Lucia Pieroni and Jenny Saville; A Conversation

The contemporary painter Jenny Saville and celebrated make-up artist Lucia Pieroni are old friends. Here they reminisce about the past, discuss the creativity that comes from technique and how two people can connect through a shared love of painting heads.


Jenny Saville: How did we meet?
Lucia Pieroni: We met in New York when Glen Luchford came to take your portrait for American Vogue, I think?

JS: No, it was British Vogue. It was meant to be with Mary Ellen Mark and I was so excited, but a couple days before they said, ‘We’re going to send this guy who is a cool, new photographer called Glen Luchford’.  I was actually gutted because I didn’t know who he was? [Laughs]
LP: I didn’t know that you got Glen instead of Mary Ellen Mark, that’s funny. I remember I was staying with Glen at his friend’s apartment in NY. I can’t remember the guy’s name but he had this huge iguana in a glass tank in the middle of the living room. It was kind of amazing but quite scary.

JS: It was about a year after that in ’95 that I went to those concentration camps with Glen for a week – I think that’s why my paintings shift around that time. I also made that video of us doing a synchronised swimming contest.
LP: Have you still got that? I’ve lost it.

JS: Yes. I remember Daisy, you and I swimming to Bjork.  We had red lipstick hearts on our nipples and our finale at the end was to the whip the bikini top off.
LP: Mine came flying off as soon as I hit the water! Our bikini tops were made out of old lady leopard printed plastic rain hats that you found in the local market. [Both laugh]

JS: It was a carefree time that I remember with fond memories. There was a moment where we were in New York and I had done those pictures with Glen and there were so many ideas running around. The Sorrentis, Amanda de Cadenet, it was an amazing kind of collision of different people with ideas and no one had fallen out.
LP: They were good times. I didn’t really work that much when I first moved to New York. We just hang out in cafes.

JS: But we used to talk about ideas and see shows. It was a kind of scene. I was in and out of that though because I didn’t live there and I wasn’t in fashion, so whilst you would shoot campaigns I would work in my studio. Before you shot your first Prada campaign what were you doing?  Was that the moment it all started?
LP: I started doing make-up in the late 80’s. Just doing test shoots with a young photographer, Andy Bettles, who was a friend of my sisters. I did that for over a year and made no money. I was on the enterprise allowance scheme, which was a way of the government keeping you off the dole and paying you £40 a week. It allowed me to keep going. It was pretty cool. Andy then started to work with The Face and British Vogue and I kind of catapulted with him. He also introduced me to Beverley Streeter who took me on. Streeters have been my agent ever since.<

"When I took my son to my show in New York, I walked in and there were young women sitting in front of my paintings drawing. It felt like an amazing moment that a new generation of women are interested in things I have been painting." Jenny Saville

JS: You must have had a creative upbringing to push you in that direction? Were you good at art at school?
LP: Yes, I loved painting when I was younger. I’m dyslexic so art has always been my strongest point.

JS: Your visual language?
LP: For sure. I’ve always loved painting and drawing.  I can get quite lost in the process; I find it very meditative. At the time, however, I wanted to be a dancer. Looking back now it’s quite funny, I think I was a bit rubbish at it. God knows what I was thinking. I sort of fell into make-up I guess. My sister Paola used to model. I did her make for a couple of shoots and found I really liked the creative medium.

JS: Who taught you about mixing colours? When I first met you, you were not applying a straight colour were were creating colours – who taught you that development?
LP: It was me experimenting I guess. I don’t come from a make-up background at all, so when I started I didn’t have one single brown eye shadow.  I thought, ‘Shit! I need to get some normal colours’.  I just had bright colours, which I used to use for theatrical make-up and apply with my fingers. I remember my Mum, for my birthday, buying me a compact of twelve eye shadows from Cosmetics à La Carte in London. She came with me and we chose all these bright colours to go in it. Around that time I started doing a lot of tests with this beauty photographer, Donna Trope, where we would experiment. It’s how I practiced back in the day.

JS: You’ve always appeared to be a make-up artist who’s not very ‘make-up-y’. Our friendship grew through going to shows and exhibitions…and we both love the work of Marlene Dumas.
LP: I love her work, she is my favourite.

