM

Cathy is the director of Transition Gallery in East London and she edits Arty and Garageland maga/zines. At the moment she is studying for a PhD at Queen Mary University of London, researching the role of makeup in the creation of the female star image. Visiting Cathy’s studio feels like stepping into a vanity case, or the scrapbook of a Hollywood film fanatic. Cut crystal perfume bottles sit next to jars of paint brushes. Paint palettes are stacked with eyeshadow palettes. Print outs and paintings of film stills cover every surface. We talk to the artist about makeup, beauty and glamour.

Beauty Papers: So, once upon a time you were a makeup artist.
Cathy Lomax: I trained as a beauty therapist after I left school.

BP: Why?
CL: Because I didn’t want to go to university, I’d got bored with school, I was doing A-Levels and I was doing really badly. My dad was like you’ve got to do something and I was like oh my god what am I going to do, I quite like makeup, alright I’ll train as a beauty therapist.

BP: What was your appearance like at this moment?
CL: I used to love Siouxsie [Sioux], so I looked a bit like Siouxsie. I was always trying to recreate the Siouxsie hairstyle. I remember when I didn’t really know anything I used to go to the hairdressers with a picture of Siouxsie and say I want my hair cut like this, and they were like “well it’s more of what she’s done to the hair than the cut” and I didn’t really understand. I liked a lot of black kohl and quite dark eyeshadow, and black lips sometimes. I was very pale and I dyed my hair black. So when I went to beauty therapy college I was a bit of a freak because I lived in Surrey and they were all quite nice girls and I came in with my punky look. I think the principal said to me “I’m not sure ladies will like you to do their beauty treatments.” I kind of hated all of that but at the same time, I sort of enjoyed it. Although I used to hate leg waxes, I used to try and avoid doing waxing because it was disgusting all those hairy legs.

BP: Were people having intimate waxes as a mainstream thing back then?
CL: Yeah, bikini lines, I mean not as extreme as the intimate waxes today, they were much more basic, you kept your pants on!

BP: It was just the sideburns!
CL: Yes, exactly! So I did that and I realised that I didn’t want to be a beauty therapist, doing waxes all day long and electrolysis, which I hated. So I got a job working for Miss Selfridge makeup. Their make up range was called ‘Kiss and Make Up.’ I was a cosmetic consultant in the shop, so I had a few days of special training and a peach coloured pinafore.

Reveal, 2017, oil on canvas, 50x50cm

BP: So when you were at Miss Selfridge in your peach pinny, had you become a bit less Siouxsie?
CL: Yeah, I guess the New Romantic era was well upon us, so I liked a bit of dressing up.

BP: A bit Human League?
CL: Yeah, maybe a bit Human League. The Miss Selfridge makeup range was great, lots of colours. The bestselling lipstick was called ‘Iron Lady,’ a frosted lilac-y pink. We used to sell so many. I did that for a while and then I was singing in a band called ‘Shoot! Dispute’. Indie, new wave-y but we were also into dance music. We used to do a cover of Iggy Pop’s ‘Fun Time’ and we did quite well. We did three John Peel sessions. I needed to get a job though, and I started working for a company called ‘Cosmetics à La Carte’. Based in Belgravia, they used to make their own makeup. Lots of celebrities came in because they used to mix individual colours, individual foundations and do special lipstick and eyeshadow colours for people. So like Dave Vanian from The Damned used to come in for his foundation. We used to have boxes of just the lipstick sticks and you’d put them in the case and you’d have to hold them over a Bunsen burner to make them shiny. You got involved with everything and I designed a whole load of colours in the factory one time and made them, so it was really nice.

BP: Then you started working for magazines?
CL: I went to a few shoots for some reason while I was at the shop, and that got me interested in the fashion world and then I decided I wanted to be a makeup artist. So there were lots of tests, I went round to loads of agencies, all the usual stuff and eventually, I got an agent and started working.

BP: What did your editorial make up look like?
CL: I liked stuff that didn’t look too finished, I guess. So I hated skin that had too much foundation on it, but I liked bright coloured eyeshadow. It was coming into the 90s and heroin chic and all that kind of stuff, so there was often a stripped back look, but then it would be nice to put one really strong element on, like bright lipstick or loads of blusher, or something interesting. I worked loads for The Face, I worked loads for i-D, I used to work with Juergen Teller a bit. Judy Blame a bit. Edward Enninful when he was at i-D loads, so I did lot’s of good stuff and I worked with a few brands but I was never very good at doing really commercial things. I don’t know what it was, I just found it hard to compromise. I just felt happier doing editorial and having that creative thing going on and the collaboration and no horrible clients saying “I don’t know if I like that”, so that’s probably my downfall in the makeup world.

BP: When you were working as a makeup artist, how did you start working as an artist?
CL: Well I did A-level art when I was at school and I really liked it. And I did have a period where I thought I might like to go to art college but I didn’t really have much of a portfolio. I used to like doing still life. I’d make a little setup with makeup in a box with perfume bottles and lipsticks and paint that.

