Most artists would be distraught if someone destroyed their creations, but 23-year-old Jessica Yurash of Los Altos doesn’t mind if her artwork gets washed away. In fact, it happens every time she paints a subject - Yurash is a bodypainter.
According to Yurash, the ephemeral aspect of her work makes it unique. When people see her bodypainting creations - whether it is a model coordinated to camouflage with her environment or a woman’s stomach painted during pregnancy - they often say they’ve never seen anything like it.
Covered by layers of water-based paints that Yurash applies to the skin via brush, sponge and airbrush, the curves of the human body virtually disappear to the human eye when the painting is complete.
"They’re not sure how to feel, but they have a sudden urge to want to be painted themselves," said Yurash of spectators’ reactions to her work.
Finding her passion
Yurash stumbled into bodypainting after becoming the muse and model for San Jose-based bodypainter Trina Merry. When Merry discovered that Yurash spent her weekends twisting balloons and painting faces at children’s birthday parties, she invited Yurash to assist with her bodypainting assignments.
Yurash called the opportunity to work with Merry "enlightening," because she had never considered herself a visual artist. Although she danced as a youth and performed in many theater productions at Homestead High School and Foothill College, where she earned an Associate of Arts degree in the performing arts and drama, fine-art media like painting and ceramics held little appeal.
"Traditional canvas is frustrating and takes too long," Yurash said. "Body art only takes a day."
While apprenticing with Merry, Yurash learned bodypainting techniques and acquired the business skills needed to thrive as a creative artist. She observed the process for managing assignments, from initial client inquiry to the test shoot and day-of painting, and was soon prepared to market herself as a bodypainter. Although she continues to work her day job at a child-care center, Yurash is hired for an average of 10 assignments per month.
"It takes a lot of time to conceptualize, design and figure out what art works best for each body, because every body is so different," said Yurash of her personalized process.
Because each new client has a unique vision for how he or she wants to be painted, Yurash noted that she’s constantly growing as an artist and expanding her range. To derive inspiration for assignments, she frequently references historical bodypainting styles as well as photos and other art that match her client’s vision.
A body of work
Yurash usually has a two- to six-hour window to paint her subject on the day of an assignment, a timeline that leaves little room for error. Test photo shoots help her determine the best angles for poses and visualize how she will paint her client. Although she’s never spent more than six hours continuously painting a subject, she once spent 12 hours modeling for another bodypainter.
When the cost of paint, Yurash’s time and other expenses are factored in, bodypainting can be pricey. Yurash notes that her fees typically range from a few hundred dollars for a client who only wants a small portion of the body painted to upward of $1,000 for a full-day assignment that involves multiple models in a complex setup.
With the availability of latex, glow-in-the-dark and ultraviolet paints, Yurash said, artists have many tools at their disposal to express their creativity.
The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the body into something new via art renders the cost irrelevant, Yurash added.
"They want to take the beauty of a woman, femininity or humanity and become the artwork. … It’s so much more special because it’s temporary," she said.
Old art reinvented
Although the thought of covering the body with layers of paint or even tattoos may seem like a contemporary form of expression, bodypainting has deep roots as an art and form of communication, stretching back to prehistoric days. Cliff dwellers and indigenous tribes in Australia and Africa used clay, charcoal and natural pigments as a form of religious and cultural expression. Yurash said the art of bodypainting has evolved over time and she feels confident that it is making a comeback.
"The world of bodypainting is just on the edge of the cliff and is about to fall into our society once again," she said.
Professional bodypainters like Craig Tracy of New Orleans are finding unusual ways to showcase their work. From art for advertising campaigns to live painting events for corporations searching for ways to make their brands stand out, the bodyart medium is growing in popularity. Top artists like Tracy may charge thousands of dollars for artwork that lasts only a few hours on a person.
Performance-based bodypainting is gaining an edge locally. Merry launched the Art Alive Gallery in San Jose to engage Bay Area bodypainters in collaborative projects after a successful installation at the 2011 SubZERO Festival. Yurash, one of the gallery’s primary assistants, said she sees it as a stepping stone toward a full-time career in bodypainting.
In the meantime, Yurash continues to perfect her craft, actively participate in the bodypainting community and learn the art through osmosis as a model for other bodypainters.
For more information, visit jessicayurash.com.