- Edition 1, Chapter 13.2 -
When asked about practices and techniques, the question often posed to visual artists is, “What is your medium and method of choice?” For a hair colorist, it is no different. There exists an extensive arsenal of color techniques and tools with which to achieve an endless range of effects. Haircolor then, is as varied and diverse a practice as a visual artist’s; the execution just happens to take place on a hair shaft instead of canvas.
For Hairstory colorists Roxie Darling and Cat Meyer, the method of choice is hair painting. A relatively new technique, hair painting evolved from the French color practice, balayage, which literally means “to sweep,” as bleach is “swept” onto hair with a brush for a soft, natural, painterly effect. Developed in France in the 1970s, balayage didn’t fully emerge as a practice in the United States till the 1990s. As the technique gained momentum, it evolved in the hands of New York City stylists like Victoria Hunter, who changed the method of application. “The techniques are ‘cousins’, but how you apply the color differs,” Cat explains. “Hair painting has more of a seamless effect. You can take it to both extremes, subtle to strong, but it always has a natural and organic feel.”
As examples, Roxie points out two of our Hairstory models, Bec Pian and Kaitlyn Perkins. “I think these women demonstrate two extremes of hair painting. I used the same technique, but Bec’s color is more dramatic and heavy, and Kaitlyn’s is much more delicate and light. This really shows the range a colorist can get, with an incredible degree of control.”
Since the ’90s, hair painting has gained popularity in some of the top NYC salons, sometimes completely replacing foiling, a process where stylists use aluminum foil to meticulously section off hair with bleach. Foils can be used to create a similarly soft, sunkissed technique to hair painting, but often have a more structured result. “I was part of a generation of colorists who were trained more specifically in hair painting,” Roxie elaborates. “With foils, as with painting, you have a lot of control, and you can get beautiful results, but I tend to prefer hair painting for its more free-hand feeling. Foiling tends to be very right-brain, and painting really left-brain. Once I learned how to paint, it was hard for me to go back to doing foils, because I really connected with the organic, customized nature of painting.” Roxie also feels an affinity for the uniqueness of the process and results, as everyone’s hair is a little different. “I like it because there isn’t a formula. It’s about treating the technique like a practice. Each client is something new so it’s never the same twice.”
As with most artistic practices, there’s a subtle precision to hair painting that often looks effortless. “It’s a lot more complicated than it looks.” Cat points out, “I think a lot of people look at the process and think, ‘Oh, they’re just slapping on bleach, I could do that.’ But there’s a whole science to it, down to the way you hold the brush, the tension you hold the hair with, even the distance you stand from your client. These details can completely change the overall look.” After bleaching, colorists typically apply toner to achieve the desired tint, but as Cat points out, “There are a lot of people who use toner as a band-aid, but it really can’t quite cover up a painting job someone has done badly.”
When asked why they think hair painting is an important method for colorists to understand, both Roxie and Cat enthusiastically gush about its benefits. “Learning hair painting can be very liberating to a colorist because once you’ve achieved a level of competency with it, you really have a lot more control over the lightening process than you do with foils,” Roxie notes. “The learning curve is a bit steeper, but it allows you to really play and be more expressive.”
Of its place in the color world, both women are quite certain that the technique is here to stay. “I think there’s been a cultural movement towards things that are more organic,” observes Roxie. “Even the process of hair painting itself – while still about precision – isn’t as structured as foiling. The results look more real, natural and believable.”