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The Artistry of Nelly Recchia

by Graham Coslett

Nelly Recchia with model | Photo MA Archive
Nelly Recchia with model | Photo MA archive

Nelly Recchia dabbled in theater, dance and languages before embracing make-up artistry (particularly body painting) as a means of expression. It was an inspired choice: she has emerged as a versatile artist with an intricate, stunning style. After enjoying a successful career in her native France, she moved to L.A. in 2001; along the way, she has left her imprint on multiple media: music videos (Kelis, Britney Spears, Madonna and Marilyn Manson, among others), magazine covers, commercials and fine-art photography. She did special make-up effects for the 2005 movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and collaborated with Mike Elizalde and Spectral Motion on an as-yet untitled creature feature. We recently caught up with Recchia, who shared her thoughts on artistry and the industry.

Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA Archive
Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA archive

Make-Up Artist: What prompted your interest in make-up artistry?
Nelly Recchia: As a child I never said, “When I grow up, I want to be a make-up artist.” My mother said I used to do very strange make-up on my dolls, which I do not remember, so maybe there was already something there. What I do remember is my premature taste for theatrics. I was born and raised in a junkyard—a wonderful playground!—in a small town of France, putting on hours of circus “performances” for my very patient parents. I also recall a particular attention to details when I was drawing.

I took ballet very early; the teacher suggested my parents send me to a professional dance school to become a ballerina, but I was so young and did not want to leave the nest. Finally, after studying languages and philosophy in my early twenties, I realized I was walking next to my path and felt my route was undeniably related to arts. I wanted to find a field which encompassed diverse art forms: music, dance, theater, cinema … make-up artistry appeared then to be the solution.

Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA Archive
Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA archive

MA: What training did you do?
NR: I attended Christian Chauveau’s make-up school in Lyon for nine months. We learned all the basics of make-up artistry. But it was when we had our final and had to present our body-painting project that all became clear to me. When I saw the powerful impact the combination of paint and human body could produce, I decided to explore body art more than anything else.

MA: From where do you draw your inspiration?
NR: Well, before answering I feel necessary to define what being inspired really means … at least in my book. I think nowadays more people tend to use the word “inspire” when all they are doing is trying to copy someone else and without shame take credit for somebody else’s imagination, creativity and style. I don’t see the point in this! … As a body painter, when I have an idea in mind, I am certainly not going to look at other body painters’ work for reference, and if I would, then it would be to make sure I am doing something very different.

I have a huge admiration for Baroque Italian sculptor Bernini, who was able to turn marble into flesh; his work inspires me to strive. I am often inspired by ballet—so much work and discipline behind such grace and elegance—and by vintage illustrators like Rene Gruau; I love the shape yet pure lines of his drawings. I have a thing for expressionist photography as well as [fashion photographer] Steven Meisel’s work.

Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA Archive
Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA archive

MA: In the ‘90s, you won the Fardel International Body Painting Contest; what other successes have you had in competition?
NR: Yes, I actually won the Fardel contest three times. I also won a few art-photography contests and first place for a body-art contest in Paris during a big annual hair show. Contests can be fun, and I have learned a lot, but to me the only real competition is with ourselves.

MA: Why did you choose to move from France to Los Angeles?
NR: I wanted to work mainly for the music industry, and L.A. is a good spot for it. I felt my work could be useful for music videos, since strong visual impact is often required and one can be more extreme with make-up. It was not easy to leave my family, my roots, and have to adapt to another culture, but it was the right move, and I am so grateful for what I have: My work allows me to have a roof over my head and food on my plate. I have wonderful people surrounding me and the constant will to improve not only in my work but also spiritually, morally …

Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA Archive
Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA archive
Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA Archive
Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA archive

MA: Describe your range of work more fully: editorial, film, music videos, teaching, etcetera.
NR: I recently collaborated with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for an ad campaign against the use of exotic animal skins and also participated on a Vogue runway. I just worked with Eugenia Weston for her upcoming Senna Cosmetics fall campaign. I love her: a wonderful personality and an excellent make-up artist.

About my collaboration with Mike [Elizalde], I was so thrilled about it and a bit surprised, too, when director David Hayter called me. I insisted I was not an effects make-up artist and did not see how I could be useful in such a prosthetic-oriented project. In fact, I was in charge of creature designs along with Spectral. David wanted a female eye and said my “delicate yet powerful” work could give an interesting and different approach to his characters.

Regarding music videos, I recently worked with singer Kelis for her “Acapella” video—lots of tribal, Maasai-style body art—with photographer Rankin and co-director Chris [Cottam]. It was three days of very intense work with an amazing team, including make-up artist Kathy Jeung in charge of Kelis’ face make-up.
I am also teaching airbrush classes at Cinema Makeup School; we learn a lot by teaching! Students are coming from all over the world, so besides our interest in make-up, we can also share our cultures.

Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA Archive
Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA archive

MA: Describe your style and technique: Do you do everything freehand or use stencils, airbrush, sponges, etcetera?
NR: I mainly use brushes. Depending on the project, I sometimes use an airbrush if I am looking for a smooth render. I rarely use stencils unless there is a repetitive pattern, but I always use them as a base for a shape and go back for details with brushes. I mainly use water-based paints. I don’t have one particular brand I like more than others; sometimes I use a brand whose paints contain strong pigments and other times my concern is more about the consistency of a product. I use Photoshop only to correct an image on a photographic level—contrast, saturation—but all that is seen painted on a body was there and not computer generated.

MA: Your style seems a little dark at times. Do you agree?
NR: I have heard this a lot! It is not intentional; I just do what is in my mind without questioning how people are going to judge it. Many times I was told my work would fit very well with the strange universe of [director] Tarsem Singh [The Cell]. For the past five years, a lot of people have compared my work to haute couture. I think it is a very nice compliment, as I love vintage haute couture like Dior, Chanel or Valentino—not because it is associated with wealth or fame but because it could take extremely skilled tailors a tremendous amount of hours to make a couture dress. It was not mass produced, and it was mainly about elegance and high quality.

Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA Archive
Make-up by Nelly Recchia | Photo MA archive

MA: Anything else you would mention about yourself that would be of interest to readers?
NR: I have so many images never seen by the public yet, and at some point I would like to gather them in a book and have the benefits of the sales serve others. Years ago, a young girl wrote to me; she had cancer and many surgeries done on her torso, and she wished to have my work (the spider) tattooed over her scars, as she felt this character would give her strength. I was so moved. And last month, I was contacted by a psychologist who would like to use my images for her patients who have traumas related to body image and abuse. She thinks art can help in a cure and so do I. I have always wanted my work to serve a higher purpose, and the idea it could soothe people’s minds and souls means a lot to me.