Using willing volunteers as their canvas, body painters Nicola Langridge and Justine Darwent, aka Nicotine, transform flesh into fantasy…
Nic: We were introduced by a mutual friend three years ago, when I was recruiting a team of face painters for the Eden Project, where we are the resident face painters.
Justine: The first time Nic and I worked together as body painters, at a convention, we realised how similar our styles are. We just fitted together: we didn’t have to work around each other and say, “I’ll go round here and you go there,” it was brilliant. Now we work together most of the time and rarely paint alone.
We love body paintingNic: We don’t practise on each other, although I’m heavily pregnant at the moment and a lot of people have been asking me whether Justine’s going to paint my bump. We’ve painted quite a few baby bumps. During Kate Middleton's pregnancy, along with seven other artists, I was commissioned by the Daily Mail to paint a portrait of her on an expectant mother's belly. One of the other artists created her image in toast and Marmite.
For paid commissions, Justine and I use Google Images and art books for inspiration. We’ll rough out a sketch of our design on paper to show to the client, but we never practise. We work better if we paint impromptu, using our tablets to work from.
We do body painting because we love it. The models love it too. Once they’ve been body painted once, a lot of them want to keep coming back to do it again.
Not many people know about the body painting community, but when you’re in the industry, all the people involved are very friendly and the conventions always have a party atmosphere. It’s like a big, close-knit family.
Why people model for usJustine: I find it interesting that people are prepared to stand still for hours on end while we paint them. I certainly couldn’t do it. I think I’d find it far too boring.
Nic: People have different reasons for wanting us to paint them. Some are professional models who want to expand their repertoire and get interesting photos for their portfolios; others are from all walks of life.
Justine: We regularly paint a scientist, a surgeon, several nannies and Nic's other half, Pete, who we painted into a deckchair recently.
Nic: He’s like a walking canvas; he enjoys showing off my artwork as a model.
Justine: Our models have to be over 18 and they have to feel comfortable showing their body off, because there are always photographers there to record the images and the photos end up online. But it’s not only extroverts who model for us. In fact, a few of our models seem very reserved.
Painting up close and personalNic: Being painted – and painting – is a very close experience. Everybody has their own personal space and we get closer than you’d normally allow anyone to get. So we have to build relationships very quickly and make people feel at ease within the first 10 minutes of meeting us.
We do that by being quite jovial! We always have tea or coffee before starting, we joke a lot and make it feel relaxed and fun.
For me, painting with the public watching, as we did recently at the Telford Tattoo Freeze convention, is like a performance. I love it. It’s almost like street art, where people crowd around taking photos.
Justine: I don’t like it. I get the sweats. I just can’t handle people watching me paint. I was like that even when I was doing fine art at uni, so painting with Nic has been a bit of a breakthrough for me. Because I feel so comfortable with her, I’ve been okay. When I was young, I used to do graffiti on houses. I’d climb barbed wire fences to do it. Bizarrely, I haven’t felt the urge to do graffiti now I body paint.
It’s great when people like what we do. When I was painting the pattern from a Willow plate on to one girl at the Telford convention, this guy came up and said, "Crikey, she looks like my mum’s plate!"
Nic: Sometimes it’s quite daunting going into somebody’s house or going into a photographic studio and painting somebody naked, especially if they’re a complete stranger. Having Justine there as a co-artist and conversationalist enables us to be lighthearted about it. Being part of an art duo rather than being a single painter is easier on many levels.
Our models aren’t completely nakedNic: There are laws about indecent exposure, so our female models have to cover the nipple area with latex shields that are like small plasters. Downstairs, models can either wear a small pair of pants, a g-string or a latex gusset, which glues on and is seamless.
Our models' health and safety is paramount, so among other things, we have to make sure they are warm enough. It’s also important that they feel comfortable and not too exposed or self-conscious. I run an annual event called Body Factory and at the start of the day, we give the artists and models an hour to ‘cover up’ before we let the general public in. The models all say they don’t feel naked once the paint is on.
We tend to paint the chest, back and legs first. The face and intimate areas come last so they can eat, drink and go to the toilet until the very last moment.
All the models, male and female, have to shave any hairy areas – underarms, legs, chest etc – to provide a smoother surface for painting.
Body painting takes between four and six hours and the paint is the same as the brands used for children's face painting.
The body as a work of artNic: When we’re painting somebody, we don’t see the body. It sounds ridiculous, but all we see is the art. And once the paint’s on, it covers up everything. The final images give a sense of camouflage.
A lot of the people we’ve painted have either had scar injuries or an operation and being painted gives them a sense of body confidence as the parts of their body that they feel self-conscious about are taken away. All that’s left is an art piece and people don’t see the body: they only see the art.
The weirdest thing we've ever been asked to paint was a cartoon of Keith Lemon popping out of someone's pregnant belly. Men in nightclubs sometimes ask us to paint inappropriate areas with luminous paint, usually when alcohol's involved. I always say, "Sorry, I haven't brought my magnifying glass with me."
Justine: The hardest commission we’ve ever done was a breast cancer awareness campaign featuring a woman who’d had a breast reconstruction following a double mastectomy after breast cancer. I’d never seen a reconstruction before and I was shocked by how good it was. Her boobs were better than mine. They were amazing.
She was extremely nervous when she came to model for us, but she loved the image we produced. And when she was in front of the camera, you would never imagine she had any confidence issues whatsoever. Within the four hours it took, her whole demeanour changed completely. It was really interesting to see the transformation.
I think the fact that she was giving something back to the Mermaid Centre in Truro, where she was treated, really boosted her confidence. It was amazing for her, knowing that the image was finished and the centre would be framing it and displaying it to inspire other women. She was a lovely lady, so brave.
Nic: I love going out and meeting new people. This job’s great fun. I also like the fact that photographers document our work and when we post images of our artwork online, it’s seen internationally, so we get recognition.
Body art for art’s sakeNic: As well as working at the Eden Project during school holidays, we teach at UK conventions and colleges and provide demos across the country, but it’s hard to make a living from body painting, especially when we live in Cornwall.
We’re often asked to draw tattoos for people – dragons, tribal and Celtic images and lizards – so they can try them out before having the real thing. It’s really difficult because when you’re an artist, people tend to ask you to do stuff for free all the time. They don’t tend to realise that that’s your living. If we asked them to go to work for four hours and not get paid for it, they wouldn’t dream of doing it.
Two international painters we respect are Craig Tracy and Emma Hack, who specialise in fine art body painting and camouflage techniques. Our ultimate goal is to have a similar set-up to them. We'd have our own gallery and create fine art body paintings which we'd photograph and then print on to canvas to sell.
Our images go down the plugholeJustine: When I first saw someone body painting, I couldn’t understand why they were doing it because it was just going to get washed off. But when you’re doing it, it’s exactly like painting onto a canvas although it isn’t permanent.
There’s just something really nice about it. I love the fact that the body is reusable and you can paint different images and record them on camera so you’ve always got them.
Nic: Body paint washes off immediately under water, so as soon as the model gets in the shower, it’s gone. I never get upset when the paint is washed off, though, because we’re doing what we love and we always get a photographic record of the piece before it’s gone forever.
Find out more about Nicotine.
Nicola and Justine sitting in front of wall: Tony Cooney Photography
Mermaid photo: LetsPose Studios Photography by Emma McKay
Deckchair photo provided by Nicotine
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