The Painted Face
The modern definition of cosmetics, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, covers anything that is rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body . . . for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.‚1 Going by this definition, we’ve been altering our skin with paints and oils and dabbling in artistry and artifice since the Ice Age. But what drives our desire to paint ourselves?
Anthropologists believe that the very first instances of face and body painting would have been a form of protection from the elements or used as camouflage or as part of a ritual. Large quantities of red ochre (a pigment that takes its reddish color from the mineral hematite) discovered in excavations of South African caves are estimated to date back 100 to 125,000 years ago. The fact that there are no cave paintings or decorated artifacts at these sites has led archaeologists to believe that the ochre was used to paint the face and body prehistoric cosmetics,‚ as Steven Mithen, professor of archaeology and anthropology at Reading University, describes them. We know that paint was also used to instill tribal allegiance and to scare the opposition (a good example of this is the ancient Britons, who painted their faces blue with dye produced from the leaves of the woad plant before going into battle). Over time, decorative face painting became associated with beautification, social status, and preserving youthfulness, and from the eighteenth century onward, more closely linked to fashion.
‚A good painter needs only three colors: black, white, and red. ‚
Whatever the motivation to wear it may have been, makeup in antiquity was ablaze with color an explosion of pigments, paints, powders, and pastes matching modern-day palettes in vibrancy, if not in other aspects. Makeup wasn’t something you could just pop out and buy on a whim: It had to be carefully prepared from often complex recipes. It’s hard to imagine today, but only in the past hundred years or so have we begun to develop and use cosmetics outside the basic ancient palette of red, green, black, yellow, blue, and white. The natural world provided everything needed for the ancient makeup bag. Ingredients like chalk, manganese dioxide, carbon, lapis lazuli, copper ore, and red and yellow ochre were used to adorn and embellish in every corner of the globe from the Aboriginals and tribes of Papua New Guinea to the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt suggesting that painting our faces is as much a part of human nature as the need to eat and sleep. In this secret, I uncover the earliest cosmetics, and, in doing so, discover the origins of modern makeup and reveal how much the cosmetics we use today owe to the paints and pigments of the past.
The history of makeup is an enormous, unwieldy topic covering thousands of years, and there is a huge amount that we can only guess at. We’re lucky that archaeological discoveries, along with references in art and literature, have allowed us to piece together a good understanding of makeup practices throughout history: what colors of face paint were available and popular, how they were made, and, crucially, what was thought and said about women who painted their faces.
The cosmetics of today owe a lot to the paints and pigments of the past.
The Ancient Palette
Painting on a red mouth has the uncanny knack of seeming to belong to antiquity and tradition whilst simultaneously appearing decidedly modern and daring.