Amanda Watter | Wednesday, August 13, 2014, edited for length and clarity for this blog post
GSN brings a new trending art form to television in their new body painting competition show Skin Wars. This series features the intensity of a competition show while bringing the creativity like no other, thanks to 13 of the country’s top up-and-coming body painters.
The show is hosted by Rebecca Romijn, famously known for playing the body painted Mystique in the X-Men films. Judges include master of transformation RuPaul and internationally known body painters Craig Tracy and Robin Slonina, owner of Skin City Body Painting in Las Vegas.
I had the pleasure of talking with Robin about her role in Skin Wars and her hopes for the new hit show.
Robin Slonina: This has actually been a passion project of mine for years. So this is something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Originally I had been in touch with different production companies about doing more of a docu-series following my company, Skin City Body Painting in Las Vegas — more like an LA Ink style show that follows us around. But Michael Levitt and his right hand Jill Goularte, they were the ones that came to me and said, “What if we turn it into a competition show instead?” I really loved that idea and we kind of put our heads together, did a lot of research and really searched the country for the best emerging body painters that we could find. Then took it around and GSN was really responsive and excited about the idea. We just thought it was the perfect fit with them just because they were so supportive and on board with the same vision that we had, which was really emphasizing the fine art aspect of body painting and doing a wonderful, classy, fun show we could all be proud of.
CGM: You mentioned your other artwork and I did get to see your dress sculptures. They are so amazing!
RS: Thank you! It’s funny because that sort of just blew up recently but I’ve been doing that project forever. The morning of the Skin Wars premiere I had Good Morning America call me about the dress sculptures, not having any idea that I’m running around like a chicken with her head cut off getting everything ready for our big premiere party. It’s funny how everything can kind of hit at once sometimes.
CGM: What would you say is something that separates body painting and regular painting — other than the canvases being totally different? Is there something special about body painting for you?
RS: Yeah, absolutely! I had been painting on canvases and walls as a mural painter for years. I had a mural painting company in Chicago for about 12 years and I’ve been a painter my whole life. The minute I tried painting on skin, I just got hooked. There’s something so magical about watching your artwork breathe and stand up and move around. Giving somebody sort of a second skin of paint that they then embody, taking on the characteristics of the painting that they’re wearing. There’s nothing like seeing your artwork come to life like that.
CGM: Do you ever have to give the models tips on how to embody the same vision of the character your thinking of with the body paint or do they become the character themselves?
RS: Body painting is done for so many different reasons. I mean, we have the commercial aspect of our body painting company. So then we do pictures and it’s more like “pivot and move back your shoulders so we can still see the company logo on your chest.” So of course there’s that commercial aspect to it. I find in my own fine-art painting that I do for my portfolio pieces that it’s really more of a spiritual experience. Once the model takes a look in the mirror and looks down at their skin, it’s very interesting to watch this kind of almost spiritual transformation take over — where they just start to embody the character of the paint and start to move in a different way organically on their own. A lot of times when that happens, we don’t need to give a lot of direction to get a great photo shoot out of it because they’re feeling it and sort of living the character that they’ve been painted as.
CGM: You have different challenges each week on the show. Do you and the other judges have any input on those, or who gets to decide what the challenge is?
RS: Those are really figured out by the production company and network. Craig Tracy and I were sort of the expert consultants during the process of creating the show, so we definitely had some ideas for challenges. We had some input but then they just did their research and they had so many creative minds at work on it. They took our advice and just ran with it and even surprised us with some of the fun stuff they came up with. I was just blown away by how creative the network and the production company were in coming up with great ideas every step of the way.
CGM: You sometimes use prosthetics, right?
RS: Yeah, we do lightly touch on prosthetics on the show. That’s a little bit of a controversy even among us. Do we allow prosthetics? Do we just have pure paint? Is it okay that they wear wigs? This is all stuff that we’re trying to figure out together for season one because it’s going to set a precedent for the rest of the seasons of the show. I’m really going to be curious in hearing viewers’ feedback in that. Is it okay to add little prosthetic pieces — you know little extensions on the ears or just a small brow piece. We don’t do any major prosthetics like on a show like Face-Off. Of course I’m a fan of Face-Off myself, I think it’s a wonderful show! But what’s so interesting and fun about Skin Wars is that artists are challenged to create this big illusion but only using paint.
CGM: What do you look for when you’re judging?
RS: We break it down into three criteria. One is originality. Another is technique. Third is implementation of the challenge. There were many times that it was very difficult to decide because all of these artists are so talented, and after all, art is subjective and in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes it was very hard to make our judging decision — it would just come down to the math. We have to really look at our scores and add them up and just go by the books and say who won fair and square. One thing I just loved about the production company and the network is that they didn’t interfere in the judging process at all. They were so supportive of us; they were so honest and had so much integrity throughout this whole process. They let the judges be judges. I really admire and respect that they were able to create such an honest show. I waited 5 years for a passion project like this to happen, and I really felt like I was just waiting for the right people to come along. It’s like my dreams came true! …Kinda beyond my wildest dreams. What I was really praying to manifest was people of integrity and intelligence who loved the art to get on board. And boy did I ever receive that. Your prayers come true. I couldn’t have asked for a better team to collaboratively create a show like this.
CGM: What advice do you think you have given the contestants the most? What do you see coming up most often?
