A visit to makeup artist and founder of Beauty Is Boring, Robin Black, is a bit like The Secret Garden in that her studio is hidden behind a wall of sky-high hedges on a quiet Los Angeles street. Once you make your way past the bushes, a fantastical world is seemingly unlocked. A giant bowl runneth over with lipsticks; bottles of foundation are stacked neatly like little soldiers; and the latest and greatest eyeshadow palettes are practically begging to be whipped open and played with. One wall is plastered with Polaroids of Black’s ever-changing cast of characters. Models, musicians (including Soko and Brooke Candy—both regulars), athletes (like champion ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani), artists, and any other willing participants who happen to stop by for a hang are transformed and captured on camera by Black.
While the pro will tell you it’s hard to pinpoint one specific signature, there’s no denying a Beauty Is Boring image when it pops up in your feed. Free of excess (i.e., clothes, jewelry, over-the-top hair, and backdrops), the makeup—and the personality behind it—always shines through the bright, white light that ties together Black’s eclectic-yet-exquisite grid. “I think that the subject is actually the most important part,” she said. “I can Photoshop out a zit, but the one thing I can’t Photoshop in is a personality.”
It’s hard to imagine that this well-oiled beauty machine all started on a “whim” in Black’s kitchen with model Charlotte Carey wearing a sky blue lid and vinyl cherry lip. More supermodel friends, like Soo Joo Park, soon followed, and their agents weren’t very far behind. “A few people asked if they could have copies of the Polaroids, so I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just throw them up on a website with a link so that I don’t have to keep downloading them.’ It was literally just a stream of Polaroids that I scanned in with each model’s name and that was it,” she explained. “I needed a name and I thought Beauty Is Boring would be funny, so I registered it, and well, the rest is history.”
Black’s journey into beauty is equally as serendipitous. Born to two school teachers, she spent much of her childhood circumnavigating the world on a boat built by her father. She lived in New Zealand at one point and attended a Māori preschool with children from indigenous Polynesian families. She was a champion surfer. She was also a “punk rock teenager” who lived in a New York City tenement building with a roommate who turned tricks in exchange for heroine. In short, Black lived many lives before settling into the tech field after majoring in science and minoring in fine art. She wouldn’t discover makeup until she was around 30 years old.
“I had this corporate career and I was ironically very bored and I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this, I think I want to do something artistic,’ so I started looking around,” she said. After applying and being accepted to a few photography schools, a friend who was also a Butoh dancer (a form of Japanese theatre that frequently inspires Black’s work), suggested that she try her hand at being a makeup artist. “I asked her, “Is that a job?” laughed Black. “I thought makeup artists were the girls behind the counter at the department store.” Despite being a devoted subscriber to Italian Vogue, it never occurred to her that painting models’ faces was a paid gig. “It seemed like a fun art thing someone would do,” she said.
Fast-forward a few years and the woman who was “never interested” in makeup and wore almost none of it herself (“I think I owned a black eyeliner, a mascara, and red lipstick,” she said) has created a virtual fantasyland for beauty addicts all over the world. She’s also amassed a makeup stash that would make those aforementioned addicts drool. Here, Black unlocks her backyard beauty utopia, shares the keys to her success, and reveals the three things that will turn any hangover around instantly.
Dive in head first.
The aforementioned Butoh dancer who suggested Black become a makeup artist also happened to have a cousin in the beauty biz who worked for Laura Mercier. A few garbled phone calls later—“It was the late ’90s and cell phone reception was spotty,” she said—and Black landed a date with what would become her destiny. “When I went to what I thought was a coffee meeting, it turned to out to be a trial to become Laura Mercier’s national artist,” she explained. Up against already established makeup artists, Black relied on the skills she learned as a club kid in NYC. “I didn’t come to makeup out of an interest in making up myself, however, I had spent part of the ’90s in Susanne Bartsch’s clubs and the way I got into them was essentially by impersonating a drag queen,” she said. “I remember picking up a bottle [of foundation] at that audition and being like, ‘This is skin-colored so it probably goes on skin.’ I had never done makeup on anyone ever and didn’t even own a makeup brush. I held brushes like a painter would at the very end of the handle.” Needless to say, that fine art minor must have impressed Mercier (also a traditionally trained painter) and she got the job. “Overnight, I went from being a director of business development and marketing for a high-tech firm to a makeup artist who had never done makeup!” she said.
