Art of war for face painters: flexibility for surprisingly high volume

Posted by Elizabeth Mackinney on


Problem: You arrive at a sponsored event in order to face paint, and before you’ve removed your coat, three children line up at your side. This bodes well for the popularity of face painting, but by the time you’ve completely set up and begun, the line has grown. A lot. Now there are more children at your elbow than the organizers expected to attend this first-time event. You know your client is okay with you adding an extra hour to your work time if necessary, but so many children are flooding in that you feel a quiver of concern that you may not get through them all in two hours. Since a helpful parent is handing out numbered stickers, you know that you have to paint approximately 50 children in two hours. What can you do?

Solution: The best solution is to plan ahead for erratic event attendance, even if you’ve never encountered it before. At private parties, artists normally guarantee 12 to 15 designs per hour, which is the industry standard for face painting. It’s a good rate which allows you to work more carefully and to create better designs which showcase your abilities and keep clients happy. However, not every event fits this perfect party profile, and even private parties can suddenly balloon if guests who did not RSVP decide to attend. The following strategies will help you save the day for a harried hostess when this happens.

Do some research. Find about 30 to 35 speedy, popular designs. You’re aiming for designs which don’t take longer than 90 to 120 seconds to complete, but which still look good. You don’t have to offer this many options if you’re under severe pressure, but it will allow you about ten which appeal more to girls, ten which appeal more to boys, and ten which could go either way. Any given child might pick one from any of the three groups, but you want a wide enough variety that you’re not heavily weighted in any one of the three.

Keep designs simple from the beginning. The designs you choose for these fast selections should take no longer than 90 seconds to two minutes to complete. The best choices will just use one background color application and one detail brush application, such as a rainbow butterfly created with a large split cake and with one color for the wing details, body, and antennae. If you’re into liquid bling and gems, this is not the time to use them. If you use them even once, many children will expect them, but the result could be that some kids will not get to be painted at all because of the time needed per design for these glittering extras.

Practice your designs. Face painters are notorious for having children who do not want to be practiced on. If you have to bring in a few extra kids or find some willing adults who will allow you to run through your designs while you’re timing yourself, this would be best. Otherwise, look into getting a practice board or two. Two minutes flies by when you’re face painting, and at first you’ll be surprised at how little you get done in the time you have. You’ll need practice to get that time down while keeping your quality level as high as possible.

Carry a limited selection board with you. Plenty of artists don’t use a board at all, and there’s nothing wrong with this, but if you’re at an event and you need to move fast, sometimes it’s helpful for kids to see selections and make their choice before they get in your chair so you don’t waste precious seconds. Fifteen seconds multiplied by 50 children translates into twelve and a half minutes. Over a two hour event, that means about ten children would not be able to be painted just because others were uncertain about what they wanted. A board will help eliminate that uncertainty.

Do not show children the mirror. You may be thinking that this is one of the best parts of face painting, and many artists look forward to the child’s expression during the reveal at the end, but again, every second counts when you have an unexpectedly large group. Bring a mirror and hang it somewhere so children can hop down and admire themselves after you’ve finished. Over two hours, those seconds add up and will mean more children can be painted and more parents can be happy you fit their children in.

Employ helpful parents if there are any available. For school events, there are often moms or dads who are willing to help with the line so you can paint as quickly as possible. If these volunteers are available, ask them to help children choose designs in advance and to find the mirror after leaving their chair when they are finished. Again, the seconds per child this saves you adds up to more children being painted over the time available.

If you use a numbering system which allows children to participate in other event activities while you paint, make sure there is someone else who can call out numbers for you. You won’t be able to leave your painting equipment to hunt for children who aren’t ready when their number is called. (In addition to being a time waster, it’s not wise to leave your kit unattended.) There are bound to be gaps in the numbering if you use stickers, so just take the next highest number when this happens and fit the one who wandered away in when they come back.

An extra tip is to not hand out more numbers than you are certain you can complete in the time available. Kids without numbers are welcome to stop by at the end to see if you have time to paint them, too, but be honest with them upfront if you don’t think you’ll be able to paint them later.

For public or corporate events, which are the most likely to be high volume, it’s not uncommon for artists to provide 20 to 30 simplified designs per hour, especially if they have a line manager and a limited group of selections. If you know an event is going to be high volume up front and the time is limited, offer to find a second face painter who can work with you for the event and bid it appropriately to cover you both. When an event becomes unexpectedly high volume, prepare as well as you can in advance for this possibility and try to offer clients the flexibility which will still make their event a success when it has unusually high attendance.

Beth MacKinney is the owner of and primary face painter for Face Paint Pizzazz in the NW Chicago suburbs. She also writes for as the Chicago Face Painting Examiner.

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