Makeup Artist, Martina Sykes, on working in print, film, & on the hit show - Chicago Fire.
June 23, 2015
I’m proudly born and bred in Chicago. I earned my BFA from Columbia College Chicago in 2008, and during my final semester I had an epiphany that makeup was an art form as well as a viable career.
I started researching makeup art, taking professional makeup classes, practicing on anyone who would let me, and eventually found my way into the entertainment industry a couple years later.
First Job in Entertainment
My first paid entertainment job, that’s a tough one to pin down. I began my career like many other artists, taking any opportunity to do makeup that was offered to me. When I was starting out, I did a lot of unpaid testing with photographers, to build my portfolio.
I also assisted working artists, networked with models and photographers, attended events, and of course, took a lot of classes. My first paid gig was probably something like actor headshots! Although I don’t specifically recall.
I am inspired by so many different artists! I love any type of artist or crew member who has two things: Talent, and a great work ethic. I’m inspired by the generous spirit and unmatched artistry of the late Dick Smith.
I deeply admire and am constantly inspired by Eryn Krueger Mekash (American Horror Story) and the astounding range of characters that she creates.
I’m inspired by writers who can flesh out a character so perfectly that I can’t help but picture them, and I’m inspired by actors who put huge amounts of research into a role even if you only see 10% of that on screen.
As a makeup artist I get to do a number of different things, depending on the type of work. For commercials, they often want actors to look clean and natural, which still requires skin care and makeup.
For film and TV, I am there to help an actor inhabit their character, whatever that entails.
Sometimes it can be clean and natural makeup, sometimes dirt, bruises, blood, track marks, etc. Makeup artists in film and TV have to be able to do more than beauty makeup.
I really love thinking about a character, and their backstory, it helps me make decisions about why a character looks the way they do.
Research is everything!
Working on Chicago Fire
Chicago Fire has been a dream job for me. I am so lucky to work with the cast and crew, sometimes I have to pinch myself. It all starts in the trailer; if you have a good makeup team then you can handle anything.
I adore my fellow artists and I know my skills have grown in leaps and bounds just from working with them last season.
To compare it to other jobs that I’ve had, I would say that the biggest difference is the consistency.
On commercials you work for maybe a few days in a row, then the job ends. Indie films are awesome – like summer camp. They last about a month, although you do find yourself working with many of the same crew members over and over again, which is great.
But being on a TV series means several months of shooting with the same people, and I really loved getting to know everyone over time.
IATSE is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. It is the union that I became part of last year, after several years of working towards that goal.
The first time I heard about the union (I’m in local 476) I was bartending on the weekends and taking makeup jobs whenever I could. One of my regulars at the bar is a carpenter in 476, and he asked me if I’d ever thought about trying to join the union.
He helped me take steps towards eventually joining, something I am so grateful for.
I immediately knew that I wanted to join because I have always wanted to continue to get better at what I do, and I wanted the opportunity to work with the best of the best in this industry.
Working in Film & Television
I love film and TV more than any other medium I have worked in, and it was love at first take. I enjoy the collaboration and creativity most of all. Every department and every person on set is contributing to a finished product.
Everyone is invested in doing their best work.
In the makeup department, we get to be creative with the makeups we do, as well as problem solving. Also, if you keep your eyes open and your mouth shut, you can learn an enormous amount just from a couple days on set.
Since we’re all in it together, it’s great to pay attention and learn about other departments, in particular lighting, because it affects our work and how it appears onscreen.
Favorite Current Television Shows
I would have to say American Horror Story, True Detective, and The Walking Dead (Chicago Fire is a given!)
American Horror Story is outstanding because each season they take on completely new characters and eras. If you look at each season, you’ll see that they do everything from modern day beauty makeup, to historical looks from decades past, to extreme makeup effects, prosthetics, and practical effects. They do it all! Their research is impeccable too.
True Detective is one of the best shows I have seen, period. The makeup is more subtle, but extremely effective. You can see the characters age and become young again, flashing back and forth in time.
It reflects the character’s state of mind, mental health, physical health, and circumstances (blood, sweat, etc.). The makeup and the show on a whole is gritty, moody, and perfectly executed.
The legendary Greg Nicotero executive produces, sometimes directs, and designs the makeup looks on The Walking Dead. I’ve watched behind-the-scenes shows about his makeup design, and what I really appreciate is that the zombies are all unified.
The show took the time to really create a world of zombies that are super specific, and will always be known as a “Walking Dead” type of zombie.
He even oversees the casting of zombie extras, so he can choose people who “lurch” in the correct way!
Best Movie You've Seen Recently
The best movie I’ve seen recently is Mad Max: Fury Road.
Mad Max: Fury Road was also a makeup artist’s dream. Every character had some level of dirt or distressing, and many groups of characters had very specific looks.
A lot of dirt, grease, and grime on everyone, which is really fun for a makeup artist.
When watching television and movies, how much attention do you pay to the makeup & special effects?