"I guess my process is about which imperfections you leave and which you take out. The natural staining some people have a round their eyes, the kind of reddish brown colour, can be really quite beautiful. You don’t want cover that up." Lucia Pieroni

JS: Those bleeding eyes—it’s an ‘off-beauty’, looking at make-up in an unconventional sense. I have nothing to do with your craft but we found a kinship quickly about things. Glen said to me, ‘Oh, she doesn’t really do make-up, she works with skin‘, because you developed like that. Are you conscious of where that came from? Is it because you never wore make-up?
LP: I like the idea of an off-beauty: of subtly painting a face. When a model sits in my chair it’s definitely about her face. Light and shade come into play and how to bring something out in them, expressively through make-up. Whether it’s a crazy look, or just about flesh tones, I like the imperfection of things. I like to see and feel the person under that make-up.

JS: When I mix my paint, I have my core colours. Then I go to a paint shop and find a green or a red that I have never used, and that becomes a driving force for a painting or two, but my core colours stay the same and then I have tricks. You have tricks too, like Vaseline on eyelashes or cheekbones.
LP: Actually, it’s not Vaseline… it’s Egyptian Magic.

JS: Oh, you’ve gone all upmarket!
LP: It’s all natural – you know how obsessed I am about that. Very early on I used to use Jing Jang cream. It was for nappy rash, sunburn and vaginal soreness! My assistant Ozzy called it vag cream, which stuck. I ended up saying, ‘Can you pass the vag cream?’

JS: How bound to beauty are you in a traditional sense? Do you try to work towards a beautiful aim?
LP: No matter what I do, I always have to see the beauty in that person. I don’t overlay make-up. There’s never tons of make-up for that reason. It’s almost like you have to feel that person and see them coming through, otherwise it’s an awful mask. I think that maybe that’s what I hate about modern make-up, especially this hyper real trend with the youth where their eyebrows look like they have been drawn on with a sharpie. I feel it removes your beauty by appearing ‘plastic looking’. Everyone now is obsessed with contouring, which I can’t identify with.

JS: Given your reputation with skin, how did you build around those tones you create?  Is it an aesthetic to make people look like they are not wearing make-up? That’s difficult to do.
LP: It’s not as easy as you think because people either tend to put too much on or there’s not enough. There’s a very fine line. It’s about refining and defining someone’s face, enhancing their beauty without it looking like they have anything on. There’s definitely an art in it somewhere. There’s no A to B on how to do a no make-up look. It’s instinctual.

JS: What’s the process? Would you look at the tones and question whether you needed to add or detract different ones?
LP: Yes, I definitely look at skin tones. I guess my process is about which imperfections you leave and which you take out. The natural staining some people have around their eyes – the kind of reddish brown colour – can be really quite beautiful. You don’t want to cover that up. Sometimes I mix pigments to get that see-through stain and add it to an eyelid that doesn’t have it naturally.

JS: When I paint an eye I will try and find a way to heighten that by using blue or yellow. I try to find how to give it an emotional push. I do as much as I can get away with before the eye collapses as an eye. I might lay lemon underneath the colours that are the actual tones of the eye but it pushes it in one direction – I do observe the similarities between our approaches.
LP: For me, I try not to over conceal because you need 
the imperfections coming through with changes in the skin colour. A lot of people don’t, so it’s perceived as almost blanked out – like a canvas that’s very flat. I don’t do that. I leave the freckles, redness and a certain amount of dark under the eyes. It adds a dimension to the face, making it somehow more beautiful.

JS: And how much of your work is manipulated by Photoshop?
LP: Well, that depends on whom you work with. Some like to retouch to the point they will add make-up.

JS: Does that become annoying?
LP: Not really. I’ve worked with photographers where you would sit with them and watch them draw on the computer and add make-up. It’s quite amazing to watch.  You sit and discuss it, and it becomes collaborative. It’s fun to explore the possibilities.

JS: Who were your influences when you were growing up? Were you observing the work of other make-up artists?
LP: When I first started, Linda Cantello was very successful. I admired her work a lot. And Stéphane Marais, who did all those amazing Peter Lindberg pictures with black, smudgy eyes.