BP: Who was your idea of a real artist back then?
CL: I remember liking Tamara de Lempicka, she was very fashionable in the 80s. I guess all the usual you know Van Gogh and people like that. Oh, and Egon Schiele who’s like every kind of art students’ pin-up boy. Okay, so while I was working as a makeup artist, I started doing some evening classes and portfolio building classes at the City Lit and the local Hackney college. And I really, really loved it. I built up quite a good portfolio and then decided to do a degree. I did a part-time degree at London Guildhall University which is now The Cass London Met, opposite the Whitechapel Gallery.

"I liked stuff that didn’t look too finished, I guess. So I hated skin that had too much foundation on it, but I liked bright coloured eyeshadow. It was coming into the 90s so there was often a stripped back look, but then it would be nice to put one really strong element on, like bright lipstick or loads of blusher."

BP: What art where you making?
CL: Painting, I liked painting. I did quite a lot of observational work, life drawing. I like painting people. A tutor asked me “what do you want to do next?” And I said, “well I want to do this thing called ‘Famous People I’ve Met’.” I wanted to try and capture that weird feeling when you meet someone famous and you can’t really look at them. He was like “that just sounds ridiculous, I don’t understand that at all.” I think I’ve been trying to do that ever since a little bit. That thing that you get when you fall in love with an image of somebody or when you watch them in a film and you want to be them or be with them or whatever. I think that’s what’s always been interesting to me. After my degree I started a Fine Art MA at St Martin’s, part time again.

BP: What was that like being at St Martin’s did you feel like you fitted in?
CL: Yeah, a bit more. The people were a bit more interesting.

BP: Because you had this fashion thing going on was that fairy dust or taboo?
CL: I think it was a bit taboo really, I didn’t really talk about it very much. It was not considered a great thing within art. I really loved people like Karen Kilimnik, she does lots of stuff about fashion and hanging out with celebrities. Elizabeth Peyton I liked. Those American artists that were, I guess, breaking that taboo. Recently I’ve come to realise that it’s a really sexist thing because I think even back then fine art was very much about being a tough painter, hard drinking, quite masculine qualities. I remember my tutor who ran the course, Joanna Greenhill, said that when she was in St Martin’s in the 80s, you had to really be like one of the blokes and it was all about big sculptures. She was like “Yeah there’s no way that you could have children if you’re a woman if you wanted to be taken seriously.” So I think this new wave of artists in America that were considering fashion and more feminine things, more decorative work, were really good for me.

BP: So when did you open Transition gallery?
CL: As soon as my MA finished in 2002, I decided to open Transition. I was really into that whole YBA, I guess it was the tail end of the YBA thing, but I like the way they had done their own thing, the DIY way.

BP: And you did it with Alex Michon?
CL: Yes, I did it with Alex Michon who is also an artist and she used to be my agent, when I was a makeup artist. But she also was on the door at Taboo and various clubs and knew all those club kids. She used to make clothes for The Clash, and knew Trojan and Leigh Bowery. We opened the gallery together and then later on Alli Sharma also joined as a director. Initially, I hated all the hierarchies in art I was like “I want to show everybody’s work”, whoever came along and asked for a show it was like “Yeah, okay!” You know we did crazy shows where we just put everybody’s work in a small space. Then slowly but surely, more people began to know about the gallery and we got artists with bigger reputations asking to show their work. And then we showed Stella Vine and we got a nice little bit of publicity from Charles Saatchi. We’ve shown artists like Emma Talbot, Genieve Figgis, Cathie Pilkington and we gave Rose Wylie her her first solo show that she’d had in a while.

BP: Do you still work with Alex?
CL: Yes, in fact we went to the BFI yesterday to see two really crazy pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck films, ‘Night Nurse’ and ‘Baby Face’. We did a show together at Transition in October called ‘A Gown by Orry-Kelly’ inspired by Hollywood costume design. I showed painting and she made a series of unwearable dresses and other accessories.

BP: What is it that keeps you so interested in the world of beauty and makeup?
CL: I guess my interest is not so much with ongoing ideas around beauty, what I’m really looking at is history and the way that it changes. From the 50s when it was all about red lips, to the 60s when it was about no lips or nude lips. I find that so weird, how did that happen, what is going on?

BP: And so now you’re doing a PhD?
CL: So much of the work I make is about films. I’ve always loved books about film stars. Even when I was a kid I used to like looking at all those images, without knowing the films. I’d always had this interest in film, but I didn’t really know anything about film history. I started to do evening classes and I’m kind of a compulsive evening class taker, I always want to know new things. So I got really interested and decided to do a PhD. My supervisor is amazing, she’s called Lucy Bolton and her thing is ‘Star Studies’. If the BFI do anything about Vivien Leigh or Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck, she is always involved. I met her at a Vivien Leigh event. So yeah that’s what I’m doing: makeup, film stars, the female film star image.

"I guess my interest is not so much with ongoing ideas around beauty, what I’m really looking at is history and the way that it changes. From the 50s when it was all about red lips, to the 60s when it was about no lips or nude lips. I find that so weird, how did that happen, what is going on?"

