Christine Sciortino is a multi-talented artist with an impressive skill set that includes makeup, hair and costume design. She is also a professional educator and author of the book Makeup Artistry for Film and Television. In this Q&A, she shares everything from her career journey to the unexpected challenges that might have gotten in the way of her goals if it weren’t for her strength, perseverance and genuine belief in paying it forward.
In the Beginning
Where are you from originally, and where are you based now?
I was born in Cleveland, Ohio but was raised just north of Chicago. I studied at New York University and spent about 6 years bouncing between New York, Chicago and Europe. At the end of 2012, I moved back to Chicago, and currently, I live in a rural area west of the city.
How long have you been a professional makeup artist?
I started working for MAC Cosmetics in 2007 and began to build my portfolio with photoshoots and music videos. In 2009 I worked on my first short film and fell in love with the process.
What areas of the industry or types of projects are your focus?
I’ve worked in film and television for over ten years. The aspect of storytelling—exploring the entire human condition through the way a character looks—is beautiful to me. I love to bring characters to life.
Path to Artistry
When and how did you know that being a makeup artist was the career for you?
I always loved makeup, but the entire time I was at NYU, I thought I wanted to be a costume designer. Even though I worked in cosmetics (for MAC and Bare Minerals) and took SFX makeup courses at NYU, I wasn’t really sure if I’d stick with makeup. Other students would ask me to do makeup for their student films because I was good at it, but I’d always say, “I’ll do the makeup if I can do the costumes too,” —which was really just a recipe for extreme overwhelm.
After graduating from NYU, I was applying to grad school for costume design and was procrastinating on my applications. Then, a friend asked me, “Since you’re not doing your applications, what are you doing instead?” I realized I was spending all my time doing makeup and body painting for photoshoots with other local artists, doing intricate nail art on my own nails, and cutting hair in my apartment for friends and neighbors. So, I figured if I was doing all those things for fun, why not make a career out of it? That’s when I decided to go to cosmetology school and focus on doing makeup and hair professionally.
How did you get your start?
I’d always been into painting and into makeup. My dad had prior experience as an illustrator, and my mom had experience working as a makeup artist in the 1970s, so I grew up dabbling in those things. And I had fantastic experiences working on photo, video, and film sets in New York as a student at NYU and afterward.
When I moved back to Chicago, it was hard to start over. I got my cosmetology license for Illinois because I’d heard the Studio Mechanics Union, IATSE Local 476, needed hairstylists. I had a few connections here in Chicago who I’d met working on small films, and they recommended me for projects. I even went on Facebook (I think this was more common 10 years ago than it is now) and started introducing myself to other makeup artists, letting them know I’d just moved to the city and I’d be happy to assist them or fill in for them.
I joined Facebook groups and went to meetups. I worked at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago as a costume dresser and wig supervisor, always letting them know I also worked as a makeup artist. Chicago is a small enough town that I was able to get a foot in the door just by word of mouth. Luckily I had my portfolio and website from my time in New York, so I could show that I had the skills to back up the recommendations.
Who were your mentors in the industry?
Rob Benevides, an amazing artist who teaches Special Effects Makeup at NYU, influenced my journey in a major way. He let me know he saw talent in me. He spent time outside of class helping me with projects, giving me personal instruction and even invited me to do makeup for some of his photoshoots. Chris Payne, the head of the Special Effects Makeup Department on NBC’s Chicago Fire (and who contributed two chapters to my book) hired me for my first ever Union job in Chicago. Chris has taught me a lot, especially about special effects, and has been both a mentor and collaborator.
I had a fantastic opportunity to work as an assistant to Angelina Avallone when she was in Chicago as the makeup designer for the musical War Paint. She has such a vast knowledge of historical makeup and is so creative. It was an incredible learning experience—and one of the most fun work experiences I’ve ever had. Because Chicago is a smaller market, some shows bring their department heads with them from New York or LA. This method has its pros and cons, but it’s given me some incredible opportunities to work with artists like Ken Diaz and Sarit Klein and others from around the world that bring their unique expertise.
Lots of amazingly talented local hair and makeup artists took a chance on me when I was new to the city. Way too many to name here but I’ve learned something important from each of them.
First Big Break
Tell us about your first big break. What was it and how did it go?