Fake it till you make it.
After schooling herself on the fly as Laura Mercier’s national makeup artist, Black took a job at another cosmetics company doing creative direction and studio management. It was there that she met designer Diane von Furstenberg and was asked to key one of her shows. “It was the first time in my life that I had ever been to a runway show and I was doing the makeup—it was a little intense,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone. I think I asked Frédéric Fekkai who he was and I asked Anna Wintour which magazine she worked for! I was very much an outsider, but I do think that having a ‘real job’ first helped me when I moved into makeup. I understood it was a job and I was used to being organized and running a team.” That said, Black admitted her foray into beauty was unusual and champions social media as the modern way to get your foot in the door. “To be honest, how I started [my career] was sort of a combination of dumb luck and me just saying ‘Sure, I’ll try that,’” she said. “Now, it’s about social media and building your presence in a totally different way.”
Learn from unlikely sources.
While she became the makeup equivalent of Michael Phelps almost immediately after being thrown in the deep end, Black noted that she’s “quite sad” she never got to assist the great working artists of the era like Kabuki and Stéphane Marais. “I came out in such a strange way—I went from being a non-makeup artist to having Allure write me up for doing runway,” she said. However, she had her muses (like Grace Jones and Debbie Harry) and glossy magazines (including i-D, The Face, and Italian Vogue) to turn to for inspiration, as well as her university training. “The techniques I used, like color blending and all that stuff, were actually things I learned as a painter in art school,” she explained. Black also had clients who spent so much time in the makeup chair they could be considered beauty gurus themselves. “Demi Moore could be a makeup artist,” said the pro. “She knows more about makeup than most people in the beauty industry. She doesn’t look like she’s wearing makeup, that’s how good she is.” The actress also introduced Black to her ride-or-die foundation: Koh Gen Do Maifanshi Moisture Foundation. “At the time, it was her favorite and I had actually never heard of it, which is surprising because I’m a product fanatic,” said Black. “I was hooked.”
Stop masking your skin.
“They say you need to do something for ten thousand hours to be an expert and I think I’ve probably done twenty or thirty [thousand hours] when it comes to makeup,” said Black. While there are many, she says one of her trademarks is glowy, woke-up-like-this skin. “There really is no great hack aside from patience and obsession,” she explained. After working with every age and skin tone at Laura Mercier, she refined her technique and discovered the go-to products that fit every face, like Dior Backstage Face and Body Foundation and Burberry Fresh Glow Foundation Gel Stick. “I like to use the least amount of product possible,” she said. “One of my tricks is to put on [base] makeup and then go back and basically blot it off to sheer out the highest points of the face. I use my hands to emulsify the foundation and set it into the skin—I don’t want to see it on top.” Then, she goes back in with concealer (her favorite being the new Surratt Beauty Perfectionniste Concealer Palette) and a detail brush to cover any discoloration around the sides of the nose and mouth. “The trend recently has been to slather yourself with full-coverage foundation, add a ton of concealer over top, and then paint in contour and highlight,” she said. “What you wind up with is something that looks really beautiful on camera, but in person you’re wearing inch-thick makeup. It’s a completely unnatural look, which is great if that’s what you’re going for. Personally, I’ve never quite understood full-coverage foundation unless you’re doing drag, covering stubble and heavy scarring, or performing an Olympic ice skating routine.”
See the light.
“Learning light and color theory are two basics everyone should have regardless of whether you’re going out and doing clients, or you’re doing your own face for Instagram or YouTube,” said Black. While the pro observed “masters of light” like photographers Cedric Buchet and Alasdair McLellan on set, she said it’s all a matter of “tweaking and curating your makeup to suit real-life lighting, on-camera flash, and multiple types of environments.” Certain textures may look amazing under a ring light, but “insane” in person. In short, you can’t live your entire life basking in the glow of your LuMee case, so it’s good to school yourself on what works in a carefully crafted selfie…and at the grocery store.
