Makeup Artist Caitlin Callahan Shares Her Makeup Secrets

The MAC products you should own, how to show off your best features and the true meaning of makeup.
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The MAC products you should own, how to show off your best features and the true meaning of makeup.
Caitlin Callahan

Vancouver-based Caitlin Callahan is one of MAC's senior makeup artists and one of the funniest people I've ever interviewed. It's no wonder her down-to-earth personality translates to a down-to-earth approach to makeup. For all the runway shows, film fests and celebrities she's worked with—and there have been a lot, since she's been doing this 21 years!—Caitlin articulates the healthiest attitude to this whole topic of beauty that I've ever heard. (It's surprising and inspiring.) Read on for the scoop, plus some insider tips and of course, her favourite products!

How did you get started as a makeup artist? 

I started with MAC in 1992. I was 12. [Laughs.] No, I started after university. I did a lot of makeup in university because I did a theatre degree. While I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, MAC was just opening their second counter in BC in Hudson's Bay. I joined them, and here I am 21 years later.

I first got on with the brand as a part-time thing. I worked at the counter for two years and then I started training staff. At the time, they were expanding so rapidly throughout North America and as a Canadian company, they were sending some of us over to Asia and Europe to find staff and train them up. So it just became my career and has brought me to LA, New York and many different places—I looked after 44 countries. It's been an incredible experience and something I never would have dreamed, coming from the Oakridge Bay [store in Vancouver].

What's your typical day like?

When I’m in my home market, which is Vancouver, I do a lot of things electronically. I work on PR requests that I can do from home. We just did a charity fashion show. When I travel, I'm doing collections, film festivals; in a couple weeks I'm going to Vegas to teach a class for the artists there. I would say I travel about 40 percent of the year.

What about Fashion Week—do you work at all of them?

I’ve got two little ones at home, so with Fashion Week, how I negotiate it is that in September I do New York Fashion Week. That’s two weeks. Then for spring, I do Milan and Paris in January and February, and the Sundance Film Festival. There’s a little variety. The year before last, I went to London instead of New York.

House of Holland - Spring 2012 makeup

What about celebrities?

At Sundance, we're doing celebrities that have travelled to Park City and they’re doing press for film. So it's red carpet makeup, or getting them ready to be on Entertainment Tonight.

I’ve worked with a lot of the MAC spokespeople. Linda Evangelista is one of my most amazing clients. I followed her career for a long time. I think my favourite would be Donald Sutherland. It was three days of hysterical laughter. I've worked with a lot of actresses. I just did Dakota Johnson, who has an interesting new film coming out. Rebel Wilson, Naomi Watts. I’ve just had so many great experiences.

Linda Evangelista, Lycee Francais New York gala, 2012

How has HD changed the way you work?

I think as makeup artists, we’re so much more conscious of the finish and texture of the skin because of HD. It's really changed how detailed and precise we are. Primers have really taken centre stage in makeup application, because they affect the payoff. It used to be just paint, paint, paint. Just put more on. We can’t do that anymore.

The MAC Prep + Prime Natural Radiance Base is my favourite primer because it doesn’t have lot of shimmer or shine in it, it works on every colour of skin, and you can use it before and after makeup.

Do you prefer working with models or your regular clients?

They’re very different. What I work with one of my clients, it’s very much about them, and it’s very personalized. That's something I strive toward and I help the newer artists with—to not have a signature look. I never want someone to go, "that’s a total Caitlin look." I really try to cater the makeup to the person I'm working on. When I’m working on a model, the direction is coming from the stylist, the photographer and the clothing designer. It's just a different experience. I think I probably prefer working on clients because I'm a people person. Plus, models are all 15. [Laughs.]

Naomi Watts, Diana screening, New York, 2013

How do you get your clients to feel comfortable having their makeup done?