I still remember the day Chris Payne called me to work as an additional special effects makeup artist for Chicago Fire, Season 5. I had already worked as a makeup artist for over 8 years, but it was a big deal because it was my first union job. He called me on January 2nd, right at the start of the year. January can be a slow time for freelancers in Chicago, especially non-union, because it’s so cold so I had expected to have some downtime. The episode involved a huge warehouse fire with a ton of extras, stunt performers, and even dead body dummies. It was mostly shot outside, in, and around the abandoned warehouse. I think the average temperature that month was 10 degrees.
The week before we started shooting was my birthday. My mom and I went to a camping store and, as a birthday gift, she bought me all new long underwear and snow pants! We shot a lot of overnights that episode, and the call times were all over the place. So there I’d be, sometimes at 4 in the morning, with my long johns and snow pants on, rolling my Zuca through the snow, walking to the train station parking lot in the dark to pick up a ZipCar and drive down to the set.
Now I look back and laugh! I was willing to do anything to make my dream a reality. I had some awesome assignments that episode. Sometimes I’d be on set with the stunt performers I did the SFX makeup for, other times in the shop painting silicone wounds and charred body dummies. I met some amazing people and honestly had a blast—even freezing in the middle of the night. From there, I was fortunate enough to start doing union work consistently and eventually be voted in as a Journeyman member.
From Artist to Educator
How did you go from makeup and hair artist to educator, and more specifically end up teaching your course at Columbia College Chicago?
Teaching always came naturally to me. I had volunteer teaching experience during college at the after-school program A Place for Kids at Chinatown’s PS 002 and for Peer Health Exchange, where I specialized in Rape and Sexual Assault Awareness.
I started developing the Columbia class in 2014. I often noticed I’d be on sets where many crew members didn’t seem to know what the Makeup Department did or why or how, and I began to think it was strange that makeup artists typically study at a separate school from everyone else. Most crew members have gone to film school, where they’re required to take foundational classes to give them an awareness of what (almost) every other department does.
When it came to the Makeup Department, an integral part of every film and TV set, there was this great chasm on both sides. The makeup artists didn’t always have the foundation of information they needed to effectively navigate the set environment or the pre-production processes of breaking down scripts, developing budgets, and meeting with directors and other team members. On the side of the rest of the crew, I encountered cinematographers who didn’t know how to communicate with me, locations that weren’t fully equipped with the lighting or electricity I needed to do my job, or schedules that didn’t take into account how long I would need to prep or changeover actors.
I realized that makeup should be just as integrated into film school programs as sound, lighting, or production. So I started writing the curriculum for the Cinema Makeup and Makeup Effects class. Ideas were pouring out of me; I couldn’t stop writing. I developed the full semester-long syllabus, the midterm, the final project, and the supplies list within maybe 2 or 3 weeks. Rob Benevides helped me in those early development stages and even wrote me a letter of recommendation.
I put everything into a proposal and blind-emailed the head of the School of Cinema and Television Arts at Columbia College Chicago. David Christopher Krause, in the production design department, brought me in for a meeting and let me know the school was interested in running the class, but of course, there were more steps to get it approved. Over the next year and a half, he and I continued to iron out the details and develop an amazing curriculum to work within the Cinema + Television program CCC was already running. We ran the first class in the fall 2016 semester with me as the teacher. It wasn’t always smooth sailing that first semester but the class itself was a hit!
When did you realize that Makeup Artistry for Film and Television was the next step in your educational mission?
As I continued working on production sets and teaching at the film school, I realized I had a unique perspective: I had gone to film school and worked in other departments, including production, costume design, production design, and even written and directed my own short film (Paper Crane, 2012). I also went to cosmetology school and had worked as a hair and makeup artist for a long time.
I personally developed most of the systems I was teaching in the course at Columbia. For example, my script breakdown system was adapted from something I’d learned in a costume design class at NYU, and my budgeting system was something I picked up from my dad. There were so many other things that I learned the hard way through embarrassing mistakes or from department heads who were kind enough not to fire me when I really messed up. And as a teacher, I saw many of my students learning techniques and practices from YouTube and Instagram that weren’t always professional or sanitary.
I remember attending the end-of-the-year screening of the Columbia student thesis films the first year. Seeing my students’ work on screen, I was so proud. I later ran into one of my students with her parents, who told me she was pursuing a career in makeup and would be getting her Esthetics license over the summer because of my class. I was touched. I really felt in my heart more people needed this information.
I truly believe film sets would be more streamlined if education for makeup artists was as standardized as for grip and electric crew members. I wrote the book as a beginning step towards that ideal.
