Years ago, Bob Ross captured the world’s imagination by creating works of art right before our eyes. It was like watching a magician. With a stroke of a brush he magically formed a “happy tree” or a “little friend,” and it was amazing… BUT, imagine if he had done that using nothing but his lips instead of a paintbrush. Well, that’s exactly what artist and creative thinker Natalie Irish is doing, but she isn’t painting landscapes. Natalie is producing incredible life-like portraits armed with nothing but a blank canvas and lipstick.
We recently sat down with Irish to discuss her lip-bitingly incredible work, chatting it up with Conan O’Brien, and why she’s so passionate about educating people on Type 1 diabetes.
TrunkSpace: When we saw your portrait paintings, we were super impressed to say the least. When we found out those paintings were done using just your lips, our minds were completely blown! Can you tell us how you came up with the idea to paint just using your lips?
Irish: I’ve always loved trying new mediums. In high school I learned about Chuck Close and tried his finger print technique. So, in 2001 I blotted my lipstick on a tissue one day, and when I saw the lip print I thought that it could be used in a similar technique. It’s all in the spirit of pointillism. Then the experimenting began. What kind of lipstick works best? What kind of surface? How do I make different shapes and shades? No one else had done it before, so I had to figure it all out, which was and still is exciting. I am still finding out different things I can do with the medium after working in it for 17 years.
TrunkSpace: With your lips as the paint brush, you must be up close and personal with the canvas much of the time. Do you have to step back often to take it all in or make adjustments? And, can you give us an overall idea how your whole creative process comes together when you’re working in this lip-centric style?
Irish: My eyes usually become fatigued way before my lips start hurting. I have to step back and look at the entire canvas, find the spot I want to make the next mark, and then get so close that I can’t actually see where my lips are touching the canvas. I’ve had a lot of practice with my aim, but it still hurts my eyes. I have special made bifocals that help reduce the strain on my eyes, but I still have to work in short sessions. There are a lot of things like that and weird techniques and problem solving that has come along with painting with my lips. I feel that because I have studied art my whole life it makes it easier, especially in the beginning. I use the same basic principles that you would use in any medium: balance, shading, proportion, etc. Because I knew how to create a portrait with pencils, charcoals, paints and brushes, when I went to try it with my lips I was able to focus on how to do things I already knew, but with a different “brush.”
TrunkSpace: What do you use to create your color palette? Is it all lipstick? Or is it paint? Or maybe a combo of both?
Irish: It’s all lipstick. I have no desire to put actual paint on my lips! Also, I don’t think you could get the same texture with anything but a cream-based lipstick.
TrunkSpace: You were a guest on the Conan O’Brien show, and you got to share your artwork with the entire Coco nation. What was that experience like? And did that open any creative doors for you?
Irish: It was great. I’ve always been a Conan fan. They shipped a lot of my artwork out to California to be featured on the show and everyone was so nice. They wanted to purchase the portrait I painted of Conan to have for their green room. I asked that they make a donation to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation instead and the painting is still in their green room to this day. It was great to talk about my work on the show, but the feedback from the diabetes community really was incredible. I have been on an insulin pump for 17 years and was able to show it and talk about it on the show. Tons of people reached out to tell me how much they enjoyed it or how much their kids with Type 1 were so excited to see a pump like theirs on TV. It was quite overwhelming. My website even shut down from all the traffic, wasn’t ready for that!
TrunkSpace: Can you tell us more about your work to bring awareness to Type 1 diabetes?
Irish: I love to talk to people about Type 1 Diabetes because education is so important. It’s a very misunderstood disease. I talk to kids with Type 1 every chance I get. I have blue hair and tattoos and wear “Star Wars” t-shirts, so I don’t look like most of the “adults’ that come and talk to them. Most people with a chronic illness are told that they may have to work a little harder to make it happen, but you can still be or do anything. I tell them that I’m living proof of that – I made up my own job! I’ve had the opportunity to be a guest at many conferences and walks and fundraisers all over the country. It’s always been a goal for me, that one day I could use my artwork to maybe make some kind of a difference and raise awareness to things that are important to me. I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon either. The main message I would like to get out to folks with or without this disease in their lives would be, very simply, do some research. Find out exactly what Type 1 Diabetes is. Then you can see for yourself that insulin is not a cure and the need to continue with fundraising and advocacy is very great.
TrunkSpace: Listed under your past work you have a number of VIPs and interesting clients, but one that really peaked our interest was “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.” What sort of work did you get to create for this collector of curiosities?
Irish: Originally, Ripley’s commissioned a portrait of Kate Middleton, which is in their museum in Piccadilly, London. Later they purchased a piece I had created of Elizabeth Taylor, shortly after her death. That one is either in Florida or Dallas… not sure! They sent me a Christmas card one year with a photo of the lady with super long fingernails on it. Best Christmas card I’ve ever received!
TrunkSpace: You teamed up with Urban Decay for the “Revolution Lipstick Launch.” This sounds like the best partnership since wine and cheese! What was it like working with Urban Decay, and did you get to create any special works of art for the event using the line of lipstick?
Irish: Oh my, working with Urban Decay was a dream! I have traveled all over the world working with all kinds of cool companies and clients – Avon Brazil and Chile, Magnum Ice Cream in Budapest, Cirque du Soleil in Vegas, and Covergirl at an MTV VMA party, to name a few. But Urban Decay, that was indeed a perfect fit. I’ve always loved their products and brand and have used their lipsticks to paint with since I first started. They contacted me and wanted to have me and my work be a part of their new Revolution lipstick launch in Sephora in Times Square. I created a total of 12 pieces, most of which were exhibited at the “Kisshibition” Event. I also worked on a painting live throughout the party. It usually takes 2 to 3 weeks to complete a piece, so when I do I live painting I bring something that is almost completed to finish at the event. We also teamed up with the Art of Elysium for the event. They auctioned off most of the paintings for charity after the launch. The founder, Wende Zomnir, is such a cool chick and we had a blast working together, we even went to the same college, University of North Texas! UD has always had a fun, colorful approach to cosmetics and I believe that makeup should be just that, FUN! And their lipsticks are so great to paint with. While I use many different lipsticks when I paint, I think the most frequently used lip colors in my paintings are Urban Decay, stage makeup (Ben Nye and Mehron), and formulas that I have made. And they have never paid me to say that. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: You’ve accomplished so much in the art world using nothing but your lips. What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or partnerships we should keep a look out for?
Irish: I have lots of projects I’m working on. I am currently working on perfecting the formula for my own lipstick line, which I am super excited about. As for lip painting, I still have new things that I want to do with it and am currently working on a series for a gallery show. (Details coming soon!) These newer pieces are focusing on beauty treatments, all the things we do to alter our appearance. I’m really enjoying working on them. I also am always working in other mediums. I studied Metalsmithing and Ceramics at university and I was always told that I needed to pick one medium and stick with it. But, I don’t work like that. I think art breeds more art. I can be throwing pottery and get an idea for something I want to sew and then get inspiration for an oil painting from a piece of jewelry I’m making. I can’t even watch television without knitting or doing something with my hands. I hope to start showing more of my different mediums in the future. One common theme that has made itself apparent in my many different mediums is that I like to use things in ways that they aren’t intended. Working with different mediums helps facilitate that too. I love to use sewing and textile techniques with metal and using plastics for sewing and knitting. It’s about looking at things differently, like seeing lipstick as a tube of paint and my mouth as a brush.
For more information on Irish, visit here.
For more information on the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, visit here.