'Naturalism' in the art of Film and Television Make-Up

A critique of V.Kehoe's technical manual, 'The Technique of Film and Television Make-up for color and black and white', (1957) published in a revised edition 1969 by Focal Press, London and New York. The critique is modelled on the approach of Roland Barthes in his 'Mythologies' , in particular in deploying the contrast of Nature and Culture.

In the course of a project (in the early 1970s) on the semiology of television programmes, I thought that it would be useful to supplement my critical viewing schedule with a reading of some of the technical manuals produced for the various sorts of technician involved in programme production. So it was that I came to read Kehoe's book on film and TV make-up, a leading work in the field.

In this critical review I try to show how Naturalism, as the historically dominant aesthetic for the production and evaluation of films and TV programmes, infuses Kehoe's theory of make-up, even though the actual 'practice of make-up which he describes is inconsistent with that theory. On this basis, I then interpret the theory as ideological.

What I have done for this manual on make-up could be done easily for the other leading manuals which exist as codifications of other arts involved in film and TV production, such as graphic design, lighting and musical scoring.

The art of make-up is perhaps least amenable to coherent domination by the ideology of naturalism, though there are areas of make-up which can be assimilated to this aesthetic and it is worth noting these at the outset.

First, there is that area or genre of 'straight' make-up which corrects for the distortions produced by photographic or electronic mechanisms. If the unmade-up face will appear more blotchy on the screen than it is 'really' (that is, in normal daylight viewing conditions), then let it be made up to appear just as blotchy on the screen as it is in reality, but neither more or less so. Such a practice of make-up will bring appearance and reality together in a way perfectly acceptable to naturalism. Make-up in this case serves to overcome the limitations of a technology and to exclude awareness of the presence of that technology. (From a naturalist perspective, black and white film and TV were tremendous limitations on the realisation of a naturalist work).

Stage make-up can be fitted quite easily into a naturalist aesthetic. Thus, Kehoe write that its purpose is ' to counteract the effects of the distance of the audience from the players in terms of facial definition and to compensate for the intensity of lights on the stage which wash out the natural facial coloring and 'flatten' the features of the actors' (p. 171)

Second, make-up for an historical character can easily be thought through naturalistically, as involving no more than making the actor look exactly like the historical character who he or she represents. Of course, the criteria of (exact) likeness can only be other socially-produced representations of the historical character, and these, though conventionally accepted as faithful likenesses, may be no such thing. (Think of representations of Jesus or Shakespeare or Queen Elizabeth the First).

Where the historical character is a mythological or fairy tale one, a naturalistic representation is still possible so long as other, prior, representations of the character exist which are generally accepted as being correct representations. The same applies, for example, to clowns, where an actor can be made up naturalistically to represent a clown (itself a non-naturalistic image).

Other areas or genres of the make-up artist's work, however, cannot be so easily assimilated as the two preceding ones. Thus, in reality what Kehoe calls 'straight' make-up fuses with 'corrective' make-up, that is, improvement of the face in terms of conventional standards of facial beauty. These standards may be specific not only to age and sex, but also to the medium: Kehoe suggests (p. 58) that the oval face became the correct (most beautiful) face for a woman just because of its amenability to photographic lighting. (If so, a nice case of life imitating art).

But Kehoe says that make-up artists no longer strive to ovalise every woman's face. According to him, a new aesthetic principle has triumphed which he calls co-ordinative compatibility. He explains this as follows:

'We coordinate as a whole the elements of the face and hair; second conform them to the present modes of daytime or evening make-up and wardrobe combinations; and third, with make-up, accomplish the most important new point in beauty: use the individual's own features as they are to create an overall pattern or concept of beauty. This means, in short, that we create a perfect symmetry of beauty for each individual woman' (p. 59)

Of course, this simply displaces one conventional concept of beauty (the oval face) with another 'a perfect symmetry of beauty for each individual woman'.

In addition to corrective make-up, character make-up is not assimilable to naturalism where there are no pre-exiting representations that are accepted as correct representations of the character, or else where there are no representations at all because the character is novel. Here the make-up artist is thrown back upon his own resources. A character's make-up can be created to seem natural by making it comparable to that of other members of a pre-existing paradigm, so that a pseudo-historical pirate can be made-up to bear a family resemblance to known, historical pirates. But this kind of approach becomes more and more difficult the smaller the number of members of the reference paradigm. Indeed, such an approach - aiming to strike a 'chord of recognition' (p. 160) in the audience - precludes any attempt at radical novelty, which may be a competing consideration (for example, in the creation of outer-space creatures). Parenthetically, one might observe that in Graphic Design, as conventionally taught, there is a fairly central emphasis on creating a 'chord of recognition' - a graphic designer's apple or orange should be instantly recognisable as an apple or orange. In Fine Art practice, this criterion of instant recognisability disappears.

Third, and finally, the naturalistic 'impulse' may be checked by the need to satisfy the audience's demands for, or expectations of, racially or nationally stereotyped characters, demands which are evidently non-naturalistic .

Kehoe is not a racist. In the original (1957) Preface to his book he makes a point of referring to recent scientific research ands asserts that 'no individual characteristic of any national group should be construed as a valid criterion for the distinction of this particular group' (pp 13 - 14) . This is because such research indicates that there are no such individual characteristics. Nonetheless, in his chapter on Racial and National Types, we can see how he is caught between this political liberalism and audience demands. The result is the following compromise position, which itself could form the basis of an extended critical discussion:

'Today, with constant intermarriage there are fewer culturally characteristic national types than in previous generations. National and even racial barriers are down in almost all countries. It is often difficult to distinguish national types until they speak in their own language or in English with a definite accent. Even many national costumes have disappeared today; however, costume is an excellent aid in national characterization in period productions. So, although we shall try to avoid the obvious prototype, we must still characterize the different nationalities by a form of prototype distinction wherever it is necessary for make-up purposes' (p. 135)

Thus it is that in his picture reference file, the make-up artist will have separate sections for 'China(Free and Pre-Rev) also ancient', on the one hand, and on the other, 'China (Red)' (p 274).