Becoming an Author
How much time and effort goes into writing a book like this?
I first met with someone from Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, the publishing company, in the fall of 2017. They actually approached me about the book. I’m not sure how they heard about my class, but it was perfect because I’d already been putting some things together to write one on my own.
I submitted a proposal, outline, and sample chapter in May 2018 and signed my contract a few months later in the fall. From then on, it was about a year and a half of independent work. I produced everything. I organized photoshoots for the tutorials with my colleague Tony Santiago, a cinematographer and director who taught Lighting and Camera classes at Columbia College Chicago. Many of our students worked on the photoshoots, which was awesome! I had some makeup artist friends come, who were contributing their time and skills to the book, and amazing models I knew—one of which was my own brother with no modeling experience. I think he rocked it! So I think we had 4 or 5 photoshoots. The rest of the content was either created by me or stock photos or medical illustrations I sourced and chose.
About a month before the final manuscript was due, my hard drive crashed. So I hired one of our graduate students, Lola Mosanya, an incredible artist and filmmaker in her own right, to help me scramble to reorganize all the images for the book. There were over 300 images that had to be renamed and categorized for the graphic designers! We finally got everything to the publisher on March 15, 2020—the day before COVID lockdowns went into effect in Chicago.
I worked with the publisher’s graphic design team for the next 6-8 months getting the book edited and the look of everything to be perfect. Being an artist myself, I did have a lot of notes, and I think they did a beautiful job! The book was finally ready to go to print fall of 2020, almost exactly 3 years after that first meeting.
How did you manage your schedule between makeup gigs, teaching, and writing the book?
To be honest, my whole life turned upside down in the 3 years of working on Makeup Artistry for Film and Television. By the time I signed my contract, I was working full-time on a FOX show called Proven Innocent. I would usually start work between 4-5am on Mondays, work a 12-hour day, and then leave “early” between 5-6pm to teach my Columbia class from 6:30-9:30pm. I’d be at the school until 10pm on Monday nights and then be back on set the next morning by 6am.
I would write on weekends, so I wasn’t making much progress on the book, and the schedule wasn’t sustainable. Not sleeping enough, not eating enough, not taking care of myself. One day on the way home from set, I fell asleep at the wheel. Luckily I was inching through the Chicago neighborhood rush-hour traffic, so I barely tapped the person in front of me. But it was a difficult time. I felt like an empty shell which affected my work in all areas. The week after wrapping Proven Innocent, February 2019, I was severely injured in a car accident. I had surgery, and the first part of my recovery lasted about 8 months. I got some work done on the book during this time, which I honestly don’t know how I would have finished otherwise.
When I returned to work in the fall for Season 4 of Fargo as the crowd supervisor for the makeup department, I brought my computer and wrote at lunch in the Background Holding area. Then in December, I sustained another injury on set—I guess I just had really bad luck that year. I left Fargo before the holidays, and even though I would eventually need another surgery and I was doing lots of physical therapy, I think I was only able to finish the book in 2020 because I wasn’t on set. And I was still teaching through all of this, which inspired me to keep writing. Because in my mind, the book was, and still is, for my students.
So the answer to your question “How did I manage it?” really is: I didn’t. I wouldn’t advise my own scheduling to anyone. Before the car accident, I was overworked and exhausted. And after the accident, I had extremely severe post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury that hadn’t been immediately diagnosed. I’m still in awe that I even finished the book with PTSD and a brain injury.
My life experiences during the 3 years working on the book inspired me to include the section about self-care and mental health (in the book’s Conclusion). I realized it’s the most important thing, and I included a lot about it that I wish I’d known when I started working in the industry. I’m so passionate about this because I think the film and TV industry, especially because of the schedule, can kind of sweep people away. It can easily become the only thing in your life, and it’s hard to have balance. So it’s imperative for anyone working in film and TV, not just makeup artists, to find ways to take care of themselves to avoid burnout.
In some ways, I think the book is what kept me going through that dark time—there would be days when I would wish I hadn’t survived the car accident. But I really believed the book could help people, and I was determined to finish what I had started.
Inspiration and Insight
Where do you look for inspiration?
A lot of my inspiration comes from art history. My artistic background is in oil painting, and I studied art history for a year and a half in college before pursuing film. Going to museums and libraries always inspires me. I really enjoy doing historical period and character makeup. Perfecting small details like accurate facial hair and eyebrow shapes can completely change the way the story is being told. It can also be fun to take historical looks and give them a modern, or even futuristic, twist (if the project allows for it). A few years ago, I did a series of body paintings based on my favorite oil painters. It was a very special way of expressing myself artistically, using makeup as the medium.
