What Does A Makeup Artist Assistant Do, And How Do I Become One?

If you're interested in becoming a makeup artist—particularly in the field of fashion or editorial photo shoots—it can be VERY helpful to be a MUA's assistant. But what does that mean? What is a makeup artist assistant, and how do you become one?

In this post, we'll talk about an assistant's job responsibilities, give you some tips on how to seem professional (or, at least, not be a disaster on set), and, finally, at the end, we'll give you some guidance on how to become a makeup artist assistant.

This is one of our "Everything You Need To Know To..." posts, so there is a ton of information here. If you get burned out, feel free to take a breather, walk around the house... you know, gather yourself.

What Is A Makeup Artist Assistant?

A makeup artist assistant helps a makeup artist with all tasks, big and small.

You could probably figure that out. Sorry to waste your time on that one.

What Does A Makeup Artist Assistant Do, Exactly?

That's a better question. In essence, assistants make sure that the "key" (the main makeup artist) has whatever he or she needs to complete a job quickly and professionally. In most cases, that means:

  • setting up her workstation;
  • making sure her kit is stocked and organized;
  • sanitizing her brushes and tools;
  • ​retrieving whatever equipment the key needs to work on a model or client;
  • applying makeup on clients and models when asked; and
  • handling whatever small tasks arise during the day.

Those are some of the most common tasks, although the truth is that a makeup artist assistant's real job is to do whatever the key asks.

Sometimes that means assisting with the actual application of makeup, but sometimes that means getting coffee, restocking supplies, or driving to the hardwire store to get a plug for a makeup lamp. A good assistant will do whatever it takes to make the key's work experience run as smoothly as possible, and very often, that means doing menial tasks and chores to make sure a gig runs smoothly.

That can take a little humility.

And that's the secret of an assistant position, really: you're not there to make the model look good, and you're not there to make yourself look good. You're there to make sure the makeup artist looks good.

So why would you want to do someone else's chores? How does that help you further your makeup artist career? Because...

How To Become A Makeup Artist Assistant

Assistant Positions Are How You Break Into The Industry

That's the long and short of it, really. Assistant positions are the best way to gain knowledge, make professional contacts,* and develop an understanding of how the makeup business works. In an assistant position, you will:

  • Observe how experienced makeup artists handle real-life situations and interactions with clients;
  • Learn new techniques and find out which products—out of the thousands and thousands available—the pros keep in their kits;
  • Figure out all the "moving parts" of a shoot—who's in charge, who is responsible for what, who reports to whom, and so on.

That is more than you will EVER learn in a school setting.

*We wrote above that you'll have the opportunity to make professional contacts. That's true, but you don't want to overdo it. There's an etiquette to that, too, which we discuss on our "Networking" page.

Will You Have Opportunities To Do Makeup?

Whether or not you'll actually apply makeup as a MUA assistant depends on the job. If it's a small production, an assistant may be asked to do the makeup for extras or backup characters. In a bigger production, assistants may be asked to help during the pre-production stages (ie, buying and stocking kits and supplies, pre-mixing foundations, and setting up stations). It depends very much on the gig, the key artist, and your experience. If you're new-ish, though, don't be insulted if the key doesn't ask you do makeup, and instead asks you to handle a weird variety of tasks. That's just kind of how it is.

Tips and Etiquette for Assistants

So now you know what a MUA assistant does and what you'll get from a MUA assistant gig. Before we go over how to become a makeup artist assistant, let's go over some of the "do's and don'ts" of being an assistant. If you skip everything else, be sure you read this.

Be Earnest And Eager—No Matter What The Task

As we mentioned, many of the tasks may be... let's say, "beneath your capabilities." And that's totally ok. You've got to remember why you're there, and what your role is. And, if you're having a hard time and it helps, remember that someday you'll be the key and you'll have one or more assistants working for you. It's a "pay your dues" type of system. Also remember that the most successful and sought-after people the game today ALSO started out as assistants, so if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for you!

Always Go To The Key With Questions

As an assistant, you will often be "the last to know." In other words, at some point, you'll probably have questions about the shoot, the clients, etc. No matter what kind of gig you're working, there will be a ton of different people you can go to with questions, but always go to your key first. It makes the key look bad if she hasn't given proper instructions to her assistant and her assistant doesn't know what she's doing. Remember, it's your job to make her look great—and if she looks good and gets more work, so do you! Everybody wins.