RS: I’m a body-paint business owner. I don’t have a panel of judges waiting for the finished product, but I do have a client waiting, so you can’t be late. It has to be your best work walking out of the studio doors every time. I don’t give excuses in my business and I don’t accept excuses as a judge. You know, things go wrong! Your compressor can go out, your airbrush guns can get clogged, you might not have the right shade of color that you needed, your model can get tired or pass out or need to take a lot more breaks than you anticipated on your schedule. It just happens. It happens on the show, it happens in real life and you just gotta work through it and make that body paint happen. Because of my background I think I was kinda like the mama of the show because I really truly love each and every one of my contestants, but I also was a little bit tough because I’m not going to accept any excuses. I mean in the end, I don’t care about your excuses I care about the work in front of my eyes at the judging table.
RS: How many models pass out! It’s sort of like a soldier standing at attention. I think a lot of new soldiers lock their knees. I’m sure you can look it up and get more information than I have on it, but it somehow cuts off circulation to your brain. Literally if you stand at attention and lock your knees, there’s a good chance you might pass out. So as a body painter you become very sensitive to watching your model. Is she locking her knees? If so, tell her, “shake out your knees girl…or guy. Don’t lock your knees.” Just being sensitive to them; are they shaking, do they have goose bumps, do they need a stretch break? Asking them, “do you need water so you can stay hydrated?” Pay attention to the fact that they’re not a canvas; they’re a living person and they’re going to need a break and they’re going to need to eat and they’re going to need to go to the bathroom. It definitely takes experience and sensitivity to be aware of your model and your model’s needs. But at the same time, boy it’s really hard if she’s dizzy and passing out. I’ve had instances where I’ve been like, “okay here’s a drop cloth, why don’t you lay down for a little bit – but I’m not going to stop painting you. I’m going to paint your front while you lay there passed out. I’m going to keep painting you!” It’s funny because it can be a little bit brutal! The artists work so hard on the show, but I think sometimes it’s the models who are the heroes.
CGM: You mentioned working with Craig Tracy. What’s it been like working with RuPaul?
RS: RuPaul is just amazing. He is so funny and so wise and so seasoned. He’s been in show business for so long that he has figured out how to be very professional but also just keep it fun. I admire that about him. He knows how to keep the energy up after a long shooting day when we’re all kind of getting droopy and the coffee truck outside the soundstage has long since driven away. He knows how to keep the energy up and keep us all laughing and smiling. Any time when I was feeling tired after hour 15 on set, when the shoes they gave me in wardrobe were killing my feet because I’m not used to wearing sky-high heels like that; any time I would be tempted to complain to myself, all I had to do was think about what was happening across the wall from me. Just knowing that those painters were sweating and stressing under the same kind of pressure and exhaustion, but were expected to create masterful pieces of art. That would just shut up my complaining right away. I was like, “okay I’m tired and these heels hurt but it’s nothing compared to what they’re going through.” That just put everything into perspective for me.
CGM: What has been one of your favorite challenges so far?
RS: The only teaser that I can say, is that when people think of body painting they usually think of painting on perfect specimens of the human body who fit a stereotypical idea of pure beauty in this culture. I guess people should keep their eyes peeled because we might not always be painting on typical models. I just love that, and I think it’s a fun surprise.
CGM: Would you say you prefer camouflage challenges over ones such as in the premiere, representing your hometown?
RS: That’s the kind of question people ask me all the time, “What’s your favorite body painting you’ve ever done?” It’s almost impossible to choose because it’s like, you know, “Who is your favorite child?” They’re all so different and they all have their own unique challenges. Camouflage is always so much fun because everybody loves to have their eyes fooled, and that’s such a technically heavy challenge. We did already show in the previews that we have the fabulous Lynda Carter as a guest judge. We have a challenge dealing with personal superheroes that’s very symbolic for people. That challenge emphasizes the creativity aspect of the judging criteria as opposed to the technical. So it’s always a balance with body painting between creativity and technique. I think you’re going to see that balance really get tested on the judging table when it comes down to having to ask yourself what’s more important: technique or creativity and originality? We struggled with that a lot. That balancing act between the two is really one of the major challenges of judging body painting. Can I say wow, how thrilled I was to have one of my icons Lynda Carter, be a guest judge? I grew up watching Wonder Woman, spinning around in my living room trying to turn into Wonder Woman. To meet her and to see how truly friendly and sweet and humble she is, being such an icon as herself. She was posing for pictures with crew members, she was so gracious and lovely to every single person on set. I couldn’t believe how sweet and friendly she is because wow, talk about how she must constantly get approached for a role she played so many years ago. She’s just gracious and lovely about it, and it was such a treat to meet her.
CGM: What’s something you hope audience can take away from the show?
RS: Well I think body painting has a reputation as being this very sexy scandalous art form. I think Skin Wars is doing a wonderful service to the body paint community to elevate it and to show that it is indeed a fine art form. The human body is just a different medium, rather than a canvas or a sculpture. If you think about it, throughout art history the human form has always been the inspiration for great art. I feel like with body painting, it’s nothing new. Throughout history cultures have been decorating their bodies with pigments, so I think it’s just such a natural art form. It has so much history, and I’m excited to see this relatively new application: modern body painting in modern culture. For it to be celebrated for its artistry as a fine art is really exciting to me. I hope that America can watch it and see the beauty of the human form and the beauty of the body painting on top of it. It also promotes acceptance of our bodies in all our various shapes and sizes. I think as an artist, of course I see beauty in all humans and in all shapes and sizes. A lot of times when you’re a young art student and you’re in drawing and painting classes, you don’t necessarily want the perfect beautiful model to paint. Sometimes it’s more interesting to paint the older models with their beautiful wrinkles that show the history of their life experience in their faces. Or it’s more interesting to paint curvy models to watch how a full-figured body moves in space. So I just feel like it’s a wonderful show to promote self-acceptance of all of us, in all of our shapes and forms, and just to see beauty in everything.
New episodes of Skin Wars air Wednesday nights at 9/8CT on GSN. Photos/video: GSN