What do you love most about being a professional makeup artist—and the least?
I honestly love the process of pre-production. I love to research. Maybe not everyone would say that! Whether it’s for a film, television show, or theater production, the process of designing the characters and planning their execution is invigorating. It allows me to use both my creative and analytical brains, and I’ve learned that it’s important for me personally to use both in my work. Really delving into a script, envisioning the character—your imagination can go wild.
Then you collaborate with the director and other team members, get to know the actors, and create this mutual vision. If you enjoy the people on the team and all work well together, that’s even better. Once the characters are researched and designed, you get to move into the mind space of how do I make it happen? What products, tools, accessories, etc. will I use to bring this character to life? It’s extremely exciting.
My least favorite part about being a professional makeup artist is definitely the schedule. Since my injuries, I’ve personally reprioritized a lot and had more time to focus on the educational aspect of the industry, on my book, and my own personal artwork, which is growing in new and exciting directions. But for about 10 years, I was in a constant grind. I think the schedule is tough for any freelancer because you feel this internal pressure to say yes to build those connections and get experience, especially early on.
When I started freelancing, I had side jobs too—restaurants, retail, etc.—which is a constant juggling act. As my career grew, I worked on films and TV shows full time, which was pretty much all-consuming. It’s hard to plan anything in advance because the schedule changes every day. The work isn’t easy or glamorous—it’s extremely physically demanding, and I don’t think most people realize that. In my opinion, film crew members are overworked and exhausted. I learned the hard way where my limits are and when I need to simply say no and turn jobs down. It’s okay to say no.
How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working as a makeup artist, educator, and author?
A few years ago, I fell deeply in love with gardening. I grow a lot of my own food. I also can and preserve things, make my own herbal teas, and even dabble with homemade, natural skincare products using homegrown herbs. I do Reiki energy healing for family and friends. Each day I try to meditate and do yoga, even if it’s just for a few minutes. It’s important to me to stay as grounded and centered as possible.
My mantras change frequently based on the season of life I’m in. Right now, there are two that I’m working with a lot: 1. “What else is true?” I’m learning to make room for “both/and.” Multiple feelings can exist at once. Some days are terrible and still have good moments. And 2. “Does this bring me more peace or detract from my peace?” I’m a recovering perfectionist, and asking myself this question before making a decision— even a small one—helps me keep the big picture in perspective. It also allows me to tune into my body and whether or not my body feels safe in certain situations or around certain people. My peace is so much more important to me now than it used to be. Making it a priority has changed my life for the better and helped me recover from burnout.
Advice for aspiring makeup artists?
You need to be able to work with anyone— any gender, any age, any skin tone, or skin type. When many artists first start out, it’s common for them to only have experience working on themselves, family members, or other people who look like them. This isn’t going to fly, especially if you’re hoping to work in film and TV. Even if you need to hire models to practice on or do free trade photoshoots with up-and-coming photographers, it’s worth it to get the experience.
It’s not just about applying makeup to all different types of people; it’s respecting them too. Learn how to listen. Learn about pronouns and different identities than your own. This is ever-evolving work. What we do as makeup artists is absolutely at the intersection of human rights because we are telling human stories. I believe part of telling these stories authentically is deep research about the characters’ culture and identity you are helping bring to life and deep self-awareness. Keeping an open mind and a willingness to learn will help you stay grounded in respect as you work with people of all different backgrounds.
Don’t forget to transfer that respect onto yourself. Take breaks when you need to and say no to jobs if you need to. I missed my brother’s 21st birthday for a film that never got finished. A decade later, family and friends still talk about the “party of the century,” which may sound trivial, but I wish I had been there. And the week my grandmother passed away, “call Nanna” was on my to-do list, along with “call to order products for the show.” I only made one of those phone calls, and it wasn’t the most important one. You don’t get those moments back.
The work we do as makeup artists is exhilarating, and it can be so easy to get lost in the fun, the creativity, the “likes,” and the hustle—but don’t forget what’s important to you. Do your best to care for your body, your mind, your heart, and your relationships.
Thank you, Christine, for sharing your incredible story and words of wisdom with all of us.
To learn more about Christine, visit christinesciortino.com.
Images courtesy of Christine Sciortino,
Christine’s headshot and portrait photos by Elliot Mandel.
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