BP: Your work is so focused on the glamour and the beauty of the past. When did beauty die?
CL: I mean I don’t think it’s died. I think if anything it’s kind of healthier than ever right now. That focus on those beautifully made up Instagram faces.

BP: Yeah, but you’re not interested in that.
CL: I’m not so interested in it, yeah, it’s true. Okay, I guess my favourite period is the 1950’s. I kind of like the 1940’s quite a lot, but the 50s is really my era. It can go into the 1960s a little bit but I’m not really a big fan of 1960’s makeup. The 70s is quite cool makeup-wise but I don’t like 70s films that much. So the 50s is where I’m stuck. I think it’s such an amazing era, because so much was changing and the modern world of pop culture as we know it, really started then… with music and teenagers and ready-to-wear fashion. Also there’s something dark going on beneath that perfect surface. The veneer of glamour.

BP: You must have seen so many films, what are some of your favourites?
CL: I’m writing about Marilyn Monroe at the moment and her makeup, which I wasn’t going to do originally because I thought it was a big cliché. But nobody has really written about her makeup. Her film that I really love at the moment is ‘Niagara’, which is her first big-starring film in Technicolour, and it’s when her makeup look came together. It’s a culmination of a lot of work she did with the makeup artist, Whitey Snyder. There’s a scene where she’s pretending to be asleep, her husband is coming into the room and she doesn’t want to engage with him, she’s fully made-up, she’s got nothing on, she’s got a white sheet pulled up. Her lips are lacquered, they’re so red and so perfect. They’re not glossy exactly, they look lacquered, they have a slight sheen on them. False eyelashes, highlighting, contouring. But it doesn’t look like heavy makeup it’s more about sheen and looking dewy and youthful. In that film she looks like an alien compared to everyone else in it, you just cannot get enough of looking at her. There’s a film called ‘Marjorie Morningstar’ that Natalie Wood stars in. She has like a waist that you could put your hands around, and she’s very made-up in it. Natalie Wood always seems to wear a bit too much makeup, she can never quite be natural. She wants to be a method actor and be natural and gritty but she can’t quite do it. She always has to be a bit too glamorous and I find that quite endearing.

BP: That’s where the humanity and empathy sits.
CL: And maybe my favourite film of all time is ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone’, a Vivien Leigh film, the second to last film she made. So it was in the early 60s when she was getting a bit older, and it’s about an older woman whose husband died. She goes to Rome and takes up with a gigolo, played by Warren Beatty in his first film role, doing a very bad Italian accent. Vivien Leigh wears really nice clothes by Balmain and quite a bad wig but I love it. I have painted loads of paintings of her in that film and I did a residency in Rome at a place called the British School at Rome, and I traced Vivien Leigh’s steps in this film, even though it wasn’t actually filmed in Rome it was filmed in Elstree or something.

BP: Do you have any sort of personal mythology around the word vanity?
CL: I’m very interested in it, as well as narcissism. I think they’re both really interesting because I think that they are applied to women and I think it’s quite a sexist idea. You know… frivolous, pointless, time-wasting, self-absorbed all those things. But what I like to think about and what I’m writing about quite a lot, is this idea of the work that goes into creating how you look and how that’s actually important. And so I think looking in the mirror is a very, very important part of that. It’s not just superficial nothingness, you do actually have to check how you look before you go out into the world because that’s part of who you are and part of your image and part of the work of being a woman. Obviously, guys do it as well and that’s fine but I’m just thinking about it from the female point of view. So I think vanity is unfairly thought of as a bad thing but actually, I think it’s fine.

BP: Do you have any beauty hero products?
CL: I just use whatever. I’m really bad, I just use the crappiest things! “Oh what’s that? Okay, mix those things together.” So from my days of being a makeup artist, everything has been mixed with something else and then smudged. Because from my era of doing makeup I just like it all to be a bit smudgy and not too definite. A few bits of real skin showing. I do like Dr Hauschka moisturiser, rose face cream, like really gloopy, thick. But apart from that, I’m not really loyal to anything. I did a book for Mary Quant makeup once and I got loads of Mary Quant eyeshadow, all these palettes with all the colours, and I still work my way through those.

BP: We’ve talked about your historical point of view on beauty, is there anyone contemporary who sort of epitomises an idea of beauty?
CL: I think Cate Blanchett is interesting, although her beauty is a bit too cold and sophisticated for my taste. I also quite like Emma Stone and I’m a big fan of Rachel Weisz (I did her makeup for Frank magazine years ago) and I think Annie Clark is amazing, I love her style. Oh and I absolutely loved the portrait John Currin did of Jennifer Lawrence that was on the cover of American Vogue.

Cathy Lomax is an artist and winner of the 2016 Contemporary British Painting Prize. She is also the director of Transition Gallery and is currently researching Hollywood star makeup for a PhD at Queen Mary University of London.
Cathy’s current exhibition Beauty Salon is on now at Alison Richard Building, University of Cambridge, 9 May – 14 June 2019.