Liz Washer turns makeup hobby into full-time business

Last modified: Monday, November 25, 2013

On Dec. 20, 2012, Liz Washer spent her last day as a full-time employee at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For three years, she had been director of external relations for the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, a job she’d enjoyed that also had the security of a regular salary and good benefits.

But Washer, 35, who lives in Florence, was ready for a change. In leaving UMass, she chose to focus exclusively on her own business as a makeup artist, an entrepreneurial effort she’d built on the side.

Since 2005, when she did a friend’s makeup for her wedding, Washer has prepared more than 80 brides for their big day; she is already booking weekends in October of this year and has fielded one inquiry for January 2014.

She has worked at large weddings and small, at intimate backyard ceremonies and in grandiose mansions, and in every state in New England.

“I get to see their excitement and witness a lot of love in the room,” she says of the brides she works for, as she wields her blushes, eye shadows and lipsticks.

If that sounds merely like girly-girl fun — well, Washer easily swats those assumptions aside. Yes, she enjoys makeup — “Crayolas for adults,” she says. But the work involved in building a business? “It never ends,” she said.

Two-part business

As owner of Makeup Artistry by Liz, Washer is now one small part of the nation’s wedding industry. According to The Knot, a wedding website, the average American wedding in 2011 cost $27,021, and the service of a makeup artist is an expense many brides are willing to pay.

Washer’s minimum fee for an on-location wedding is $350, which would include doing makeup for three people. In this age of high-definition cameras that magnify every flaw, she said her niche is giving clients a look that’s natural, fresh and well-rested.

Washer’s is actually a two-part business: In addition to weddings, she also does makeup at magazine shoots and fashion shows, and for business executives and others who need makeup for print, broadcast or video appearances. At the end of January, for example, she was in eastern Massachusetts doing the makeup for models appearing in a Valentine’s Day-themed photo spread for a Boston publication.

First, a hobby

Washer said makeup began as a hobby for her in her 20s, when she began to enjoy “the daily ritual of looking a little different, of playing with color.” Online, she connected with others who liked exchanging product information, tips, advice and photos to study different looks and techniques.

Studying pictures, she said, teaches you where your mistakes are: “When your eye is blown up on the computer screen, you see everything that’s wrong.”

In 2005, Washer, still a self-taught hobbyist, did her first wedding as a gift for a friend who was the bride. Over the next couple of years, she did about a half-dozen others.

In 2009, Washer started turning her hobby into a business. That year, she spent about $1,500 on makeup and supplies, she said. She attended a three-day workshop in New York City to learn more about makeup techniques for high-definition settings; the workshop also gave Washer a chance to learn about starting a business.

“I made great connections with senior professional artists,” she said. The veterans advised the newbies against going overboard.

“The joke in the seminar was to put the feather lashes and the glitter aside because that’s not going to sell your business,” Washer said.

“That really resonated with me — I’ve never been a fan of heavy foundation or unrealistic looking skin. They also told us to think about the looks that were appropriate for the markets we were in. That’s a lesson they really drove home.”

The workshop cost $1,200. In her line of work, “continuing education is key,” Washer said. “Makeup changes every year, trends change.”

Because workshop fees can be steep — ranging between $500 and $1,500, and even higher — Washer said she’s been fortunate to also learn from colleagues. A makeup artist in Sturbridge, who hired her as an assistant to work at several weddings, taught her a much-in-demand technique for applying liquid foundation with compressed air so that brush strokes don’t show on camera.

For aspiring makeup artists, Washer said, “My main piece of advice is to be very choosy about where you invest your money for training.” It’s important, she said, to check out the teachers’ credentials and to be wary of exaggerated claims about how much money their students have earned.

The Google search

Also in 2009, Washer started making a portfolio, an essential marketing tool for every makeup artist. “Your portfolio is how you’re going to be selected so you have to show the best photos,” she said.

To do hers, Washer teamed up with photographers and models who were also making their own portfolios and traded services with them; that way, she said, they all got the photos they needed while keeping costs down.

It’s a demanding and time-consuming process, she said, involving many photo shoots on many weekends. And it continues, Washer said, because as looks and trends change, portfolios need constant updating.

That same year, Washer hired a friend to design a business logo and layout for a website. In 2011, she split her single website into two: for her bridal business; and for everything else.

“I think in this day and age it’s essential,” she says of her online presence, which also includes a blog and an e-newsletter.

Washer said that between 60 and 70 percent of her business comes from the Internet, either by clients finding her site or going to websites on which she is listed. Much of the rest comes from referrals and word-of-mouth, she said.

Networking is important. Though she was at first uncomfortable about promoting herself, Washer said she realized she had to make a point of getting to know wedding photographers, videographers, hair and wardrobe stylists, wedding planners — and other makeup artists. She doesn’t subscribe to the point of view that anyone else with a makeup brush in hand is a rival.

Her credo: “Don’t be weird and competitive with your peers.” Better, she said, to build relationships and referrals.

Going solo

Last winter, Washer was hired to work as part of a team of makeup artists during New York Fashion Week, a jam-packed, fast-paced series of runway shows by top designers. Working alongside some of the best in the business, Washer used her skills on some top models, and picked up on new tips and trends. “I loved every minute of it,” she said.

By mid-2012, Washer said the income from her makeup business was drawing close to her UMass salary, minus the value of her benefits. And after three years at UMass, she said it was getting difficult to handle both. “You get too busy to keep two jobs going,” she said.

She was also confident that she’d handled her finances responsibly, having lived frugally, paid off debts and saved every penny she could while at UMass. Even though she lives a “low-overhead” life, and doesn’t own a home, have a partner or children, Washer said, she knew she had to be prepared for the inevitable lean stretch.

One intangible factor weighed on her. Her father died unexpectedly last year, Washer said, a loss that reminded her of time’s limits: If she didn’t make this change now, and do what she really wanted to do, then when?

While she’s no longer frazzled by the demands of two jobs, Washer points out that as an entrepreneur, “There’s no end to your day. You’re always hustling, always chasing the next job. I’m sure there are easier ways to get rich than to develop a passion into a business.”

In the end, though, she has no regrets — “I felt a lot of peace about the decision I made.”


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