Kehoe's problems intensify when he tries to formulate a general aesthetic for make-up art. In the preceding paragraphs, I have tried to show what types of make-up can and cannot be assimilated to a naturalist perspective. Kehoe tries to assimilate all of them and thus arrives at confused and contradictory formulations of which the following (from his justificatory section What Make-Up Can Do) is the most interesting:

'Many people ask, 'Do I need make-up for television or motion pictures?' The answer is invariably 'Yes, if you want to look natural and to your best advantage'. The reason for this is simple. The normal pigments of the skin vary in different hues of redness, blueness, yellowness and brownness, all of which televise and film in different tones. Such factors as reddish cheeks or noses, bluish beard lines (even though just shaved), the browns or reds of freckles, blemishes, shaving cuts and so on, will affect the overall picture of the face. Make-up hides or covers and thereby disguises these faults. Used skillfully it can also minimise a prominent nose, chin, or jawbone, too wide or close spacing of the eyes, and many other natural faults in facial construction. This is known as corrective make-up....Some producers do not like the smoothness of the face created by the use of make-up. They strive to achieve what is termed a documentary effect in their productions by the lack of make-up on men (even at times, on women). Lack of make-up sometimes imparts a 'commonness' to the actors by showing up every fault or blemish in their faces. Reality in this case often becomes unpleasant, and the effectiveness of the actor's characterization is often lost because the audience may be distracted by the absence of make-up. However, if commonness is desired, the amount of make-up should be cut down or else applied so as to create a character make-up' (pp 20 -21)

It is noteworthy in this passage that 'commonness' exists as the 'marked' phenomenon of a character, whereas 'non-commonness' (which I take to be middle-classness) exists as unmarked (the 'zero degree') - the unspecified norm from which character make-up is the marked deviation.

'Distraction' occurs when make-up is noticed. In documentary, according to Kehoe, there is a danger that we notice a face 'as such' instead of seeing it as nothing but the transparent or invisible medium for the expression of a character - the goal of his naturalism . Kehoe frequently formulates his standard of technical perfection (his aesthetic) in terms of the invisibility of make-up. Thus, he writes that 'All make-up which appears as 'make-up' is unnatural looking! A good natural make-up in any medium is not an apparent one, but one that is so well applied that it is complimentary to the woman who is wearing it' (p. 61)

This quotation is from the chapter Straight and Corrective Make-Up. This chapter, like most in the book, deals mainly with the make-up of women. Indeed, just as street wear make-up is largely a characteristic of women, so also in film and TV it is the make-up of women which is of dominating concern. Why should this be so? If film and TV make-up was indeed 'straight' - that is, naturalistic - I doubt there could be this focus on women. But in reality make-up is principally 'corrective'.

I put 'corrective' in quote marks because beautification of the woman clearly goes beyond correction of 'natural faults', even those identified by convention. Beautification involves the creation of a definite non-natural icon. Kehoe cannot acknowledge this, except as a particular characteristic of high-fashion make-up (p. 71) - though it is something perfectly general. The oval face and his own preferred alternative 'perfect symmetry' are just as non-natural as the high-fashion face.

But why is it that women get the lion's share of 'corrective' treatment? The make-up artist is subordinate to the themes of a film or TV programme. Historically, women in film and TV play roles which - as in real life - exclude them from world-transforming action. Men make history and express themselves in their actions. Women stay at home and express themselves through their faces. If this is - however crudely formulated - the form taken by sexual domination, then the work of the make-up artist will be subordinate to and reproduce this form. One of the main tasks of the make-up artist can thus be formulated as that of facilitating the facial expression of female character. Thus Kehoe:

'The most important feature of the face is the eyes. They form the focal point we look at when talking to another person. They mirror the thoughts and character of a person, and thus become the center of interest in the face. More make-up products are made for the eye area than for any other part of the face. Lovely eyes are the prime accomplishment of Coordinative Compatibility.

'Next are the lips. From this feature comes the words, the smile and the kiss. In rest or in motion, they must appear soft and youthful, yet clean-cut and expressive. Dark lip make-up shades add age to the face, high-staining lipstick contain dyes that slow the lips to become dry and unprotected, weird colors destroy the place of the lips in the overall portrait of coordinated beauty. Instead, from the research conducted by the film and television studios, where women must be beautiful to succeed, are selected the colors to fit the overall pattern of this concept. Light and lifelike, yet warm and soft, they make the lips inviting, desirable and youthful' (p. 59)

The make-up artist is complicit in whatever is the culturally - established practice of physiognomy - that is, of the reading of character from the face. But if the audience is a physiognomist, the make-up artist is a physiogonist - a producer of Nature. But a Nature produced by Man is another name for Culture. And where there is sexual domination, that Culture is more properly termed Ideology.

The make-up artist, the actress and the lighting, set and wardrobe technicians establish the 'Nature' which is to be read as expressive of this or that Character. Make-up artists believe themselves to be merely mirroring when - in fact - they are transforming. Unconsciously, the make-up artist paints a Face which exist not in Nature but only in Ideology.

Lightly revised and expanded 2003 from the original published under the title 'The Painted Face of Capitalism' [a contemporary allusion to Edward Heath's phrase 'the unacceptable face of capitalism'], in Women and Film , Vol 1. number 5-6, 1974, pages 97 - 99. Copyright in the original appears to rest with Women & Film 1974, but I have no idea to whom this defunct publication's copyright property now belongs. Information please!