Haute for color
Elea Xylem begins each day at her vanity, made from a repurposed church alter, affixed with a lighted mirror.
"You should always sit down to do your makeup," says the 29-year-old artist and stylist at Elea Blake Cosmetics, a Chattanooga-based studio founded in 1997 by her mother, Darin Wright.
"Take the time to be intentional. It will improve your makeup 1,000%."
Lately, she says, her look is blue eyeliner paired with hot pink lipstick.
"I like to play with a lot of different colors," says Xylem, who studied graphic design and painting at the University of Tennessee. "When I put on makeup, it's like putting on my personality for the day."
Colors reflect emotions, she says. Blues, for example, are mellow; pinks, ambitious; yellows, energetic.
"Anyone can wear any color," Xylem says. The trick, she says, is understanding undertones, which affect the overall appearance of a person's skin — and which is a big focus at Elea Blake Cosmetics. Using its in-store Ebhues system, stylists perform a "personal color analysis" on clients, determining their best color combinations. Then, they mix up personalized makeup to complement those colors.
"You have the whole rainbow available to you," says Xylem. "You just have to be true to your personality."
And she applies that truth even when creating characters for art shoots, which she does in collaboration with her twin sister and photographer Blake Blamalam. In 2020, inspired by her love of sci-fi, Xylem and her sister styled a shoot featuring one model dressed as an astronaut and another as an alien.
For the astronaut, Xylem chose a subtle lip color and eye shadow.
"She's an astronaut, so she's not going to spend a lot of time doing makeup," she says.
Meanwhile, she gave the alien a shimmery, silvery look, explaining that an alien living on a hostile planet would need skin with reflective qualities.
The point of the shoot, says Xylem, was "to make art for the sake of art." Next, she says, her sister wants to plan a cowboy shootout scene.
"Life is too short to not have fun with your look," Xylem says.
The art of horror
Sophie Stark learned the techniques of special effects makeup through YouTube tutorials while still a Signal Mountain high school student.
She posted photos of her work on social media — images of herself as comic book characters; sci-fi creatures; with blood-splattered saw blades lodged in her face.
Her talent quickly amassed followers, now more than 14,000 on Instagram.
"I went from making portraiture on people to portraiture of people," says Stark, who graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2020 with a degree in fine arts and anthropology. Now, her art focuses more on large-scale body horror fabrications and sculptures.
Body horror, Stark explains, is a subgenre, which depicts grotesque changes to the human form, ranging from the realistic to the surreal — a spectrum exhibited in her senior thesis project, "Lacewing Complex."
The sculpture features a life-size full-body cast of herself arranged on a mattress. Above it squats a skeleton-like creature, wearing a blob of body parts.
"A lot of the makeup work I did in high school helped hone my skills so I could make these larger, complex things," Stark says.
For instance, she learned to make prosthetics using gelatin, glycerin and water — the industry standard before silicone — which she molded into fleshy appendages.
She also learned the art of matching skin tones, which involves layering near-translucent blues, yellows or magentas, among other colors. "Skin is dappled; it isn't a uniform swatch of color. It takes practice to train yourself to see colors not normally associated with skin tones," she says.
And she began to pay attention to the details of the face — details that beauty makeup attempts to conceal. Capillaries; acne; dark spots, for example.
Imperfection is the key to hyperrealism, Stark says.
"I really enjoy body horror because I feel it's symbolic of emotional change," she says. "It provokes a visceral reaction. I love the melodrama of the macabre."
Picture perfect palette
Social media is changing the way we think of makeup, says Chattanooga stylist Summer Sheldon.
"A few years ago, people just wanted natural colors and smoky eyes," she says. "But now they're playing with bright colors. I think it's because Pinterest, YouTube and Instagram have normalized it."
In fact, according to a YouTube trends report, in 2020, views of beauty tutorials increased by 50% — with total views now topping 350 billion worldwide. And while Sheldon says she first fell in love with cosmetics as a little girl, she credits Instagram for her newfound passion for costume makeup.
"Watching videos of people just completely transforming themselves — it's art. I had to give it a shot," she says. So for Halloween 2017, she painted half her face with bold lipstick and eye color, and the other half as a cartoon-like skeleton.
"I posted a photo, and people thought it was a filter like you use on Snapchat. I've been booked up ever since," says Sheldon, who rents space at Bei Capelli Salon in Hixson.
She remembers one of her most challenging jobs, in 2020, when she transformed a client into an evil clown, using makeup to create the illusion of a twisted grin stretching ear to ear.
"A lot of times people come in and show me a picture of what they want. Since I was really young, I've been able to look at something and paint it. Now, I'm just doing that on faces," she says.
But even in her less dramatic looks — whether for prom, a wedding or stage performance — Sheldon considers her work art.
"Sometimes you hear people say, 'Don't cover yourself up with makeup.' But I think it enhances beauty. You have so many colors to play with. Your eyes are a palette; your lips are a palette. Your face is my canvas."
DIY special effects
Want to add some gore to your Halloween garb?
The secret to all makeup, says artist Michelle Hatfield, is depth and blending.
Between 2016 and 2018, Hatfield worked as the special effects makeup artist for Chattanooga's Damn Good Movie Video Productions, contributing to such horror short films as "Jagged Little Pill" and "Blood Calls," both available to watch for free on YouTube.
"I did my first slit throat for 'Jagged Little Pill,'" says Hatfield, who studied cosmetics at Jo Blasco makeup school in Orlando, Florida, where she fell in love with special effects. "It opened up a whole new world to me.
In special effects, the possibilities are endless, she says, and best of all, "if you screw something up, you can usually just cover it up with more blood."
Here, she offers a few tricks to try at home.
> Blood. Start with light, clear-colored corn syrup. Add drops of red and blue food coloring until you reach the right color. For zombie blood, says Hatfield, use chocolate syrup.
> Wounds. To create a simple wound, you'll need school glue, baby powder and a variety of cream-based makeup colors, which you can find in most Halloween aisles. First, add 1-3 layers of glue to your skin, and let dry. Dust the area with baby powder, then peel the glue back at its edges. On the exposed skin, use the makeup to build depth, beginning with the darkest color — maroon, for example — and continuing to layer to your lightest color. Finally, splash it with fake blood.
> Aging. If you want to add years to your look, scrunch and wrinkle your face in front of a mirror, Hatfield says. Now hold that expression and powder your face liberally. Relax your face, and use gray, pink or blue eye shadow to fill in the lines left behind. Then, brush a cream-based blue or silver makeup onto your hair around the temples. A toothbrush works great for this, she says.