The Art of War for Face Painters: Sharing the Chair


Problem: You’ve set up and you’re ready to begin painting for the organization you’ve been hired by, when a woman walks up with a child. At first you assume that she’s a mom who wants to be painted herself, so you aren’t surprised when the woman sits down in one of your chairs. Before you can stop her, however, she picks up one of your brushes and begins dipping it into your paints and squirting water on them with your squirt bottle.

When you ask her to stop and to move out of your chair, the woman doesn’t surrender the brush, but explains she’s a volunteer who is planning to help you. As she obviously has no intention of moving away from your kit, you feel your blood pressure rising and you wonder what to do.

Solution: Before you explode with frustration, take a deep breath. The volunteer has possibly asked for and received permission to help you from the event organizer. It’s equally possible that the directions she received were extremely vague as to what form her help would take. If she’s a crafty or artistic person, she may have assumed any help she was intended to offer would be face painting. Keep in mind that her intentions are good, if misdirected, and gently but firmly explain she will not be painting for today’s event. It’s hopeful you won’t have to actually pry the brush from her hands, but to avoid the same scenario in the future, consider some of these tips.

1. Take preemptive action so all expectations are clear between you and the event organizer. Before you arrive at an event during which you may receive volunteer help, define to the event organizer what type of help is acceptable. Make it clear that, while you welcome a volunteer line manager for your area, under no circumstances will a volunteer be allowed to use your professional equipment.

2. Consider your terminology. If you tell an event organizer or a volunteer that no one can use your paints, you may sound like a selfish child who simply doesn’t want to share his stuff. Make sure you label your supplies as what they are—professional equipment.

3. Have a professional set up. Volunteers are less likely to walk up and take over if you have a clean, organized, professional-looking kit. If possible, a kit which has a lid is helpful in this respect. The entire kit takes on a formal appearance which is more likely to discourage a volunteer than paints which are laid out on a table top. Also consider using a tall director’s chair, which some face painters prefer. It not only looks professional, but it’s height makes it stand out from regular chairs. A volunteer is less likely to walk up and assume control of an area if you have one of these, because it reinforces your professional position.

4. Dress for success. Not only should your kit stand out as professional, but you should, too. Whether you prefer colorful costumes, basic black, or shirts or aprons with your company’s logo on them, you need to wear something that differentiates you from the guests you’re there to serve and which makes you look like the pro you are.

5. Point out that you are at the event to work, not to teach or train. You cannot simultaneously face paint guests while trying to teach someone else to do the same. Even if you could, it takes years of hard work, training, and constant practice to develop the skills necessary for good quality face painting. The years of experience you bring with you are not something you can communicate to a volunteer in just a few minutes, but you may need to explain this. Professional painters make the job look easy, even though it is not.

6. Explain your liability insurance limitations. One of the easiest ways to end the conversation, particularly with a persistent volunteer who wants to paint rather than direct the line, is to point out that your insurance only covers you as a performer and not anyone else. Because of this, no one else is allowed to use your professional supplies when it comes to painting the guests at an event. There is no argument a volunteer can offer to combat this, as allowing a volunteer to step into your shoes places you in a vulnerable liability position.

Finally, remember to be kind. Yes, it’s necessary to be firm and stand your ground, and it’s true that volunteers will not always understand, even in the face of liability issues, but face painting, while it is work, does look like fun. It’s no wonder others want to try it out, too. Many of the professional face painters of today started out as hobbyists or volunteers at one time. Also, people generally are more understanding when they are treated kindly, so keep this in mind while working with volunteers at events. And even if a volunteer fails see it your way, if you are gentle in your correction, you can still take satisfaction in the fact that you handled the situation as a true professional.

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.