JS: The smokey eye. Similar to when you wake up in the morning and haven’t washed your face or been out drinking too much.  It’s just in the right side of looking good. You’ve even talked about lips bleeding. You like things that aren’t in their confined area – that’s your particular kind of make-up, isn’t it?
LP: I like the idea of blown out edges, no hard lines. There’s always something quite beautiful about it. If I wear make-up, which is very rare, I will smudge a black pencil around my eye, add a bit of mascara, and rub it in with my fingers. Basically, I try to create exactly what you’re talking about: ‘The Walk of Shame’ make-up. It’s a bit messy and bad. Having said that, I’m very particular about lips. They have to be perfect: slightly overdrawn, but also micro fuzzy around the edge. I’m a nightmare when it comes to lips.

JS: Lips are my favourite things you do. I like your clumpy, wet looking eyes with mascara, but you’ve always been great at that.
LP: Wet looking eyes. That’s the Egyptian Magic again.

JS: If you do that is the rest of the face is almost nothing? Is it a question of observing the balance?
LP: Yes and no. It depends. Sometimes out of balance can be great; a full face of make-up, eyes, cheeks, and lips can be amazing. But one of my favourite looks is ‘beautiful skin’ – some shine and a matte red lip – which I know you wear. I think of you with a tan, blue eyes and an amazing, slightly orange-red lip.

JS: That means I’m ready to go out.
LP: You’ve got a great shaped mouth.
JS: It’s been handy for me to paint myself.  Do you think we share a visceral approach in what we do?LP: There’s a rawness to a face; a beauty that I can’t necessarily put into words. It’s a feeling. When I start to paint a face I don’t always know what I’m going to do, it just comes out of observing – seeing how light reflects and where shadows fall on a certain part of the face. I can start something and it feels wrong, so I might change direction mid flow without really thinking about it and it turns into something completely different.

JS: Do you ever prep on models at home to test something?
LP: When I’m making new colours I do, but it’s usually on my nieces. I’m always testing new lipstick colours on them. I have a studio in my house, where I have a large collection of pigments, lipsticks and paints. They’re all decanted into palettes in shade on tones.

JS: That’s exactly what I do! I work with tones that way I work with pictures of sunsets in my studio – not to paint sunsets but the tones between nightand day – how they soften and things become mysterious. When I have the imagery around me I tend to mix tones that head towards that. When you’re mixing pigments, what are they actually made up of?
LP: Lots of different things depending on what I’m making. I take eye shadows that I sometimes mix with pure powder paint pigment to create a unique colour.S: Trends. Do these apply? Have you noticed a difference in ideals and looks? I don’t really like to follow trends. I think if I see something too much you just don’t want to do it, and it becomes too much the norm. Although, for quite some time now I’ve been into boyish, natural, bushy eyebrows, which I have done a lot of recently – they are perfect for framing the face.

JS: Is that because it makes you look fertile and younger?  Eyebrows that are bushy points to a very primal idea of fertility, that you are becoming a woman. Do you see that a lot?
LP: It’s definitely a look that dominates, as generally, the average age of a person I make up is pretty young. They are still young girls, blessed with a natural beauty and youthful glowing skin.  I’m lucky because I get to enhance what’s already there.

JS: Are you drawn to more alternative ideas of beauty, like models that are on the edge of convention?
LP: I like boyish faces. Sometimes I think conventional beauty is great, but there is something of interest in somebody who has character and imperfections. It’s weird because what matters a lot is their personal character and a lot of judgement comes from how you feel about them. The face is a landscape, which is similar to your approach to the body and face.

JS: My favourite thing is to paint heads, I have to say. When I was breastfeeding my son I used to feed with a music stand with a picture of a painting on it and I would turn it upside down. I would have the chance to study my son’s skin and flesh repeatedly. I think when I paint faces it’s the landscape of the head.
LP: Understanding the landscape of a face, I completely get that. I try to tell my assistants, you need to study the face, the skin, you need to feel the skin.
If the eyes are quite far apart, you need to adjust. If you are doing shows, you have to adapt the look so it works for all faces.

JS: So you adjust accordingly?
LP: Yes. There are so many variables in doing something that’s exactly the same. No two people have the same face, so your team around you are very important.