Find the joy in makeup.
“What’s crazy to me about current makeup [trends] is that rather than work with what you have and make it fun, people are trying to use makeup like a temporary form of plastic surgery in order to look like another person,” she said. “I tend to think of makeup more as an accessory, like a great purse or shoes. Some days I honestly just walk around with nothing but some moisturizer on and others I inexplicably need to wear gothic red lipstick. Makeup shouldn’t be a chore. I watch YouTube tutorials and you literally need an hour and a half and a vanity mirror to do [the look]. I envy that leisurely lifestyle.”
While not all of us can craft a perfect cat-eye while battling L.A. traffic like Black, everyone can stand to be a little less “anxious” about makeup. “People have a tendency to come in and say, ‘This is what is wrong with me.’ I don’t really think about makeup as being corrective. I really feel like we’re missing both the joy and the experimentation. Millennials and Gen Z get bagged on a lot, but I have to say their openness to trying new things is really refreshing. I was having sushi the other night and there was a girl who I was convinced was in an android costume, but I think it was just highlighter gone slightly awry. There was something interesting even if it wasn’t intended. At least she was playing!”
(Don’t) make it work.
Tim Gunn may have coined the phrase on Project Runway, but Black is turning the “make it work” concept on its head. “There are definitely a lot of days where I’ve done a look and then wiped it off and been like, ‘Wow, that was a terrible idea.’ I often see younger artist trying to push through and I’m like, ‘Don’t make it work, just take it off.’” With makeup remover offering a quick fix for any beauty experiment gone wrong there’s no excuse not to break the mold put forth by reality TV and social media. “I don’t mind seeing that Instagram makeup look, and if that’s your thing, great. It takes real skill and it’s not easy to do it beautifully, so I have a lot of respect for those people, but I am a little bit bored. I’d like to see something other than that when I scroll down my feed,” she explained. “It makes me sad that there is so much pressure to look perfect and good all the time, and that the judgment is so harsh and quick. I see 14-year-old kids who are beautifully made up and they look like a 25-year-old, mini Hadid.”
As someone who “went through some really interesting phases in the ’90s” that included a platinum blonde mohawk, shaved eyebrows, and a buzzed head, Black encourages beauty enthusiasts to break away from the “baseline appeal” and the “giant popularity contest” that is social media in order to “follow your own artistic vision.” As for what’s makes a standout photo, Black said: “A great beauty shot is anything that makes me stop and look.” While you don’t necessarily need to take a razor to the hair above your eyes to make a unique statement, “push yourself to have other inspirations” outside of Instagram, so that you don’t “recreate what other people create” and make room for risks. Just keep those makeup wipes close at hand.
Build your own beauty oasis.
Black’s studio is literally brimming with beauty goodness (there are shelves stacked to the ceiling with boxes neatly labeled by brand), but she’s a stickler for order and cleanliness. “The base of the bristles on your makeup brushes should be just as clean as the outer hairs,” said the pro who thoroughly washes her tools with Takeda Brush Purely Soap after every use and softens natural fibers with hair conditioner every five shampoos. She’s just as particular about the products that make the cut. “My friends know when something is really good because the duplicate goes from the studio into the house for me,” she said. Some of her current must-haves: Diorshow On Stage Liquid Eyeliners, NARS Single Eyeshadows, Wander Beauty Frame Your Face Micro Brow Pencil and Unlashed Volume and Curl Mascara, Burberry Fresh Glow Fluid Base and Lip Velvet Crush, Dark Swan lashes, and J.One Jelly Pack.
If you can’t beat ’em, distract ’em.
“There is no hangover and no flight that can’t be solved with a faux fur leopard coat, bright red lipstick, and a good pair of sunglasses,” said Black. “It doesn’t matter what the rest of you looks like because people won’t get any of it.” She drenches her face in rosewater after a long-haul flight, throws on a lip (“If it’s slightly askew it looks like you’ve come from a really good party,” she laughed), and skips the hairbrush altogether. “Don’t try to fix your hair, just make it messier so that it feels deliberate,” she said. “This was actually a styled look in the ’90s—it’s what all the models did—and it still works.”