The first time, it’s a lot of talking and staring. People get a little unnerved that I'm staring right at them, but I'm looking at clothes, their personal style. I'm also asking them a ton of questions so I can get to know them as quickly as possible. You can’t make assumptions. What someone is wearing doesn’t dictate who they are or who they want to be that day. And I'm looking at their features. I make sure my hands are super-clean and I touch their skin. I try to make that emotional connection right away. Makeup’s very personal. It’s your face. And if you don’t make that connection, it's a mistake.

What's your beauty philosophy?

I don’t think makeup is beauty. I think makeup is fashion. I feel it can be more like choosing how you want to accessorize your outfit, rather than "this is going to make you look better". I try to look at makeup in a healthy way. Things like concealer and primer help all of us. These are more perfecting techniques—preparing your canvas, if you will. But I think colour should just be looked at as, "oh, orange is in, let's wear orange!"

Prabal Gurung Spring 2014 makeup

Do you think there are rules for who can wear which colours?

I think anyone can wear anything. How could I ever tell somebody "you can’t wear red lipstick"? To me, it’s like putting on a pair of red shoes. Most of the time when talking about being able to wear red lipstick, it has more to do with texture, opacity and brightness. There will be somebody who wants a real fire-engine matte lipstick that’s all "look at me, look at my lips, here I am." Other people want a sheer gloss or satin that’s a bit more subtle. You don’t usually think about undertones.

Who is your beauty icon?

[Makeup artist] Val Garland. I've worked with her for about 10 years at fashion shows, and every time, it’s school. I’m prepared and I haven’t gone out the night before. I'm ready to learn. There's always something new coming from her that you can take back and use with your own creations.

Val Garland

What have you learned from her?

She really starts with the feature that she wants to stand out. So it’s not about "start makeup, do everything and then eyebrows, eyes, cheeks and lips." That's a routine a lot of us get into. Instead, it’s "okay, this is a lip story. We're going to get foundation and primed, canvas-wise. Then put on the lips on build from there." I’ve taken that into my own process because it really helps to balance. And it helps people to focus on the positive features they like—instead of saying, "my eyes are too small, I want them to look like this." Makeup can’t really do that. It's better to focus on those positive features and push those forward, while minimizing the ones you're not crazy about.

How do you take care of your skin?

I always use a water and oil. I use Fix+—that water spray that has a lot of moisturizers in it. Then oil is a moisturizer, which is trapping that water in. It just makes people’s skin way more spongey and bouncy. And it makes makeup sit a lot prettier.

I don’t mist my face with Fix+ between every step of the makeup, but if I was working with somebody really dehydrated, I certainly would. Sometimes I use it after the makeup as well, especially if it's too powdery. It helps calm down that powder.

MAC Fix Plus

What are your all-time favourite products?

MAC Prep + Prime Natural Radiance Base.

MAC Prep Prime Natural Radiance Base

MAC Extended Play Gigablack Lash Mascara. I love that mascara. It’s so good. [Editor's note: It was Caitlin who first turned me on to it, and she's right. So good!]

MAC Extended Play Gigablack Lash Mascara

I carry around the MAC Prep + Prime BB Beauty Balm Compact SPF 30, because it will give me some coverage but it’s still that dewy skin texture. It's BB cream in a compact format—a little more solid than the cream—in nine shades, and it gives you a mirror so you can touch up with it a lot easier. I put it on in the morning and then touch it up when my foundation is starting to fade or is looking bit dry.

MAC Prep Prime BB Beauty Balm Compact

And I do have some sort of MAC Plushglass addiction. I asked product development about this because I can't stop wearing it. It’s what I wear on my day off. It's a lip gloss that has plumping qualities to it.

MAC Plushglass

What else do you keep in your purse?

MAC Eye Kohl in Teddy. I wear it every day.

MAC Eye Kohl in Teddy

A RiRi for MAC bronzer.