JS: How many girls in a show? And do you go around and finesse the looks? Have you been in any disasters before?
LP: At the moment, I’d say around 40-50. And yes, I look at every girl before they go on and probably adjust at least 40% of the make-up. I’ve had a few nightmares on several occasions and usually start swearing! [Laughs] I remember one show with clumpy mascara in multiple colours, it was all going horribly wrong and no one could get it to look right. I remember saying to Neil, my assistant, ‘What the fuck! How are we going to do this? All the girls look awful! He calmly said, ‘It’s fine. We can do this Lu!’ And we did. You just have to get through it, although I think we did almost every girl in the show. It nearly killed us both.

JS: I have felt that in my shows when paintings don’t work. I have found my way through it but it’s not what I had hoped it to be. When you release it people go, ‘I love it!’ And I think, ‘You have no idea where I have been with that.’
LP: I can relate. I can be trying so many different make-up looks but nothing is working. After repeatedly taking it off and putting it back on again, finally you get something right. The photo looks great, but no one knows the crazy process you’ve been through.

JS: Are there current issues, politically, that effect the way you approach your work?
LP: I don’t know if it necessarily affects me with the way I approach my work.

JS: I’m very conscious as a painter. Fifty years ago, however good I was, I would not be considered purely on the basis that I was a woman. So many women in my cast, who were probably more talented, didn’t get that same chance because they lived in a particular time. I definitely have a work ethic inspired by those women. When I took my son to my show in New York, I walked in and there were young women sitting in front of my paintings drawing. It felt like an amazing moment that a new generation of women are interested in things I have been painting.
LP: I suppose people could quote that I objectify women because I’m beautifying them to go into glossy magazines – a lot of people disagree with that.

"I try not to over conceal because you need the imperfections coming through with changes in the skin colour. I leave the freckles, redness and a certain amount of dark under the eyes. It adds a dimension to the face, making it somehow more beautiful." Lucia Pieroni

JS: What’s the biggest challenge in terms of colours?
Strong bold pigments and glittery textures are the hardest to create, mainly because of allergic reactions.

JS: What are your biggest influences?
LP: Painting is my biggest influence, then nature.

JS: What’s your biggest love?
LP: Chocolate. [Laughs] My family, my friends, Italy, botanicals – I love the idea one can heal using nature – essential oils, my garden, flowers, being in nature.

JS: My big love is my children. They have helped me to become even more creative than I was before. I thank my children for me stepping up my level of artistic output. I’ve become much more open-minded about the way I make things. I’m more inventive and creative.  I had a particular way of making art before I had children. I had spent most of my life trying to get paint to behave like flesh and then the experience of literally making flesh and watching a body grow, watching them create on a kitchen floor with paint going all over the place had a visceral quality I didn’t have in my work and it made me want to do that. There’s a traditional attitude that creativity diminishes when you have children and I had the opposite experience of that. As soon as I had more time I made much more work than pre-kids. I’ve been doing this work where I pour tinted turpentine on a raw canvas so it looks like rain drops on a pavement. The inspiration came from observing my kids drop things, the weather, and other natural things that set a poetic tone in my work.
LP: My nieces would come over and do face painting. It was always inspiring. It’s the naivety. A lot of it is about trusting your instinct.

JS: Children have no fear. They don’t worry about being judged, they are more interested in feeling the sensation of that certain thing, like getting wet paint and sticking it all over their body – a glorious and open-minded moment. Getting to witness that was a great love.
LP: Being at my house in Tuscany feels very medita
tive to me. It’s a place where I can sit for hours, looking at the most beautiful view. It’s a place where nature can fill you up and make you whole again. It’s the perfect place to decompress and be inspired.

JS: It’s been exciting to watch our careers grow. I was thinking about our friendship and I reckon you are still the exact same person I first met. There’s this thing about your core that’s changed, which is your strength, but you haven’t. I think that’s the key to your success because this industry you work in is pretty fickle but you have remained versatile in what you do rather than who you are. It’s amazing that you’ve been strong enough to do that. I think most people would crumble.
LP: Somebody said to me once that I wasn’t ‘fashion’.

JS: But even Glenn [Luchford] – he’s made iconic work as a fashion photographer but he’s probably one of the least ‘fashion-y’ people I know, other than you.
LP: Well you’re selling paintings for, let’s just say, undisclosed amounts and you’re still my friend! We’re older and fatter, but that’s the only difference.

JS: What a great way to finish.

Published in Beauty Papers Issue Six
Jenny Saville is at The George Economou Collection in Athens, Greece, until April 2019