Face Paint; An Interview with Renowned Makeup Artist Ellen Bodkins

Written by Margaret Blaha

Ellen Bodkins’s works of art are not hanging in a museum, but they can be seen walking down the street or the aisle, on TV, or in a magazine. Ellen’s medium is not paint but makeup. While she is not a starving painter, she certainly has the artistic outlook on life and beauty that a painter might have. Of course, unlike a painter, Ellen’s canvases are not blank; they are faces that already come to her with unique features and characteristics. Her art is not creating beauty where it doesn’t exist, but enhancing the beauty she finds in the people who come to her.

Ellen’s definition of beauty is simply that there is no definition. By defining beauty, she thinks we are only creating a box that people feel they need to fit into. But Ellen feels that there are different kinds of beauty and that the most important thing is that a person “feels wonderful and powerful in who she is.” This is the business Ellen is in: helping men and women feel wonderful and powerful in their own skin.

This conception of beauty is the product of her childhood spent in Park Slope and Crown Heights in Brooklyn, NY. Ellen claims that she grew up in an eccentric family and was always surrounded by and taught to embrace diversity. She was clearly passionate about other cultures and working with people of all walks of life, which she claims makes her a better makeup artist. “A makeup artist stunts her growth by working with only one type of person,” Ellen says. And she’s certainly no proponent of the image of conventional beauty we’re fed by the media each day.


Ellen practices what she calls “beauty enhancement,” which simply means hiding any imperfections a client might have and accentuating her best features to make her look her best. A signature of a great makeup artist, she says, is being able to hide imperfection by blending, not masking. She doesn’t believe in having her clients look like someone other than themselves, unless they are playing a character on a television show.

Ellen’s portfolio includes doing makeup for the average person, mainly for weddings and other special events, and TV and film productions like Good Day New York and the CBS primetime drama Person of Interest. When doing makeup for someone who has to go on camera, Ellen says that the harsh lights and merciless camera have to be taken into consideration. “It [the camera] flattens out the face and flushes out features,” Ellen says, so she essentially has to become a sculptress, creating dimension in the face. “The HD cameras most productions are shot with are the worst,” she says, “[they] show every detail on a person’s face with no mercy.”

makeupartist-1Ellen’s work for Person of Interest is essential for character development. She receives the scripts for each episode so that she can understand a character’s interiority and think of how she can best convey it to the audience through makeup. The show is about a CIA officer who is recruited by a mysterious billionaire to prevent violent crimes in New York City, so a lot of her style choices have to be effective at relaying which characters are good and which ones are evil. When she’s doing makeup for a serial killer, she has to get inside the head of the character in order to envision what he or she might look like. Creating deep circles under the eyes is a technique she uses to make serial killers come across as unlikeable, the idea being that a serial killer probably doesn’t get much sleep because he is always on the run or plotting his next move. Creating a likeable character seems to take a lot less effort: whether it’s for a primetime drama or a morning news show, a pretty character is a likeable character.

One of the many challenging aspects to Ellen’s job is that she has to adjust or put aside her own personal aesthetic to suit her clients’ personal style. Ellen has a very strong personality with equally strong opinions, but her artistic nature keeps her from eclipsing a client’s wishes and allows her to let the makeup do the talking.

Whenever she first meets a client—or anyone, for that matter—she automatically assesses what colors and makeup would look good on the person. She often imagines herself doing makeup for the strangers sitting around her on the subway and can identify what product works best with a person’s complexion quicker than a sharp-shooter can draw his gun. “I might see someone on the train and think ‘Oh, yes, this poppy shade in Clinique’s new line would be a stunning match with her brown hair,” Ellen laughs. But when she first meets a client she accompanies this quick assessment with three questions: 1.) Do you wear makeup? 2.) What are your favorite colors? 3.) Why are you getting your makeup done today?

Talking with Ellen is like chit chatting with an old girlfriend. She’s funny, lively, enthusiastic, and incredibly passionate about everything that has to do with makeup. Getting where she is took a lot of determination and hard work, but she makes it clear that she wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. She started wearing makeup at the age of 13 and was on a first-name basis with the people at the Clinique counter, which she visited on a daily basis to ask questions about different products. Little did she know that she was planting and watering the seed for a full-fledged career as a makeup artist. She snagged herself coveted positions with MAC and Nickelodeon, and has worked to establish her company Face the Day NY.

But her success as a makeup artist didn’t come without a fair share of cosmetic faux pas from her younger days, which included a lot of glitter. Glitter everyday, in fact. “There was a time in the 90s where the popular look for many artists was to wear glitter as eye shadow. Well, I found this glitter lipstick and decided it would be cute to wear as eye shadow.” Her friends didn’t think so, as they eventually had a lunchtime intervention to try and talk her out of wearing it. Some of her other regrettable choices were white eyeliner and wearing dark brown lip liner with a lighter shade of lipstick. While her choices in makeup were poor, Ellen says that it was at least skillfully applied.

Ellen makes no distinction between her work and her life: makeup is her life, which is why she finds under appreciation her work sometimes receives painful. When she was first starting as a makeup artist, every aspect of her career was under the radar, but that’s changed now with the rise of social media and tutorial videos. People now feel that they see and understand all that it means to be a makeup artist, so she feels that more and more people consider her work to be trivial rather than artistic. “That can be a challenge when people that might be hiring or working with you don’t see the value in what you do,” Ellen says.

Even so, Ellen is in the industry for the right reasons. Like a giddy child she’s excited by the fact that she gets to paint faces for a living, though as an artist she is doing much more than that. Ellen is continuously inspired by her clients and, in turn, inspires them. It is this wonderful give and take that makes seeing her clients’ reactions to their finished looks such a joy to her. She looks at her art as a healing experience because it helps other women find confidence in themselves.

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