ASSISTING: The “forgotten” Step to Success

Assisting an established makeup artist is a great way to learn, as you will be watching an expert at work.  I’m not just talking about learning how to do makeup, but all those little things that go into getting regular work, knowing how to interact with the other crew members and talent on set (and even knowing who is who, and who does what!), and knowing what the role of a makeup artist is for that particular job.

Back in the day, assisting was a generally accepted step in any aspiring makeup artist’s career, although it doesn’t seem to be as commonplace as it was years ago.  I owe a big part of my success as a commercial artist to the assisting I did when I first moved to Brisbane and made the shift from doing almost exclusively bridal work, to moving into commercial and especially TV commercials.  So big thanks to those artists who had me assist them.

sue mclaurin makeup artist, tvc makeup, commercial makeup
My first assisting job was on this TVC for Hog’s Breath Cafe with Makeup Artist Linda Jordan

Assisting may not be seen to be “cool” but if you’re goal is to become a full-time, freelance makeup artist (in either commercial or personal services), there really is no better way to compress time and get there faster.

1  What can YOU expect as an assistant

You will be working alongside someone who may have YEARS more experience than you, learning how they work, and most importantly, how they interact with their clients and other people on set.  You will have the opportunity to “learn on the job” without making any mistakes that you might make if you were on a job on your own without much experience.

Indirectly, assisting can be a way to make contacts and further your career, providing you go about it the right way. While you will have a fantastic opportunity to meet other people in the industry, this is NOT the time to be handing out your cards or developing relationships with other people on the shoot.  This is probably the biggest no-no when it comes to assisting.

I definitely needed an assistant with this large wedding party (we did makeup for the mums too) Thank you Mellissa!

2  What is expected of you as an assistant?

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got when I was starting out, and looking to assist, was that an assistant’s job is to make their Key Makeup Artist look good.  That means, you do whatever your Key Makeup Artist asks, never disagree with them, and keep your opinions to yourself. When you are assisting it is not your time to make friends or contacts.  You are there to assist the Key, and maybe to learn.

In terms of your actual duties and responsibilities, as an assistant this is almost as varied as the duties for a makeup artist.  Sometimes you will just be required to help the artist by keeping their kit tidy, cleaning brushes, and collecting things from base if the artist is on set.  When there is more than one talent, I have had assistants come along to watch what is going on on-set, and touch up where necessary, while I am getting the other talent’s makeup done.   On weddings I often have my assistant do skin prep, clean brushes and the airbrush gun between clients, and once I am more confident with them, I may have the assistant doing lips or lashes at the end. An assistant’s job can also be to run around after the Key artist as required.  Getting coffee, collecting things from the car, all these sort of tasks can be part of the job description too.

I had Sally May assist me on this shoot as I had two models and a lot of look changes. She watched everything onset while I was busy with the other model. Thank you Sally!

3  What NOT to do when you’re assisting

It should go without saying that when you aren’t doing something specific as asked by the Key, that you should be standing (NOT SITTING) beside or behind the key watching and learning.  Its probably not the time to be asking questions (unless your key says its OK to ask questions at any time) but take a mental note of any questions and ask them when there is a quiet moment.

If someone you met while assisting does approach you about working together, politely let them know that you will have to clear it with the Makeup Artist first, or even tell them they should contact you through that artist.  In these days of Social Media, its very easy for people to find you and get in contact, but if you are ever seen as a “Client Stealer” this can be very detrimental to your career in the long run.  No matter where you are, this is still a small industry, and people do talk. Always tell your Makeup Artist if one of their clients approaches you directly.

4  Approaching artists to assist them

So, how do you go about approaching other artists to assist?  I remember a former student telling me once that she had sent out almost 1000 emails (who knew there were that many makeup artists in our city?) asking to assist, and only received ONE reply! (mind you, that one reply did go on to lead to some very awesome work!) I don’t believe the splatter-gun approach is the best way to go about it.

Firstly, RESEARCH the artists you want to assist.  This doesn’t just mean watch their Instagram and like all their photos.  Learn about them, how did they get started, what is their career like, what are their career-highlights, what are they currently working on.  You may find you share more similarities than you expected.

When you approach artists, I think it’s best to send them an email.  Personalise the email, and let the artist know what you admire about them, and why you want to assist that particular artist.  Tell them a little about your story, remain professional, and ask about any assisting opportunities, OR any other advice they might have for an artist just starting out or wanting to get ahead in that side of the industry.

Over the years I have received many many emails from artists asking to assist me.  I will be honest, sometimes I do not reply to those emails, but you probably wouldn’t either if you read them!  If I can see that someone has taken the time to at least know who they are writing to, I like to respond and see how I can help them.  Having been a makeup educator for many years, I usually only use past students as assistants, though, having said that, I once received an amazing email from an aspiring assistant, just minutes before being booked for a job that required an assistant, and her email was so good that I hired her straight away.

So what happens if you don’t hear back?  Firstly, don’t be disheartened.  Maybe the artist is super busy, or away on location, or even on holiday!  You have two options.  You could follow up with a phone call, but that’s always tricky if you call when they are on set – not good timing! Or, you could try to get onto their radar via social media.  Follow their work, like and comment (without being sucky) and then reach out again when some time has passed.

Sometimes your assistant can take behind the scenes shots for you! (Thanks Mellissa)

5  Getting Paid as an Assistant

Sometimes there will be a budget for an assistant, but not always.  You couldn’t pay for the experience you get when on set with a great makeup artist mentor, just being there learning should be payment enough for an assistant.  Having said that, many artists do appreciate the value of a good assistant and will do their best to organise with the client to pay the assistant.  Note that sometimes the key will pay you out of their own rate, so even if your rate seems low, remember that!

I’m of the opinion that we should ALWAYS be learning, and even after 16 years in the industry, there are times when I will assist other artists and I definitely still have things to learn. You should never feel that you are above assisting, but of course, pick and choose the artists you would like to assist, and the jobs.

Do you have a great assisting story?  I’d love to hear it, drop me a comment down below, or send me an email to

Photo Credits:

Tom Hall

Provisible Films

Brock McFadzean

Mellissa Johnston

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