When I watch TV or movies, I can’t help but notice the makeup. Even my husband now has an eye for it, and can spot a really killer makeup, or a makeup continuity error when we’re watching TV.
Mostly I am admiring the work, and often wondering how exactly they got that look.
Makeup artists love to talk shop, and we love learning about different products and techniques. A really good makeup on a show will have me online, looking up the name of the makeup artists who worked on it.
What qualities or skills are necessary for being a good Makeup artist?
It may sound weird, but I think the number one quality you must have to be a good makeup artist is a good personality. The desire to learn, and lack of arrogance and ego comes next.
In this business you have to deal with all different types of personalities, so you need to be a calm and collected person, as well as a friendly team player who can put people at ease.
Learning how to do really incredible makeup can come with time. Anyone with a passion for this art form and a desire to improve can be taught the techniques necessary for a good makeup application. But if someone has a nasty personality, or is difficult to work with, they won’t get far.
For people looking to become makeup artists, first try out different areas of the business. Some people love doing print work, advertising, working with models or fashion, and some people will love film and TV.
Find the area of makeup artistry that appeals to you most, then start reaching out to the working professionals in your area. Assisting is a fantastic way to learn, and this business is all about referrals.
Consistently doing a good job will lead to people passing your name along, and therefore gaining a good reputation and repeat clients. Take classes in different makeup techniques, any chance you get. I love learning, and I love a classroom setting.
Follow your instincts.
It’s always important to work hard and push yourself, but make sure your efforts aren’t being taken advantage of.
Really, do a lot of research and learn something every time you work. Write those lessons down, and document your journey. Always think about what you could have done better, and make mental notes for next time.
Building a career takes a long time, so prepare for ups and downs and try not to get discouraged.
Sometimes challenges come in the form of simple, unavoidable things like hot, humid weather, which leads to sweaty actors. Sometimes challenges come in the form of working for difficult people with unrealistic demands.
Luckily, I have encountered mostly the former and very few of the latter. The practical challenges can always be dealt with using good planning and prep work. Some of our makeup tasks are both science and art, so you need to have a solid understanding of your makeup’s limitations.
Learning how to deal with difficult people comes with time, but mostly just being patient and listening, and always staying calm.
Another challenge can be not having a skillset that is required or requested. In the beginning of my career, I focused solely on makeup and did not learn anything new about styling hair. In Chicago, and most markets, you need to do both in order to work regularly.
People want to hire one hair and makeup person, not makeup and hair separate. I was resistant at first, but I gave in and started taking classes and trading lessons with hairstylist friends.
In the end, it helped me to embrace hair by looking at it as a form of sculpture.
When I saw it as a familiar art form (I took sculpture classes in college) then it became less mystifying to me. I did not get a cosmetology license, but I am definitely comfortable styling.
When I started doing makeup in 2008, I think I had just made a Facebook page. I certainly wasn’t using it as a tool to network or find work, and that has changed immensely. In 2008 it was still recommended that artists have a physical portfolio, full of high quality printed images.
Now it seems necessary for artists to have all of the forums; a dedicated website, Facebook, instagram, linkedin, and on and on.
There are endless ways to market oneself and get noticed.
Another difference that I’ve seen is the emergence of online groups for makeup artists to share information. There is a wealth of information out there, much of it from reputable sources.
Some of my favorite makeup artists have YouTube channels where they regularly share their methods and advice, which is generous and useful to artists at any level.
Kevin James Bennett is very talented, hilarious and extremely giving makeup artist. He created a Facebook group to complement his website “In My Kit,” which is all about just what you’d imagine – makeup kit items.
It is now one of my all time favorite resources for quick info on products and techniques.
I love that he contributes to the makeup community at large in a big way via social media, and is accessible and honest at all times.
I personally have a website, blog, and dedicated Facebook page, but sadly I do not update them as often as I’d like. Part of that is because I am working quite a bit, so I don’t have the time.
When I do update, I try to make it count.
I don’t like to post about every single time I do makeup, because I think that is tedious and boring. I like to post about unusual jobs, great days on set, or interesting new things that I’ve learned. I do, however, constantly update my resume.
I have a personal list of people that I would love to some day work with; makeup artists, actors, DP’s, directors, writers…many different people that I admire in this business.
I want to continue to work in film and TV, and expand on my makeup effects skills. I want to have an amazing season on Chicago Fire.
I want to some day contribute to this field in a meaningful way.
I want to travel the world. I want to work until I am too old to hold a brush anymore!
Top 5 Moments in Entertainment
Top 5 moments in this business…that’s really hard! I was thrilled the first time I worked on a union film set, that opened my eyes to so many possibilities.
In 2011 I took a class from an artist named Kerry Herta (Colour Box Makeup Studios) and that was a huge turning point for me. She really spoke to me in a way that made me set on my path, not only as far as makeup application, but about the business in general and what is expected of you. She has sort of been a mentor from afar (she’s in LA) and I keep in touch with her and share my successes with her.
