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The Look of Lead Makeup

Measuring Reflection and Colour from 18th Century White Lead makeup

Here at Toxic Allure, we were madly curious to see what 18th century white lead makeup looked like. We studied 18th century portraits of young English women. The makeup in portraits is not grotesque, but looks quite soft and lovely.


We do realise portraits are probably the face-tuned images of their time! We now want to know if the soft look of the makeup was artistic interpretation or whether it could be the look of the actual makeup. We are using optical spectroscopy techniques to try and find out.

 

The Science

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Why wear makeup?

Modern women wear makeup for a reason. It makes their skin look 'better'. Often, this means it evens out the colour of the skin. Since young skin reflects more light than older skin, sometimes 'better' means the makeup makes the skin more reflective. 

Older or blemished skin can often look 'better' photographed in 'soft focus'. If a makeup can scatter light in a more diffuse way, rather than reflect like in a mirror, then this blurs the look of the skin. It makes it look more in 'soft focus' in real life. Testing by cosmetics researchers shows we perceive this as a 'prettier' look.

Why Pigskin?

Human skin comes in a wide and beautiful variety of colours. The white lead makeup we are interested in (for now) was worn by pale skinned women of European descent.

We cannot test white lead make-up on living human beings, so we had to find an alternative. We tried using artificial surfaces that matched the optical properties of human skin. However, the makeup doesn't act on these surfaces in the same way as it does on skin! We couldn't get it even. It would pool or lump.


Pigskin is quite like human skin and many breeds of pigs are pale. So, we use pigskin to test the light reflecting properties of makeup.

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What is colour?

Colour is a tricky concept. The colour you think you see depends on a number of factors:

  1. The wavelength of the reflected light. 

  2. The sensitivity of your eye to that wavelength

  3. How intense the light is, because your eye responds differently in strong and low light.

  4. How your brain processes the information. (Remember 'the dress?')

The colour of reflected light depends on two things. What light is absorbed? What light is reflected? 


White light is when all colours of light are reflected. You see black when no light is reflected. If the surface absorbs some light, then you only see the colours that are not absorbed.

Blurring the Skin

Light can scatter from a surface in two ways. On a smooth flat surface light is reflected at the same angle as it was incident on the surface. If light comes in from the left at 45 degrees, it will go out to the right at 45 degrees. We call this specular reflection. Surfaces with a lot of this reflection look shiny or glossy like this varnished floor.

On a rough surface, light is more likely to be scattered across a range of angles. The light looks diffuse. Images look hazy or blurred like the unvarnished floor. We call this diffuse reflectance.

Some makeup increases diffuse relectance. Skin looks less shiny, 'softer' and slightly blurred. This can reduce the appearance of blemishes and wrinkles. We want to know if lead makeup does this!

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Skin like a Dead Pig

How close is the colour of pigskin to human skin? Pretty close!


We used our spectrometer to measure the colour of my skin and some pigskin. We plotted those colours on this chart. The way to read the information: Down means more blue. Right means more red. Up means more yellow. Left means more green. White is at the centre.

My skin and pigskin are slightly off white, with my skin being a titch more red and yellow. However, my arm is pretty close to the colour of a dead pig!

Lead Makeup Colour

We made two versions of the same makeup recipe using basic lead carbonate and titanium dioxide.We painted it on pigskin. We measured it using our spectrometer. We also photographed it using a Canon G7 X Mark iii camera under white light.

On the right, you can see the colour of the lead and titanium makeup compared to pigskin and my skin as measured by the spectrometer. (We've expanded the scale.) Below, we painted two cartoons the colour the camera saw: one is lead makeup and the other titanium.

Lead makeup makes the pigskin appear slightly more yellow and red. Titanium makeup makes the skin slightly more red, but a lot more blue. This lead makeup is a softer, warmer and more 'natural' look than the modern titanium version.

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Colour of makeup as photographed by a camera


Lead Makeup                                                      Titanium Makeup

 
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