Rihanna for MAC RiRi Hearts MAC Holiday Bronzing Powder

I also carry around the MAC Half Lash Curler. At 43, what you’ll find is as you get older, your eyes start to go down in the corners. It's not my favourite look to be perfectly honest. It's not making me the happiest of all. So I'm actually curling those outside lashes and then applying bit of Teddy pencil and mascara. It makes you look like you’ve had a coffee or four. It’s amazing. If you try to line your eyes or put on mascara without curling your lashes first, you tend to follow that outside line down. But once you curl, you follow it out towards temple. It really gives the eyes a lift.

This is my "pick up the kids makeup". I smudge the pencil on the outside corners. If I want it stronger, I take it in a little more. Then getting into evening, I'll throw some on waterline.

What products are worth splurging on?

Brushes, probably. I think people clearly understand about buying brushes. Look after them, take care of them, get some for your bag, some for home. They last so long and they just make everything apply more beautifully on the face.

What can you save on?

I guess it depends on the person. There are ways of tweaking your makeup instead of buying 100 shades. Playing with trends can be really fun, but you don’t have to go crazy. For example, applying purple eyeshadow with three different brushes can make it look different each time. There are application techniques you can use with the products you already have.

And if you have no idea, put everything in a makeup bag, go to a MAC counter and tell them, "this is what I have, what do I do?" I hate the makeup graveyard. When I go to my clients' houses, I'm like, come on. Let’s go through this. A lot of the time, people have got great stuff, they just don’t know how to use it. I always encourage people to pick up their stuff, take it into MAC and just sit down and tell them your story. We love getting into people's makeup bags!

Which products should we be investing in for winter?

A deep berry lip.

MAC Mineralize Rich Lipstick

And if you haven’t got one already, a real muddy black pencil. Ours would be MAC Kohl Power Eye Pencil in Feline.

MAC Kohl Power Eye Pencil in Feline

What's your favourite makeup look for holiday parties?

An awesome trend is the very late '70s—like Studio 54. I would say wear some frosty gold. Like a gold glitter, kind of chunky, with a dark berry lip. It’s easy to do, super-sexy and super-glamourous. For holiday, doing an eye and lip story is very fun.

What’s your biggest beauty pet peeve?

The idea of putting foundation on an entire face. That wall-to-wall carpeting. To me, that makes the face look so flat and lifeless. I don’t think you need to put foundation all over. I think people should go back and stare at themselves in the mirror again. Really look and think, "where do I really need this?" For a lot of us, it’s just in the centre. People don’t need as much concealer or foundation as think they do. So re-evaluate that. Then I love things like the MAC Prep + Prime Highlighter pens, the ones that you click.

MAC Prep Prime Highlighter

How do you prefer to match and apply foundation?

We used to test it on the jawline to compare the shade to the neck. But we're not putting foundation on all over anymore. MAC has probably six different shades I could wear on my own face. If you can't get the perfect match, err on the side of one brighter, not lighter—and put it just in the centre. Then if you use bronzer or contour, that’s for on the outside of the face.

I use a brush to apply foundation, unless I’m doing a particular type of foundation that has to be really heavy, and then I use a sponge. But most of the time, it's a brush. Use the soft brushes when you want something super-sheer and something more like a flat paddle when you want it to be opaque.

What's your best beauty tip?

I have a daughter and lot of models I work with could be my daughters. I’m always reiterating the fact that this is fun—this is fashion. It’s really something that you can play with, but you're fantastic without it as well. That's really important. This is not something you have to wake up and do every day. This isn’t your face. This is fun and just fashion.

Any advice for aspiring makeup artists?

Yes. Don’t make the makeup about you. Makeup has to be about the person you're working on. As soon as you start saying, "I always use...", that’s when you know you’re getting into that territory. It’s about taking the time to learn about the person you're working on—because isn’t about you, it's about making them happy.

There are so many of us in this company who are total lifers, and it's because we have that healthy way of looking at makeup. We're a total family and we enjoy each other and what we do, as well as giving back to community through Viva Glam. With all of the superficiality of fashion, we have a responsibility to communicate that.

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Have your say

Do you agree with Caitlin's grounded approach to makeup?
Have you tried any of her favourite products?
Do you share her views on foundation and using makeup as a fashion accessory?