The first indie that I was hired as Department Head was a big deal, an insane and insanely rewarding experience. I had no experience being in charge, but I had an excellent assistant, I learned along the way and threw myself into the work.
The first year I went to the IMATS in LA (International Makeup Artist Trade Show) was incredible, I soaked up so much in one weekend. That was the first time I heard Eryn Krueger Mekash speak, she and the makeup department from American Horror Story did a panel and it was riveting. I still sometimes look over my notes from IMATS. I make it a point to attend every year.
The first time I worked on Chicago Fire was undoubtedly a high point. I was given a chance to prove myself to people who didn’t know me at all, and they not only welcomed me, they made me feel like I was contributing. It was hard work, long hours in freezing weather, but I was committed and inspired. I was so grateful to have the chance to work with them.
And perhaps the biggest moment to date – being sworn into my union. I felt like my hard work had paid off, and that anything is possible. “The sky is the limit,” as one of my wonderful union mentors said!
What is something about your career that you’d like people to know that they might not?
Right now, I think that the most important thing to know about this business is that it’s all about people. We provide a service, always, and your personality and attitude count for more than you’d think.
You can always teach someone how to do makeup, if they are willing to practice and listen, but you can’t teach someone common sense.
You can’t teach someone to have a great attitude and lack of ego.
There are some annoying stereotypes about people in this part of the business too. Sometimes we’re called “glam squad,” or “vanities,” and I really don’t like either term.
It’s not glamorous.
The hours are long, you won’t always be recognized for your work, and it’s definitely not about you, it’s about the person in your chair and an excellent final product. You have to be an artist and a worker bee.
You have to be strong willed and really love what you do, because the “glamour” is the art that we create, not the lifestyle that we live.
To prepare for this career I started with many of the things that I do now. I took classes, I read books and magazines, I watched video tutorials, I learned from people with experience, and I applied pretty much everything I had learned in life thus far, to my new career.
I was a bartender throughout college and well into my makeup career. Not only did this allow me the flexibility to take makeup jobs when they were offered, but it was also an ongoing lesson in characters, personalities, and dealing with tough situations.
For new artists, there are an abundance of makeup schools, workshops, certificate programs, and art studios, at which you can learn about this trade.
I have a fine art degree, I attended Make Up First School, Colour Box Makeup Studios, workshops at MAC Pro store, IMATS in LA, and I go to lectures from visiting artists.
I think it’s really important to network with your peers and make connections with people you trust.
Having a list of strong, trustworthy artists is necessary. You will learn from them, and they will learn from you. When you’re unavailable for a job, you always want to refer your strongest fellow artists, and they will return the favor.
One thing I wish I had when I was starting out, is a long term mentor.
I met a lot of people who helped me at different stages in my career, gave me advice, referred me for work, and generally cheered me on. But I never had one person who took me under their wing. There are however, a few who I am really grateful to.
Kerry Herta from Colour Box Makeup Studios has been a wonderful sort of mentor-from-afar. She lives in LA and works all over the place, but she has always answered any email I send her, and continues to encourage me and stay in touch.
A couple years ago I sent a fan girl email to Eryn Krueger Mekash, and to my surprise and excitement, she responded.
I met her at IMATS and she was just as lovely as I had imagined. She also is really generous with her time, and always responds to my updates or questions.
Crystal and Bex, the women of Cirque FX (a local special makeup effects shop, and makeup artist team) and I have always had a great relationship.
They’ve taught me so much about SPFX makeup, and continue to share their extensive knowledge.
And finally, my boss on Chicago Fire, the extraordinary Deb Dee, has been wonderful to me. She and the whole makeup department immediately made me feel welcome in the trailer and on set.
Deb has always made me feel comfortable stepping outside of my comfort zone, which in turn has made me a stronger artist.
She is a rare teacher / boss who can tell you exactly what you need to do, to turn the makeup into the best it can be, without ever making you feel criticized. For that reason, I have always been comfortable asking her for advice to tweak my work, because her words always comes from a place of kindness and artistic integrity.
I have an enormous amount of love and respect for her.
At the moment, I am on hiatus from Chicago Fire. We will start shooting again in July. I’ve spent the hiatus taking a few jobs with producers that I adore, but mostly I’ve been enjoying the time off.
I am completely reorganizing my makeup studio room at home, so I will be fully prepared when the season starts up again. I’ve been working on some writing about the business and my experiences (if you can’t tell, I’m a little bit…wordy) and different things that I would like to publish on my blog.
I would love to write more, and post more, that’s an ongoing goal of mine.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Every day I’m excited about what I do for a living.
It took me a while, but I’ve found my dream career as an artist. My goals are constantly changing and evolving, and the great thing about being a makeup artist is that there are endless possibilities to do interesting, creative things in different areas of this business.
I love to talk about what I do, and share that excitement with others. Oh, and coffee really, really helps.
Where can our readers go to find more about you and your work?