Network And Self-Promote In A Way That's OK With Your Key

This is a tricky one, because there's a lot of debate about what's an ok way to interact with others on set, and what's inappropriate. A lot of it comes down to common sense and "reading" the situations you find yourself in.

Yes, the main benefit of being an assistant is meeting people and getting your name out there (and sometimes the pay). But you never want to promote yourself in a way that would take business from your key, and you should never promote yourself before you've been with your key for a while. If you have questions about what's appropriate and what's not, talk to your key about it. Be polite and professional. And it bears repeating—don't do any of this until you've been with your key for a while and you two know each other a little.

In the end, the best way to make the most of your assistant position is to be an incredible assistant to the artists you work with. If they respect you and you've been a great assistant to them, they will eventually give your name to clients when they are unavailable. And that is the whole point of an assistant position.

Dress Appropriately

You would think this would be an obvious one, but it's not. You're not dressing to dazzle, you're dressing to work. You'll be running around, bending over, and retouching clients all day long. You want to look professional and you want to be comfortable.

Every artist has different ideas about a proper dress code, so you'll need to get an idea of how the key is dressing. If their clients expect them to be a little more formal, you should be a little more formal too. Just as with the etiquette needed to network, you'll need to feel your way through a situation.

Believe it or not, some assistants have shown up to sets in heels. Can you imagine?

Heels.

Do not show up in heels.

Always Be EARLY

We wrote a post about how the #1 business rule for MUAs is to be on time. It really is true. And if you're the assistant, not only do you want to show up on time, but you want to show up before the key artist. If you can, and you know how the artist likes his or her station, set everything up so that he's ready to dive in.

NO TEXTING!

When you're at work, you are 100% on-task. No texting, no phone calls, no social media. Your phone should be on vibrate. You're there to work, not to interact with your friends online. Period.

Don't Be A Know-It-All

It's a weird thing to see it happen, but everyone once in a while you'll see an assistant give unsolicited advice to an experienced artist. That is... shall we say... a "no-no." It's understandable that an assistant wants to be seen as knowledgeable, but don't correct the key artist, especially not in front of a client or a colleague. If you absolutely must—because the key is making a mistake that would make her look bad—pose the suggestion as a question: "Should this be like this?" or something.

Get To Know The Key's Habits And Be Intuitive

Have you ever seen The Devil Wears Prada? It's a little old at this point, but it's a good reference. A good assistant will be able to get whatever the artist needs—but a GREAT assistant will be able to intuit what the key needs, and have it handy before the key realizes she needs it. If you can do that, you will have PLENTY of business opportunities.

A quick note about The Devil Wears Prada—you most likely won't be working with anyone as challenging as Miranda Priestly, but you WILL have to be as resourceful as Andrea Sachs. That's one of the most important aspects of your job: to keep problems from happening, and to fix problems quickly when they arise.

Embrace Your Poverty

There are paid assistant positions, and there are unpaid assistant positions. You'll have to figure out which types of job will be the most advantageous to you. You may get a GREAT paying gig for a not-so-glamourous client, or you may get a not-paying apprenticeship with someone who you really admire. You'll have to make some tough decisions about what jobs you take.

Regardless of whether or not you are getting paid or unpaid assistant positions, you will not be making a ton of money. Your personal finances are something you'll have to figure out, and it never hurts to have an alternative source of income.

To Find A Makeup Artist Assistant Job

So, are you still with us? Good! You've passed the first test: you made it this far.

There is no formal organization that handles makeup artist assistant jobs. Like most jobs in the makeup field, you'll have to "make your own opportunities," and create the job you're looking for.

The most effective way to find work as an assistant is to research artists in your area (or move to an area where there are many artists) and contact the ones who have a practice you admire. Leave a message about your experience, what you can offer, and why you think you'd be a good fit.

Some artists will want to see your portfolios; others may not (those will be the ones who may not be using your makeup skills, and will use your services in a more administrative way).

You can also put your name here or here, and an artist may contact you (although you'll have much, much better luck contacting artists directly).

You May Mess Up

It's most definitely going to happen: you're going to make a mess of things. Especially at first.

But that's ok. It may seem like the end of the world, and you may feel like you'll never get hired again, but hang in there. There's always another job. Do the best you can, and apologize profusely if you do mess up. Everyone makes mistakes, and that's true for you—and whoever your key is.

Pulling It Together

There's a lot of information here, so stop back and read it again if you need to. We said it before, and it's true—a good assistant job can literally be the boost that makes your career. Do the research, reach out to artists in your area, and make it happen. You can do it!

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